Maintaining Your Identity Abroad

As you research the politics, attitudes, beliefs and values of people in your host country, you will notice different opinions regarding race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. You will most likely encounter attitudes and beliefs that differ from those typically found in the United States, some of which may seem prejudiced, discriminatory and/or personally offensive or threatening. CLS participants come from diverse backgrounds across the United States, and you should be prepared for differences in politics, attitudes, beliefs, and values within your CLS peer cohort, as well.

Cultural differences, references to racial stereotypes, assumptions about gender roles or religious observances, and openly expressed attitudes towards LGBTQ individuals can be jarring for CLS participants. There is also the added challenge of being a student of color, a member of a religious minority in the host country, a female student, or an LGBTQ-identified student overseas.

Despite these challenges, many participants report that they enjoy learning about their host culture and exploring these differences. Participants are encouraged to keep an open mind about their new host culture while remembering that no culture is wrong, just different. Through these interactions, host country nationals will also learn to break their stereotypes about Americans. Remember that as a CLS participant, you play an important role in the State Department’s mission of increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

Your Safety 

For interactions with CLS peers as well as host country nationals, respectful communication is key. Respectful communication may also help to ensure your physical safety.

For your safety, in all new environments you should:

  • Refrain from discussing sensitive subjects, including politics, religion, gender norms and sexual identity, until you get to know your conversation partner(s) better. Begin by speaking in general, rather than personal, terms to measure the potential responses of the person you are speaking with in your host culture.
  • Seek to understand the local context, including the history of various identity groups in your host city and country, key legislation that impacts these groups, and common cultural norms.
  • Talk with your Resident Director or other CLS peers who are familiar with the host city or country to develop a strategy for discussing sensitive topics. The Alumni Support Network can be an excellent resource for such a conversation.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, and immediately remove yourself from a situation if it feels uncomfortable or something seems strange.
  • If you encounter someone who is being aggressively offensive, the best course of action is to ignore them and move on quickly.
  • Contact your Resident Director immediately if you need assistance.

You can find additional information about your health and safety abroad in the Health and Safety section of this handbook.

American Diversity & Racial Stereotypes

Being an American student abroad can bring about reactions from members of the host community that range from overwhelming curiosity to complete apathy. These reactions manifest in various ways and are influenced by the local notions of what an American “looks like,” as well as general attitudes toward foreign visitors.

In many overseas countries, an “American” is understood to be Caucasian. For non-white CLS participants, this can be a unique challenge. People from your host community may be less familiar with Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American or African American heritages, which means they lack knowledge and context about acceptable/unacceptable terms and historical contexts of these identities in the United States. As a result, they may ask questions or provide commentary that would be considered offensive or discriminatory in the United States.

Reactions to African Americans, Hispanic/Latino, Native Americans or Asian Americans (or those assumed to be African, Hispanic/Latino, Native American or Asian) can range from additional curiosity, such as staring or asking unwelcome questions, to expressing hostility or interactions that could feel demeaning. Objectionable as these attitudes are, participants of color should be prepared to encounter them occasionally. Previous CLS participants have noted that during such occasions of harassment or discomfort due to racial attitudes, talking to people from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds in the country or CLS cohort can be beneficial.

The CLS program works with local staff to prepare for hosting a diverse range of participants on the program. Your in-country teachers and staff are accustomed to seeing and working with diverse student identities, and are invested in providing support to all participants on the CLS Program. Even so, it can often be hard for them to understand the nuances of American culture, and how Americans perceive various aspects of diversity. We urge you to be patient with your host family, language partner, and other people from your host community you interact with, to help them learn more about cultural differences and the complexities of American society.

Sometimes CLS participants can feel that they are responsible for representing their entire race or identity to their host culture, which can feel burdensome. We encourage you to seek opportunities to realistically portray American diversity. However, any CLS participants who experience awkwardness or discrimination, inside or outside of the institute, should seek out their Resident Director. Fellow CLS peers who have spent more time in the host country can also be a resource for discussing how to handle these situations. Please do not hesitate to reach out to CLS Program staff if you have any questions, or if you would like any additional resources or support before, during or after the program. Alumni from previous years are also available through the CLS Alumni Support Network to discuss these issues and experiences.

Heritage Students

Heritage students can also experience identity challenges or feel misrepresented in their CLS site, because they could be visually identified as being a member of the host community. For many heritage students, the level of comfort they have with the local culture, languages, and traditions is extremely nuanced and based upon their upbringing. Heritage students frequently have to deal with the expectation that they know much more about their CLS country and language than they actually do; they may also find that their background differs from expectations that others may have of them. It can also surprise or frustrate others when a heritage student’s background and experiences do not conform to their expectations of diaspora communities. This, in turn, can feel unsettling or frustrating for the student.

If someone asks you questions about your heritage, your family’s heritage, or your immigration history in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can redirect them by explaining that you are on a scholarship to study language, and that you are a university student focusing on studies. If you have any concerns about your heritage identity during your CLS program, reach out to CLS alumni on the CLS Facebook page or through the Alumni Support Network, or talk to CLS Program staff, your Resident Director, and other CLS peers.

Gender Roles

You may find that the gender norms abroad – the traditional roles of men and women and the amount of independence deemed appropriate in your host country – are different than what you are used to. These roles might feel restrictive or discriminatory to you. If you experience anything unsettling, don’t hesitate to contact your Resident Director, or speak to your CLS peers. It is likely that they have had similar experiences. You should seek opportunities to engage in dialogue about traditional gender roles, but be aware that teachers, language partners or host family members may be uncomfortable with the topic.

The CLS Program asks participants to be cautious in their behavior and culturally-appropriate in dress during their time abroad, but you should still feel encouraged to engage with the culture on as many fronts as possible. In particular, spending time with host family members, language partners, and same-gender members of the host community is a great way to engage. When interacting with members of the opposite sex, we would recommend that participants do so with prudent consideration of local gender norms and expectations of communication between men and women. If you have any questions about gender roles, expectations and staying safe, we encourage you to speak with CLS Program staff, CLS alumni, and other CLS peers who have been to your CLS country or city before.

Sexuality

You will find that societal attitudes and perceptions about sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity overseas may differ from attitudes and perceptions in the United States. Laws and legal decisions differ as well. Religious beliefs and observances may also impact these attitudes and laws.

We encourage you to be discreet regarding your sexuality, at least in your first meetings with members of your host community, until you have had a chance to get to know the person. You should also be extremely sensitive about the identities of any friends you make from the host community who identify as LGBTQ, as they may be relying on your confidentiality.

Local norms and expectations of dating, marriage, spouses, etc. can emerge during conversations with your host family or language partner. If you feel uncomfortable with these questions you can decline to answer, or you can redirect the conversation with a general answer. If you have any concerns before, during, or after the CLS program, please contact CLS program staff. Alumni in the Alumni Resource Directory have volunteered to share their experiences and perspectives as well.

Topics of Conversation

Norms about appropriate questions to ask strangers also vary from country to country. Please note that topics which are general off-limits for Americans, like weight, appearance, marital status, or skin color, may be common conversation topics when meeting someone for the first time. You may want to develop standard answers to these questions so that the situation does not feel so awkward. Oftentimes, a quick answer will allow the person you are meeting to move on to another topic.