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The importance of mutual cultural understanding

Having international roommates can be intimidating and exhilarating. Even without variations in cultures and languages, consider how different people can be. When I first came to Ireland, I had no information about how many roommates I would have or whether they would be American, Irish or of a different nationality. This uncertainty left me with many questions about what it would be like to communicate, share a space and live with a diverse group of people.

My roommates, I’ve come to discover, are from a wide variety of countries including Slovakia, Denmark and Spain. My Slovak roommate, Viki, and I have come to understand each other more since we first met. Despite the differences in our personalities, she understands when I need to be alone and I understand that she often needs to be around others. One of the most important things that Viki does is make an attempt to include me despite the fact that I don’t speak Slovak. When her Slovak friends come over, she encourages them to switch to speaking in English when I’m around, which I really appreciate as it allows me to be a part of the group. The level of respect that Viki and I have fostered means a lot to me, allowing me to feel more comfortable in my living space. It has also taught me that connection with those whom you wouldn’t expect to get along with is possible as long as you’re willing to create mutual understandings.

My Danish roommate, Ilse, was the one that I immediately thought that I would be the closest to, as we share a similar sense of humor. However, in terms of customs and culture, we have had the hardest time connecting. Despite our shared language, we often run into cultural miscommunications. A few days ago I was trying to explain to her the concept of an American TV show and she didn’t seem to quite understand. It isn’t that we don’t try to understand each other, but rather that the cultural barrier can sometimes be hard to overcome.

Stereotypes have often caused rifts between the two of us as well. There seems to be a common sentiment in other parts of the world that all Americans are well-off. The topic of economic standing is something that I’m not used to discussing, as it is considered a taboo subject in the U.S. This has often led to tension between my roommates and I, as their view of me as an American is different than the reality. Despite these cultural issues, Ilse and I continue to try and work together in order to create a better relationship and understand each other on a deeper level.

Despite the language and cultural barriers, my roommates and I continue to reach out and try to connect in order to overcome our differences and create a comfortable living space. Food has been one of those little things that brings us together and cooking has created an opportunity for us to learn more about one another. Figuring out what everyone likes, preparing the food and then sharing a communal meal has created a space for us to work together and learn about our different cultures. My roommates and I get together in the kitchen and cook as a group once a month, taking turns making dishes that represent our respective cultures.

When living with a diverse group of people, it’s key to find common ground, whether it’s food, or a shared hobbies, such as watching sports or even just talking about the day. Attempt to learn about the cultures of those around you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more you learn about their home, their family and their culture, the easier it is to live together and create lasting relationships.

When abroad, you will often encounter people with a different perspectives and cultural understandings of the world, but the more you work to understand the origins of these cultures and perspectives, the easier it is to co-exist and even create new friendships. This understanding is also what makes studying abroad such an amazing experience, so take advantage of the ups and downs. Once you understand those around you, everything else will start to fall into place.

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