Hope and the Human Connection: My Multifaceted Journey with Refugees in Italy

It has been approximately a month since starting my internship and I have smoothly transitioned into my diverse daily routine. I initially started out my mornings teaching Italian to refugees from the Middle East alongside another professor but now I have assumed a new role teaching Ukranian refugees by myself as the primary instructor. During the afternoon, I head to the DONK Humanitarian Medicine office where I dive into my research into the psychological disturbances affecting refugees in Italy. And finally, in the evenings, I find myself in the heart of Trieste, volunteering in the clinic alongside a physician providing free medical care to immigrants.

Though I have become quite used to my daily schedule, I always have daily surprises. For example, last week a 60-year-old Iranian refugee walked into our clinic seeking psychological help. Being the only Iranian immigrant currently being welcomed into Trieste by our group, he has found himself isolated both by language barriers and cultural differences. Searching for someone to confide in, he comes to us to speak about his experiences and what he hopes for in the future.

Personally hearing his story for the first time, I could not grasp how he could have such unceasing optimism. Following his first visit with us, I took it upon myself to reach out to him for daily activities in which he could express himself and have a friend to confide in. Despite the challenges he has faced, being able to talk with me daily has given him hope and he has fondly called me his best friend right now. Our daily interactions are invariably concluded with a heartfelt phrase that has since found a home in my heart, “You give me hope, really, you give me hope.” This phrase not only touches me deeply but it has also instilled a sense of responsibility and purpose in my humanitarian service. His sense of isolation is born from the cultural and linguistic barriers he faces. Yet, his recurring message of hope underscores the universal language of friendship that surpasses all cultural boundaries.

Reflecting on these interactions now, I’m overwhelmed by profound gratitude. Our relationship underpins the importance of cultural understanding and empathy. As an Italian american, connecting with an Iranian requires a conscious cultural balancing act.

This journey has been an enlightening teacher, revealing that even amidst isolation and hardship, the human spirit’s capacity for hope never wavers. Furthermore, it has emphasized the profound influence of seemingly small gestures, such as our shared walks and talks. I am incredibly grateful for the friendship I have been able to cultivate even with those who I had least expected.

With more updates to come soon,


PS. Out of respect for the refugee discussed in this blog, he has requested that I do not publish any photos with him. The photos below were taken with two of my students who I teach Italian. They had consented to these photos and their publication prior.

Blog Post #4: DIVE Reflection

Small talk with strangers has never been my particular strong suit. While I do enjoy small talk and socializing, oftentimes there’s a certain level of discomfort for me when interacting with an individual that I am just meeting for the first time. From my perspective as an American abroad, I am used to a different type of social interaction during my typical errand runs—a quick greeting from the cashier on my way to self checkout, and that’s basically the extent of our conversation. At the local grocery store where I do my weekly shopping, the self checkout option—the option that at home I had grown accustomed to—is seldom available, so my checkout experience is with a cashier. Every week, it is the same man who is typically there to scan my groceries. We typically exchange a brief greeting and he continues to scan my groceries and take my payment. I usually have my headphones halfway-in or am on my phone, and up until around my third week in Milan, I don’t think we had established my routine. 

Upon getting settled in Milan, the cashier started being more friendly with me and would ask me small questions as I was checking out, like “where are you from?” (my American accent is very obvious in Italian) or “what do you do for work?” when he saw my badge for my internship. While these questions are harmless and definitely were an attempt for him to make basic small talk and get to know one of many grocery store regulars, initially I was on red alert: as a young woman, it can be hard for me to offer information regarding my personal life, routine, or anything that reveals too much information about me or places I frequently visit. Out of safety, I’ve always been advised—whether by parents, friends, mentors, etc.—to only share information with those I’ve come to know, sometimes I can be hyper vigilant with this particular advice. Upon this grocery store visit, I was a little on edge. 

Using the D.I.V.E. reflection, I was much better able to reflect on interactions like these, and though small, these small observations and changing my frame of reference do help me understand the culture around me:

Describe: A male cashier is asking me questions about me, Milan, and my experience here while scanning my groceries. 

Interpret: It is strange for a man to ask me questions about my life because he could potentially be gleaning information off of me, which could present a safety risk. 

Verify: After returning week after week, I noticed this type of conversation is typical for cashiers in grocery stores all over Milan. After going to other stores for small things, and waiting in line watching other interactions, I realized this is a normal conversational habit here. 

Evaluate: While my normal culture is a little more antisocial, I find these interactions—now that I am more familiar with them—a good source for language practice and a friendly encounter every once-and-awhile. 

After stepping through the D.I.V.E. framework, I not only was able to acknowledge a new cultural difference between my US life and life in Milan, but also was able to better understand a social norm that I normally would avoid. After growing acclimated to this type of conversation, I definitely feel generally more comfortable doing things in Milan and talking to strangers in the process. 

D.I.V.E – ing In

Buenas Noches! I’m writing this post after a busy weekend in La Fortuna. I traveled with four other ND students who are here with the ND Bridge program. On Friday we traveled from San Jose to La Fortuna– about a four hour drive. We got there pretty late so we went right to bed for an early start on Saturday. Our first item on the agenda for the weekend was to visit the Arenal Volcano. This volcano is recently dormant with its last eruption in 2010. We hiked around the volcano for a bit and then went to a waterfall and the hanging bridges near by. After the volcano, we went to a river that is heated by the volcanic chambers under the earth. It was so beautiful to see and to chat with tourists and locals at this ecumenical place.

Today we started by hiking to the La Fortuna Waterfall we journeyed into a valley basin to see this and it was breathtaking. We swam around in the streams before heading back to the bus station for a long bus ride back to the city.

For this week’s post. We are supposed to apply the D.I.V.E model to a critical incident. My incident involved our taking a taxi while in La Fortuna. While in the taxi, the driver started asking us questions. As a rather new taxi rider– I come from Nashville, a city where transport like this is not popularized– I was already nervous about the interaction. When he asked us where we were from, where we are staying, how we had enjoyed our time so far, I was very reluctant to give away all that information. In my mind, I was protecting us from being stalked or harmed by giving such information to a stranger.

Now applying the D.I.V.E model to this situation–

Description– In one of the famous red cabs of Costa Rica, a taxi driver asked us questions about us and our journey so far.

Interpretation– In the moment, I was creeped out by these questions. I saw this as pestering us for personal info that is important for our safety. I was in a new setting that was already uncomfortable for me, adding that the conversation was in Spanish with a man I had never met, I am sure that my nerves were running high.

Verification– There is not much I can verify here. And this will probably bleed into my evaluation, but I think that my cultural perception was challenged/ not verified.

Evaluation– Looking back I think my initial response was a reflection of my uncomfortableness with the situation. I now think that being over-friendly (or at least what I would consider over-friendly) is just part of Costa Rican culture and interactions. People show care and interest by asking these types of questions. I now realize that my reaction– although good to protect oneself and their group– was too protective. It would not have harmed me to just make light conversation with this driver or to share a bit about our journey so far.

I am entering the last week here in Costa Rica and have mixed emotions. I’ll be sure to keep y’all updated. Adios!

Blog Post #4: Social Observations and more travel

Recent Travel

I will be starting with the light-hearted topic of my travel with this post. In the recent weeks, I decided to do a somewhat spontaneous trip to Nikko, in Tochigi Prefecture for the entire weekend. I wanted a place to go hiking, and I wanted a place to see history, and Nikko did not disappoint on either of those. On my first day, I took an early morning train up into the mountains of Tochigi and started hiking around the Chuzenji area. As someone from Indiana where the tallest point is likely a cornfield somewhere, seeing the colossal mountains, waterfalls, and nature all around was beautiful. I even got to see deer roaming the plains of Senjougahara, and I saw wild monkeys for the first time near Ryuzu Falls. I hiked around 20 miles my first day, going through the mountains, woods, and along the scenic edge of Lake Chuzenji. That night, I got my first experience of going to a private onsen, a hot spring. The ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that I stayed in also provided a yukata to wear outside the onsen. Side tangent, but I had a funny experience leaving the onsen where I walked past a man in the narrow hallways and said the usual “Sumimasen” (excuse me) to get around him, and got a response of “No worries, bro” in perfect English.

On my second day, I spent more time seeing historic sites. I saw the Jizo statues of Kanmangafuchi Abyss, I saw the beautiful, sprawling masoleum of Toshogu where the famous uniter of Japan and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is buried. Interestingly, the famous saying of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Say no evil” accompanied by the three monkeys originates from a mural on the side of a stable at this shrine. Afterwards, I saw Buddhist temple Rinno-ji, the Shinto shrine of Nikko Futarasan, and the mausoleum Taiyuin where Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu, is buried. All in all, I walked another 15 miles the second day.

Observations of Work Culture

As someone who loves to frequent the izakayas and yakitori restaurants of Tokyo ( Japanese pubs and grilled chicken places) and as someone who is interning at an office in the corporate heart of the city, I have been exposed to much of the Japanese corporate culture and its intriguing overlap with nightlife. One thing of note is that while many Japanese offices do not have a strict dress code of any sort, one look around Chiyoda-ku at rush hour will show you that there is a strict social sense of conformity in uniform. White shirts with black or gray pants and black dress shoes makes up at least 85% of men’s clothing, and white shirts with black skirts makes up a substantial portion of women’s clothing. Therefore, its very easy to see the waves of Japanese businessmen going to the izakayas and bars after work. In Akasaka, for example, which is near the corporate center, it may be hard to find even a table for food after work hours as they are completely filled by businessmen going out together after a day at the office.

Now, what is interesting is the strong culture of heavy drinking and fraternizing with coworkers any, or every, day of the week. Many times, the audio levels of the restaurant will slowly but surely rise to shouting as they order more and more drinks. While I knew that drinking with coworkers was an aspect of Japanese business, I did not know how prevalent they were, how often it happened, and how intense they get. Again, it is not uncommon to see businessmen blacked-out on the side of the road after midnight in places like Roppongi, near where I live. It goes beyond the American concept of going out for a few drinks, and instead takes the form of what appears to be an extreme form of catharsis.

I have spoken with American and Japanese businessmen in Japan about this topic, and they confirmed my suspicions. The intensity of the Japanese workplace, with an overemphasis on hard work, and the social ostracization of those who are deemed to not be carrying their own weight leads to immense pressure that has to be released in some way. Additionally, mental health care is nearly unheard of here. As opposed to many places in the United States, mental health professionals are scarce and unutilized. When people have stress, anxiety, or worse building up over the course of a career, many Japanese businessmen use heavily drinking on a frequent basis as that release. In the past, I saw the crowds of office workers going to the izakaya as a fun form of coworkers hanging out, but now I have a sense of sadness as I wonder how much pressure they are experiencing and how many have to find their solace in alcohol.

Post #4 DIVE: Jeepers! Beware of the Creepers!

Saludos (otra vez)! I am at the beginning of my fifth week here, and wow does time sure fly by! For the past week and a half I have mainly hung out with my host family and friends, and have relished in the wonderful Santo Domingo environment. Though I have truly enjoyed my time here, there have definitely been some experiences that have left me a bit overwhelmed, confused, and in a state of introspection. Most of these experiences have occurred during my journey to and from my worksite. 

About two weeks ago, while waiting 40 minutes for my second bus home, I noticed that an older man was trying to get on a bus to San Jose but he had left his phone on the bench. I called out to the man a few times, and as he quickly ran back to get his phone, the bus pulled away. The man thanked me for watching over his phone and explained that he was confused about the bus schedule and  routes. Soon after, he began to talk to me and he asked a couple of questions. Being from the South, I at first did not think anything of the interaction, as I thought he was just being friendly. The conversation soon shifted to personal inquiries about me, as he then started showing me shirtless pictures of him at the beach and pool then began to ask personal questions about me: “Where are you from? Where are you staying and for how long? Why are you here in Costa Rica?” Most notably, he told me that he remembered me sitting in the back of the bus from the day before (and no I did not remember him from the day before). At this moment, a small wave of stress swept over me, as I had not remembered him from the day before and I had no idea where these questions were leading to.

After a few minutes, the bus finally arrived and made sure to sit as far away as possible from that man. Following the encounter, I made sure to be very aware of my surroundings while walking back home, and although I felt overall creeped out since I was unsure of his intentions, I ended up brushing the situation to the side a bit. Reflecting upon the situation, I feel a bit more concerned now than before, because I think of the different possible outcomes that could have happened and how I maybe should have been more cautious than I initially was, such as maybe switching up my mode of transportation the next day or even in the moment. Despite having a positive interpretation of the interaction at the moment, I now have a negative evaluation of the situation since, to me, he definitely held some of the characteristics and behavior of a creeper. Although I was unable to have someone verify my interpretation, reflecting upon the situation with the separation of description and interpretation has enabled me to realize that I need to be more aware of who I am encountering and interacting with on the bus–even if they seem friendly!

Blog Post #3 – Striped Shirts and Baguettes

Paris Skyline

Tonight, over the finest of French cuisine, pizza, I discussed with my host father American stereotypes. He started by stating the belief that everything was truly bigger in America: the buildings, the food, and the people. He noted, while he was growing up, that France looked at the USA with all of its innovation at the time and he noted the impression that American advancement had on Europe. He said back then it was a different feeling than today, now that Europe is on even footing technologically. He added another stereotype mentioning that the American perspective is often too introspective and not global-minded.

When reflecting on his comments, I saw the merit of the examples he gave. They are neither good nor bad, in my opinion, just differences. These stereotypes highlight cultural change. Things being bigger in America can absolutely be a negative thing, but. admittedly, while abroad, I wish I was getting those American-size portions for meals and endless refills of water. For my own auto stereotypes, I have been coming to grips with the lack of a global perspective that comes with being American. When I speak French, it often surprises me because many Americans do not take the time to learn the language. I have had to dissect that often  US mentality. I believe it can be both good and bad. We live in a big enough country, where travel is often national, and not international, which is an incredible blessing. That said, there is a deprivation in world studies that would greatly stimulate and improve the American intellect.

In Conclusion, I was so thankful for this conversation because it was an exchange. We ended with a laugh about how I do not fit the stereotypes of many Americans. I do not look like the square-jawed classic American, and I am globally minded. However, I do eat a lot, we concluded this after I polished off the second pizza.

Blog Post #3: Recent Activity and Talking about Stereotypes

In few weeks here, I have been trying everyday to encounter the culture of Japan in as many ways as I can. This blogpost has been in the works for a while as every time I think I am ready to post, I speak with some more people and modify a bit more. While I can make any number of generalizations, even within the city of Tokyo, perceptions, standards, and even clothing has such a wide array of diversity for such a homogenous country.

To speak of my own preconceptions of Japan, I had done months of reading and watching content about Japan in preparation to be here. Some of the expectations I had was that people would be very quiet and reserved compared to what I am used to. Seeing as Japan is around 98% ethnically Japanese, I thought that I would receive stares or otherwise.

While it may be true that, on average, the Japanese people I have encountered are less rowdy than many Americans that I know, one trip to Shinjuku, Roppongi, or Harajuku will quickly make you realize that the stereotype of the quiet, reserved, and overly serious Japanese person definitely is not the rule. On my first night in Japan, I went to an underground rock club with live performers, and the entire audience was up on their feet dancing, clapping, and singing along to Wham’s “Wake me up before you go-go” near Roppongi. In Harajuku, I saw all different types of crazy clothes, blasting pop music, along with trendy shops and bakeries. In Shinjuku, I was accosted by promoters for lively (but sketchy) clubs and bars. In Nakano, a friendly stranger leaned over to me in the izakaya and started chatting with me, and we ended up seeing a jazz performance together and split a platter of food. In my time so far, I have come to understand that these stereotypes fail to recognize the diversity of people that you will come across and people of all types of interests, professions, and dispositions can be found anywhere.

Stereotypes about Americans

Now recently, I have also asked some of the people around me about their perspectives on Americans. I have talked to a few strangers and friends, and I have many coworkers with whom I can ask their thoughts. These coworkers work at an American company’s Japan office, so they all can speak at least a bit of English, and the majority are extremely proficient and have even spent time abroad.

When asked what their thoughts were on how they would describe the typical American, I got many similar answers. Among one group I had asked, the answer was that Americans were generally loud, decently unhealthy in their drinking and food, were polite, enjoyed partying, and were often large, whether it be in height, muscles, or fat.

I asked a Japanese friend of mine, and he said that they were loud, overweight, but generally kind people. I also asked a few strangers in addition, and I received much the same. One group I had spoken with for a while actually described Americans as conscientious and more accommodating than the other Japanese people they knew, which surprised me.

About America as a whole, a typical theme I heard is that America makes a lot of movies and popular music, is huge geographically, and has had a significant impact on the world. I have heard the term “occupiers” used once or twice, specifically referring to the military presence in Okinawa and around Yokohama.

I have heard a wide array of opinions and stereotypes about Americans and America, but they have been generally pretty positive as a whole. The people I have met have been very accommodating, and I can only mention a handful of times where I can say otherwise. Like I stated before, I have received stares, and I have been to restaurants that have signs outside that state that if you cannot speak Japanese, then you probably should not enter, but these are so far and few between I cannot call it the norm. I have found that when you are sitting at the counter in a hole-in-the-wall izakaya and chatting with some locals, you will find some of the most genuinely interested and talkative people around, and I am always looking for an opportunity to practice speaking Japanese.

Recent Activity

This post is already long, so I will keep it short. Since the last post, I have done a lot more sightseeing and traveling. For example, one day, I hopped on the train and went to Kamakura, a small town by the ocean that used to be the nation’s capital many centuries ago. There, you will find an 11 meter tall, bronze statue of Buddha from the 1200s. There are many beautiful temples and shrines. Just a few minutes away on train is the island of Enoshima, which can be reached by bridge. More beautiful shrines, great views of the ocean and Mt. Fuji, and a sacred cave system are some of the highlights. Another day, I went to one of the most famous areas of Tokyo, Asakusa. I saw Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji, walked around the Ueno Park, and went up the Tokyo Skytree, one of the tallest towers in the world. And of course, everyday I have been seeing more and more of Tokyo, which I will likely explain more about in my following posts.

Sara Anne’s Seoul Blog Entry #2: It Is Time To Try On New Glasses!!!

저는 진실로 한국 생활에 익숙하지 않습니다… 제 한국어 실력은 아직도 자연스럽지 않은 것 같아서 새로운 사람들을 만나면 조금 불안하지만 너무 재미있습니다. 계속 연습해 볼 거라면 더 좋아지면 좋겠습니다!

(I am really still adjusting to life in Korea… My Korean language skills still seem unnatural, so when I meet new people, I get a bit nervous, but it is extremely fun. Hopefully, I will get better if I keep practicing!)

I will be completely honest: though I have absolutely been having the time of my life in Seoul so far, it has not always been smooth sailing, especially with my limited Korean language abilities. Though I have been studying Korean for several years now, I admittedly have experienced some levels of frustration with how slow my progress has been in increasing language proficiency, and that feeling is only enhanced by physically being here, in South Korea. I think one source of this tension is related to the fact that, for as long as I can remember, I have taken so much pride in my ability to learn languages quickly, as it has been a talent and passion of mine since I was very little, and so, I tend to find that I am somewhat disappointed in myself, and the experience is quite humbling. However, in addition to failing to meet my own, impossibly high expectations for myself, there have been other small areas of discomfort that I can only describe as short but sudden re-realizations that I am, in fact, a foreigner with a unique background that makes me stand out from everyone around me. As an Asian-American, I am used to being considered a part of the minority group in the United States, and, in some senses, I think I have grown in my confidence regarding that aspect of my identity, but it seems that the experiences of “being the minority” can vary greatly from country-to-country, and being a foreigner in Korea brings its own set of challenges, including several “critical incidents” where cultural differences seem to really rapidly emerge from the background and become more prominent throughout simple interactions. Though I cannot really narrow every one of these moments down to one, big “critical incident” so far during my journey in Seoul, I do think I can give this set of scenarios a general metaphor of “trying on various new lenses for my cultural glasses,” as I feel that the insight that I have gained from these little interactions have helped me to start seeing the world a little bit differently than before.

I had been in Korea before this internship for a semester abroad, and so, I was already somewhat aware of the fact that I would be on the receiving end of a lot of curious looks when I got here. After a few months of the staring, I got used to it, feeling much less self-conscious about it with each passing day, and I would eventually come to learn, through several of my classes and interesting social media posts from expats, that these glances were typically harmless. Generally, the reasoning behind these looks would be that I simply stand out as a new face in this country since Koreans have historically considered themselves a homogeneous community until only recently. Since I was already aware of it, this part of the foreigner experience in Korea did not bother me as much this time. To put it in the terms of my metaphor, I had already adjusted that aspect of the prescription for lenses of my “cultural glasses” before I got here. However, as an exchange student, most of my classes (except, of course, the Korean language class) were in English, and all of them were with other foreign students, so I was rather disappointed by my lack of opportunities to interact with and converse with native Koreans as a learner of the language. For this reason, one of the things I was most excited to start doing during my internship was to start utilizing my speaking and listening skills more directly in the Korean community. However, one of the first things any foreigner will notice when they arrive in Korea is that, if a Korean native notices that a person is a foreigner, and they are comfortable enough with English, they will immediately switch from Korean to English, regardless of the language the foreigner begins the conversation with. I immediately noticed this the first time I visited a store here: I approached the cashier and began the transaction in Korean, but the moment she could tell I was a foreigner, she switched to English. Although I attempted to continue the conversation in Korean, it just felt awkward after awhile, so I reverted back to English. Similar instances continued to occur at various other stores and restaurants, but the place where this has been most noticeable has been the research lab, where my internship is taking place.

I would like to begin with the fact that everyone at the Vision, Cognition, and Consciousness (VCC) Lab in Yonsei University has been so accommodating and kind, and it is truly an honor to meet and work with them. Each and every one of the lab members has my full gratitude and appreciation, since, from what I have gathered, I am one of the first interns at this lab who has been less-than-fluent when it comes to Korean. Overall, everyone here has always been very helpful and open to questions, and they even invite me to participate in their daily lunches, seminars, and meetings as a lab group, which has really helped to make me feel much more welcome. However, when it comes to the small handful of “critical incidents” where I would struggle to practice the Korean language, the lab is where such situations are most evident. Obviously, since this is a lab at a Korean university for Korean graduate and PhD students, everyone communicates mainly in Korean during lab meetings, even when we are discussing papers that are read and written in English. At my first two lab meetings, I literally could not get a word in, not because people were talking over me but, rather, because I simply could not find the right words to communicate what I wanted to say, and it was undeniably frustrating. My silence at the lab meetings has been one of the most disconcerting experiences for me so far, since, as a Notre Dame student, I am so used to actively participating in group discussions, and this feels like such a familiar setting to do so, but, because of the language barrier, I am also well-aware that I am not quite able to get my points across easily. Of course, because of this, I understand that, for the sake of efficient communication, it is easier to use English with me, but at the same time, it simply does not make me feel better when the lab members switch to English just to communicate with me, because I genuinely want to learn the Korean language.

Yonsei University is one of the top three universities in the Korea, so most, if not all, students here are nearly fluent in English. Almost every single time I have attempted to hold a conversation with members of the lab, I have either been told directly that it is okay if I have to respond in English, or I have just had to accept the fact that the discussion had indirectly transitioned back to English over time. This is off-putting as a language-learner, especially since, from my personal, cultural background, it almost feels insulting due to the American value of self-reliance: in some of these scenarios, switching to English immediately can make it seem as though my conversation partner is implying that my Korean language skills are not good enough, and it takes a lot of cultural reframing to think otherwise. However, from my. direct observations of what life is like in Korean society, I think I have a better understanding as to why this is the case in most of my interactions. Koreans themselves would be some of the first people to tell others that Korea is a collectivist society. I even see this statement directly in the texts of various psychological research papers that were written mainly by teams of Korean researchers. Therefore, in contrast to my American value of doing everything on my own, so as not to be a hindrance and in order to empower myself, Koreans seem to look at things from a different perspective. It is a big value in Korean culture to ensure the progress of the community as a whole, meaning that, if they notice another person is having difficulty with something, most of the time, for the sake of the group, they will do their best to immediately alleviate that issue. When Koreans see me struggling with their language, it therefore makes sense that they would switch to English if they are able to do so and better accommodate me, even if that requires speaking in a language that they themselves are less familiar with. Through the lens of Korean culture, which relies heavily on building up the whole population, switching from Korean to English for a foreigner is not meant to say that the foreigner’s Korean skills are inadequate, but, rather, it is intended to be a form of support when there is a perceived complication in communication within the group for the sake of promoting forward progression.

I think looking at these uncomfortable instances through this other perspective both helps me to make my outlook more positive while looking back on my experiences so far in Korea and gives me a better understanding of the Korean values that are derived from the central value of collectivism. I also think there is an important lesson to learn when coming from a more individualist America to a more collectivist Korea: it is not a sign of weakness to need help sometimes, because it is impossible to do everything on your own, and there can be many benefits to working together with others for the overall good of the whole group. I am sure that, despite the commonly-known American value of independence, the United States would still agree with this sentiment to some extent, considering the fact that the nation originally came into being through the joint effort of thirteen colonies working together as a whole. In this sense, putting on new “cultural glasses” has also made me realize that, though they still distinguish cultures from each other and make them uniquely beautiful, some of the cultural differences many people may perceive do not necessarily lead to total disagreement.

Just yesterday, since this is a lab for visual perception, cognition, and consciousness, I was talking with my lab director about the interesting, psychological and social concepts behind viewing others through the lens of the culture an individual grew up in. The more I talked with him, the more I realized that, even if Korea is more collectivist and America is more individualist, both countries, at their core, are attempting to do what is best for their people, even if their approaches and perspectives may vary slightly in specifics. It is one of my lab director’s broader research goals to demonstrate, through psychological research, that humans all process visual information in the same way, regardless of their cultural background, and he wishes to somehow use that data to start changing how people perceive those from cultures that are different from their own. In other words, he is hoping to tackle one of the greatest universal issues of stereotyping and excluding out-groups, and I believe that this unifying research goal has a profound connection with my own, intercultural identity goals that are working to consolidate the many, confusing cultural identities within me. I know that I still have a long way to go when it comes to figuring myself out fully, especially in the context of a novel environment, but it is rather comforting to know that, while we are not all the same, we, as human beings, all seem to share the same goals and desires for a better future.

I have only been in Seoul for around two weeks, but I feel like the country has already taught me so much, and I am genuinely falling deeper in love with it the more time I spend here. Additionally, while some of my cultural differences have still led to some slightly uncomfortable “critical incidents” surrounding my language usage, I have come to a better understanding of why such cases may occur here. I have been slowly learning how to change my perspective on cultural differences. In doing so, I have also somewhat learned how to reconcile the fact that I am simply different as a foreigner in Korea with the fact that I am still being welcomed by and making tons of happy memories with the Korean community. As I am considering the metaphor of “cultural glasses,” I cannot help but think that my experiences in Korea as a foreigner are slowly tinting my cultural lenses in uniquely colorful ways, and that may not necessarily be a bad thing. I am excited to see how my perspectives will continue to change as I continue along on my journey in Seoul, South Korea!


Sara Anne

P.S. As you all can see, I am not just trying on new lenses for my “cultural glasses,” but I am putting myself out there and trying other types of new styles!!!

Blog #3: Stereotypes

Throughout this summer, the unique experience of living abroad has definitely allowed me to feel more united in a global community, interacting daily with people I would have never met without traveling across the ocean. With this extreme privilege also comes the ability to notice the small things about my daily interactions that both help me understand my role as a “global citizen” and also connect with those outside of my nationality. Europe in general has its preconceived notions of America—often labeled as the “noisy tourists” that arrive for the stretch of the year between May and September. For many of the people I interact with on a daily basis, I’m the first American they’ve truly met. While this at times feels daunting, as I’m creating a perception of an entire country to them, at the same time it’s a very valuable experience to show them the pieces of my life in the states that have shaped who I am. 

The first few weeks in Milan came with a lot of questions about the USA: graduate students were shocked to find out that I lived six hours by car away from my home to attend college, that a US large soda is “truly absurd” by comparison to the European equivalent, and many conversations about what Americans do for fun were exchanged. Sometimes it felt that there was an assumption that America was exactly as those cliche teen movies characterized it—and there is some truth behind the stereotypes of Friday Night Lights and the Fourth of July. But overall I didn’t really experience harmful stereotyping by my peers, more of a genuine curiosity about the other side of the planet. I recall one of my graduate student mentors perplexed at just exactly why I decided to study in Italy this summer—America is so far away and has everything one could possibly need. The glamorization of American life is definitely palpable, but it more creates a sense of shock or curiosity in those I interact with as opposed to confusion. 

For the most part, I think the Italian perception of the USA is shockingly accurate. Italian young people are almost midwestern in their politeness—everyone is friendly and eager to socialize, but one large difference between Italian young people and American young people is within the university experience. While students still attend university and can sometimes live in dormitory-style housing, the party-sport-study-repeat structure of American university life is not at all replicated. All these aspects of life are distinctly separate. Sports being a fixture in American university culture was so shocking for many of the people I interact with daily—school is a place for studying. The concept of so many students continuing sports alongside their education was something that definitely contributed to the heterostereotypes that I sometimes saw in my daily life. The differences in university life between Italy and America definitely contribute to the heterostereotype of the USA being a hub for partying, drinking, and generally just “being American” in the most stereotypical sense. When I view America from their point of view, it does make a lot of sense that many of the aspects of our culture that others are aware of is in the form of socialization—movies depict it, songs are about it, it’s the most accessible view of the US from an abroad angle. I think seeing how America is perceived also helps me understand better the similarities and differences in Italian culture, and taking these small observations with me has helped immensely in my cultural integration. 

Arriving in Lisbon

It’s been two weeks since I got to Lisbon and I can truly say I’m so happy that I’m here. I have been traveling around Portugal, meeting new people, and learning so much. It has been a very interesting journey so far.

I was welcomed at the Lisbon airport by the barista at a coffee shop where I tried to use my Portuguese for the first time. I practiced my order in my head in the line leading up to the cashier and once it was my turn I said it, according to me, sounding like a native ‘Lisboeta’. The lady asked me a set of follow-up questions that left me speechless. Was she speaking Portuguese? I did not understand a single thing. I quickly switched to English admitting my limited knowledge of the language with a shy smile.

I met a lot of people during the program introduction and have been getting to know Lisbon as well. I have fallen in love with its beautiful buildings covered in ‘azulejos’, its welcoming people, and even the slippery side-walks going up and down hills that have made me trip more than once. I have been slowly mastering the metro system and understanding Portuguese culture more and more every day. I have been lucky enough to travel to some Portuguese beaches and am in awe of the beauties I have encountered. I am getting my summer tan back and am feeling great. I have slowly been incorporating more Portuguese into my daily life and been using less English or Spanish in my interactions, although ill admit that ‘Portuñol’ is typically what comes out naturally from me and what has been working best. I have not yet gathered the courage to try the famous ‘Sardinhas’ but I have enjoyed other delicious fresh fish and Portuguese food. My favorite dessert is officially the ‘pasteis de nata’ and I love me some good ‘entremiadas’ or ‘bifanas’ for lunch. I am slowly getting over the fact that iced coffee is not really a thing and am learning to enjoy just a simple ‘cafe com leite’.

I am working for the non-profit organization ‘Renovar a Mouraria’ and I think I couldn’t have found a better place to intern at. The people there are so welcoming, the work they do is so important and I have been able to participate in activities that have taught me about Portugal; its people, and its culture more than any other thing I can think of. These first few weeks we have been working on organizing the community parties for the ‘Festas dos Santos Populares’. I have been serving food at parties (in Portuguese :)), meeting amazing people, learning about the social context of Lisbon and its history, and getting to talk to people who have really enriched my life in amazing ways.

Although I am really happy I cannot say it has been easy. I have encountered multiple cultural incidents where the culture shock has left me feeling confused and even uncomfortable. The pace of work is definitely slower than what I’m used to. The response time between emails is longer and the main form of communication is verbal: leaving a lot of room for misunderstandings. However, I feel like this change of pace is exactly what I needed in my life. I have been doing things with more intention, I have been fully enjoying my breaks, I have been living the present moment and really getting to know my colleagues and bosses at a personal level. I have found a connection with myself that I felt the fast-paced corporate world in America had taken from me. I am very grateful for what I’m living and although it’s been hard to get used to, I am enjoying living the Portuguese way. 🙂