the ups and downs of being an exchange student

The amount that I have learned over the past 2 1/2 weeks in Mali is incredible.

Everyday I am challenged to think differently than how I am used to thinking, whether it be because of the differences in language, setting, or culture. Learning Bambara has been a challenge because it is similar to many Eastern languages in that it is so ingrained with customs that most often, a literal translation will not make sense to a beginner. For example, family is very important in Malian culture, thus the answer to a typical greeting is “n se” for females (literally meaning “my father”) and “n ba” for males (literally meaning “my mother”). This reference to one’s mother or father is very important because it is a way of showing your loyalty and respect to your family, even when speaking to a complete stranger who may not know your family at all.

Here is a typical dialogue when greeting:

Person 1: I ni su (Good evening)

Person 2: N se (Thanks to my father, or Greet my father)

Person 1: I ka kene? (How is it going?)

Person 2: Ka kene (It goes)

Person 1: Somogow be di? (How is your family)

Person 2: Tooro si te. (No problems at all)

Everything is a constant stream of new and exciting information; new tastes, new smells, new sights, new words, new emotions. I feel like a young child experiencing the world for the first time. I love the savory food, and the strong teas. I love the distinct dusty smell of the desert that is completely unlike any desert in the US. I love the way the Malians dress in the beautiful colors and patterns of the bazins in contrast to the endless red dirt of the desert. I love how big the sky is here, I can see for miles in almost every direction. And most importantly, I love the feeling of being in a new place where I don’t know anyone or the appropriate way to do the most monotonous of tasks from eating to even using the toilet. It is uncomfortable in a way that I think is necessary: If you never challenge yourself to step into new situations, how are you going to grow as a person? No one ever changes from standing still. I also think that stepping into a new situation is the only way to really learn about yourself, and thus your own culture. Often Americans (and myself included) claim that we don’t really have a culture of our own, we consider ourselves to be “normal” and everything else is foreign. But now that I am seeing myself through a different “cultural lens” (cool term from IB anthropology), I am realizing things about my own customs and traditions that I never really payed attention to before. These are just a few of the aspects that have made my trip so great: the constant excitement, the adventure, the challenge, and meeting new people who are excited to help me learn.

Everyday of my study abroad, I am faced with a wave of emotions. Despite all the fun and excitement, it can be pretty hard at times. Here are the two issues that have been the hardest for me and how I have dealt with them:

Missing home: Being home sick is primarily attributed to wanting to be back in your comfort zone. Studying abroad is definitely uncomfortable at times, so it is normal to miss those small comforts you have at home such as Frosted Flakes, or seeing your best friend every day, the kind of things we usually take for granted. The only way to really overcome homesickness is to make a strong effort to make positive relationships with your new friends and family, rather than sitting on facebook checking up on everybody’s status updates from home (which is sometimes very hard to do).

Belief Differences: I am a very open-minded person, so one of the few things I really cannot stand is intolerance. However, a few members of my host family have openly expressed contempt for gays. I know that this is because of their religious beliefs, but I could not help but be very upset by this. Without a doubt, this has been the most difficult issue for me to face. At first, I noticed that many of them made small jokes and remarks about gays that I thought were harmless. But, this evening my host brother started ranting horribly about gays. He asked me how I felt about the subject, so I tried expressing my viewpoint in a manner that wouldn’t lead to conflict. I explained that I believe that gays should have the same rights as any other human being, and that I have many friends and family members who are gay that I love just the same as all the rest of my friends and family. He thought it was ridiculous and quite hilarious that I believed this, and I just couldn’t seem to be able to explain myself in a way that he would accept. I was so upset that I had to leave the situation. It is very frustrating trying to express your opinion when the other party will not listen. The language barrier also made this conversation extremely complicated as he only knew so many English words and I only knew so many French words. As an exchange student it is my job to act diplomatic, so instead of arguing with him as I probably would have done anywhere else which would have caused further conflict, I told him I couldn’t talk about it anymore and I left the situation. As frustrated and upset as I was (I was literally on the verge of tears) I realized that by insisting on my viewpoint, I would be insulting his religious beliefs. I realize that you don’t have to give up your own beliefs or change your point of view, but you do have to be considerate and know when to keep your beliefs to yourself as to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Despite these obstacles, my stay here has been and will be very rewarding. I am learning many valuable skills every day, as well as learning about a culture and people I previously knew little about. I look forward to all of the knowledge I will gain, and I accept all of the challenges that may come along the way.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “the ups and downs of being an exchange student

  1. Beth Linan

    Hi, Meena. Aunt Beth here. I completely understand your frustration in the matter of trying to explain your views on tolerance and acceptance. Unfortunately, you could be having the same conversation with someone from the “religious right” here in the US. Intolerance knows no boundaries. I admire your courage in standing up for your beliefs, but the lesson here is more that of diplomacy and knowing when not to express your opinion. Being a diplomat involves careful consideration of your audience and being prepared with a response that is more neutral, without compromising your beliefs.
    You’re doing a great job and we all enjoy reading your comments and experiences. Love, Aunt Beth

  2. Olivia Wallace

    HEY MEENA!
    Your blog just made my day, I hadn’t had a chance to read it until now, and I’m so glad that I did. It’s funny that what we are learning in IB Anthro right now is exactly what you are living, (so in the respect, you won’t be behind at all). I can only imagine that what the emotional waves are like but it sounds like you are adapting really well!! I hope you meet that girl who was very interested in talking to you, or someone else as outgoing as her! I love that you said, “I am realizing things about my own customs and traditions that I never really payed attention to before.” It’d be so nice to be pulled out of my bubble like that, so soak it all up!! At school we joke about that if any of us could go abroad it would be you. We called you the IB God lolllll. So that’s a little love from us cbussers.

  3. John Oberdick

    Great writing Meena, and what a great bit of diplomacy! We all love you and miss you here at home, but are enjoying keeping up with events in Mali. Keep it comin… Love, Dad

  4. Pam Gonyea

    Auntie Pam here, Meena!!

    I’m kind of new to this whole blog thing, but your Aunt Beth sent me your link…anyway, I figured I’d pop in and say hello, and tell you how wonderfully proud I am of you!! You are most definitely learning about the world, and about yourself, and that takes a very special and courageous person!!

    I feel as though I’ve learned a lot more about you as a person after reading about your experiences, thoughts, and feelings there in Mali, and again, I’m very impressed!! I agree that challenging yourself to step outside of your “comfort zone” is the only way to really grow as a person…(now if I could just take my own advice, and challenge myself a little more)…oh well, enjoy yourself, and LEARN, LEARN, LEARN!!

    All my Love,

    Auntie Pam

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