Last summer I traveled to Italy for thirty five days with a group of ten students from across America. We all had our own mannerisms, ranging from a street-smart New Yorker to a flamboyant Peruvian to a hilarious Texan. As strangers, we flew to Italy and dived into a country with a different language and culture from ours.
After experiencing long Italian meals, friendly Georgian comments, and mad New Jersey slang, I could understand the reasons for ‘strange’ behavior. Some cultural differences were positive, some negative, and some were just different. This dose of culture shock taught me to analyze new situations from more than one viewpoint.
My group started out with strangers, but ended up as best friends. Being with each other all the time helped in learning everyone’s likes, dislikes, and secrets. I grew used to New Yorker Lucy’s comments, such as ‘I petted a homeless guy once’.
I found out that a concept of distance is important, Midwesterners are missing out. Old events took on new meaning; hearing a first hand account of the September 11th terrorist attack changed the way I look at it. Regional slang was traded, ‘mad sketchy’ was a hit, while ‘flippin’ sweet’ retired.
The differences within Americans gave me something to compare with when looking at the differences between Italian and US culture. Italian behavior differed from America in minor and major ways. I noticed most of these during my 18 day homestay in southern Italy.
After my beginning excitement wore off, I felt tired and overwhelmed. Why was there so much cheese at ever every meal? Why did my host sisters text for hours? Why did my host dad keep yelling at me to eat more? Why did they talk so fast? The double kiss greeting I had mastered began to feel awkward; I was tired of going to the beach everyday; I had nothing Italian to wear. After internally pouting for a whole day trip to Sicily, something happened.
I don’t know what, but out of nowhere I suddenly became happy and comfortable with my surroundings. I was able to enjoy southern Italian culture and point out the problems. Siesta (nap time) made sense, lack of seat belts did not.
Some things I did not understand at all, like the amount of hateful graffiti on ancient buildings. My flexibility increased and I began to imitate the mannerisms I liked and back up my dislikes with concrete reasons. By the end of my homestay I was a gelato snob, talked with excessive hand gestures, and knew how to shop for quality food.
For the most part, I became understanding of my new surroundings. The fulfillment I felt was a deep gratification. Becoming more aware of other viewpoints has changed the way I look at the world. If someone is doing something ‘different’, I look for reasons why instead of assuming they are weird. Of all the things I learned on my trip to Italy, becoming culturally aware was the best skill. I hope I can cultivate this skill more.
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