The idea of going abroad can be both exciting and terrifying. Here I share some tips for the people of color who may be straddling between these two feelings. Not knowing where you are going is a legitimate fear. When you consider the influence race and ethnicity will have on the social interactions you encounter, those feelings are realer than ever.
As a person of color, I wondered how race relations would end up playing out in a foreign country. I understood how complex the issues and relations were in the US. But, every country is different and I had no idea what to expect in the Dominican Republic. Now, before you read these tips know that you do not have to agree with them, nor do I believe you will experience the same thing. Nonetheless, they may be useful for you to consider before leaving the US.
5 Tips for any poc going abroad:
- As progressive open-minded individuals in higher ed, we are typically very considerate of our language. Keep in mind that you may be interacting with people who are not concerned with being politically correct, avoiding microaggressions, or being bluntly racist. For instance, nicknames that describe someone’s skin color or body features are not always seen as offensive.
People will touch your hair
- Now, you may have experienced or heard of people in the states talk about how inappropriate it is to touch someone’s hair without consent. I agree with them- no one should ever touch you without asking. In the Dominican Republic, my straight hair in some places was admired and touched frequently. In the US, my hair is seen as “normal”and no one is interested in feeling it. Considering the context, my hair is a point of interest for many people because it is straight. I always challenged people’s prejudices and beliefs about pelo bueno vs. pelo malo, (the idea that straight hair is better than curly hair because of its ties to one’s African roots) because I know they are wrong. Despite your experience with people touching your hair, remember you are in a different cultural context. This is a moment of challenge and growth.
Expecting cultural similarities
- As a Latino traveling to a Spanish speaking Latin American country, I figured settling into the Dominican Republic must be easy. I expected cultural differences in regard to my Mexican heritage, but I didn’t expect drastic culture shock. Yet, Caribbean culture is distinctly unique when juxtaposed to other Latin American countries. Despite your ties to a country, there is no guarantee that you will be 100% comfortable. Everything will be different from food, lifestyles, dance, political structure, etc. My ignorance made me believe I could connect with people on a deeper level because I was Latino. To my surprise, many people did not even consider me Latino. I was Chino, gringo, and Americano. Nobody had interest in embracing similarities and talking about the beauty behind being Latin American (as I imagined it playing out in my mind).
- There may come a time where you question why you ever left the country. Thinking of family, friends, or significant others does not make the distance any shorter. Additionally, comparing your US lifestyle to the country you are visiting is everything but helpful. You cannot expect countries to be the US or want to be like the US. Quit comparing them! Embrace the difference. Don’t waste time judging it to your American standards. Listen and enjoy your time there! You will be back home soon!
5. Make the program yours
- Of course you will be learning, exploring, meeting people and having the time of your life… I think. But, do not get stuck going through the motions of the scheduled program. If you feel that something is lacking in your experience-speak up! My public health program is mostly focused on the medical aspect, while my interest is in dentistry. Talking, networking, and requesting opportunities that YOU NEED is how to make the experience your very own. Don’t wait for things to happen! The more you make it personal the more enjoyable you will find your time abroad.