The value of living abroad

by Alan Cohen

I’m going to do something a bit different today – I’m going to include a bit more of my personal life in this post. Reading other blogs like Mindful Stew, Analyfe, and Newsofthetimes has made me realize that for some things, personal narrative can be a more powerful argument than purely academic ones, and that a bit of both might sometimes be useful.

True to form, I’m interested in questions of large societal import, but I’ll tackle this one from experience as much as reason. And today’s subject: why we should require college students to spend a year abroad before graduating.

I went to a really special high school, Interlochen Arts Academy in the woods of northern Michigan. It was full of artists, dreamers, and weirdos of all sorts. Classes were small and everyone there had something they loved, something to be passionate about. This spilled over into academic life – the chemistry class took stream samples to measure water quality and toured chemical plants, and  in classes like Destiny in World Literature and Modern European Literature everyone (all 18 students) participated in discussions.

So it’s no wonder that college was a disappointment. I went to Rice University, not a bad place, but a place that was full of the competitive overachievers from suburban high schools around the country. Students in the poetry classes cared more about their grades than the poetry, and ambitious people (i.e., everyone) looked forward to careers in engineering, law, business, and medicine. I felt like Rice didn’t have much to teach me, and I left.

I’d heard that it was easy to find a job teaching English in Japan, so I worked hard the summer after my freshman year (1994), saved up $3500, and hopped on a plane with little in the way of a plan. I crashed at the apartment of a colleague of my father’s friend for a couple weeks while I looked for work, and soon came to realize that:

a) I was 18;

b) I spoke no Japanese;

c) I didn’t have a visa;

d) I didn’t have the college degree necessary to get a work visa;

e) I didn’t have any connections,

and f) the economy had just crashed, meaning that extra English lessons were no one’s priority, and that many long-established English teachers who had all of the above were now competing with me for every job.

Not to be deterred, I came across a posting for a commune on the northern island of Hokkaido. It sounded idyllic, and I caught the first ferry northward. Sounds, of course, can be deceiving, and this commune was a rocky and sad organic vegetable garden mostly untended by a handful of visaless foreigners teaching English in exchange for room and board at what must have been the dirtiest place in the world’s cleanest country. (Whew! that was a long sentence…)

In other words, it was perfect. It let me get established, and I met many local people through the English lessons. Several families, including a Zen priest, a dairy farmer, and a veterinarian, let me stay with them for a week or so. I learned some rudimentary Japanese. And eventually I got work bartending in the nearby city of Kushiro and moved out into an apartment.

All of my bartending adventures are a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that I had lots of fun and learned Japanese quickly, having almost no one to speak English with. I taught English lessons as well, but this was less satisfying – it’s hard to teach effectively with one hour per week, and I didn’t get to practice Japanese. I eventually got a Cultural Activities Visa to study Aikido, and ended up staying in Kushiro for a year and then Tokyo for a year. At this point, I realized that I could make a life out of being one of the foreigners who knows Japan really well, or I could go back to the States, finish college, and have other adventures. I chose the latter.

Yes, this was all lots of fun, but more importantly, I had been right about Rice University. It didn’t have much to teach me at that point in my life, and Japan did. When I got on that plane, I knew that Japan would surprise me. I expected it. And yet I had no idea. Other cultures are different not just because people eat different foods, wear different clothes, and greet each other differently. People think differently, in ways that are hard to describe.

Sure, I’d heard that people in Japan thought about groups rather than individuals and that they respect their parents, but what did that mean? You only learn it if you live it, and if you speak the language. The language and the culture go hand in hand, and you can’t learn one without the other. It’s easy to paint a portrait of how strange Japan is (from an American perspective) – “I accidentally insulted someone by using the wrong verb tense!” – but it’s much harder to portray why that way of thinking has some value (and it does, trust me).

Almost everything that is strange to Americans about Japan is completely natural to the Japanese, and they find the American perspective equally strange. Some things are better in one place or the other (Japanese take better care of each other as a society, and America offers more personal choice to people) but almost always these things have a flip side that is negative (Japanese people are burdened by the obligations of caring for each other in a rigidly structured way, and Americans are burdened with an overwhelming amount of choice and the responsibility that entails).

So in the end, after two years, I had learned a completely different way of thinking, and why this way was just as good as the one I had always known. It meant that for everything in life, I had two ways I could look at it. And I could easily imagine how different things might be in a third country, in a way I never could have before. I am certain that it made my brain more flexible in other ways too (studies have shown, for example, that people who are actively bilingual have slower cognitive decline during aging).

When I came home, it was hard to re-adjust. Culture shock is worse when you come home than when you leave, they say, and it’s true. I was not who I had been, and I found it hard to relate to people who didn’t understand the other me, the Japanese me. To this day, I sometimes feel strange in the US, almost like a foreigner. But it was worth it, 100 times over.

There are certainly many Americans who have had experiences like mine, but it’s rare enough that my story stands out. People – both Americans and Japanese – say that they think I was brave for going somewhere so different. I don’t feel like I was brave though, just curious. And I find it sad that we don’t give the same sort of attention to foreigners who come to the US. If anything, English is harder for an Asian to learn than Japanese for an American, yet foreigners in the US who don’t speak perfect English are often treated as if they are stupid. Tons of Asian students come to US universities and write Ph.D theses in English. I was a long, long way from being able to do this in Japanese, even if my daily conversation was pretty good.

An understanding of another culture was good for me personally, but it also has impacts at a societal level. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 assuming that freedom was a universal value and that the population would welcome us with open arms. But freedom is just a word, an English word. It is more valued by Americans than by people in other countries, and it is valued in a way particular to Americans. Americans did not understand the fierce loyalties – tribal, religious, familial, and national – that seem to have been a more important force in Iraq than freedom.

In 2003, I did not understand Iraq either, but I understood that I didn’t understand. I knew that whatever Iraqis valued, it was not the freedom talked about by George W. Bush (who had never owned a passport). I don’t think Bush meant evil, but he just didn’t get it, and average Americans didn’t get it. We couldn’t imagine a people not valuing what we valued.

My goal is not to argue for or against the Iraq war here. Whether or not it was the right decision overall, it would have been done better (or not done at all) if the people in charge understood Iraqi culture, or at least were more humble about their lack of understanding. Many Americans look down on other cultures and ways of doing things, thinking they are superior, and thus it was natural that we elected someone who shared that perspective. The failure of most Americans to understand how other people think has consequences. It has financial consequences, but it also has consequences in blood and tears, both for Americans and for people in other places. And the people in other places who suffer the consequences have no say in what happens in the US.

I am not trying to blame Americans. Most people in most places love their countries, and Americans should too. There is much to love. And it is inevitable that people in a geographically large, powerful, and isolated country will fail to understand how things are in other places. I doubt perspectives are much broader in China or Russia. But I do think things could be better in the US, and I think making them better starts with understanding the problem.

So what could we do differently? Force people to study abroad if they want a college degree. A college degree traditionally meant that you had a broad liberal arts education, and a broad perspective on the world. Most people didn’t get a degree 50 years ago. Now, many more people graduate from college, and as a society we invest a lot of money sending them there, but I am not convinced that we are much better educated than we were back then. A year abroad, in a non-English speaking country, would do wonders to ensure a much more worldly perspective.

I can already hear the objections:

It’s expensive. Yup. It will cost money for plane tickets. Depending on where people go, the cost of living may be higher. We can send them to poorer (cheaper) places to make up for this. This would result in a large infusion of cash into those economies, helping them and us in the long run. The overall price will be worth it, and the additional cost is small relative to the current average price of a 4-year college education.

College kids will go abroad and party, causing trouble and failing to learn. Yup, at least some of this will happen. We can mitigate it by trying to spread people out as much as possible. Tacking on a language proficiency requirement would force them to study some. And strict disciplinary action for misbehavior (i.e., sent home, no degree) could help too. But people party everywhere, it’s not the end of the world if kids have fun too. We just want to encourage them to have their fun with the locals, in the local language.

It will prevent some people from getting a college degree. This is the most serious concern – poor people, people returning to school, people caring for sick parents, people like this may be shut out of a college degree. There could be alternative programs, partial degrees, and so forth, but there is no way around it: if we want a college degree to include having gained this world experience, some people will be shut out. But let’s not kid ourselves either: these people are already shut out of the top undergrad schools, for most purposes. The kinds of commuter schools they can go to will usually not position them particularly well in any case. This is a problem that should be addressed (by government funding of higher education, specifically), but until it is, sending kids abroad will not make things much worse.

In Europe, there is a program called Erasmus which sends college students to other European countries for a year. They learn another language and make friends from all over. They love it. They learn a lot. But Erasmus is also the glue that means the next generation will be that much less likely to start an intra-European war. Americans should learn from this and send our young people abroad. Some of them won’t learn much, and a few will cause problems, but the great majority will come back changed, and the country will change with them.

What do you think? Is it feasible to send all college students abroad for a year? Would it be useful? How has your perspective changed when you’ve traveled or lived abroad? I’d love to hear some thoughts.