My experience as a woman of color (specifically black) is different than the experience of someone who may look just like me but lives within a different socio-political atmosphere. This could be as subtle a difference as a few cities over, or as drastic as the other side of the world — a situation I found myself facing for the first time 3 months ago when I decided to study abroad in the Czech Republic. It was a huge unknown, one that has now morphed itself into a valuable experience. It has been a lesson in history and culture, and just learning to listen to the people around you tell you their stories.
Depending on where you’re going and who you are, your journey to self-identity abroad will be unique. However, the main stages you go through to get there are essentially the same for everyone experiencing ‘otherness’ abroad (or anywhere, really):
Stage 1: Paranoia
There is a comfort in understanding the social paradigm you are in — even if it doesn’t necessarily uplift you. There is much to be said for race relations in America, but at least I am intimate with its inner workings; I have grounded expectations. Going to the Czech Republic meant my expectations – at least at first – were baseless. And what do baseless expectations breed? You guessed it! Paranoia.
How will I be perceived? What stereotypes will people have about me? Bad ones? Will this affect my relationships or interactions with people?
I thought these things about my race, gender, outward appearance, political views, etc., etc., etc. I honestly did not know how different it might be. So naturally, I felt a little scared.
Stage 2: Research
Fear is usually fueled by ignorance so, unsurprisingly, the best cure for paranoia is knowledge. At this point you haven’t left yet so the best you can do is second-hand anecdotes, news articles, and maybe some statistics. Before I studied abroad, my biggest reassurances were the stories of other students. Through IFSA’s student blogs and other found first-hand accounts, I started to form my own opinions of what life in Prague would be like. I also sought out information about issues that were important to me like what LGBTQ+ rights the Czech Republic had; I looked up some public opinion polls (there are some good ones on the official EU website) to gain some insight into the public psyche as well. Basically, I researched what the state of affairs were like and what other people’s experiences were. Considering you’re reading this article, you’re well on your way￼ to doing the same. ￼
Stage 3: First-Hand Experience
You are on site, in the thick of it. You jumped with both feet and now you get to judge these foreign waters for yourself. Forme in Prague, I found myself surrounded by a larger diversity of people than I expected in-part due to the widely international makeup of Prague College. Students of all different races and nationalities study alongside me and have become companions in my adventures abroad. This isn’t unusual either; there are many international colleges and organizations around Prague.
I’ve met and talked to other black people in Prague about their experiences living here. A hairstylist named Cecelia moved to Prague from Nigeria with her British husband eight years ago and she has been raising her three biracial children here ever since. She noted that she did not feel her race was a disadvantage as much as it made her stand out in Prague. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the younger people I talked to have experienced some prejudice, like discrimination and brutality from the police. Fortunately, my time in Prague has gone largely unsullied by any overt discrimination. There were some questionable encounters, including a few shopkeepers who made no secret of following me around stores. But those less overt encounters can be hard to interpret and usually leave me running circles back in Stage One.
Stage 4: Finding Community
The main takeaway from all of this is that you don’t have to figure it out alone. Talking to other people I could relate to and who shared my concerns made me feel less alone in my insecurities and lessened the stress I had. It is important, no matter where you go, to build or join a community where you feel safe and heard. You can do this by friend groups or clubs in and out of school. For me, it was a slow accumulation of people I could talk to. A girl from orientation, a boy in my class, the hair stylist who braided my hair, the people I met at a cultural event, etc. In lieu of support you feel you might be lacking in your host country, connecting with people from home can also help.
Keisha was a Digital Technology and Culture major at Washington State University and studied abroad with IFSA at Prague College in Czech Republic in Spring 2018. She was a participant in the IFSA-Butler First Generation program.