The key to developing meaningful relationships while abroad, like while at home, is honesty and genuineness. Although cultural barriers and language barriers are more or less inevitable, demonstrating authentic interest in and respect for the people and cultures you encounter goes a long way. Most of the time, people recognize that you are in an unfamiliar setting and will therefore be patient and understanding. Nonetheless it is essential to “meet people halfway” – doing everything you can to be prepared, understand your setting, and keep an open mind. When uncertain of something, the best protocol is always simply to ask. It is normal to feel unsure of ourselves when we are outside of our comfort zone, and people are receptive to that. It is when we fail to communicate that misunderstandings occur and problems can arise. Furthermore, many people are enthusiastic about sharing their lives and cultures with newcomers and will embrace the opportunity to teach.
Clear communication can be challenging when two parties do not share fluency in a common language. If given the opportunity, and especially when staying abroad for an extended period of time, it is usually best to make an effort to learn and speak the language. Although some people will be enthusiastic about speaking or practicing English, it is extremely inappropriate to assume that this is the case when on another person’s “turf”. The expectation to be able to successfully get through life knowing only English is a reflection of privilege – native English speakers have the benefit of their own language being the dominant one. This is especially touchy when we consider that thousands of languages are being lost in the face of globalization- every 14 days a language dies. The assumption that everyone should and does learn English both demonstrates and fosters the ideological perspective of western capitalist supremacy.
The last key to developing friendships is to understand roles and norms and therefore behave in an appropriate and respective manner. Research and ask questions about social norms before leaving. Consider the norms that influence your own life; small things like speaking distance or appropriate greetings can turn out to be a major shock. As with all things, before going reflect and research. For more info on this see here.
Power and Equity
When entering a new culture and new way of life, it is important to understand that you do not know as much as you think you do. The people here know the culture and know the history of themselves. Because of this, it is entirely inappropriate for you to try and decide what people want or need, because you have not lived in this place. The best way to put yourself on equal ground with the local people is to create a joint learning environment. This also ensures that there is less of a power differential.
To make the most out of your trip, it is important for members of both parties to learn from each other. Rather than coming in and trying to fix problems you do not know about, it is better to ask what the local people think and what they want. The locals like their life, and do not need to be told what is wrong with them, etc. Instead, learn from them and find out what they actually want from you before you try to help. If you try to help without talking to them first, you will end up in a lot of trouble. Not only will you not accomplish anything, but you may actually harm the locals, plus you will also taint the relationships being made. If you try to fix something from the start, you are going to be putting yourself into a role that makes it seem like you are better than them, rather than standing on equal ground.
It is also important to consider the differences between access to resources or technology. While visiting somewhere, you can change your relationship with the local people in an instant by introducing technology into the scene. For example, if you are carrying a camera around everywhere, you may come off seeming like you are showing off your wealth. It is possible that the camera you are holding is worth more than the local people make in a week, and by showing it off you are putting yourself in a clear empowered role. You may have built fantastic relationships with the local people, but as soon as your pull out this camera, that can become the only thing they care about suddenly. By showing off technology, you are making them feel as if their lives are inadequate. Suddenly they are unhappy with the lives that have been working perfectly for them up until they saw the camera.
A good source to look at that talks about this power struggle are these videos:
When visiting another country as a tourist, especially as a tourist to a developing world, you might have privileges and power outside of technology or material things. Visiting a hospital and touring patients rooms, going to a bar, or sitting in on classes are all privileges that locals don’t have or that we wouldn’t have in our home country. While you might be shown confidential records or ask what you want to see, you don’t have to agree and it is perfectly alright to say no. It is important to recognize this and set limits on what is appropriate and respectful towards everyone. If something doesn’t feel right or is something you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing at home, don’t do it. It is important to develop equal relationships and recognize when you are getting experiences that are outside your comfort zone or uncomfortable for others.
Sustaining relationships after departing from the foreign country comes with its own unique challenges. Depending on the circumstances, it might be very difficult to keep in contact with new friends after leaving. However, it is possible to maintain a positive relationship even when miles apart.
Actions taken to sustaining a relationship should occur before departure. Look into the types of technology available and think about the best way of communication possible. Depending on the country, options might range from full internet access to snail mail. If internet communication is possible, there are many free services to make communication easy, including Skype, social networking sites, blog sites, and photo sharing sites.
During the trip, it is important to maintain good relationships so there are actually relationships to sustain in the future. Being open, honest, and respectful will help immensely as you meet people. Also keep in mind that all people should be treated with dignity and respect.
Other things to be mindful about is recording addresses, phone numbers, first and last names, and anything else that might be useful in order to maintain contact. This information might be easy to forget while living abroad, but after departure, it would be very difficult to be able to reconnect. Taking a notebook and pen wherever you go would help solve this problem.
It is also important to be respectful and honest with yourself and your new friends. Don’t promise to keep in touch if you don’t intend to and be true to your word if you promise to send photographs, etc. Not doing so would be more harmful to any future relationship and might bar you from positive opportunities in the future. Being honest and open will open the door for further communication that is healthy and fair for everyone involved.
Here is a what a girl who went to Kenya says about the relationships with the people she had met in Kenya,
“Though we didn’t literally climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, I feel like we have all climbed so many other mountains on this trip.
I may not have done the job of building infrastructure for the roads, or houses for families, but I have learned, taken away, and gained more than I could ever imagine. I have learned the meaning of care. I have received and been immersed in the sweetest love and joy for the last six weeks from the relationships I have built. The things I really want to express to people back home are less about what I did, less about what this experience was like, but much more about what I learned the people I met. I told myself one of the first things I am going to do is bake cookies for all of my new neighbors and go meet them right away. After all, we only live one door down.
I have spent this time with the most incredible people and am blessed to be a part of such an amazing group back home. I have met people with such big hearts that sometimes I think they simply could explode. It will be nice to lay my head down back at home and know that there are the same incredible people half way around the world. I have realized that in the US we have the ability to completely focus on our own needs and happiness and we don’t focus enough on the group and human kind as a whole. Kenyan’s have given me a new perspective. Not one person in this community puts themselves first. Instead of focusing on how they as one singular person in the world can remain with the highest potential of happiness, they strive to figure out how they can spread joy, and possibly share their meal with a neighbor, even if it takes them having much less. If they only watched out for their own personal needs, happiness and growth, these amazing communities would not be anywhere. I have come away from this trip with better friends then I have ever made before.”
The relationships with local people that you are involved in while abroad are powerful. For me, initiating and nurturing the relationships was not difficult while I was in country. It was the “coming home” part that I had trouble with. When I was home, I found it challenging to maintain the same deep friendships with the community members that I had while I was abroad. Once I got back to my busy life in the United States, the numerous phone calls and Facebook messages that I received from the girls became more of a hassle than leisure. It was hard to incorporate my life abroad with my life at home. I do not have the same freedom with time that I did when I was in Africa. The time difference and conflicts in schedules made it difficult to give the attention to the friendships that they deserved. Coming up with time frames and plans to talk on the phone with one another made it easier to maintain relationships because it allowed me to have specific times a week when nothing else was on my mind except for catching up with old friends and hearing stories of all the activities that they are involved in. The relationships you make with people while you are abroad and then continuing to develop them once you are home is what makes traveling to any country an ‘experience of a life time’.
There are many aspects to confidentiality to consider when studying abroad. The first is the issue of confidentiality of students whom who are travelling with. Since you will be living in very close quarters, most likely you will learn more about your fellow students than you would in a class. In addition, for the sake of travel safety, you might know about a student’s medication, allergies, habits, etc. However, it is important to not share this with other group members, friends, and family when you come back home. There may be things students wish to keep in their private life, but when travelling, are unable to do so. Please be respectful and courteous when it comes to this information.
In addition, living in such close conditions for weeks or months will create more open relationships. Students might feel comfortable sharing their secrets and feelings with you more than they would have normally, because of these shared experiences. It is a privilege to be able to share these experiences and emotions with each other, but it is also your responsibility to keep these private unless given permission to share. Think about what you would be comfortable with and trust your gut instinct. If it feels weird or strange to share something so personal, don’t do it. You can also always ask if you may share their story.
Outside of your group, you will also be creating new relationships and making new friends during your travels abroad. In addition to opening up to them about your life, they also might open up to you and share their stories. You might be tempted to run back and share with your group members or when you get home. However, please be courteous and ask permission first or hold your silence. It is a great opportunity to be able to share stories with someone from another culture, but take a step back and think before you share. The person sharing the story is a person and not just an experience for you or a story for you to tell. Always think before acting.
After speaking with a counselor at the Ombogo Girls’ Academy in Kenya, I realized just how important confidentiality is in Kochia, both in the village and at school. As a counselor, she helps students see different options and the benefits and costs of pursuing each one. As a community stricken by AIDS, many people do not seek treatment or tell anyone of their status because they are worried that it could be passed around. Therefore, people are also reluctant to seek professional help because they are worried about confidentiality issues. Upon visiting the school, many girls would confide in me because they knew I was a safe source who was a dead-end as far as gossip goes. It is important to maintain their confidence but also to encourage them to go to an adult or another person they trust who can support them if they are having a difficult time.