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The cultural challenges of studying abroad

Update: February, 28/2012 - 09:46

 

by Trung Hieu

Many young people who have studied abroad say that different cultures and lifestyles can cause a sense of alienation and homesickness.

Returning to Viet Nam after years spent studying in France, Kim Tran faces a thorny issue – as an only child, her parents want her to get married and join them in the family house.

However, as Kim has spent several years abroad, living an independent life, she wants to be the one to decide on her job and living arrangements, and feels she can no longer live with her parents.

As she has learnt many new things, Kim says the way she thinks now is much different to her parents. She has a large social network, with many friends who have their own beautifully decorated, modern houses.

Kim says she sometimes felt ashamed when her friends visit her family's house, as her conservative parents constantly refuse her suggestions to replace some of their old household goods.

"My house would look beautiful if we changed the very old and odd furniture, painted the walls and re-decorated," she says.

Kim understands that what she likes is just as important as what her parents like, and she wants a sparsely-furnished flat to relax in after a day's work, but her parents want to preserve their old objects, which are full of memories.

As she can't change her parents' minds and doesn't want to change her own, Kim wants to live separately, although she still wishes to take care of her parents.

Student Thanh Hang, who returned from studying in Germany, shares a similar problem.

"When I was abroad, sometimes I felt moved to tears to see elderly people struggling to get on a bus, I wondered, ‘Where are their children to help them go to the supermarket or to hospital?'"

Hang recalls she once talked to an old lady in her neighbourhood, who lived alone and always looked sad.

"She told me her children lived in another town and only visited her every few months because they were busy and had to care for their baby.

"The old woman told me her children had left when they were 18 years old and have very different points of view on life compared to her. She said if they had lived together, they would have constantly quarrelled, which would have been worse than living alone.

"The old woman said she didn't mind living alone, as she received money from insurance and social welfare. She was very surprised when I told her in Viet Nam, many grandparents were very old but still helped baby-sit their grandchildren. She told me that, in Western countries, only parents took care of their children, and that others should not intervene. That's why grandchildren don't live with their grandparents."

Hang says she recognised that in Western countries, all of society operates that way, so nobody feels hurt. "But in Viet Nam, most parents live with their unmarried children, so, if we lived separately, we would face protests from others," she says.

Since Oriental and Western cultures have many differences, many overseas students can feel shock after entering a foreign country, and when they return home, they feel another sense of shock, for different reasons.

Nguyen Minh Cong, who spent four years studying in Europe, says a common social difference many recently returned Vietnamese notice is the loud sounds made while chewing food.

"At our first class party, I felt embarrassed as a Vietnamese friend of mine chewed noisily, and talked with her mouth full, with little pieces of food escaping as she talked, shocking other Western friends!" he recalls.

Cong notes another case, while standing in a long queue, a Vietnamese friend saw him and rushed to greet him, barging into the queue.

"Immediately, a Westerner angrily pushed my friend out of the queue, causing him to feel ashamed!"

When the norms of a new society form in your head, and you think some habits are better than your home country's, you feel a sense of shock when you return, Cong says.

"When I had lunch with a person who chewed noisily, with food slipping out of his mouth, I competely lost my appetite. When I suggested he close his mouth, he seemed very annoyed with me!"

Finding love abroad may also cause a sense of despair for returned students. Kieu Mi recalls that when she arrived in Australia, she was shocked to see a young Vietnamese woman boarding in the same house, go out with a Western boyfriend.

"At first, we couldn't accept that a Vietnamese girl could quickly adapt to Western lifestyles like that," she recalls.

Living abroad for a long time, Mi felt pressure to succeed academically and also felt lonely because her friends were busy with their own jobs. Mi recognised that letters from her family and seeing friends only a few times each year were not enough, she needed companionship.

"In Western society, everyone is busy and quite private, so when you want to see friends, you have to make a date. It's different from Viet Nam, where you can call a friend to meet at a cafe."

Mi eventually met somebody and fell in love, and lived with her boyfriend, the way other friends of hers did, and nobody was there to criticise her.

When she returned home, her parents were terribly shocked, especially when they knew that Mi and her boyfriend were no longer together.

"You've lost your virginity, who will dare to marry you?" Her mother said.

Then, after one year at home, Mi still had no luck in love, as those who pursued her eventually said good-bye after becoming friends, as they were worried about her past. Until now, Mi says she felt sad for years while studying abroad.

"The thing I realised was, although we Vietnamese and Westerners have some differences in culture and lifestyle, love is a common thing. We all want to love and be loved," she says. — VNS

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