The average study abroad story follows a formula. It goes something like this: “I arrived in the country I’d be studying in for the next semester. It was beautiful, but I faced many challenges at first. There was the language barrier. The difference in cuisine. People acted differently. All of the little cultural differences. But after the first couple of weeks, I got settled and now I’m making the most of my experience and doing all of the amazing things I had dreamed of!”
That last sentence is where I stop being able to relate. Sure, that story reflects the most superficial of my experiences studying abroad in Bologna, Italy. But it doesn’t come close to capturing the reality of what I experienced. The reason boils down to one fact: I was a Korean-American trying to adapt to living in a predominantly white country.
Studying abroad is an exercise in privilege. First, there’s the obvious cost of travel and living in a different country (sometimes with a tough exchange rate for currency). Having the opportunity to go abroad tends to come with a pressure to constantly try new things, travel and experience the host country (and surrounding countries) to the fullest.
I realize how lucky and privileged I am to have been able to study abroad in the first place. But I have also seen many different, intersecting privileges that affected my peers in varying ways. While abroad, I realized I lacked something other students in my program had: white, passing privilege.
In Italy, there aren’t as many generations of immigrant families, so being a non-western, non-European appearing person in a fairly homogenous society made me stick out. Most of my friends were able to blend in with the locals, with only their American accents giving away their true identities. So in comparison to my friends’ experiences and many other people’s experiences abroad, I felt exposed to new racial prejudices and micro-aggressions that I was not prepared for.
When I first arrived in Bologna and attended my first orientation session at the Bologna Consortial Studies Program through Indiana University, the first thing I noticed was how overwhelmingly white the program was. I was the only Asian-American out of 44 students, with one African-American and three girls of Hispanic descent being the only other people of color in the program. I wasn’t too alarmed, though. I had seen a handful of Asians on the cab ride from the airport to my hotel, which gave me a false sense of hope that I wouldn’t stand out as much as some of my peers.
But about three weeks into the program, I encountered a local who completely changed my perspective on how Asians are treated in Italian society and culture.
I was standing in the courtyard of a university building after my grammar course when an elderly man passed me, turned around, and called to me from a distance: “Are you Chinese?” he said to me in Italian.
After I realized he was speaking to me, I responded with a curt “No.” But he continued. Was I Japanese? Vietnamese? Cambodian? I said no to every ethnicity he threw at me. Finally, he asked me where I was from, and I told him that I was from the United States. Then he approached me and said, “Yes, but your origin is oriental. Where are you from?”
“My parents are from Korea, but I was born in the U.S.,” I told him. Then he mumbled something that I did not completely understand, but it was something along the lines of, “Ah, Koreans, they’re the best.” Then he left.
I was left utterly confused, wondering what his end game was. Why was it so important to him to know my ethnic origin? Sadly, that is only one example of the frequent encounters I had with Italians about my racial identity. Every time I said I was from the U.S., they responded in a curious yet exasperated tone, “No, but what is your origin?”
It was after the umpteenth time I was asked for my ethnic origin that I decided to stop telling people. I decided to just say that I’m from America and that would be it. I was tired of being constantly called and singled out for my race. I was often assumed to be a tourist and greeted with a "ni hao" or "konnichiwa" on the street. None of my peers had to deal with the constant reminders of their race, of their foreignness, of their otherness as I did.
Study abroad programs do provide adequate resources for adjusting to life abroad – there is information about how different cultures may treat women, gender and sexual minorities, and more. But these information pamphlets and online resources barely scratch the surface of the reality of life abroad. In fact, the handbook for my program in Bologna had a paragraph, maybe two, describing the living situation for minorities in Italy. There was an underlying assumption that most of the program participants would fit in just fine in Europe, and for the most part it was true. Unfortunately, that left people like me completely alone in their process of adjustment and search for solidarity.
On the first day of our orientation, our program director told us not to make comparisons between the U.S. and Italy. We shouldn’t think that some things are better or worse in either country, but rather should accept things as they are. It made sense to a certain degree, especially for the little cultural differences. But it can be hard to accept cultural practices when they target you personally. My program hardly criticized or discussed some of the more blatant racial prejudices and sexual harassment.We were expected to blindly accept those differences and live with them.
The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from studying abroad. I do not regret my decision to go to Europe at all – I learned to adapt and discovered aspects of my identity and culture that I previously paid no mind to or took for granted. But adjusting to the absence of certain social and cultural norms takes time. We should be more open to sustained dialogue about problematic aspects of a host country, even if it forces students to be critical of their temporary homes.