W. That’s the letter of the alphabet that is supposedly most predictive of my emotional state over four months in a new culture. Each peak and valley of the W represents a stage in the process of adjusting into and out of a host culture, as explained by the diagram below:
During my first two months in Ghana, I never quite felt that this model really captured my experience. “Honeymoon” and “culture shock” felt like too strong of adjectives to describe what I was feeling. I had conversations that brought me joy and excitement, just as I had experiences that left me frustrated and annoyed. Mostly, though, my days felt low-stress and low-key, interspersed with high and low moments. My path felt less like a W and more like a ramen-noodle-shaped squiggle.
My emotional state over the past two months
But, as most pieces of advice that are disregarded during orientation sessions, this model has come back to haunt me. Especially as I’ve definitely hit the “conflict” valley of the W, which my CIEE-mates and I call the “hostility phase”. Although I definitely had moments of annoyance, confusion, loneliness, you name it in my first two months here, these emotions were temporary and usually attached to some surmountable challenge. But in the last couple weeks, the negative emotions have swelled to outweigh the positive, creating a nagging and undeniable feeling of hostility towards my current environment.
As common as hostility is during a cultural immersion experience, it is also one of the most unmentioned aspects of the study abroad experience. No one posts on Facebook or Instagram about how lonely they are, about how much they miss home food or about how frustrated they are by the public transit system in their city. But the reality is that studying abroad presents obstacles and unknowns every day. Of course, most of us know this going in, and the prospect of challenging ourselves is a motivation for choosing to study abroad in the first place. I’m confident that my hostility won’t last, and I know that these uncomfortable moments are only growing pains. But I think it’s important to remember that these moments do exist, no matter how much you may love your host country.
In Ghana, the hyper visibility I have as a foreign woman has been my greatest source of hostility and frustration. Perceptions of foreign women (regardless of race) as “easy” mean that men have fewer qualms about being more forward, invasive and persistent in their interactions with us than they would be with Ghanaian women. Walking anywhere on campus often means being approached by strangers who want to “be your friend”, know your phone number, your room number, when they can see you again, etc. etc. Or sometimes it means being followed into your hall by a man trying to hit on you, or being stared at so intently that you mistakenly assume that there’s a television behind you (true stories).
At first, I wondered if these interactions only seemed inappropriate to me as an American, and maybe weren’t considered rude or too forward in a Ghanaian context. But when I told some of my Ghanaian classmates about these daily encounters, they found them just as strange and inappropriate as I did. Just as there are those kind souls who will go out of their way to help you when they see that you’re lost, I’ve learned that there are also many who will try to take advantage of your unfamiliarity with the social rules of a different culture.
Constantly deflecting unwanted attention, defending my personal boundaries and ensuring my physical safety is exhausting. After a long walk back from lectures in the midday sun, the last thing I want to do is have to shake off some guy who’s trying to follow me into the halls. I’m a very independent person, and I feel my agency shrinking when I have to make decisions about where to go— and whether I should go alone —based on how much harassment I’m likely to encounter. Even when I do decide to walk to get dinner at the nearby Night Market by myself, it’s with a brisk pace and a strict avoidance of eye contact, in order to discourage unwanted interaction.
Maybe I should be used to this as a city dweller, but I really hate the fact that I have to assume the worst of everybody in order to protect myself. By no means is it the case that all Ghanaian men are creepy, or that women aren’t respected here as much as they are anywhere else. On the contrary, I’ve met so many wonderful people in my classes, in my hall and in the community. But being an obvious foreigner also has its challenges. Visibility in itself is not an unfamiliar experience to me — I feel it both in the United States and in India, despite belonging to both places in different ways. Even so, the treatment that my visibility often provokes in Ghana, especially on the Legon campus, is a constant challenge to my agency, my comfort and my patience.
But as my mom pointed out as I ranted to her over the phone the other day, I didn’t choose to study abroad, especially here in West Africa, because I wanted to be comfortable. I chose to come here to experience a different culture, to form meaningful connections and to grow as an individual. The social challenges of being a foreigner have made me more assertive on the streets, more outgoing in the classroom and, most importantly, more confident in unfamiliar spaces. I’m continuing to learn about myself, about which parts of my personality and value system change based on the cultural environment I’m in, and which parts are fundamentally sewn into my character.
Hostility, I’ve learned, is an important emotion for a study abroad student to probe, because it’s an indicator of what you value and how you react when those values are challenged. But that doesn’t mean that loneliness, frustration and every other negative emotion don’t feel shitty in the moment. I’m grateful to have a supportive community of women and men on my program who give me strength in the low moments, and with whom I can have candid conversations about our experiences. I hope that everyone abroad right now has someone like that in their lives— know that if you’re deep in the hostility phase right now, chances are you’re not alone.