As one prepares to go on a semester abroad, one is warned to be careful about making comparisons. After all, it is a waste of time to go in and think only about how much better things are back home. The specific danger is that these judgements are almost always biased against the new culture, as a sort of defense mechanism. All in all, this is one of the best pieces of advice that Study Abroad counselors give.Of course, even the most patient and understanding of us can only make this advice last a week before the comparisons start.If one has an open mind, it is easy and worthwhile to avoid the obvious judgements. When faced with a paper napkin, in a nice restaurant, slightly thinner than a sheet of tissue paper, there are two ways to look at it. The homesick or closed-minded person would point, laugh and make a joke about how the Poles cannot even make a decent napkin. A better traveler would realize that less paper is wasted this way, it wipes a face or hands just as well and it’s actually more attractive than the quilted type. He’ll just be more careful not to spill his coffee.These are the smallest differences, and the easiest traps to avoid. The problem is that these types of comparisons are not where the process ends. Where I, and I think every other traveler, gets bogged down is when I am part of the comparison.One of Poland’s most famous writers, Witold Gombrowicz, once wrote that the reason that Earth has never tolerated a stable hierarchy is that those at the top are so critically dependant on the opinions of those below. The people who are most different from us have the most painful opinions, no matter what we think of them, because they are so uncomfortable. In my few weeks here, that is becoming the hardest thing to deal with – how must I look to all these people?In our normal everyday lives, it’s easy to process the feedback we get from others. First of all, most of the people who see us beyond our most basic statements are people with whom we are comfortable. Beyond that, the ones whose judgements make us uncomfortable are generally people we know how to react to – professors, salespeople, relatives.When I get feedback here, it’s in a language and a culture I cannot gauge. The problem is not in the opinions I form of them, it is that I know that I am exposed to their scrutiny. Certainly they are not making judgements any stronger than we would of a stranger on a bus – their thoughts are insignificant to them and they are certainly not trying to decipher my entire character. When you evaluate yourself according to their comparisons however, their fleeting thought can have a major effect on you. A flirting look or a disapproving look on a tram can immediately become unsettling, when you know that you have been judged and cannot respond. You have become, in effect, what they make you.These assumptions apply even more to those with whom you can speak. You feel like your country is being judged according to your behavior, and vice versa. It has been interesting in conversations with Dutch and German friends to see how we all defend aspects of our culture that we don’t usually think of – or really care about.This is, of course, how one learns the culture. After the tourist phase of my trip faded, these personal comparisons became more important, but after repeated interactions some of them start to seem more comfortable – I am learning both my role and theirs.The exciting part, too, about self-comparisons is being jarred enough from my normal patterns to compare me to myself. I think that this is where the core of the advice that I recieved before I left becomes important again. If I am comparing things to the way that they are at home, I will always be biased toward what I know and have no chance to learn. But worse than that, if I get into this mindset, when I have to compare myself to the me that existed before I left, that bias will guide me back to what I was. And isn’t that why I left?Brown can be reached at cbrown@campustimes.org.



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