unwritten

four months in ghana

If You’re Not Loving Being Abroad, You’re Not Alone

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.

 

Friendship, Fears and Football

 

Spending time with my Ghanaian classmates has been the best part of the last few weeks. I’m really glad to be taking multiple biology classes at the 300 level, because it means that I see the same group of people several times a week. In my last post I talked about how being extra friendly is important for making friends as a visiting student; to that, I would also add: say yes. Some of the best experiences I’ve had here are the ones I almost chickened out of — including an intra-department football (soccer) tournament that my biology classmates organized a couple weekends ago. While I love football, I had plenty of second thoughts about going, even after being invited by one of my classmates. I don’t know them that well, and they’re all such good friends. What if it’s awkward? What if they think it’s weird that I came? What if, what if, what if. 

And you know what? There were a lot of moments when I felt pretty awkward. Like when 90% of the jokes were in Twi, and therefore went over my head. Or when I was the only girl on the field, amidst twenty-one Ghanaian guys who all knew each other (and had never seen a girl slide-tackle). But all in all, I’m still so glad I said yes, and that I went.  Spending a day with my classmates outside of class was an invaluable cultural experience, a great way to bond and so much fun. By the end of the afternoon I was exhausted, slightly heat-struck and so, so, happy.

Honestly though, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, football (aka ‘the beautiful game’) is a universal love, and one that  has such a way of bringing people together ❤️

Life at the University of Ghana

So clearly blogging consistently is more of a challenge than I predicted, seeing as I’m a month (!!) into the semester with only one post to show for it! I have a newfound respect for my friends who blog regularly, that’s for sure. The past couple weeks have kept me busy, between figuring out my classes, settling into life at the International Students Hostel (commonly referred to as “ISH”) and applying for summer internships. But things are a bit calmer this week, meaning  that it’s the perfect time for me to fill you in on what I’ve been up to!

Even though the semester “officially” began three weeks ago, it feels I’m only now getting into the rhythm of classes. A lot of the classes that I’d planned to take conflicted with each other, so I had to start from scratch in creating my schedule. On top of that, each class only meets once a week and many professors don’t even show up in the first week. Thankfully the University of Ghana has a three-week shopping period, since I definitely needed the entire three weeks! The university follows the British model of education, which is a lot more hands-off than what we as Americans are used to. Classes are entirely lecture-based, and students are expected to learn as much from independent readings as we are from the teacher. It’s definitely different from the critical thinking and active participation that’s demanded in the States, but I do enjoy having the time to actually read and prepare for class (which is always a struggle at Cornell).

Being a foreign student also comes its own set of challenges, from figuring out where to find readings (hint: it’s not online!) to understanding the expectations for assignments. I had the biggest “fish out of water” moment last week during the lab section for my Public Health Zoology class, in which we had to observe and draw microscopic specimen of fleas, ticks and lice. Drawing has never been my strong suit, and three hours of drawing parasites in a stuffy lab (wearing a stuffy lab coat) wasn’t my idea of intellectual stimulation. I figured that at least it wouldn’t be too hard, but boy, was I mistaken. It took me twenty minutes of repeated squinting through the microscope to draw my first specimen, and another twenty minutes to re-do it after being told that my pencil line was all wrong. Apparently sketching is not an appropriate technique in zoological drawings (a “light, unbroken line” is preferred). Thankfully, my classmates were all very helpful in explaining how to properly draw and label the diagrams, and in cautioning me whenever I veered too much into sketching territory.

 

A blurry shot of a (somewhat) accurately diagrammed flea

Despite taking classes alongside local students, one of the biggest challenges of the past few weeks has been breaking out of the “international students’ bubble”. I live in the International Student’s Hostel, ended up with an American roommate and have formed fast friends with the other Americans on my program. Never did I expect that making Ghanaian friends would be a challenge — after all, the number one thing I kept hearing about Ghanaian culture was how friendly the people are! But while this is true, most of my classmates are also used to foreign students rotating through their classes each semester, so there’s not much of a novelty factor. I’ve also heard that since international students often sit and talk to each other in class (as is instinctual in an unfamiliar environment), it gives the impression that we think we’re too good to talk to the Ghanaian students.

All this means that the onus is on us to strike up conversations in class if we want to make friends. I’ve definitely had to push myself to be more extroverted than I usually am, and to not fall back on the other international students as a social crutch. It was hard and uncomfortable to put myself out there in the beginning, but I’m glad that I made the extra effort. I can already see a difference in my relationships with my classmates — when they see that I’m genuinely interested in talking and joking around with them, they really open up! Interestingly, Hindi movies and television serials are quite popular in Ghana, so my classmates are often eager to ask me about Indian culture and my religion. I often feel hyper-visible as one of the only South Asian people on campus, but I do think my ethnicity has given me an advantage over the other American students when it comes to making friends. I want to do a separate post about my experiences with race and gender here, so more on that later!

In the meantime, enjoy this picture of me feeding a monkey at the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary last weekend!

 

 

 

Ten Days In

I’ve tried and failed to write this first in-country blog post several times. My first ten days in Ghana have been jam-packed with activity, and it’s hard to find a place to begin! Each day has brought new experiences, people and habits into my life, yet the rapid novelty feels completely natural. They say that the first stage of adjusting to a new culture is the honeymoon stage, and I’m starting to see the truth in that. Even though my first week in Ghana has been exhausting and confusing, I’ve gotten used to life here entirely too quickly. So without further ado, here are some of my experiences, opinions and challenges from the past ten days:

The Food // Of course, the most important part of any travel blog is the food. Ghanaian food is very different from the Indian and American food I’m used to at home. Most dishes pair some sort of starch (rice, pounded cassava, yam, etc.) with a stew, sauce or plantains. Being vegetarian has definitely been a challenge here because a) Ghanaians eat a lot of meat, and b) they don’t seem to eat a lot of vegetables. Although staying vegetarian during my time here means missing out on aspects of the culinary experience, I’ve realized that it’s something important to me that I’d rather not compromise on. Instead, I’ve been taking advantage of all the delicious vegetarian options that are available to me — like fresh fruit, tea bread and egg sandwiches, jollof rice, beans and plantains!

A hearty, meat-free Ghanaian dinner

The Sights // My favorite part of the last ten days has been seeing new parts of the University of Ghana and the greater Accra region. UG is an enormous, sprawling campus, much like Cornell! Unlike Cornell, however, there are no hills (good) and every building looks exactly the same (bad). I set out to explore campus with a couple girls from my program the other day, and it must have taken us at least an hour to walk the entire perimeter. I’m not complaining though — anyone who knows me knows that I love walking!

Just one of many endless, tree-lined roads on campus

We also got the chance to see different parts of Accra and the areas surrounding it, after mastering the tro-tro system. Tro-tros are mini-vans which run along various routes throughout the city, and one of the main modes of public transportation in Accra.  Each tro-tro has a driver and a mate, who leans out the window and yells the direction that the particular tro-tro is going— it’s up to you, as a potential passenger, to decipher the different calls and figure out which tro-tro you need to be on to get where you’re going.  While the whole system seems a bit chaotic at first, it’s actually one of the most efficient and inexpensive ways to get around the city.

Makola Market in Accra, after successfully riding the tro-tro

The CIEE program also took us on a more formal city tour a couple days later, which was a great opportunity to see some of the historical landmarks of Accra.

Black Star Square, where Independence Day celebrations will be held in March!

Kwame Nkrumah National Park, honoring Ghana’s first president

And of course, all of us coming from the North American winter season were itching for a trip to the beach. After two failed attempts due to scheduling conflicts, we finally made it to the ocean on the last day before classes began.


Beautiful Bojo beach

The People // It sounds a bit strange, but one of the hardest things to get used to is how friendly the people are here. In the United States, it’s perfectly acceptable to ride the subway or stand in line without talking to the people around you. If someone does strike up a conversation, however, responding with friendly small talk and a smile is the appropriate, polite response. But in Ghana, people are much more likely to approach you to say hello, ask your name and where you’re going all in one breath — something that might come off as pushy if you tried it in Boston! The men, especially, are often eager to talk to foreign women, and I have a sneaking suspicion that some are more forward than they’d dare to be with Ghanaian women. Figuring out how to navigate and respect a more open, communicative culture (while still maintaining personal boundaries) will be a challenging, yet essential part of adjusting to life in Ghana.

Being Disconnected // Finally, an unexpected challenge of the last ten days has been being disconnected from events in the United States. This isn’t usually something I would complain about — I’m all for stepping away from social media, instant communication and the internet to be more fully grounded in the here and now. In fact, the first several days of spotty, low-bandwidth wifi felt more like a blessing than a curse. However, as headlines, photographs and news snippets from the States began to trickle in, I found myself desperately trying to find an internet connection to learn more about developing political and social crises back home. I ultimately splurged on a data pack that allows free access to social media apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, and have been much more in the loop since then. While letting go of social media is often an important step to immersing in a study abroad experience, it’s also a privilege in times like these. As a life-long resident of the United States, it’s heartbreaking to watch what’s going on at home and be helpless to do anything. But as a citizen, I feel it’s imperative to be informed and in solidarity, even from so far away.

So for my first ten days in Ghana, that’s about it! I’d love to hear any thoughts or questions from you in the comments, so don’t be shy 🙂

Sending lots of positive energy from Legon — until next time.

Pre-Departure Thoughts

The countdown to my flight to Ghana is on. And yet, I find myself feeling strangely calm for someone about to jet off to a new country for four months. After a whirlwind trip to New York City and Washington D.C. last week, I spent the weekend celebrating Sankranti, catching up with friends, hanging out with my mom and attempting to pack.  There’s nothing like leaving a place for a sizable amount of time to make you appreciate it all the more, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing as I get ready to leave home. As someone who is always looking ahead and thinking (read: stressing) about the future, I’m pretty impressed with myself for basking in the present.

Where has this newfound zen come from, you might ask? Partly it’s the fact that I associate long international flights, scorching heat and bustling, non-Western cities with India, and thus familiarity. Partly it’s the fact that I know that most of the thoughts that flit through my head when I’m trying to fall asleep (Will I make friends? Am I packing the right clothes? What if I hate it??) will probably become non-issues once I actually land in Accra.

But mostly, I keep returning to a concept I learned in my class on bioethics this semester, that of unknown unknowns:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

This quotation by Donald Rumsfeld (used to defend one of the more questionable decisions in recent US foreign policy, but that’s for a different blog), sums up my attitude towards study abroad. As much as I peruse travel blogs, grill former participants or type “study abroad ghana reflection” repeatedly into Google, there will still be things that I don’t even know I don’t know about life in Ghana and what the transition to a new university will be like. Unknown unknowns are the reason why life is unpredictable and messy, but it’s also why things sometimes turn out better than you could have ever predicted. Ever since I realized this, I’ve been been uncharacteristically relaxed about my impending departure — because how can I be nervous if I have no idea what to even be nervous about?

Which brings me to this blog. My name, Alekhya, is a Sanskrit name with several interpretations. The one my parents always told me was that of “an unwritten book”, which, as the bookworm child that I was, I absolutely loved. The idea of my life as an unwritten storybook, just waiting for me to fill its pages, seemed at once bold and romantic. (And proof that I was destined to become a journalist, for whatever reason.)

As a young adult, however, I’ve found increased significance in a second interpretation of my name, which is “that which cannot be written”. There are some experiences and sentiments that we struggle to find the words for, and so they often go unshared. Sometimes it’s because there are literally no words to describe that Cabot’s sundae or mountaintop vista; other times it’s because we struggle to explain ourselves without offending another person or feeling a little silly.

Over the next four months, I’d like to challenge myself to write the unwritten and share all my unknown unknowns (once I figure out what they are). My goals for this blog are simple: to write consistently, and to write honestly. While there’s obviously a limit to what I’ll publish on a public blog, I hope to portray every experience that I do write about without the rose-colored glasses that I’d usually don for small talk or posts on social media (#guiltyascharged). And if you’re reading this blog and somehow manage to keep up with my stream-of-consciousness, I hope you’ll share a comment or two as well!

And now, it’s time for me to take a real shot at packing… Until next time!

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