When you enter a small get together and know almost no one, you are “the other.” When everyone is on the same page, and you’re behind, you’re “the other.” When everyone knows the lyrics and you don’t, you’re “the other.” And when you find yourself wandering in a country where everyone but you knows the language and the culture, you are, surely, “the other.” Only in this case, you can’t simply get to know the small party of mutual friends, or read ahead when you have a free minute, or memorize the lyrics. So, now what?
Now you wait. Wait and live and learn. You can’t possibly think you’ll fit in. You’re like an ice cube in a pot of boiling water: same substance but from different environments. Only humans aren’t as pure as water. We are more complex, and while the ice cube will become one with the boiling water, a foreigner will always have those moments where he or she feels a bit different. Even those who immigrated at a young age might feel displaced at times.
Now, what does this have to do with studying abroad? Study abroad students are the foreigners, they are “the others.” And like any foreigner, when someone feels “out of their comfort zone” (as many people like to call the feeling when recounting their abroad experiences), they are actually doing two things: 1) learning about another culture, and 2) understanding their own culture.
I have recently come to realize that if you grow up in a society, you might not know how rooted in it you really are. Sure, there are certain things you don’t agree with and that you detest, but they are familiar. You may know what is polite, what is unacceptable, and when to say “excuse me.” You know how to exist there. Living in a foreign town, you may see just how rooted you are in your culture. But you realize this through another one. In other words, being “the other” might just help you learn about “the self,” yourself.