As you may know, I was an AFS Foreign Exchange Student in Paris, France my eleventh grade year of high school. While packing away the stuff in my room, I stumbled upon some old files from my exchange; school assignments, letters from teachers, and some old papers that might interest you. These are old papers that I acquired at an AFS orientation before I embarked on my exchange. Now, as I prepare to depart for Rwanda, I am facing some of the same issues I faced then. It seems that some act of faith has caused these four handouts to resurface at this particular moment in my life. I can learn something from reading and remembering their contents.
First of all, a handout entitled “Seven Tips on Developing Cross-Cultural Adjustment Skills.”
1. Learn the language by using it. Language is your key to involvement in your new culture. Even if you can’t speak perfectly, your attempts to communicate in the native language will be appreciated. Remember, understanding others and making yourself understood in a new language require more rephrasing, repeating, and rechecking than usual.
2. Be aware. Don’t assume that you know everything about what is happening around you. Listen and observe carefully, paying special attention to nonverbal cues, which give insight into the process of cross-cultural communication.
3. Suspend judgment. A natural tendency to immediately attach a good or bad label to all you observe or experience can be a major stumbling block to understanding and participating in a new culture. Observe and describe, but accept others on their integrity before evaluating.
4. Try to empathize. To empathize means to put yourself in the other person’s place and look at the situation from his or her perspective. This is especially important when cultural differences are involved in the situation.
5. Recognize that anxiety is natural. Communication and adjustment across cultures is not easy; there is often a stress factor involved in interaction between people from differing cultures. Openness, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to laugh at one’s mistakes can help you deal productively with anxiety.
6. Be honest. If you are confused about something, or if misunderstandings arise, it is usually best to admit your confusion rather than pretend that everything is alright.
7. Become involved. Show your willingness to learn about the people and culture by participating in the daily life of your community. Seek out opportunities to share yourself and your background with your hosts whenever possible. Often by seeking to try new things (such as foods) and experiences (such as traditional dances), you can become more actively involved in host community life.
Secondly, handout entitled “Five Pieces of Advice to Make Your Experience A Success”
1. Be active. You are the one who chose to embark on this experience and it is up to you to take the first step in meeting new people, in making new friends. IT IS NOT THE OTHER WAY ROUND. Seize each opportunity to do things with your family, your friends, your host siblings… Don’t stay locked up in your room waiting for people to come to you!
2. Talk a lot. When you don’t understand, don’t accept not knowing what is being said. Pretending to understand (because you don’t want to deal with the hassle or embarrassment of asking for clarification) can be a source of problems. Don’t be afraid to ask for explanations or clarifications. To learn a new language, the best method is to talk A LOT. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes- it’s normal. Don’t hesitate to ask questions of others. Go out of your way to make contact with people, at school or at home.
3. Observe and copy. The best way to assimilate and integrate yourself into the way of life is to watch and listen to how people behave and talk. In short, this willingness to learn will help you integrate well into your family and with your friends.
4. Don’t make judgments. If you make judgments about people or things (be it good or bad) at the beginning of your stay, you may be preventing yourself from knowing or experiencing new people or situations.
5. Be sincere. You may be worried or apprehensive about your new environment, your language ability (or lack of it), and the culture. The best remedy is to talk about it with your host family, your friends, or your contact person. Don’t say “yes” or “no” to a question if you don’t understand it. Say with a smile that you don’t understand, and above all, LAUGH at your mistakes.
Third, a handout entitled “I Try to Remember…”
1. Everybody doesn’t have to love me. Not everyone has to love me or even like me. I don’t necessarily like everybody I know, so why should everybody else like me? I enjoy being liked and being loved, but if somebody doesn’t like me, I will still be okay and still feel like I am an okay person. I cannot make somebody like me any more than someone can get me to like them. I don’t need approval all the time. If someone does not approve of me, I will still be okay.
2. It is okay to make mistakes. Making mistakes is something we all do, and I am still a fine and worthwhile person when I make them. There is no reason for me to get upset when I make a mistake. I am trying, and if I make a mistake, I am going to continue trying. I can handle making a mistake. It is okay for others to make mistakes, too. I will accept mistakes in myself and also mistakes that others make.
3. Other people are okay and I am okay. People who do things I don’t like are not necessarily bad people. They should not necessarily be punished because I don’t like what they do or did. There is no reason why other people should be the way I want them to be, and there is no reason why I should be the way somebody else wants me to be. People will be whatever they want to be, and I will be whatever I want to be. I cannot control other people or change them. They are who they are; we all deserve basic respect.
4. I don’t have to control things. I will survive if things are different that what I want them to be. I can accept things the way they are, accept people the way they are, and accept myself the way I am. There is no reason to get upset if I can’t change things to fit my idea of how they ought to be. There is no reason why I should have to like everything. Even if I don’t like it, I can live with it.
5. I am responsible for my day. I am responsible for how I feel and what I do. Nobody can make me feel anything. If I have a rotten day, I am the one who allowed it to be that way. If I have a great day, I am the one who deserves credit for being positive. It is not the responsibility of other people to change so that I can feel better. I am the one who is in charge of my life.
6. I can handle it when things go wrong. I don’t need to watch out for things to go wrong. Things usually go just fine, and when they don’t, I can handle it. I don’t have to waste my energy worrying. The sky won’t fall in; things will be okay.
7. It is important to try. I can. Even though I may be faced with difficult tasks, it is better to try than to avoid them. Avoiding a task does not give me any opportunities for success or joy, but trying does. Things worth having are worth the effort. I might not be able to do everything, but I can do something.
8. I am capable. I don’t need someone else to take care of my problems. I am capable. I can take care of myself. I can make decisions for myself. I can think for myself. I don’t have to depend on somebody else to take care of me.
9. I can change. I don’t have to be a certain way because of what has happened in the past. Every day is a new day. It’s silly to think I can’t help being the way I am. Of course I can. I can change.
10. Other people are capable. I can’t solve other people’s problems for them. I don’t have to take on other people’s problems as if they were my own. I don’t need to change other people or fix up their lives. They are capable and can take care of themselves, and can solve their own problems. I can care and be of some help, but I can’t do everything for them.
11. I can be flexible. There is more than one way to do something. More than one person has had good ideas that will work. There is no one and only “best” way. Everybody has ideas that are worthwhile. Some may make more sense to me than others, but everyone’s ideas are worthwhile, and everyone has something worthwhile to contribute.
Lastly, a handout entitled “Things to Remember.”
Smile often. Always say thank you. Try everything once. It’s not bad, its not good, it just different. Never turn down an invitation. Keep a journal. Speak your new language. It’s better to regret having done something than to regret not having even tried. If you are confused, ask questions. Keep your dictionary near you. Be yourself. Take it one day at a time. If you feel no one has understood you all day, and you have understood no one, go to sleep and remember, tomorrow is another day. Remember that there are people who can help you and do care about you. Make the best of every situation. Get involved in everything. Do not stay in your room. Offer to help out as much as possible. Be accepting and open. Share yourself with others. Give people your phone number. Be sincere and honest. Sit in the front of the class, it helps to understand better. Talk to people, even if it takes an hour to say three words, try. You only have a short period of time, so why not make it great, now. If you show you are trying, people will help you. Home is where you are living. Keep yourself healthy. Communicate. Be patient, with yourself and others. Cry when you need to. Forgive yourself and others. Do what makes YOU happy. Remember, you can change your ways without changing yourself. Give, give in. Be crazy. Do the things you always wanted to. Do not worry about the things you can not control. Trust others. Remember to stop and smell the roses. Risk, with it you gain nothing. Make time for yourself. Laugh. Take chances. Believe in yourself, you can do it. Reach out to others. Trust your judgment. Learn from your mistakes. When in Rome, do as the Romans. If you’re upset, write it down. Consider other peoples feelings. Live for the moment. Do what you truly believe is right. Watch how others are doing things and copy them. Have no expectations. Live like everyone else does. Don’t isolate yourself, meet the natives. Don’t judge on first impressions. Make goals and reach for them. Remember, in days like these, there have been days like these. Don’t be afraid to take the risk of living. Have the time of your life.
Okay, I have read through and written down these life truths. I don’t think that they only apply to situations where one finds oneself traveling for prolonged periods of time and undertaking the rigors of cross-cultural adjustment and experience; these truths are for life in general. I will try to hold their knowledge close to my mind and heart as I embark on this new experience. However, sometimes in the face of great challenges, one tends to forget or deny that these truths exist. That, my dear family and friends, is where you come in. I will depend upon you to remind me of these truths when I am unable to remind myself, just as I have reminded you here.