Intercultural Learning – the exchange year

exchange student, Expat, intercultural learning, intercultural sensitivity / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

Intercultural Learning – the exchange year

Some time back I sat down to write about my learning journey around the world as an exchange student and permanent expatriate…it is a rather personal account but I thought it is time to start sharing as I am keen to hear your thoughts and your learning. As it is a rather long journey…I decided to publish it in chunks…so here comes the first part:

As opposed to my children, who were born and raised in four and five different countries, respectively, by one Austrian and one Italian parent, I can answer the question, “Where do you come from?” with relative ease. I am Austrian. I was born and raised in Austria, but then that is not even half the story of my life and paints a fairly inaccurate picture of me.

I have not lived in Austria for the past 18 years. I have never worked there, except for running a few workshops; instead I have lived and worked in eleven different countries on four continents. So what is my story then? What explains how I think, feel and experience the world around me in a few simple words, fit for a business introduction or small talk at a cocktail party? I have not quite found the “perfect” way to describe my journey other than calling myself “a permanent expat” (being the more serious version), “a curious gypsy” (the cocktail party version) and a “change junkie” (one of the provocative versions)! The reality, as always, is far more complex and if you have some time…I would love to embark with you on a reflective journey of intercultural learning that made me the “Elle” (my nickname) that I am, the intercultural facilitator, the executive coach and global leadership trainer, the mother of three Third Culture Boys, the trailing spouse and the daughter, sister and friend, that lives far away.

It all started when I was 16 years old, the oldest of five children in small town Graz, Austria. My parents just did not understand me, had no idea how the (my) world worked, and in all honesty were an embarrassment to my worldly self. At least that was my perception at that particular time. So my solution was to leave Graz and to go to the place that was the furthest away, which for me at that time were the USA. My parents gave me permission to leave, once I had finished high school in Austria, provided I could pay for it myself. That was motivation enough to apply for a Rotary scholarship, and a few months after my 18th birthday, I took off. Picture a blond girl in a traditional Austrian outfit, looking like Maria from “The Sound of Music”, crying for the first two hours on the plane because her own courage scared her more than anything else. That was I! I arrived in Denver, Colorado, being picked up by my lovely host family without being able to speak or understand pretty much any English. Initially I felt lost and lonely. Everyone I knew in this pre-internet age was at least 20 postal days or a fortnightly phone call away, and everyone who was around me reacted differently, had different priorities. Things, that were absolutely normal for me, like riding my bike to school, where “a bit weird” for the others. The unwritten rules were invisible to me and made visible only by the reaction of the people around me. I had no idea that only the members of the school football, baseball and basketball teams signed up for weightlifting, until I walked into the gym class seeing only a bunch of “Mini-Arnold-Schwarzeneggers” starring at me. I was the only girl that had signed up for this class and, what was worse, I could not even lift the weightlifting bar without any weights on it. Some facts of my world started to crumble. Did you know that dogs in the USA understood English? It was clear to me that all animals would only understand German.

On a more serious note, there were definitely different priorities and things were evaluated differently. What was good and okay or accepted in Austria was not necessarily good or even okay in the USA. My first reaction was a fairly natural one, I decided for myself, what I thought was good and bad overall. To eat TV dinners, a pre-cooked quick-frozen packaged meal, was bad under all circumstances, and not to be able to have a glass of beer with my meal at the age of 18 was completely ludicrous and responsible for the “under age and secret” high school drinking binges. Cheating at school tests, which is sort of a social sport and a way to support your friends (i.e. okay) in Austria suddenly became bad, as I adopted the US approach of cheating as complete academic and social dishonesty. During my year in the US I had the privilege and pleasure of living with three different families, learning the language and traveling around the State of Colorado, giving talks about Austria. In the process, I began to create a more complex picture of life in Colorado. The persons that helped me most during that process, by constantly asking me questions reflecting on differences, my feelings and my mental models, were my second host mom Ann and my host brother Dan. Without Ann’s questions and emotional support, matched with Dan’s keen observation skills, fantastic sense of humor and intellectual stimulation, I may never have been able to re-think who I was, the Austrian blond girl in a small town in Colorado and come to terms with the worlds I was connected with.

This experience really drove home the point how important it is to reflect and be challenged on your assumptions and experiences in order to learn and use what your are experiencing as a learning situation. By the time I returned to Austria I had seen many different approaches to life and felt that each had its very own benefits and drawbacks. Some I felt more strongly about than others. The most important realization was…I was curious and having met other exchange students from all over the world, I wanted to learn more about other cultures and live in other countries.