The following information is compiled by a working group that exists within CGIS. Everything that has been created or curated was done so to encourage all travelers to consider their various identities as they pursue an international experience, but the research shouldn't end here. We do recognize that many of our quotes or examples have negative experiences or observations embedded within, even in the reflections that are mostly positive. We are acutely aware of how these comments can and have affected the perceptions and realities of other nations and wish to exercise caution and balance in providing an outlet for the perspectives and narratives of students and faculty. We are always available to discuss some of the narratives and examples discussed here with students or concerns they have during their pre-departure and on-site experience, and we encourage you to email CGIS should you have any questions, concerns, or would like an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.
“Being American at an international university [in Hong Kong] means that you’re going to be held socially responsible for the foreign policies of the United States — some people may begrudge you for what America has done to another country or region in the past. You may become the butt of jokes on controversial subjects such as guns, police brutality, Middle Eastern intervention and wars among other controversial American issues. You may find some international students who casually use what some would consider offensive or prejudiced language.” -Jacob Brown, University of Utah student
“When my fellow IES students [in China] and I enter the absolutely packed subway in the morning we are generally the only people who are talking, everyone else is either reading, listening to music silently, or most commonly, doing something or another on their phones. It is extremely bizarre to me to be in such busy public places and be treated to absolute silence, in fact I would say from an American perspective the silence feels eerie and ominous; it feels as if everyone has an explicit reason for being silent and we are breaking some sacred code by being the “obnoxious people” who are not abiding by the silence norms.” -Adam Dalton, IES student
“One piece of advice before studying abroad: Know beforehand that you are going to be an ambassador for the United States. People will watch you to see how Americans are, and many of the topics that Americans usually shy away from are not off-limits as a topic of conversation. I have found myself responsible for explaining hefty subjects because I am sometimes the sole American in the room [in Korea]. And it’s not just during class time. Both international students and Korean students have approached me with questions about communism or the American presidential race in hopes of understanding what an American believes. Though I don’t know as much as other people do, I am learning so much about my country and this new one that I am exploring. My worldview is being stretched because I have had some great conversations with some great people, and I am really looking forward to learning even more in the future.” -Nikki Hallstrom, ISA student
Many people overseas are curious and want to learn more about American culture, lifestyle, current events and politics. While abroad, you will probably, at some point, have an encounter with somebody who will ask questions that you may find uncomfortable. Responding to difficult questions can be challenging, especially as they frequently come up during chance encounters and may seem somewhat random.
In addition, many people around the globe, like many US citizens, hold a wide variety of stereotypes about Americans, ranging from Americans are wealthy to Americans are sexually promiscuous to Americans are violent to Americans are loud, arrogant, and ignorant, for example. You might have these stereotypes thrust upon yourself or have people ask you questions about American politics (foreign and domestic), race relations, or gun control, for instance. Being prepared for these types of encounters is certainly beneficial and can be seen as a learning experience for both you and the questioner (So You’re American n.d.; Costa and Goodkin n.d.; Cordova 2016).
As an American abroad you will, in all likelihood, face situations and meet people that may force you to think about your identity as an American, something you may not have thought much about before. In the US you may be seen first as, or identify first as Asian American or LGBTQ, for instance, but while abroad you may be seen first as an American.
Overwhelmed by America (Taiwan)
Life Lessons From Abroad (Korea)
On Being American (Japan)
Sticking Out, Together (Japan)
- American College Students Studying Abroad in China: Language, Identity, and Self‐Presentation
“It was quite a sight. But not, it turned out, one that could challenge the sight of me in Chinese eyes. As they pushed past me and my entourage -- one friend carrying an umbrella over me, my electric scooter and my ventilator, and the other documenting every move with his camera -- the tourists stopped to stare at me and my paraphernalia. I felt as if I'd become the eighth wonder of the world as they ogled and pointed, and I told myself that it was my ravishing beauty that enthralled them. But of course, I knew it wasn't that.” — Carole Zoome, independent traveler
“Wherever we went, people accepted the sight of a wheelchair with equanimity. The only stares were from people who couldn’t believe the electronic mechanism. In the UK, we live — more often than not — in a state of resignation: disability is just that. You’re in a chair, you’re stuck there and if you’re lucky, your disability provision enables you to continue to live in your own home. In Bhutan, disability was at times a novelty, at others an opportunity for a religious good deed. But above all, it was a fleeting concern. “Nothing is permanent” is a fundamental part of the Buddhist approach: life, beauty, hardship, pain — all are transient and all are secondary in importance to kindness.” — Serena Strang, independent traveler
“Unlike when traveling to European countries, Japan is very strict about what medical and cosmetic supplies come into the country. I had to fill out a form, called Yakkan Shoumei, for each individual supply I needed to bring with me into Japan. These forms requested the name, quantity, purpose, and description of the packaging of the product. This way, they can identify it in customs at the airport.” — Mykel Greene, Temple University student
Although many countries in Asia have made great advances in accessibility for disabled travelers over the recent years, much of the region is still quite inaccessible and challenging to navigate for those with mobility issues.
Large metropolitan cities and regions that see more international visitors often have made the most progress in accommodating travelers with disabilities and providing barrier-free travel (BFT). However, even in more developed areas, travelers cannot expect BFT to be found everywhere. For instance, some newer metro systems might be fully accessible to wheelchair travelers, but upon exiting the station, the landscape might be a totally different story with uneven sidewalks, non-existent sidewalks, and limited ramps or wheelchair access points, for example (Carruthers 2018).
Throughout the world, there are a variety of attitudes towards people with disabilities. In many countries, it is commonly assumed that people with disabilities are in need or want of help and often looked upon with pity, whereas, in the US people with disabilities are more likely to be viewed as capable and independent. Before traveling abroad it is important to learn how people with disabilities are viewed and what types of discrimination and difficulties they may face in the host country (Students With Disabilities Abroad 2019).
It is advisable, especially if traveling to off-the-beaten-track destinations, to thoroughly research, prepare and plan in advance how best to navigate and make sure special needs can be accommodated. In addition, it is highly suggested that students requiring special accommodations connect with their study abroad advisor as well as their home university and host university disability offices well in advance so that arrangements can be made for accommodations by arrival time.
Two A.M. in a Foreign City (Japan)
Sickness While Studying Abroad (China)
“While I recognize we have been transported to a new culture [India] where norms weren’t the same as in our home countries, I still felt like I had been taken back in time. The other advice the on-site staff provided included being aware of your surroundings at all times, preparing transport home ahead of time, avoiding eye-contact with men on the street, and dressing according to societal norms.” — Melissa Hampton, IFSA-Butler student
“As a woman traveling alone in a foreign country you are usually worried about safety, but as I stayed longer in Seoul I realized there was very little I needed to worry about. While people usually kept to themselves they were not scared to ask for help or directions and those they asked were more than happy to help one another. I could even leave my things in a café without worrying if it will be stolen because the people are empathetic about the things they work hard for.” — Rachelle Pierce, University of Washington student
“Gender, feminism, and sexuality are more taboo issues in Japan than in the UK, so they are less commonly discussed in conversation (along with politics, mental illness, and climate change… all my favorite topics). So, before talking about gender in Japan, I only knew about my own experiences as a young woman growing up in Rhyl (North Wales), and then living in London and Leeds. But my personal experience of being a white British woman in Japan is of course significantly different to other women’s experiences living here. Learning more about gender, through reading, open conversations, and living in this new context, has allowed me to learn more about both intersectional/transnational feminisms and to discover new realizations about myself in relation to gender, sexuality, and feminism.” — Mairéad Ruane, University of Leeds student
Every culture has its own unique views and attitudes towards gender. Gender roles in different regions may range from being extremely traditional to more open and less restrictive, and what’s acceptable in one area may be considered inappropriate in another area. Travelers, especially women, should always be aware of their surroundings as well as local norms and attitudes towards gender. What is seen as normal behavior can often be misinterpreted in another context (Women Going Abroad 2019).
Before traveling to your destination, it is critical to research views and societal norms regarding gender as well as women’s clothing and appearance. Dress tends to be more conservative in many parts of Asia, and it is advised to pack less revealing, more modest clothing in neutral colors. Also, following the styles of local women can go a long way in avoiding unwanted attention (Sachs 2017; Women Travelers n.d.).
It is crucial to learn about and be aware of any common dangers and annoyances that women travelers typically face in your destination No matter what your destination there are a number of common-sense precautions travelers can take to minimize the risk of harassment and assault. Dark, isolated areas should be avoided. It is always best to arrive at a new destination in the daytime. In addition, your itinerary, accommodation address and room number, and other personal information should be kept private. While in public, travelers should project confidence, pay attention to the surroundings and avoid looking at guidebooks and/or maps as this frequently indicates that you could be lost, confused, and in need of assistance. Also, it is best to always travel in pairs or groups. Finally, when going out, it is advised that women designate one person as the designated non-drinker, tasked with watching out for group safety (Sachs 2017).
Why Are You Really Here? (Korea)
“During my time in India, I realized how much easier it was to live, communicate and understand the culture and lifestyle that was practiced. To me, it was much harder to navigate my environment back home. I felt an instant connection to Manipal. From the Bollywood music that was played continuously in every dorm room, restaurant, and rickshaw, to the conversations that people had in Hindi, the Indian clothes worn, the hundreds of Hindu temples scattered throughout the city, and most importantly to me, seeing the thousands of people who shared my same skin tone, I no longer felt like a brown stain on a white-t-shirt. I finally felt comfortable in this new homogenized community.” — Chaitanya Mishra, IFSA-Butler student
“When I speak Mandarin, I speak with a slight American accent, which then leads to the same question I often get asked, “Where are you from?” Those who ask me this question often assume I am Korean (the choice of ethnicity by workers at 7-11) and never American. When I tell them I am from America, they usually become confused and ask why I have a Chinese face. At first, I did not understand how hard it was to believe that I, a person of Chinese ethnicity, could be from America, but I soon realized that the stereotypical image of an American person by people in China is that of a white person. In another sense, it seems as if there is no separation between ethnicity and nationality to most Chinese nationals.” — Stephanie L., University of San Francisco student
“While being Asian shapes a lot of my habits and physical traits, I realized that being American molds much of how I think and view the world. By coming from a Chinese background, I’ve inherited a rich and vibrant culture—one that has its own unique set of traditions and some really amazing food. But also, many of my values and beliefs are from what I’ve learned from growing up in America. My dual identity of being both Asian and American has oftentimes made me feel like I don’t belong in either sphere but studying abroad [in Singapore] has taught me the importance of not only embracing but celebrating the intersectionality of my own identity.” — Jackie Shi, University of Pennsylvania student
A growing number of students are selecting destinations abroad to connect with and learn more about their ancestral history and culture. A destination is typically selected “not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar." These students are known as heritage seekers (Tips for Heritage Seekers Traveling Abroad 2019).
Heritage seekers also may wish to visit relatives or study their family’s ancestral language. Often these experiences can be quite emotional, with some students feeling more connected and “at home”, and others feeling more like outsiders and not as accepted as they thought they would have been. Heritage seekers frequently have many of their beliefs and presumptions challenged about the country and should be prepared for this by keeping an open mind and thinking about such questions as to how their ethnic heritage will be perceived, and how it might feel to be part of the majority while abroad, for instance (Heritage Seekers n.d.)
One of the main difficulties that heritage students may encounter is regarding language. As most heritage students, when visiting their ancestral homeland, will be in the majority ethnic group, it is often assumed they can speak the local language. For instance, a Chinese American student visiting China might be expected by locals to speak Chinese simply because they look Chinese. For individuals who cannot speak the language, situations can often become awkward and embarrassing with heritage students frequently having to explain their family background, circumstances, and nationality to curious or confused locals. Often, when students say they are from America, the reply they frequently get is that they don’t look American (Minor 2017).
Studying Abroad In My Own Country (Thailand)
Forever Foreigner (China)
New Year, New Identity (China)
Asian-American or American-Asian? (Singapore)
Yuna Yoshida-Keio University (Japan)
“There are many risks that come with being LGBT+, and we have to be aware of potential intolerance and hostility more so than is necessary for many people. With this in mind I decided to go to Japan to study abroad, having heard of its reputation as one of the safest countries in the world. Over my 4 months living here I’ve never felt unsafe or worried for any reason, and I haven’t faced any of the hostile attitudes or behaviour that I might expect in other countries.” — Aaron Oakes, University of Leeds student
“The hardest part for me was adjusting to the lack of people who are out and willing to talk about their identities [in India]. Transitioning from queer friendly universities to places where there is almost no open LGBTQIA+ presence is a shock. It can also be accompanied by less than friendly attitudes and unsolicited negative comments.” — Guadalupe Mabry, IFSA-Butler student
“It seems as though queer Westerners have been attracted to Korean culture. Forms of intimacy and gender presentation which are immediately deemed queer in the US are normalized here. For example, it’s not uncommon to see two girls holding hands on the street, and men can go as far as to sitting on one another’s laps or cuddling and caressing one another. Men are just as in touch with their appearance as women, and articles of clothing are far less gendered. For the other queer students I’ve met studying in Korea, these are aspects of Korean society that are positive models of human relationships and relationships with the self, which are unacceptable in the West.” — Nico L., CIEE student
Attitudes, customs and local laws regarding homosexuality in Asia range from widespread tolerance and acceptance to it being regarded as taboo and, in some countries, illegal. For example, gay marriage is legal in Taiwan, but in Malaysia, homosexuality is seen as criminal (Homosexuality n.d.).
It is important to note that acceptance of homosexuality also varies greatly within a country’s borders. For instance, in Indonesia, Bali has a large, active LGBTQ community, while in Aceh Province, homosexuality is illegal and there have been instances of members of the LGBTQ community being harrassed, publicly shamed and punished by authorities (Indonesia's Aceh: Two Gay Men Sentenced to 85 Lashes 2017; Indonesia in Detail: LGBT Travellers n.d.).
Throughout Asia, you will encounter a wide range of attitudes and customs towards the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ students will likely have to adapt to these while abroad. Depending on the location and situation, you may feel more comfortable and open when expressing your sexual identity, or you may feel that it would be more prudent to conceal it, especially if you might be exposed to a potentially dangerous situation. Having people who you can trust and confide in, as well as people who will support you and provide allyship is just as important while abroad as it is at home (LGBTQ+ Students Abroad 2019).
Whether students are travelling to a more open, tolerant country or a more conservative one, it is important to be aware of and respect the local culture, social climate, and laws. Researching the city, region, and country is a critical part of pre-departure planning and staying safe while abroad.
Queer Bazaar in Hyderbad (India)
Nico Wright: Student Experience (Japan)
“The silence surrounding mental health is a hurdle for foreign students seeking mental health resources. Although some Chinese campuses like Zijingang campus offer mental health centers, their location remains unknown to many. And even when their services are advertised, I heard that cultural differences can make the relationship between foreigners and local counselors difficult. Considering the scarcity of resources, international students should try to proactively protect both their mental and physical well-being right from the beginning of their stay.” — Astrid Montuclard, University of Iowa student
“An interesting thing everyone notices when they move abroad is that they feel constantly tired and sleepy. I’m curious about this so I’ve asked dozens of international students at Kobe University, and pretty much all of them have experienced this. My foreign friend, who is doing her doctorate in psychology here, explained that one of the reasons this happens is that our brains have to put extra effort into processing information in a foreign language. This means that I have less energy to do everyday tasks than I did back home. Depression lurking in the background also steals some of my energy. So, for the first few months of being in Japan, I could barely stay awake through my classes. I was still dragged to amazing trips on the weekends, but I was barely able to enjoy them. I started avoiding time around people, and my grades slipped because I had no energy to study.” — Maria Minchenko, student
“Of course, living with mental health can mean something a lot darker at times. I went through a very dark period around the end of January/early February when I had to take time off university to take care of myself. Sometimes, talking just isn’t enough. Luckily, I made sure to contact my teachers and tell them I wouldn’t be attending class for personal reasons, and one professor directed me towards the pastoral support available. I applied for support and had a therapist appointment in only a couple of weeks. With that, and support from my friends, family, and staff, I was okay. I wasn’t good, I needed time to recover, but I was getting better. I got extensions on my assignments and everything worked out okay. It’s always worth speaking to the staff at your university about what’s available and what they can do to support you, not every university is as overt as Leeds regarding the support they can give you. Reaching out to staff and friends is never a bad idea.” — Elizabeth Chung, University of Leeds student
For many students, especially those traveling abroad for the first time, studying and living in a new, unfamiliar setting can be stressful and, at times, intimidating. Being in this type of situation can frequently trigger depression, mood swings, anxiety, and increased use of alcohol, for example. In addition, mental health conditions can become more severe in these situations. Many students may not have the emotional, cross-cultural, or language skills to work through problems while in the host country (Quigley 2013).
It is important to learn how mental health is viewed, as well as research and understand what resources are available and accessible in the destination country. Many mental health services and resources that students have access to on their US campuses may not be existent in many countries in Asia. In fact, mental health issues, traditionally, have largely been stigmatized and taboo in many Asian cultures. Mental health issues may also be trivialized or dismissed, which dissuades people from seeking help (Doyle 2019; Ling 2016).
A number of institutions that send students abroad are starting to realize the importance of preparing students to deal with mental health issues while abroad as well as working with host institutions to provide special accommodations and mental health services to students who need them. For example, some schools are working with students to create mental health plans to help deal with conditions that may worsen while abroad (Peterson 2019).
Junior Year Abroad, With Help From Your Therapist (Via UM Library)
Studying Abroad With Mental Health Issues (Hong Kong)
Studying Abroad With Anxiety (Korea)
Religion & Spirituality
“I’m supposed to pray five times a day, but that’s a bit difficult to do in Japan. There aren’t many options for times and places to do Friday prayers, but Kyoto does have a small mosque. Friday is a special day for Muslims since there is a big prayer around lunchtime. We as Muslims, especially the men, try our best to prioritize this prayer on Friday. Several times during my life in Japan, I had to choose not to join some events, such as a lab trip that was held on Friday. Actually, it was a hard decision, since I would like to travel and see more about Japan.” — Fahmi, student interviewed by Study Kyoto
“China has plenty of Buddhists and Muslims, but very few Catholics. When speaking to my parents about coming to China and having to keep my faith on the down-low, we were looking into other options for me to practice my faith. Someone had read somewhere on the internet that there were small weekly gatherings on Sundays in people’s homes to practice our faith. Well, rest assured, I got my ashes this year, and not in somebody’s apartment, but in church in the middle of Beijing, at one of their English-speaking masses. I myself was highly misinformed before moving here and had I known more, I would not have left my cross at home. There are plenty of opportunities abroad to maintain your faith.” — Claire Vodicka, IES Abroad student
“Although I lack experience with Chabad-style Judaism (I grew up attending a Conservative shul) and had nothing but my religion in common with anyone else present, the whole event felt unexpectedly natural. It wasn’t necessarily the service itself; it was the beauty of spending a Yom Kippur with strangers from around the world — surrounded by, of all things, the absurdities and wonders of Thai culture on Khao San Road. The diversity made me feel part of a larger peoplehood and expanded the sense of Judaism that I grew up with, which extended only from America to Israel. Realizing that I could probably find a Yom Kippur service no matter where I might be in the world made me feel a really beautiful sense of Jewish wholeness.” — Ari Plachta, UC Santa Barbara student
Researching, understanding, and becoming familiar with the common religious practices and beliefs of the country or region you will be studying in is highly advised. If you plan on practicing your religion while abroad, it is also important that you are aware of any societal attitudes and government rules regarding religious practice and tolerance. Depending on your religion, you may find yourself suddenly in the religious minority, or majority (Religious Diversity Abroad 2019).
Practicing your religion can sometimes be challenging abroad, especially if traveling to a location where it is in the minority or non-existent. For instance, it might be difficult, depending on the location, for Muslim students to find halal places to eat (Muslims Abroad: Rutgers Grad Creates Guide to Navigating Identity While Studying Abroad n.d.)
Students must also take into consideration that they might be the only person of a certain religion in their study abroad cohort. Students should be aware that they may end up answering questions and explaining things about their religion to not only curious local people, but also possibly to their fellow study abroad participants.
Feeding My Faith as a Global Citizen (Thailand)
Yom Kippur in Bangkok (Thailand)
Students of Color
“I was called ‘Africa’ or ‘Negro’ by passing strangers [in Nepal]. When I responded in Nepali that I was an American, people scratched their heads in disbelief. I knew people were generally curious. To some, I was the first Black woman they had ever met, but I grew weary of constantly educating. It was no different with foreigners from North America, Europe, or Asia. My skin was an edible commodity, like chocolate, or undesirable. My presence was described with coded language like ‘urban’ or ‘soulful’.” -Christina Djossa
“I am an African-American female. As such, I got a lot of stares. In Japan, this is the case for all kinds of foreigners, not just black people. It's just twice as apparent when you're black. One of my friends (who is also black) said that people actually filmed her on the train! There's also the prevalence of skin bleaching/whitening in beauty products. People would just casually suggest you use a whitener the same way they would suggest a face mask. As much as I was annoyed by those kinds of things, I also got compliments on my skin tone. I wasn't sure if they were facetious gestures or if Japanese people didn't see dark skin as negative per se, they just didn't want it for themselves. I'm not really sure.” -Tauri Tomlin, a student interviewed by Diversity Abroad
“Another strange thing I encountered was the widespread assumption that I must be from Africa. One time, one of my friends’ language partners asked me where I was from, and I told him New York. Surprised, he asked again: ‘Really? You’re not from Africa?’ It was like the reverse of that scene in Mean Girls: If you’re from America, why are you black? This guy was actually a student at Peking University, one of the best universities in China, but he was pretty surprised by the idea that people from America might be of any race, or that not all black people come from Africa. Similarly, another day at the Summer Palace a large tour group walked by me and my friends, and a curious man separated from the crowd to yell (in Chinese), ‘Are you from Africa? Is she from Africa?’” -Shanelle Glanville writing for Greenheart Travel
When traveling abroad, a student’s perceived ethnic identity, race, and physical appearance definitely play a role in how they are viewed. Assumptions, often based on stereotypes, are likely to be made, which can be especially true in regions that are more homogeneous or have historically had limited or no contact with people from other countries or backgrounds. Often, curiosity will be shown with questions, comments or physical contact, like touching hair or skin, for instance. Sometimes these kinds of interactions can be taken as offensive or intrusive, but often people are genuinely interested and don’t have bad intentions (Minority & Students of Color Abroad 2019).
Receiving constant attention can, for some, be quite frustrating and aggravating at times, but it is often best to embrace these situations and view them as important, positive opportunities to educate and change people’s preconceived ideas about certain groups of people (Thomas 2017).
It is also important to remember that, in many instances, curiosity and preconceived ideas and stereotypes are held by both the visitor and the host. Travel and interaction with the locals educate both parties and help forge greater understanding between cultures (Muhamed 2019).
My Identity Abroad (Bhutan)
A Foreigner of a Different Color (India)
Being One in a Billion (India)
Escaping My Comfort Zone (Japan)
My Professors Actually Look Like Me…? (Singapore)