Maintaining Your Identity Abroad
As you research the politics, attitudes, beliefs, and values of people in your host community, 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 may also be the added challenge of being a student of color, a member of a religious minority in the host community, a female student, or an LGBTQ-identified student overseas. Sometimes CLS participants are burdened by the feeling that they are responsible for representing their entire race or identity to their host culture.
Despite these challenges, many participants report that they enjoy learning about their host culture and exploring these differences. We encourage you to seek opportunities to realistically portray American diversity. 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.
For interactions with CLS peers, as well as with 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 community, 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 country or location to develop a strategy for discussing sensitive topics. The Alumni Support Network can be an excellent resource for such conversations.
- 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.
CLS Arabic participants at Petra in Jordan.
American Diversity & Racial Stereotypes
As an American student abroad, you may encounter 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 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 CLS participants of color, this can be a unique challenge. People from your host community may be less familiar with Americans with Asian, Hispanic or Latin-American, Indigenous, or African heritage, and they may lack knowledge and context when it comes to the acceptable use of language or the history of race 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.
Not all negative attention is the result of simple misunderstandings, however. Reactions can range from well-intentioned curiosity such as staring or asking unwelcome questions, to expressions of open hostility and interactions that are intended to be insulting or demeaning. Racism is a fact of life in many CLS host communities as it is in the United States, but the social and legal structures that participants are used to may not exist, or the protection that they offer may not extend to foreigners. It is very important that if you encounter a situation that makes you feel unsafe while on the program, you report it to the Resident Director or institute staff. While it is not possible to control all negative aspects of the host culture and society, the CLS Program and our local partners work with members of the local community to build a program where all students can learn safely.
Participants may also find that colorism affects their everyday interactions in ways that are different from forms of racial discrimination in the United States. Colorism is a form of discrimination where individuals or groups with darker skin tone are treated less favorably or regarded as having lower social status in society. These attitudes may be reflected in comments about skin complexion, advertisements for products such as skin-lightening creams, and makeup and photo filters meant to create the illusion of lighter skin.
Participants should be prepared to encounter these sorts of situations occasionally. Previous CLS participants have noted that during such occasions of harassment or discomfort due to racial attitudes, it can help to contextualize it with the experiences of local people from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds in the country/location or other participants in the same CLS cohort.
While it is not sufficient simply to understand or contextualize such experiences, it is important to remember that the countries and communities that host the CLS Program each bear particular social and cultural histories that affect their unique and complex dynamics around race, class, gender, and other identities. The study of language and culture necessarily involves thoughtful observation of such dynamics; although there are many things we may wish to change in the United States or abroad, avoidance does not serve as a solution. To the extent that it is possible, our goal is to engage in such discourses critically and without pre-judgement, but also safely and without self-erasure.
Sexuality, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity
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 or those within your cohort 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.
Heritage students can experience identity challenges or feel misrepresented in their CLS site because they may 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 deal with the expectation that they know much more about their CLS country/location and language than they actually do; they may also find that their background differs from expectations that individuals in the host community or members of their CLS cohort may have of them. It can 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 your studies. If you are concerned about how to navigate your identity in your host community, consider reaching out to CLS alumni through the Alumni Support Network, or talk to CLS Program staff, your Resident Director, and your CLS peers. Even those who do not share your background may be able to connect you with valuable resources.
You may find that the gender norms abroad – traditional roles of individuals defined on the basis of sex and the amount of independence deemed appropriate for individuals of a particular gender in your host community – are different than what you are used to. These roles might feel heteronormative, 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 recommend that participants do so with prudent consideration of local gender norms and expectations of communication between individuals of different genders. 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 location before.
You will find questions that in the United States are considered “off-limits” or inappropriate as topics of conversation between strangers are relatively common in other countries, even when meeting someone for the first time; it may be completely normal in your host culture to discuss body weight, appearance, marital status, complexion, religion, and socioeconomic background in ways that make your uncomfortable or that may offend you. You may find that identity in the host culture is structured in ways that are unexpected, intersecting those that you are familiar with, and you may be labeled in ways that you are not used to.
As a strategy for deflecting uncomfortable inquiries, we recommend that students develop standard answers to common questions in the target language so that the interactions do not feel so awkward. Often a quick answer will allow the person you are meeting to move on to another topic.
Your Hosts and Cohort
The CLS program works with our partners to prepare for hosting a diverse range of participants. Teachers and staff are invested in providing support to all participants on the CLS Program, regardless of background. Even so, it can be hard for them to understand the nuances of American culture and the way Americans perceive various aspects of diversity. Although the CLS Program provides regular trainings and resources to partners, misunderstandings cannot always be resolved through targeted training. Experience plays a key role in learning, and in the same way that you may experience awkwardness and challenges when learning about your host culture and language—sometimes after years of studying it—your hosts are also learning about you and different aspects of American culture and society. Be patient with your host family, language partner, and other people from your host community with whom you interact and who do not share the experiences that you do.
Consider your role in helping those in your community to learn more about cultural differences and the complexities of American society, as well as offering them space to reflect on their own society and its interactions with the issues of diversity and identity, in the same ways that they provide you that space.
You will also be learning with a group of American students, each of whom brings their own unique set of identities and experiences. Often participants say that the cultural gap between themselves and other Americans on the program was larger than the gap they felt with members of the local community. Be sensitive to the experiences of your classmates; acknowledge that your experiences on-program may differ significantly from theirs and try to maintain an awareness about how status and privilege are distributed in the local community according to identity, and the effect that has on different members of your cohort.
The Resident Director
The Resident Director at each program site has significant experience abroad and is connected to many official and informal resources that can support you through a difficult experience. We don’t expect that every participant will connect with the Resident Director on a personal level, or feel comfortable discussing deeply personal challenges, but the Resident Director can provide space for you to reflect and process your experience initially. They can also help you talk over next steps and think about resources that may help.
Any CLS participants who experiences discrimination or inappropriate behavior, inside or outside of the institute, should inform their Resident Director. Although not every situation will have a perfect solution, the Resident Director, host institute staff, and student support staff in the United States want to address inappropriate behavior and create a safe environment for all students.
Your CLS Peers
Fellow CLS peers who have spent more time in the host country or location can also be a resource for discussing how to handle complex situations. Alumni from previous years are also available through the CLS Alumni Support Network to discuss these issues and experiences.
If you have trouble connecting with alumni, you may reach out to the CLS Alumni Engagement Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to connect you with someone.
CLS Swahili participants take lunch together by Lake Duluti in Tanzania.