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Savello ’18: Remembering values while abroad

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Before I left to study abroad in Granada, Spain, the Office of International Programs stressed the social and cultural differences that exist overseas. At the time, I figured the most significant differences I would observe would be regional holidays and specific dialects, which I could quickly learn and pick up. But when I arrived, I learned there were some distinct attitudes and practices that were not as easy to adapt to.

As a Brown student, I came to study abroad in Spain with a certain set of values surrounding the importance of diversity, respect for cultural differences and tolerance for all types of individual identities. But after spending a few months out of the College Hill bubble, I’ve learned that while such values exist in universities abroad, they are not always expressed in the same way as they are at Brown — especially because there is less racial and class diversity in some study abroad institutions, including my own.

This seems to be most apparent in terms of colloquial phrasing. In my anthropology class, when learning about Chinese medicine, my professor’s PowerPoint included a slide that described a Chinese emperor using terminology that I found completely offensive. Shocked and disgusted, I looked around the room to see how the other students were reacting. To my surprise, no one reacted to this phrasing, and the class continued as if nothing had happened.

This put me in a difficult situation, because if I pointed out the charged implications of the term, I risked overstepping the authority of the professor and asserting my own values over hers. At the same time, if I said nothing, I would miss out on bringing awareness to how the term could be seen as disrespectful.

I ended up talking to the professor after class, and she told me the phrase in question was meant to be interpreted differently in Spanish, providing me with a somewhat unconvincing explanation. This incident made me consider the ethical quandaries faced by Brown students studying in countries where perceived attitudes, in and out of host institutions, do not necessarily align with the values inculcated at Brown. As Brown students, is it our responsibility to prevent the perpetuation of stereotypes abroad? And if it is, how can we go about doing so while being mindful of the local context and without straying into ethnocentrism?

It seems ironic to be discussing diversity and tolerance abroad while the world’s eyes are on the Trump administration as the United States grapples with what those values mean at our own doorstep. Throughout my time in Spain, U.S. politics have drifted into many of my interactions with others. I can think of several cases where locals I have interacted with aggressively asserted their political views about President Trump and American politics. Here, I found it particularly difficult to navigate the situation because on the one hand, I wanted to be open to perspectives and hear the other party out, but on the other hand, they were not being open or receptive to my ideas about my own country. Again, I struggled to strike a balance between my own views, developed over a lifetime of American citizenship and three years at Brown, and the views of my hosts, whose experiences require open-mindedness to understand.

Ultimately, my goal is not to generalize these personal experiences to Spain, Europe or study abroad programs as a whole. Students can and should make an effort to learn from the values and attitudes prevalent in other countries — that is, after all, why we decide to study abroad. But away from the Brown bubble, students abroad can face unique ethical tensions regarding the place of our values and how they are expressed on a global scale.

When studying abroad, we need to bear in mind our position of privilege as Brown students and our relative ignorance of values in local contexts. That said, we also can’t abandon or set aside the values and critical analyses we spend years developing at Brown. We shouldn’t shy away from engaging in two-sided conversations about our concerns and beliefs, because learning from each other is the only way to correct many persistent misconceptions, even our own. There could be tension in balancing these principles — as in my case — but that is simply part and parcel of living and learning abroad.

Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at samantha_savello@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.