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Positionality Across Borders

Prior to studying in Copenhagen, I had heard a lot about its large biking culture. What I was not prepared for was almost getting trampled by a hoard of bikers during the early morning rush. I remember thinking, “What the fuck? Are they not going to stop for pedestrians??” I would soon face reality- no, they would not. I got angry. I would think back to my life in America and how pedestrians always had the right-of-way no matter what. But Denmark is not America, and in fact, most countries are not.

My name is Emma Skelton, I am a rising senior with a Psychology & Anthropology/Sociology double major, and I just returned from a brief study abroad trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. One day my anthropology professor told our class that there were a few open spots left in a Sustainability Seminar in Copenhagen, so I decided to apply despite my lack of experience with environmental studies. To my surprise, I got accepted to the program with a full scholarship (quick tip- APPLY FOR EVERYTHING YOU CAN…you might even get more than what you bargained for). Before I knew it, I found myself about to leave my dorm with seven other students for a 10 day trip to one of the world’s most sustainable cities!

During my stay, I learned about sustainability in the environment, the people, and the government. We visited waste-to-energy plants, the world’s highest rated restaurant with three Michelin Stars, local sustainable communities, and even beekeeping operations. With the weather at a consistent 66 degrees and the endless cobblestone streets lining my front doorstep, I can wholeheartedly say that Copenhagen is the best place on Earth. I also studied abroad last summer in Rome, Italy, which is also quite the place to visit. While both places were amazing, I dealt with a few internal stresses that I believe many people who travel have to face from time to time-the struggle of being American in a not-so-American place.

Before going on any trip abroad, I would suggest considering your positionality. Positionality is basically your view of the world based on your social, personal, and cultural upbringing and surroundings. For me, my positionality is defined by my life growing up in the American South. In the school system, we are often taught only about American history, literature, politics, and so forth. One of the most moving moments for me was when our professor asked us about wars in the 20th century. The entire class could only come up with wars America fought in. In this way, when I entered a new country, my positionality was completely different from that of the people who live there. Most of the people I encountered abroad do not know or care about ‘southern hospitality’ or college sororities or 4th of July barbecues. Instead, they are brought up with their own unique experiences that sometimes differ greatly from my own.

One of the most significant lessons I learned from studying abroad is to not assume everything you are used to doing at home is the ‘right’ way or even the ‘only’ way of living. American ethnocentrism is something that has been ingrained in us since childhood. We often think that if something deviates from American customs and traditions, it is wrong or strange. I had this mindset going in, and by the time I left my country of study, I didn’t even know what was considered the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things. But that change in perspective is exactly what is supposed to happen over the course of your time abroad! When you change your worldview, you realize that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only ‘different’. I came to realize that customs and traditions are as important to every other country as they are in America, and looking down on one country’s way of living would only negatively impact my experience.

The lack of iced beverages, AC, and personal space are a few things that got to me at first. I thought to myself, “What kind of country serves water without ice?” and “Why are these people getting so close to me that I can smell their aftershave?” Along with that, I was taken aback by the number of smokers in Europe, as well as the general directness of people. It took me a while, but I soon learned that many Europeans simply just don’t care enough to preserve your feelings about certain things, and they definitely don’t bullshit you. While all of these things freaked me out at first, I grew to love and/or understand them. I learned that just because something was different from my own culture, did not mean it was worth criticizing. Instead, I took it all in and found a balance between appreciating different lifestyles while also finding value in my own.

With that being said, one of my favorite things about my time abroad was learning how to acculturate into new societies. Not only did I try new things and form new habits/lifestyle choices, but I also kept my own culture with me throughout. I learned how to speak with people as directly as they spoke to me, while also saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ like I did back home. I tried to speak in the language of my country, but I still had an unmistakable American accent. And I definitely looked both ways before crossing the street, especially in the bike lanes. Studying abroad is an experience that I will always be grateful for. This is because it changed my mindset completely and I am a more open, accepting, and excited person for it! I look forward to many more trips abroad in the future with even more cultures and people to learn from!

Being comfortable and unchallenged is boring anyways.

- Emma


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