Intercultural Learning – the return back “home”

exchange student, intercultural learning, intercultural sensitivity, return culture schock / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

Intercultural Learning – the return back “home”

Next episode in my life long intercultural learning journey…

Before I could go off exploring the world, I had to return back “home” to Austria to start my university degree in Business Administration with a focus on International Management.

Coming back “home” was quite an experience. While I had been prepared to deal with differences going to the US, I was oblivious to the return culture shock waiting for me. I had changed by taking on some new ideas and discarding or altering other concepts, which showed up in my behavior. My friends realized that something was slightly odd about me now. Often I would hear, “This is soooo American” followed by a statement that was quite stereotypical about US American culture. I didn’t quite fit anymore, and my friends and family tried to make sense of the “new” Elle by labeling it “American”. Of course I protested, “No, this is not American, it is me.” They and I needed to make sense of the new me, the cross-cultural Austrian–American me. As a student I dealt with it by partying like crazy, meeting new people and talking to everyone, asking them philosophical questions preferably at 4:00am in the morning. The process lasted a few months before I settled down to “regular” student party behavior with a consolidated “Elle” identity.

I also noticed things in Austria that I had not noticed before. I saw more cultural variety, I started noticing the foreigners in Graz and around me, who must have always been there but had been overlooked by me until I had the “being a foreigner” experience in the USA, myself. Being able to attend to different aspects of my home country, paired with my natural curiosity, got me into creating a support network for international students in Graz. Together with friends, most of whom had also been an exchange student at one point or another, we organized welcome buddies, trips to get to know Austria better, joint Austrian and Exchange student activities etc. It was a lot of fun, lots of work, and friendships beyond borders and languages developed quickly. Even Austrian students enjoyed the opportunity to get to know other students. One Austrian student from another state in Austria once told me that I was the only person from Graz who he had been able to befriend and hang out with on a regular basis. He was convinced that people in Graz were very closed and didn’t want to interact with anyone not from their city or its immediate surroundings. I have since heard very similar statements about other cities such as Barcelona, Milan, and London. Yes, in a way it is true, locals tend to have long

established friendships from kindergarten, school, work, sports and clubs. In their daily routines the “friendship time” is already taken up by these old friends and they don’t need new ones, especially considering the time and energy it takes to establish trust and intimacy. This makes it so hard in my opinion to “break” into established local groups in many places around the world.

Spending so much time with “foreigners” I got itchy feet and my curiosity got the better of me. This time, I applied for an Erasmus place at ICN Nancy, a well-regarded French private business school to obtain their International Management Diploma. The reaction of my parents and some of my friends was surprise. “You have already been away from Austria. Why would you leave Austria again?” Even now, after over 18 years of living abroad, I am still being asked, when I will go back home to settle down. I don’t have an answer to that question, yet.

The start in France was like jumping into the deep end of the pool, as I didn’t speak any French … a minor technical detail I had decided to ignore while applying for my scholarship. Fortunately most classes where taught in English, and the international student group was big and welcoming. It was a very international year, with friends from all over Europe coming to visit me. With friends from Cameroon and Martinique I explored Paris, but the Paris of the French speaking Africans and Caribbeans. Quite different to the Paris I later discovered as an adult with white French people. It was immensely powerful to experience two different worlds that occupy the same physical ground, without ever really touching, like true parallel universes. Beside this, there was very little transferable intercultural learning, there was no guided facilitation, little reflection on differences and commonalities, values or mental models. It was great fun; I worked hard for another diploma, but really, no significant development in terms of intercultural sensitivity in hindsight. Of course I learned more about the French way of living, what was important to them and how to get buy-in for group projects. This time there was no return culture shock. I went back to university and picked up where I had left off, including my need to leave again…