It’s common knowledge that in the cosy student community we have here in Bangor, you are likely to be 2-4 mutual friends away from any other student. The same can be said for knowing a student who has participated in the Erasmus exchange programme – and not just because we bang on about that one time when we drunkenly hiked up the Austrian Alps with nothing but a jar of aged sauerkraut and our well-disputed sense of direction. Rather, you will likely know us because Erasmus is the number one, and most popular, student exchange scheme in Europe. It is available to all European students who want a glimpse into life working or studying overseas and leaves partakers with life-long memories and valuable experiences. That, and troubles getting through customs with the extra five kilos worth of random memorabilia. You can’t explain why you need it, but you just do.
Despite the wacky events and colourful characters that every Erasmus student encounters on their travels, there is the one rather life-changing process that takes place. Many Erasmus students can relate to the feeling of a cultural shift after spending their year or semester abroad. Not only do their attitudes towards different cultures change, but also their feelings towards their own. Living for 6-12 months in a foreign country converts even the most introverted of Erasmus students. Being immersed in an entirely alien world is a 360-degree experience and one that often blurs the ideologies and morals that you held as standard. You begin from scratch and build up a mental log of the new social norms of situations you wouldn’t have given a second thought back in your home country. This process is the beginnings of adopting a new culture into your way of living, and ultimately transitioning to being ‘bicultural’.
Now, granted, the period of an Erasmus exchange is a tiny drop in the ocean compared to the cultural transitions made by the likes of asylum seekers and immigrants who have often travelled far and wide and to different continents to simply find a home. But after hearing many of my fellow Erasmus goers stories and reactions to their placements, it’s easy to see how this exchange programme is, in many ways, a small-scale version of a very large and common phenomenon.
However, it is not always all eye-opening, mind-expanding and amazingly liberating stuff. Even the least integrated Erasmus students will suffer from a spell of an interesting concept called ‘reverse culture shock’. This theory states that after adapting to and integrating into a new culture, it is possible to become so familiar and content with it that home becomes foreign. Having experienced it myself, I can say that it was single-handedly the most bizarre feeling I have ever had. To return to England and fail at basic systems like paying for your coffee immediately (as opposed to tootling off and enjoying it at your table like many Italians do), or getting on the bus and walking straight past the driver without paying because, whoops, we don’t have ticket machines in the bus like they do in Austria, is a sensation hard to put into words. Not only because of my now reputation as a small-time criminal, but because you know you should know how life functions at home, but the default response has changed. Small and daily but repetitive mistakes like this, and even basic interactions with people, can lead you to feel like a complete outsider in your own country.
To see what the consensus was on this sensation, I got in touch with Erasmus students from Bangor and other universities around the UK. I asked them to complete a short survey about their post-placement feelings toward their cultural identity. 93% of the students who partook agreed that after returning from their Erasmus placement, they felt considerably more bi-cultural than before. A further 75% of the participants went on to agree that during their first 2 weeks back in the UK, they noticed a feeling of foreignness when presented with everyday situations and that they felt split between their culture in the UK and the one of their Erasmus placement.
What I thought was very telling, however, was the response to the final statement: “I would rather feel 100% comfortable in one culture, than 50% comfortable in two different ones.” Just under 70% of the participants disagreed with or were not worried by this concept, and would be happy to share their cultural identity between two cultures, even if it meant being half as comfortable in both. This is to me, and many, the epitome of the Erasmus spirit. Stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing something strange and scary may be difficult at first but sacrificing a little familiarity for a lot of new can lead to ventures and self-successes you never thought possible before.