So How Was It? Explaining a Life-changing Trip

Upon my return to campus this fall, I received all the typical post-study abroad questions, the majority of which were: How was Africa?

My first reaction was that I didn’t actually go to Africa – I went to Tanzania. But finding someone who could identify the Tanzanian coast along the Indian Ocean was evidently a tall order. I chalked this unawareness up to a gross lack of education about African culture and realized that in telling about my study abroad experience, I had a chance to give authentic, first-hand information about east Africa.

But, in spite of this fantastic opportunity to educate and inform, I found myself conflicted as I searched for the words:

How could I condense an entire month of life-changing experiences into mere sentences?

How could I summarize an entire culture, an entire lifestyle, climate and language?

And even then, how could I articulate what I saw and learned in terms to which my peers could connect?

I thought back to the stifling heat, the beautiful and malnourished children we worked with, the joy and frustration of trying to express myself in Swahili, the easy walks to and from my village and the market… I thought of missing home, of getting sick when I was a continent away from my mom, the moments when I felt infinite and the moments when I wished I could melt away into my simple and effortless life in the States.

My friends stood there as I contemplated a tsunami of thought and feeling, lost in nostalgia and reflection as they waited for my stock answer, the one I always gave:

“It was great! I spoke a lot of Swahili and worked with adorable kids. I had so much fun,” I said as they asked me in the middle of the Diag, the first week of school upon us now.

With each false telling, the words left an unsavory and guilty taste in my mouth, the feelings and truths I glossed over burning brighter and brighter in my memory – the things that truly mattered… the ways that my world-view became more holistic and compassionate and selfless and how my life goals were forever altered.

The truth begged to be told, but I had no idea how even to begin. My friends – the ones who fantasize about dating the handsome stranger in chemistry class, and spend weekends tailgating for football games and writing English essays; how could they possibly understand? My friends, the beautiful and sweet people that they are, asked me with all the best intentions: How was Africa?

And in my head, I screamed: I cried for the infants I fed whose mothers had died in labor and the way their malnourished bellies made my stomach sick with guilt and anger, and I wept for the fact that men in traditional cultures still think it’s okay to harass women and that my white skin made me somehow more important than locals because whiteness equates to goodness for so many in this world. I wept, I wept, I wept; but truly, I lived.

And as those words clamored in my head, all that I said was: “It was such a great experience. Tough, but amazing.”

Telling of my trip is hard. There is no way to comprehend it, and, as I attempt to piece it all together 4 months later, I share less and less of my actual experience. For now, I have settled on this: Wherever you go, you will not come back the same as when you left.

— Britt Boyle

The Land of Tulips & Wooden Shoes & Tall People: Alexandra in Amsterdam

A University of Michigan student shares her experiences in Amsterdam. Is there anyone else still traveling before the school year starts?

CGIS UMICH

Well here’s where I talk about Amsterdam. I’m from West Michigan where most of my friends are from Dutch ancestry. Here’s a little secret about Europeans while we’re on the topic: they hate when Americans say they’re “½ Dutch and ½ English”. We’re Americans, and if we’re white, that’s what our parents were and that’s where we’re from, and our connections to Europe are not notable to them. Just a warning.

Anyways, I thought I knew a few things about the Netherlands. Well, I had a lot to learn. Like, there are way less tulips than I imagined. And way more canals. Oh man are the canals beautiful. I also learned that the Red Light District has such a solid history that very rarely do churches or anyone else besides foreign business men interfere with its business. I learned that most prostitutes in that area choose to be there, want…

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Hello, Hi, Goodbye?

Greetings and goodbyes are such a strange concept. We come up with these silly phrases to signal the beginning and the end of a conversation, and often they fail to capture what is really meant in the greeting or goodbye – the essence of it. You wouldn’t think much about them, considering how mundane they are, but greetings and goodbyes speak volumes about the culture in which they’re spoken.

Take Swahili, for example. During my month-long study abroad in Tanzania, I had the opportunity to speak Swahili with native speakers after having learned the language for a mere two years. Greetings seemed – initially – like they would be the easiest to say and understand, considering they are rather basic and among the first phrases I learned. But when walking through the market and arriving at home or school, the greetings I heard threw my brain in a tizzy, and “Hellos” I gave were sometimes met with laughter. Why was this?

It seemed, that the “Hellos” and “How are yous” I had concocted were merely the closest translations of my standard American-English greetings. For example I would say, Habari za asubuhi, which literally means news of the morning, or “How are you this morning?,” or Hujambo, which means “Are you not well?” but more colloquially, “Hello.” Although these greetings were perfectly acceptable, they were sometimes silly to the Tanzanians I was greeting because they could sense the “American-ness” of such greetings (not to mention the lack of practiced slang of the area).

I was using only the best Swahili counterparts to my American-English phrases. But when I took the time to learn the greetings and goodbyes of Tanzanian-Swahili, not only was I able to communicate better, but I also got a glimpse into the lives of east Africans.

The greeting Umeamkaje? summarizes this idea perfectly: this simple word literally means, “How have you woken up?” but could be roughly translated to “Did you sleep well?” With this information in mind, I began to see how genuinely Tanzanians care about the well being of one another. I would be greeted this way often in the streets on my walk to the bus stop each morning. In the streets! By strangers! I imagined myself being asked the same question on the street by a stranger in Ann Arbor and I scoffed at the idea – nobody would dare greet a stranger in such a way (or even greet a stranger at all for that matter).

When asked Umeamkaje? so frequently, I soon realized that greetings and goodbyes are more than just easy phrases to initiate or conclude a conversation. They are, rather, a small snapshot of how people in that culture relate to one another.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book “North to the Orient” touches on the same idea, elaborating on the weaknesses of some goodbyes, rather beautifully:

For Sayonara, literally translated, “Since it must be so,” of all the good-bys I have heard is the most beautiful. Unlike the Auf Wiedersehens and Au revoirs, it does not try to cheat itself by any bravado “Till we meet again,” any sedative to postpone the pain of separation. It does not evade the issue like the sturdy blinking Farewell. Farewell is a father’s good-by. It is – “Go out into the world and do well, my son.” It is encouragement and admonition. It is hope and faith. But it passes over the significance of the moment; of parting it says nothing. It hides its emotion. It says too little. While Good-by (“God be with you”) and Adios say too much. They try to bridge the distance, almost to deny it. Good-by is a prayer, a ringing cry. “You must not go alone, unwatched. God will be with you. God’s hand will be over you” and even – underneath, hidden by it is there, incorrigible – “I will be with you; I will watch you – always.” It is a mother’s good-by. But Sayonara says neither too much nor too little. It is a simple acceptance of fact. All understanding of life lies in its limits. All emotion, smoldering, is banked up behind it. But it says nothing. It is really the unspoken good-by, the pressure of a hand, “Sayonara.”

Hello, hi, goodbye…they all just seem so plain to me now, knowing what I do about the richness of other phrases. And while asking my roommate Umeamkaje? in the morning might be a good-hearted idea, and saying Sayonara each time I must part from someone is certainly romantic, it seems doubtful that these words will ever amount to more than just a cutesy-foreign phrase when borrowed in our daily English jargon.

I do, however, think that it’s time for our English counterparts to mean more… for us to mean more when we say “Hello” and “Goodbye” because our conversations these days seem to be lacking in sincerity.

So when someone concocts the English equivalent of Sayonara, let me know. But until then, Farewell.

— Britt Boyle

Putting Language Skills to the Test: Navigating daily life abroad

“France is a Western country- things could not be THAT different from America. I mean, it’s going to be just like America, but in French, right?”

Wrong.

“I’ve studied French since I was eleven, I’ve passed the proficiency test, I can communicate just fine.”

Wrong, again.

Many European merchants and European ATMs no longer read cards with just a magnetic strip, and all I had was about two hundred euros in cash. A non-francophone friend needed to go to the doctor and did not have anyone else but me to translate for her. The cashier gave me an incorrect train ticket, now I had to – cheaply – get a correct one for a later train. If an account with the French Electricity Company was not set up, the electricity in my apartment would be cut. The electricity company will not accept payment unless it is from a French bank account. I need to buy a new toilet seat….? An RIB number…?

How the hell was I supposed to handle this?

From learning French and learning about French culture since before I was a teenager, I thought that culture shock would not even faze me. I had travelled to Paris 2012, so I thought I knew what to expect. It was not until I got there, and I came to the quick realization that I had to fend for myself – not as easy as I thought – and I was going to have to figure out for myself that how to navigate this new place that I would be living in for the next two months. All of a sudden there were things that I needed that I did not know how to get. As I started to take on everyday life, I quickly understood just how good my French wasn’t. French people don’t always talk like French professors. They were using all of these expressions and inverted words that I didn’t understand. While overcoming obstacles during the first few weeks, I felt like I had no way out, and I would have killed for someone to just explain to me what was going on – in English.

When you travel to a foreign country, especially by yourself, the obstacles are part of the deal. Even though it was a giant pain sometimes, I definitely would not have gained the same skills, if I had not had these obstacles put in front of me. I was not expecting half of the problems I had to be actual problems. At the time, it seemed like the world was going to come crashing down if I could not find a solution.

But it didn’t.

Looking back on my thoughts before I left America, I was preparing myself for big things – obstacles that I might encounter, for which I had to have a plan of attack in order for them not to become roadblocks. After returning home, I have realized that these obstacles, for me in the States, would have been relatively small things – obstacles that I didn’t even imagine myself having to deal with, that ended up being ‘big obstacles’ for me in a different country.

However, I can say that if I had not been able to speak French and I had not learned a little bit about French culture, those ‘big obstacles’ could have easily been deal breakers. If I was a traveler who did not speak French (and had little patience), these problems could have flustered me into wishing I were on the next flight to the United States and never wanting to return to France again.

Luckily, I was able to find a solution to all of these problems, but I definitely did not do it alone. With a lot of help from my French friends, and a little bit of help from Google, I made it through. However, had I not spoken French and not tried to make the initial connection with my current French friends, this would be a very different story.

There’s a moment when you overcome an obstacle in another language, and you think to yourself, “I did it. I overcame this problem that seemed huge a few days, a few hours, or even five minutes ago, and I did it – in FRENCH.” There aren’t very many feelings similar to this – you know, the one where you feel like you can conquer the world – until you’re faced with your next obstacle and the cycle repeats itself. This happens at home, but because we are surrounded by familiar things in a familiar language, we don’t really notice it as much.

Nevertheless, language skills are so important when dealing with any sort of issue in any country. Sure, I could have easily played the “I can we speak English?” card, or I could use every attempt to speak French and show whomever I was talking to that I was genuinely trying to figure out what was happening. Constantly asking for English can often land you face-to-face with some pretty annoyed people. In America, we’re not always thrilled to help people who don’t speak English (aside from the fact that we often don’t know how to help them). So, in a non-Anglophone country, why should we expect it to be any different?

There was a lot of good that came out of overcoming each issue I encountered. For me, asking for help from some of my French friends turned into lasting friendships. Without the ability to speak French, I would not have been able to overcome these obstacles.

–Haley Schafer

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The Fine Art of Franglais

Every time I told people about my study abroad plans, they asked me incredulously, “Why Switzerland?” Most  people did not know how multilingual Switzerland is; some Swiss speak French, some a mangled form of German, or that some even speak a little bit of Italian in the south. Switzerland’s mélange of spoken languages seemed interesting, and Lausanne, the city I studied in, was situated on the shores of Lake Geneva, surrounded by the Swiss and French Alps. Who could say no this view?

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After five months in Lausanne, Switzerland, I can definitely say that my French has improved, though I still hesitate to say that I am fluent. The only language that I mastered la-bas was the fine art of Franglais, or the mixing together of French and English. After seven years of French classes, I felt reasonably confident going to a Francophone country, especially after going through the intensive language program of the Residential College (shoutout to my RC French professors Dominique, Mark, and Elissa). Though, when I arrived, I felt like I was in over my head. Somehow, I managed to find all of the holes in my vocabulary during that first week.

To add to the culture shock, my French brain is much slower than, say, my English brain, so it always took me an extra moment to understand what was being asked, and even longer to formulate a coherent response. In casual situations, I would easily start the sentence off properly in French, but then get lost in the middle and resort to saying a word in English, despite my attempts at circumlocution. For example, how does one explain how brownies are different from cake without the (dreaded) word for moist? I once described the brownies as mouillé, or wet, which was not quite the word I was going for. I found later that the word I was looking for was moelleux.

Outside of the classroom, my mélange of French and English worked fine, since most people my age, no matter where they came from, had incredibly fluent English, much better than my French. My professors were less impressed, and many of my papers came back with marks in red pen screaming anglicisme! (This had more to do with the syntax of my sentences, rather than words used.)

Though, frustratingly, as a determined French learner, English was the “cool” or “useful” language for students to know and  the French of the youths I encountered was rife with anglicismes, or words borrowed from the English language. No longer does one send un courriel, but un e-mail, and other newer technological terms, such as internet, iPhone, and blog, just gain a French accent, much to the vexation of my truly French teachers who push for their “proper” French names.

Along with anglicismes, there is a type French slang, most often used in French rap, known as verlan. This will often take a noun and pronounce backwards, such as une meuf rather than une femme (a woman) or une teuf rather than une fête (a party). The word verlan is itself an example of verlan, it plays on the word l’envers, meaning “the reverse.” After years of formal French practice in high school and university classrooms, it was difficult in the beginning to communicate casually with people my age. I never quite mastered verlan, but I gradually improved in fluidity and expanded my vocabulary.

Besides the constant pressure of doing really cool things during my time abroad, living somewhere that speaks a different language is really tiring. There is the constant translation voice going in your head and the perpetual sense of forgetting some exception to a rule. Far from home, I was thankful for my Anglophone friends: Canadians, Brits, fellow Americans. Together, we could forget the stressful (and somewhat illogical) rules of French grammar and syntax to revert back to our mother tongue. But even in the midst of our fluid English conversations, French words slip in, whether by accident or to make a joke: “I was reading an article sur ligne…” “I’m hungry, before we go, let’s mange.” Outside of earshot of Francophones, we allowed ourselves to completely butcher their language with our Franglais, pronouncing French words with completely Anglophone accents, or bastardizing the word with English conjugations.

This was our own type of verlan, our way of connecting over our frustrations with living in a partially Francophone country. Of course, we had all signed up for this program knowing it wouldn’t just be croissants and coffee, but after hours of drab grammar lectures in French, this was our way of taking a break and examining how language affects our lives. Our made-up pidgin kept us sane as we strived to master our nasals and remember the non-sensical genders of words in la langue de Molière. Being immersed in the French language was a priceless experience, one that I hope to have to opportunity to have again. Until then, I’ll be thinking of my time in Lausanne.

lausanne

Here’s a freebie pic of Lausanne.

— Emma B.

Spanish and American Girl (or How My Spanish Obsession Began)

What a great kick start for language learning! What was your motivation to start a new language?

Mission:Incomplete

It’s no secret that I’ve always loved to read.  You don’t have to know me for very long before my love of books comes out. What isn’t as obvious is how many of my other passions stem from books — almost all of them, actually.
Spanish was the among the first.  When I was a girl, I devoured historical fiction — think The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, Johnny Tremain, and the Dear America series.  My absolute favorites, though, were the American Girl historical characters.
Oh, those books.  The entire American Girl company, in fact, is in my mind synonymous with my eighth through twelfth years.  I waited breathlessly for the glossy catalogs that came every three months full of shiny, beautiful dolls.  I tore through the magazine, which was a smorgasbord of short stories, recipes, and tips on everything from friends to hairstyles. But mostly I loved the books.
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There…

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Tips and Tricks for Host-Family Living

You survive the eight (plus) hour plane ride, you give the customs officer your best smile and get your passport stamped, then you somehow find your way to your group/professor/team in a foreign airport; the logistics alone of a study abroad can be daunting to say the least. Add a host-family set-up to the mix and it’s downright terrifying. Not only are you practicing a language that you know very little of, but you’re trying to personalize and adapt to your new living conditions respectfully with your limited vocabulary. Factor in the aspect of actually getting along with your family and you can see that it’s a fragile set-up.

In spite of these challenges, the benefits have been proven time and time again; students of a foreign language learn best when immersed in conversation with native speakers. Thus, living with a host family (for any amount of time) is a huge advantage in learning a new language. As a student of both German and Swahili, I have had the privilege of living with two families – one in a suburban town in northern Bavaria (a region of Germany) called Bad Neustadt an der Saale, the other in a modest village in the Tanga region of Tanzania called Lushoto – to practice my language skills.

Considering how similar my German home was to my American home in suburban Michigan, I am going to focus on my home-stay in Lushoto, Tanzania. Living with my host-family there in East Africa was an experience which I think provided me the greatest linguistic improvement for such a short span of time, especially considering that I had only taken two years of Swahili prior to my visit, in comparison to five years of German before my home-stay in Bad Neustadt.

On the day I arrived at my host-home in Lushoto, I wrote the following: “We pulled into a narrow road, lined with street-vendors and small shops and then turned into a court-like opening where a gaggle of neighborhood children were playing soccer. As soon as the bus pulled up, the children noticed it was stuffed with “wazungu” (white people in Swahili), they came rushing to the bus in a frenzy… I cannot recall a time when I was so nervous or so out of my comfort zone as that moment, standing on the porch and saying goodbye to Mama (our professor), Alfred (our tour guide), and Esther (our Swahili teacher)…”

I consider myself an exceptionally outgoing person. Seldom do I hesitate to approach someone with a question, concern, or even a compliment, and I have often been described as “too talkative” and thus “distracting” throughout my schooling career. Even with these tendencies, stepping into my host-home in Lushoto for the first time rendered me speechless. That’s simply the effect of living in a host-home: you are automatically the guest, the “other” – the cultural specimen. Now you represent yourself, your university – and in your host-family’s eyes – your country. Everything is new from the toilets to the kitchen to the electricity (or lack thereof) and even the chickens clucking around in the backyard. It’s all new and you must navigate this new space with grace and gratitude. It’s a tall-order for the student, who is probably only 19 or 20 years old. So in order to make this experience just that much smoother, here are my tips, tricks and insights into how best to navigate a foreign host-home.

  1. They don’t expect you to be a genius – Especially as Americans who “typically” spend little time learning foreign languages, your host-family will not expect you to be giving a dissertation in their native language. In my experience, my family was thrilled when I could string together even the most basic of sentences, boiling down complex situations into generalizations such as: “Most people…”; “Typically…”; “I like…” etc. Even just throwing out vocabulary like “table,” “education” or “sibling” (or asking about such words) will impress your host family and give them hope that Americans do, in fact, take the time to learn foreign languages.
  2. Hook onto the essentials – There will be words and phrases that are crucial that you nail down. For example, knowing how to ask for directions, telling time, and asking where the bathroom is. After a few days living with my host family, I still hadn’t showered. One aspect of this issue was that I didn’t think I needed one yet; the other was that I didn’t know what the word for shower was. When my host mom asked if I wanted to shower later that day, I gave an enthusiastic “ndiyo” (yes) and made a mental note of the verb “to shower”: kuoga. As an added benefit, I have not since forgotten that word, as it was so crucial to my life in Tanzania.
  3. Charades go a long way – In the episode of communicating my need for a shower, my host mom illustrated the otherwise unknown verb, “kuoga,” with vigorous scrubbing and imaginary water streaming from the space above her. Her movements made the question clear – “Do you want to shower?” Taking a cue from my host mom, don’t be afraid to add a little jig or some hand-motions to your conversation – you might feel silly, but you’ll be better understood and maybe even become closer to your host-family on account of your tom-foolery.

All in all, living with a host family during your time abroad is a sure-fire way to get the most linguistic improvement out of your study abroad. 10/10 would recommend. “Asante, kwa herini!” Thank you, goodbye all!

— Britt Boyle