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Returning to America

Monday, April 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:25 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Lauren Fredman, 19, smiles as she recites traditional prayers during a Friday night Shabbat service at the MU Hillel on March 2. Hillel holds Friday night services and other events for Columbia’s Jewish college students.

One year ago, Lauren Fredman, 19, painted a wall on an army base in Israel. In September, Alex Born, 22, ate borscht and read Alexander Pushkin’s short story “The Snow Storm” in Moscow. Meredith Colgin, 25, brought homeless children into shelters in India. All three returned to Columbia with stories to share. They also came back with new perspectives on American life and culture and felt difficulty in making the transition back. Their experiences were unique.

“It is a complete culture shock coming back,” said Fredman, a sophomore at MU. “It was a hard transition because everything is just so different in Israel.”

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Her reaction is common among students returning from travel abroad, said Deb Hume, a social psychology resident assistant professor at MU. “You experience so much when you spend time outside the U.S.,” Hume said. “It’s like a new window opens up to all these different possibilities. It definitely gives you more insight into your own culture.”

Americans are studying abroad now more than ever before. The rate has more than doubled in the past decade, with 205,983 U.S. college students going abroad in the 2004-05 academic year, according to The Institute of International Education. During that same period, 782 MU students studied abroad, according to the MU International Center. More Americans going abroad translates to more exposure to foreign traditions and mind-sets, lessening the degrees of separation between America and the rest of the world.

Even a month’s immersion in another culture can result in exposure to new ideas and values. Travelers often say they are struck by the differences they see among Americans and people from other cultures. Madiha Arif came to Missouri from Pakistan in February 2005 to pursue a degree in health management and informatics. She says that she noticed how gracious Americans are right away. “I lost my luggage when I arrived at the airport. I loved how nice people were to me when they offered to help,” Arif said.

Some notice Americans’ casual clothing first. This aspect of Americans’ laid-back attitude may have to do with a sense of comfort absent in other countries. “I hadn’t realized how privileged and comfortable we were in America until I lived in Moscow,” said Born, a Russian Studies major. “I actually feel truly grateful for how good I have it here for the first time in my life. Life is so much better here.” In America, he said, “people are more willing to smile, and it’s not important to impress people materialistically by getting dressed up every day.” Travelers discover cultural differences along with newfound appreciation for conveniences when they return. Bare necessities, for example, don’t consume Americans’ lives as they do in India. “If you’re doing the wash that day, you dedicate your whole day to it,” Colgin said. In Russia, acting on a whim isn’t common, Born said. “You can’t just hop in your car and get somewhere in five minutes. Going somewhere is at least a half-hour operation.”

Fredman, like Colgin and Born, shares a greater appreciation for personal liberties as well as day-to-day conveniences. Israelis live with war on a daily basis, Fredman said, and they depend on each other for security and relate in a more intimate way when they meet.

“We take so many things for granted here,” she said.

Most Israeli students go to college after two to three years of compulsory military service after high school graduation, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Web site, mfa.gov.il. Fredman, however, says she is grateful for having the option of going to college right after high school.

But despite the shared feeling of relief and gratitude, the travelers say they would love to see some aspects of other cultures incorporated into mainstream America.

“We value individuality here so much that we lose a degree of intimacy with others,” Hume said.

“Each person is a little microcosm of freedom here,” Born said of Americans.

Arif says the good side of American independence is that it triggers economic growth and contributes to self-confidence. But the bad side is individuals are living on their own and focusing on themselves rather than connecting with others. The lines of communication between Americans may not be as strong as they are between Pakistanis, she says.

Communication in other cultures also differs. It can be more personal and less formal. “People do not do small talk,” Born said of his experience in Russia.

Small talk isn’t common in Arif’s native country, either. “Saying ‘take care’ and ‘have a nice day’ is not the norm in Pakistan,” she said. In India, Colgin says, strangers ask if you have had your rice today, which is a literal translation of “have you been taken care of.” Differences that are particular to a specific culture, especially the one we grow up in, may not always be noticeable or recognized until after an experience in a foreign place, says Hans Stockton, director of study abroad at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. When abroad, “Things we take for granted are adventures,” Stockton says. “When you get back it’s a letdown, but it depends on how long you’ve been gone.”


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