Challenges of studying abroad as a woman of color

Last year, I was abroad in Granada, Spain. My time abroad met and exceeded expectations in many ways. I lived with an amazing host family in the heart of the city, was walking distance from almost everything, constantly met new people, traveled to different cities and countries on whim and was surrounded by beautiful views and incredible history.

Before all that happened, though, was the study abroad orientation. The information we received, though helpful, wasn’t particularly compelling or new. It was just stuff that all young globetrotters should be reminded of before going away: trust your instincts. Be aware of your surroundings. Wear a money belt, or else.

While this was all stellar advice I took to heart, what this orientation failed to tell me about was how I would be perceived and treated abroad. The orientation touched on how Americans are perceived in foreign lands, but it failed to mention one crucial thing: not everyone looks “American.” Put simply, not everyone looks or is white. While many folks in the United States are astute enough to realize that you can be of a different race and still be American, people outside of the US often hail from more homogenous populations and have a hard time understanding that American is, in fact, not only limited to what you see on TV (thank goodness for that).

As an Asian American woman, I deal with microaggressions everyday. In Spain, these microaggressions—and often, straight up aggressions—were much more obvious. The pervasive, unusual question of “but where are you really from?” was constant. The random “ni hao”s and “konichiwa”s got really old, really fast. Almost everyone assumed I was Chinese, but when Tokyo beat out Madrid for hosting the 2020 Olympics, everyone congratulated me and (not) my country on a job well done. Occasionally, and worst of all, I would be harassed and yelled at by men, oftentimes drunk, in ways that made me feel uncomfortable.

Nothing could have completely prepared me for the aforementioned weirdness, but a space to discuss these issues and prepare myself for these things would have helped. Upon returning, I found that my experiences abroad were different from those of my white peers because of my gender and race identities, and the conversations I found myself having with friends about study abroad were of a certain type. After speaking to other WOC who went abroad, I realized I wasn’t alone. We all wanted a space to speak, share and laugh about our similar, yet different, experiences.

That being said, the International Center is hosting its first study abroad discussion/reflection for WOC going abroad and WOC returnees next Wednesday, 11/19, at 4:45 p.m. in the Cultural House. I encourage all returners who identify as WOC to come and share their experiences. And to future WOC studiers abroad—I cannot encourage you enough to attend. You might think these things won’t happen to you abroad. Maybe you’ll be lucky and being a WOC won’t be an issue abroad. But it never hurts to listen (and enjoy some snacks).

Returners: if you are interested in helping facilitating conversation, contact Eura Chang ([email protected]).