Our Stories Journeys

Looks Abroad

Stories by Sheena Lahren, Amy Erickson, Leighton Cosseboom, Lindsee Gregory, Michelle Leis, and Seiga Ohtani

On Ghana: Sheena Lahren (SL)
On Italy: Amy Erickson (AE) and Leighton Cosseboom (LC)
On New Zealand: Lindsee Gregory (LG)
On Spain: Michelle Leis (ML)
On the United States: Seiga Ohtani (SO)

In addition to the friends I made around the city, I felt immediately welcomed by the people in my neighborhood. Ghanaians have a strong sense of community and a desire to protect those in the community, even foreigners. Ameena, the woman who I bought fruit from every morning, taught me important Twi phrases and always made sure she gave me the most delicious pineapple. Neighbors we did not know often waved to us and called out, “Hey Obroni!” eager to meet us and to talk. SL

Most of the shopkeepers would try their best to communicate in English and with gestures, and were patient with our limited grasp of Italian. Shopkeepers would also use phrases and words that were familiar but informal with non-Italian speakers (an example of this is “ciao”), but would often speak more formally with Italian patrons. AE

Our convoy hit the streets to peruse the street vendors, who savagely attempted to sell us imitation Gucci shoes, Louis Vuitton purses, and various handmade trinkets. I was shocked that there were this many people of endless ethnicities all in the same gritty city trying to make a living on the streets. There were people from Africa, China, Romania, Russia, the Czech Republic, and everywhere in between; I was dumbfounded. LC

No matter where I was in New Zealand—Auckland, the biggest Polynesian city in the world; Rotorua, a tourist town heavy in geothermal activity; or Christchurch, a European village in the South Island—I always saw someone with a face covered in moko tattoos. Moko is perhaps the most visible of all remaining links to Maori cultural identity. Moko is not distinct to any one type of person; I saw men and women with tattoos lining their mouths, old men with short gray hair, young men with long dreadlocks, women who wore muumuus the likes of which my grandmother would wear. LG

My host mother, Leti, and I had come to the Philharmonic Theater to watch a stand-up comedian. Leti laughed hysterically throughout the show. When a joke truly hit Leti’s funny bone, she’d throw one hand out towards the stage and use the other to clench my unsuspecting elbow.

I tended to find myself in this position fairly often with Spanish women. It seemed they always wanted to make their point by grabbing my arm. I felt like the women enjoyed this small display of power—if they couldn’t force my ears open, at least they knew I wasn’t going to run away. As they’d speak, their free hand would jump around in front of their bodies like a tiny person anxiously trying to communicate without a mouth. ML

In the afternoon on Thanksgiving, we popped open the champagne bottle and cheered. Then, we ate a turkey with cranberry. While I relaxed, I suddenly recalled something: spending time with family and having a traditional meal. It reminded me of oshogatsu, which means New Year’s Day in Japanese. Oshogatu is also spent with family eating traditional Japanese food. Though the holidays were the least familiar thing about the United States to me, I was comforted to understand that people spend time with their families at least once a year in any culture. SO

Our professor told us not to buy food from outside bus windows and eating at chops shops, unsanitary roadside food stands normally run by a woman wearing a cloth that wrapped her baby around her back, with a dead dog lying nearby. But I preferred eating this way. The food was tasty, despite appearances, and cheap—a dollar for a full plate of fried rice and plantain chips. The resulting diarrhea was not that different from one Fourth of July when I consumed too many chilidogs. While having diarrhea in the market was an embarrassing experience, it was painless in comparison to my colleague’s thirteen-day constipation. SL

Before traveling to Italy, I had never given balsamic vinegar much thought; our trip to Modena changed that. We went on a tour of a family-owned balsamic vinegar farm. A kind Italian family that spoke little English walked us through the process with the help of a translator and many hand gestures. The longer the vinegar is aged, the sweeter it tastes. Vinegar aged 25 years or more is sometimes used as a gelato topping (we tried it this way, it was quite good). This family had a family tradition that when a member of the family is born, a barrel of balsamic is sealed in their name. Each year on the person’s birthday, a little of the balsamic is used at dinner. The older a person is, the better the balsamic will be. AE

I went to a restaurant called Il Leone Rossa, which translates to the Red Lion. My companion, Chris, and I ordered far too much food. We knew in Italy every meal was at least three courses, but the Italians pride themselves on how full they can stuff tourists (especially American boys). LC

New Zealand is a country rich in locally and ethically grown beef, chicken and lamb, from which New Zealanders get their unflattering nickname, “sheep-shaggers.” Since everyone speaks English and the food, despite my vegetarianism, turned out to be what I’m used to at home, arriving in New Zealand was not quite the culture shock that going to Kenya or China might be. LG

The Spaniards have a different sense of what looks appetizing. They like to serve most of their seafood with the head still attached, which means I often found myself in the position of staring my dinner in the eye. I found this unappealing, but it didn’t seem to phase any of the locals. Quite the opposite was true. The Spaniards I observed seemed to enjoy the process of beheading and de-shelling at the table. Messy hands weren’t impolite, they were expected from all the squirting and crushing. ML

I found that Japanese foods are sometimes misunderstood in the United States. I haven’t seen real sushi in a supermarket, just imitations. Proper sushi is only vinegared rice topped with raw fish or rolled in seaweed with various ingredients. California Rolls are certainly a kind of sushi, but they taste very different for Japanese. I’d have to say that they are not true sushi. SO

Mainly we searched for the full “Ghana experience” at clubs teeming with locals, prostitutes, and expatriates. These clubs lurked in small corners of the city and always featured childish paintings of ladies with enormous breasts advertising the location of the women’s restroom. Prostitutes, usually young girls from the slums, sat on the laps of old, lonely white men with greedy eyes and creepy grins. Young local guys attempted to dance with foreign girls while the local girls watched themselves dance in the many mirrors. American tourists, like us, awkwardly danced, neglecting the rhythm of the music, and the girls dancing in mirrors quickly came to teach us how to dance, sexily swaying their hips. The blaring Western hip-hop and occasional techno songs and the incessantly flashing strobe lights, begging to cause a seizure, kept clubs open far past our 2 a.m. departure. SL

The drinking age is 18. Naturally, most of the Americans aged 18-20 felt that it was very important to get drunk every night, since it was something they couldn’t do legally at home. Bars would often do theme nights to attract American patrons, like “American Independence Day” (it was on the fifth of July). I did not go to the bars and clubs much for several reasons, particularly the cost. It was often twenty euros just to get into the clubs, and I did not see the point in spending that much every night. Florence did have a lot of fun free things to do at night. There were always people dancing or giving concerts in various plazas, defiantly not common in the United States. AE

One night, feeling a nice buzz, we found an Irish pub. Of course there were no Irish people in it. We ordered a couple of pitchers and sat outside to watch a man walking on stilts. Slowly but surely the street began to fill with people and it seemed almost as if Sorrento had transformed into a street festival. The road where we were was closed as bar-hoppers and more street performers came out of the woodwork. One man was painted silver and stood completely still next to some statues, occasionally bowing to people passing to startle them. Unlike most college parties, no one was in a particular rush nor was anyone initiating confrontation with anyone else. Everyone out on the town was enjoying their evening in their own way. We joked and laughed as we entered a nightclub and danced uninhibitedly. It was a great night. LC

Kiwi nightlife is almost identical to American nightlife; the bars close at the same time, the drinks have similar titles and tastes, but the only difference is how the night ends, and in my limited kiwi experience, a night out always ends in a giant sleepover. My first night out in Auckland ended in a studio apartment that not even one person should be able to fit into. We fit twelve. The end of this night was anticipated by everyone except me; they came with pillows and sleeping bags, whereas I came with my camera, my passport and $20 in cash. I hadn’t had a sleepover like this since I was 14 (granted, those ones didn’t involve alcohol), yet every time I hung out with the kiwis, this is exactly how my night ended. When I go out with my best friends at home, we say goodnight at 2 a.m. and go our separate ways; in New Zealand, friends form families, and they don’t leave their families behind at a bar. LG

In general, wine was the drink of choice at the dinner table and on a night out at the restaurants and bars. As a light weight and self-declared connoisseur of drinks fruity and tasty, I can personally attest that ordering a glass of wine is the most economical and delicious choice you’ll make in a night. One glass and you’ll be smiling for hours. ML

By the way, where do you go on Friday night in the United States? House parties? Bars? It took long time that I get used to going to such places because nightlife in the U.S. and Japan are a bit different. In Japan, we rarely go to someone’s house after work. It is izakaya where office workers or students who want to drink go on Friday nights. Izakaya is a kind of bar or pub in Japan, but it is different from bar in the U.S. in that people generally take off their shoes at the entrance and they sit around one table. Of course, there are a lot of bars in Tokyo, but we can calm our mind and feel free in izakaya the best. SO

While it is easy to live in Ghana without knowing a native Ghanaian language, like Twi, it is not always easy to understand what Ghanaians are saying. Around lunchtime my co-workers at the advertising firm would come to my desk and say, “Make we chop.”

I was confused because this phrase was neither English nor Twi. I soon learned that they were speaking to me in pidgin English, a mix between English and Akan languages, the category of Ghanaian languages that includes Twi, and they meant, “Let’s go eat.” I was not very good at speaking Pidgin, and most likely sounded silly when I tried with my North Dakota accent, but it was not hard to pick up on what my coworkers were saying and to snap back with a witty remark when they teased me for listening to “hilly-billy” music and for accidentally saying male genitals in Twi when I meant to say coins. SL

When I returned to the United States, I experienced a sort of “reverse culture shock.” It was strange to hear people speaking English (after all, Italian is so much prettier) and stranger still to hear people comment on the Italian phrases that slipped into my own conversation. It was reflex for me to say “grazie” instead of “thank you” and “prego” instead of “you’re welcome.” It was even more difficult to keep from slipping Italian phrases into conversation when I took Spanish right after, since the languages are so similar. AE

If we had thought speaking Italian was challenging in Naples, in Sicily we might as well have been aliens. The extreme Southern dialect was almost its own language. Even I, who was relatively confident in my Italian skills, was rendered impotent. Nevertheless, we pressed on, deciding pointing at things and reading expressions would have to suffice for communication. LC

Kiwis add “as” after almost every adjective and always fail to define exactly what it is they are comparing. “Sweet as, bro,” is the national phrase, one that manifests itself on T-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, and coffee mugs in every souvenir shop throughout the country. When I first heard this phrase, I asked the kiwis, “Sweet as what?” They looked at me as if I had asked for one of their livers, and then laughed.

Kiwi-speak gets even more complicated when one adds Maori, the other official language of New Zealand, to the mix. Spoken by the indigenous people, Maori has seeped into every day communication, so much so that I didn’t meet a single person who didn’t understand at least a few words of it. Often my new friends would answer the phone with “kia ora,” a Maori greeting. LG

At the Philharmonic Theater, less than 30 seconds after the comedian began, I became exceedingly aware that I was American and Spanish was not my native language. The man’s tongue moved like a speeding bullet, and my ears strained to hear the flow of noise separate into distinct, comprehensible words. It had never occurred to me how much humor relies on cultural nuances, a people’s history, language-specific proverbs and play on words. For the average person, a profound understanding of language and culture is simply acquired through the natural process of growing up and living in a certain place. ML

Japanese students begin to learn English during the first year of middle school. In high school, we take three years of English education, and we might have English classes even in college, too. So, if we take higher education, we have learned English for more than six years in Japan. But, can we all speak English well? Sadly, no. Few people can speak English in our country, partly because we don’t need to use foreign languages until we go abroad. Unlike the United States, Japan is a near-homogeneous, single race country, so we rarely meet Americans or people from other countries in every day of life. SO

Worse than any culture shock I felt in Ghana—worse than green meat, explosive diarrhea, language blunders, crazy taxi rides and tipping tro-tros, vans made before the 80s with young boys hanging out the windows shouting the name of the destination while trying to hold in place the door that dangles delicately by a few ropes—was the anti-culture shock I felt upon returning to the United States. Pristine neighborhoods with trash hidden from sight and smell in garbage cans, drivers observing the speed limit and adhering to road rules, neighbors strolling by without a wave or simple greeting—where was the adventure? Where was the unknown? Where was the unusual? Everything seemed too normal. Everything seemed to make sense. Mr. Yuori, my boss at the advertising firm I interned for in Ghana, once said to me, “Ghana is the land of beautiful nonsense.” SL

I consider studying abroad one of the most important experiences in my life so far. Not only did I learn a lot about history, art, traveling, languages, and the everyday life of a different culture, but I learned how to empathize with the people in our country that do not speak English. I can relate, because while a lady might not know the proper words to explain something, I was once there. AE

I was relishing in all of the little cultural differences between Italy and America. I noted to myself that nobody here seemed to care what time it was. Nobody worried about what they had to do the next day. Everyone appreciated the beauty of the world and was capable of living in that particular moment. I was thankful for the opportunity to escape the pressures and chaos of life in the United States sudden sense of well-being washed over me. LC

The cohesion of Maori and Europeans is what makes New Zealand. It isn’t just Maoris who worry about preserving this rich native culture, but all New Zealanders: white, dark, old, young, tattooed and non-tattooed. In America, we learn about the indigenous populations that preceded European settlers, but we don’t incorporate their histories into our lives like New Zealand does with Maoris. Beginning a phone call with “kia ora” is a testament to the weight the native culture holds over New Zealand. LG

One of my favorite Spanish sayings—estar como un flan—literally meaning to be like a flan, which is a custard-like dessert often compared to crème brulee. As you can imagine, the use of such a saying to a freshly jet-lagged foreigner may cause total confusion.

“Did she ask if I wanted flan for dinner?”

Actually, no. In such a case, your host mother is trying to say you look very nervous. Apparently flan sweats before it’s eaten. I suppose I would too, if a wide-eyed giant lurked above me holding a great silver battering rod named spoon. ML

People glare at you if you talk with on your cell phone in a bus or a train in Japan. Train intercoms always announce, “Please switch off your mobile phone when you are near the priority seats. In other areas, please set it to silent mode and refrain from talking on the phone.” After I came to the United States, I always stopped talking on my cell phone when I got on a bus. But others did not. One day, when I went to school by bus, I glared at a girl talking on her cell phone. But, no one else seemed to care. Soon I realized one can use cell phone even on a bus here. Why? I still don’t know. SO

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