How to fit in as an abroad student

A By David Jack Norton

as the fall semester accelerates to full speed in Minnesota, many students’ thoughts turn to studying or vacationing abroad in the coming year. To help prepare young globetrotters, I offer these suggestions on how to get the most out of your trip. These time-tested tips come from sage Americans I’ve met during my time in Europe. In fact, I pen this column from Valladolid, Spain. The University of Valladolid began Oct. 1 and already, I’ve observed American undergrads, fresh off the bus from Madrid, putting into practice these wise precepts.

To begin, students endlessly stress about what to pack. It’s easy: Pack twice as much as you think you’ll need. The airlines only allow 140 pounds total luggage, but, as any good missionary can inform, they don’t weigh you, the flyer. Tape heavy items, such as shampoo, soap and batteries to your arms, legs and torso. Tell anyone who asks about the unnatural bulge that it is a boil. Regarding personal hygiene products, you can never pack too many. Foreign stores sell products that look exactly like national brands at home, but don’t get burned by these crafty multinational corporations: Something is different. A friend of mine used Spanish Dial before going to the Madrid Planet Hollywood, and he reacted poorly to something in the soap. He awoke the next morning with a headache, dry-mouth and an intense desire to fondle Sylvester Stallone.

For clothes, try to bring as many examples of America’s fashion excellence as possible. People of the world very much appreciate American hipness. Must-have items include anything fleece, capri pants, corduroy overalls, denim shorts, flip-flops, baseball caps (especially the vintage kind from stores such as J.Crew that reference illusionary historical teams) and T-shirts from high school or with obscure cultural references (“Area Man”). Truly impressive fashionistas combine the best of Americana: capri overalls, Banana Republic ’28 caps and a “Go Goats! State AA hockey champs 99” T-shirt. Also popular is any item displaying the name of one of the United States’ freedom-exporting governmental agencies, such as the U.S. Army, the FBI or the ever-popular CIA. Whatever your wardrobe, remember to bring enough so you only wear an outfit once every two weeks. Such selection impresses your hosts and demonstrates just how much you care about your appearance.

Finally, a word about what to bring for sex. People around the world are dying to sleep with Americans. One cannot step off a plane without being propositioned by some sultry or soothing native eager to bed the best. College students face particularly high demands, as they hail from a self-selected population with low STD rates and guaranteed high IQs. That said, be sure to ask potential partners if they love you before you stumble into the bar alley with them. If your lothario loves you, he or she would never hurt you or infect you. I’m sorry, who am I kidding? Please, use condoms and dental dams. Outside the Twin Cities, there waits a sexual cesspool and you wouldn’t want to catch any diseases.

After loading up your luggage with “Yudof’s moving crew” T-shirts, Pantene conditioner and condoms, it’s time to think about how to act when away from home. You are, after all, a representative of the United States. Similar to asking your friend Manoe from Liberia what Africans think about Jell-O, you’ll be asked to answer for your country. So get ready!

Now, many foreigners will try to impress upon you the need to consider multiple viewpoints, especially regarding world politics. Be polite and let them prattle on about parliamentary-style democracy and cooperative environmental protocols, but be sure to remind them that the U.S. system clearly works the best. Because the world – especially Canada – covets our freedoms, it’s important we support our institutions and our leaders. Thus, patriotism demands you defend U.S. foreign policy tooth and nail, even if at home you display marked indifference or don’t really think President George W. Bush knows what the acronym NATO stands for.

Sometimes foreigners just need to get used to the U.S. way of doing things. One great way to put people at ease is to make vulgar jokes about one of the countries’ most cherished cultural icons: the Queen in Britain, Gandhi in India or the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, for example. Anytime you can compare a well-loved person to an animal in heat, you know you’re making friends for life.

A second great way to put your new friends at ease is to show them how comfortable you are criticizing their culture. It’s your friends who tell you when something is wrong, right? Generally, if you declare an aversion to the most embedded aspects of a culture (say smoking and soccer in Spain), you can guarantee hearty responses from your new compatriots. Of course, all of the above advice on getting along presupposes you’ve learned to communicate well in other languages, right? Wrong. Why bother to learn another language when the whole world is learning English? If you learn to say, “I’m an American” in the native tongue, you can then just ask whatever you want in English. For some reason, raising your voice to around 80 decibels also helps the less educated foreigners understand you – this also works in the Twin Cities when talking to cab drivers and the servers at Chipotle.

When push comes to shove, though, you’ll probably feel uncomfortable at some point and want to communicate this to those around you. Lacking a proficiency in a language, I suggest singing patriotic songs. On a crowded subway or bus, there’s nothing like a rousing chorus of “God Bless America” or the “Star-Spangled Banner” to let everyone know you’re not in the mood to deal with their damn way of doing things. It also lets your fellow travelers know you’re an American tourist, and that means they’ll express their gratuity for the money and the culture you bring to their country.

Now that we’ve covered packing and comportment, let’s deal with travel itineraries and souvenirs. European cities are cool, but let’s face it, they’re not New York or even Chicago. After you’ve seen one church where Martin Luther talked up the blah, blah, blah, you can move on. A week is a pretty good period to see Europe, which makes spring break the ideal time to go. Much of the rest of the world really takes less time than that. How many times do you want to hear about thousands of years of history before the Europeans arrived, this dynasty’s support of trade, that kingdom’s advances in sciences and agriculture? We know how it turned out, so let’s wrap it up and head to Ibiza for a foam party. Just be sure to get at least one heavy and fragile souvenir from everywhere you go. Don’t feel sorry for those swarthy merchants in dirty clothes trying to get 40 cents for something you know really only cost 10 cents to produce. If the merchants made a better product, you’d pay more and they could move out of that ghetto they call a city and into a nice suburban home.

If you follow these suggestions, I guarantee you’ll have one of the most memorable experiences of your lifetime. Have a good trip!


David Jack Norton is a graduate student studying in Valladolid, Spain. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]