When you first decide to study abroad, you're looking at the big picture. The friends, the traveling, the food, the experience. It's one huge image of joy and excitement planted in your brain in perfect clarity.
But then you land. And then that picture begins to change, becomes more detailed. Before long, you realize everyday brings a new lesson, an aspect of the foreign country that you had no prior knowledge of. One of these things is culture clash.
It's an interesting subject to think about. At first glance, you will miss it. But once you start consistently interacting with the people of a different culture, certain etiquette, mannerisms, and actions stand out more than others, and can even be offensive with no intentions of being so. Here in Barcelona, I've encountered several.
First off, it is not customary to tip. In fact, tipping can be seen as rude or arrogant. When you give a waiter or a taxi driver extra cash in Barcelona, it is taken as an insult that the individual needs your money. Like any normal traveler, I was unaware of this the first week. I had told a taxi driver to keep the extra five euro. In return he gave me a look of contempt along with my 5 euro.
Another difference in cultural behavior is found in the act of staring. Within the first couple of weeks, I constantly heard the girl students on my trip complaining of Spanish men staring at them in the streets and on the metro. Even I felt a bit odd when I passed a person on the sidewalk, and felt his or her gaze glued to me for more than 5 seconds. However, it wasn't long until I realized this was harmless. Our teachers explained to us that this was just how it was. It wasn't an invitation to sex or a lure to fight, as such a stare would be in America. Just as the taxi driver felt awkward when I wanted to tip him - something that is completely normal to me, I felt awkward when a spaniard held his gaze on me - something that is completely normal to them.
It is in these critical incidents that you start to realize how big the world really is. These small, subtle mannerisms that seem to be the only way to interact at home all of a sudden no longer hold true. Realizing the differences in life across the globe makes you realize there is more than just your neighborhood rules. All that we know, our own entire repertoire of living, is suddenly changed. And this is the perk of being abroad. No matter how much a program may cost or how much sacrifice there is in a four month journey to another world, it's worth it. This is real learning. This is studying abroad.
University of Delaware
CEA Mojo Barcelona, Spring 2013