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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Studying abroad is not seeing the world

One week ago, I was walking through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul when several shop owners approached me at once to lure me into their store to haggle for some overpriced knick-knacks. There were maybe seven or eight shops in this particular hall and at least five shop owners approached me. I must have looked like a prime target. I was an ignorant-looking American study abroad student walking through one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world carrying a bag full of Turkish delight and wearing a fake Rolex I haggled for the day before. Not only did I look like a prime target, I was, in fact, one.

I brushed off the shop owners but one kept walking with me. He asked — twice — if I was Greek, then if I was German and finally if I was British. I stopped the guessing game and revealed that I was American before telling the guy I would not buy anything from him. 

If there’s one thing study abroad has taught me, it’s that I am not “seeing the world.”

“Seeing the world” would take a lot of time and a lot of money. Sure, I’m experiencing new cultures and trying new things on a daily basis, but I’m not exactly interacting with locals in small villages in Africa or scaling mountains in Asia. Heck, I haven’t even been to London. 

So, what are we doing while abroad? At least from my perspective, we’re realizing just how much is out there that we haven’t seen. I’m used to locals asking if I’m British or American. But going to a place where American was the fourth guess for some stupid white college kid’s nationality was a wake-up call. 

America is the greatest country on the planet. Study abroad has only confirmed this. If you need any evidence, I heard “In da Club” by 50 Cent played on two different continents in two weeks. And North America was not one of them. I’ve always known that America is awesome — and yes, flawed. But traveling to other places has allowed me to actually appreciate what we have and understand our faults, too. For reference, a majority of the vacations in my life have been in the great states of Michigan and Wisconsin. 

I've seen Israeli police stationed around the Old City in Jerusalem with large rifles as the nation undergoes some of the biggest civil unrest in its history and traveled to Turkey as it experiences devastating inflation and recovers from an earthquake that claimed over 45,000 lives. So, in my short time abroad I've at least been exposed to a couple of dramatically different geopolitical situations. And this is not to say these places aren’t amazing. Visiting Istanbul and Jerusalem made for two of the greatest weekends of my life. But, they’re not America. 

I’ve traveled around Europe quite a bit to the usual spots — Venice, Prague, Berlin, Barcelona, etc. All of these are amazing places. But, I’ve found you learn the most about yourself in the places where you look the most out of place. This is no groundbreaking discovery, but it’s something that doesn’t click until you actually experience it.

Whether it was getting stuck in the Damascus Gate for an hour as Muslims left the Old City after prayer during a Friday in Ramadan or locals gifting us traditional Iftar foods outside the Hagia Sophia following the sunset call to prayer even though we had been eating food all day, we’ve certainly experienced new things this semester. And while these are cool experiences that I will take with me forever, the real value is that it forces you to reflect, at least, in ways I probably wouldn't at a Thirsty Thursday at Four Winds Field. Who do these people across the world think I am?

They probably think I’m a moron tourist, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But sometimes it takes haggling for a crappy, fake watch to start to think about who you actually are and where you’re from.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.