We have many Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) and international students from Asia study abroad every year. As you probably can guess, your experience abroad is likely to be unique based on your cultural heritage as well as what country or region you are headed to!
If you are headed to a location where the majority of the population looks different from you, people’s perceptions of you might not feel too different, day-to-day, from what you have experienced in the United States. In other cases, you might be studying in a place that feels less ethnically diverse than the United States and you may have to grapple with increased scrutiny and curiosity without the same available networks of support that you may have in place here. Our past participants speak to this:
I am Asian, but I have lived in the U.S. my entire life, so when people asked me where I was from, they tended to raise their eyebrows when I told them “the U.S.,” and sometimes they followed up with “where are you really from?” It seemed a bit rude to me at first, but I realize that it is not as common to be of a different ethnicity/race than is most common in your home country. It’s not a question that would be so much appropriate to ask in the US, so it caught me off guard when I first started meeting people, but I didn’t have any negative experiences surrounding it, it’s just a cultural difference. -Denmark participant
A lot of people from abroad could not grasp that an Asian can be American, or anyone who is not Caucasian can be American. -Czech Republic participant
Race played a fairly large role in my experience. Where I was living and the areas I frequented, there were fewer Asians so I felt like I stood out a lot as a foreigner. People were very surprised to learn I spoke Spanish and sometimes people made ignorant or somewhat racist comments. I also received a lot of questions about my heritage. Not all of it was that bad, and I adjusted pretty well. Most people were very friendly and nice and race did not play a part in all interactions. -Argentina participant
Because I am Asian, I really stood out in Uganda and everyone thought I was from China, but the people were incredibly welcoming and inquisitive. As an American, there seems to be this idea there that we are rich, and we are when we consider life in America compared to life in Uganda and the assets that we have even if we don’t have very much money, but here in America, I am just a poor college student. -Uganda participant
Before you depart for your program, take the time to think about how you will react and respond if you experience misunderstandings or ignorance about your identity so that you are more prepared and confident in addressing them. These kinds of microaggressions are probably not a new experience for you, but they will occur in a different environment – and even perhaps a different language – potentially making it more challenging to know how to react in the moment. Thinking through how you might answer the question “But where are you really from?” is a good place to start, or how you may react if someone assumes you are from a particular Asian country that may not actually represent your racial/ethnic origin.
We use language to help us conceptualize our own identities, but even if you share English in common with someone, you might think about your identity in a different way. For example, you might think of yourself as Asian American. Someone who grew up in England whose family originated in Asia probably thinks of themselves as simply British. If you will be using a different language while abroad, you will want to understand how people who look like you refer to themselves. How does this fit (or not fit) with how you think about yourself?
On the other hand, if you plan to study abroad in Asia, your experience is likely to be a bit different. If you look like the people around you or speak the local language fluently, it can become quite easy to blend in with locals. Some of our past students have found this to be an incredibly refreshing experience compared to life in the United States.
It’s eye-opening to be a part of an experience where you can be mistaken for the majority identity. It allowed me to balance both identities in an interesting new light. I was able to communicate with people a little better than my peers and had already tasted most of the foods were eating. It’s nice to have something else to compare your own background culture to. -Nepal participant
If you are the same ethnicity of the country that you are going to, this is an amazing time to really get in touch with your culture. Depending on where you are from, you may have been discriminated against, like I have; however, in your country, you can really be who you are without fear and don’t ever be ashamed of your identity. Be proud in it, and really enjoy every moment. – Korea participant
My Indian descent allowed me to blend in more with the populace and I was viewed as a local. -South Africa participant
On the other hand, blending in with others around you often means people make assumptions about you, as well. If you can’t speak the local language fluently, or at all, people might be surprised and/or confused. Your struggle with the local language may be treated as a deficiency, whereas your White peers’ ability to speak the local language (even if at the same or a lower level as you), may be treated as an impressive skill or asset. You may sometimes be treated as an oddity whereas your White peers may be treated as “normal” tourists or exchange students. It is important to remind yourself – and others around you – that you too are learning about the local culture and language, that it is okay to struggle in the process, and that there is nothing wrong with that or with you.
People in China were sometimes confused as to why I didn’t speak Chinese, and they would question me. I just had to accept that even though I looked Chinese, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to fit in because I am American. -China participant
Being half-Japanese let me communicate with them, but I also knew at the same time that there was a barrier between them and me because I am not full Japanese. This is not anyone’s fault, but just a reality of Japan. -Japan participant
There are a whole range of experiences that students have. As UW-Madison is a predominately White institution, if you are participating on a program that has other UW students present, the odds are that most of them will be White. Non-White students have sometimes found this challenging because their White UW-Madison peers may not encounter the same types of challenges as them, and their typical support networks are at a distance. Think about how you will take care of yourself and your mental health while you’re abroad. You may want to research in advance or upon arrival whether there are available Asian student organizations at your program location or other local networks you can plug into to feel supported. If you need help processing your experience, reach out to people you trust in your program and at home, to on-site staff, and to your UW Study Abroad Advisor for assistance.
I was the only Asian American in my program, which shocked me a little because I have a big Asian American community back at UW-Madison. However, I met some other Asian Americans abroad and was able to create a new community. -France participant
It felt weird because people continuously assumed I wasn’t American because I blended in with the majority of the country’s population. However, I also felt like a sore thumb because I didn’t meet the norms and standards of society. It felt a bit isolating at times and no one in my program had the same issue or could remotely try to understand/relate, so a lot of it was experienced alone and dealt with alone. -China participant
The diversity of cultures, language, and people in Asia is vast. Your background and experiences are likely to be very helpful as you try to learn about the local culture, but remember not to make too many assumptions as you experience life abroad. Be compassionate and flexible with yourself as you discover and develop new perspectives on your host culture, the U.S., and yourself in the process.
Being Indian-American and having travelled to India multiple times, I was primed for a lot of broad South Asian cultural norms. It was very interesting to see the similarities and differences between Indian culture and Sri Lankan culture, as well as the differences in their health systems. – Sri Lanka participant
As a Korean-American, I went to Korea with the desire to learn more about my roots. I wanted to explore my Korean side more because I have been in the United States for almost my entire life. My experience abroad however made me really realize just how my identity was deeply influenced by my life in America. While abroad, I realized how distant I was from the lifestyle and culture in Korea. Despite the similarities I had with Korean people in terms of appearance, it was difficult for me to feel like I really belonged in Korea. After this experience, I felt more convinced and confident of my identity as an American. -Korea participant
For questions related to studying abroad as an Asian student, reach out to your Study Abroad Advisor. You can also connect with Rebecca Johnson, an Asian American Study Abroad Advisor.
This site offers tips and insights related to multicultural issues while studying abroad.
This site offers mentors who are students, parents, and advisers and are comfortable with addressing diversity concerns in the context of learning abroad. Also available are specific resources for African-American, Asian Pacific Islander American, Hispanic-American and Native-American students.
An Asian-American in France
Blog entry for IES Abroad by Brittany Chen
Asian in America, American in Asia
Blog entry for IES Abroad by Timothy Valero
Finding Identity as an Indian Heritage Student
Blog entry for IFSA-Butler by Chaitan Mishra
We ask students to share their experiences on how various parts of their identity impacted them while they were abroad in their program evaluations. The quotes above are tips and advice given by Badgers about their individual experiences and thoughts. These do not represent all experiences in a location. Our staff is happy to talk with you about any questions you may have.
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