The Ever-Changing Traveler: Do our values really change when we move abroad?

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Arguably one of the most difficult parts of picking up my life and moving 5,000+ miles across the Atlantic was leaving behind my network of “critical friends” and jumping into a less critical, more traditional world. I’m not going to lie, before leaving my comfortably leftist cocoon that is the Bay Area, I was afraid that somehow leaving behind my community would mean leaving behind my values, too. The experience begged the ever-unanswered question, how does one resist negotiating her hard-and-fast values without isolating the world around her? Ultimately I think the answer is going to look different for each of us, because it largely depends on what (or whether) you’re willing to compromise, what you’re hoping to gain from your experiences, and most of all why you’re on the move.

In the world of cross-cultural psychology, the consensus among researchers is that one’s culture largely dictates one’s set of values (though how and why culture determines this is still debated). Dr. Shalom H. Schwartz, one of the most revered and established cross-cultural psychologists in the field, has spent his career grafting one of the most widely referenced theory of values. His theory has led to research about how which values are important to each culture, to each gender, how they’re affected by political regimes and social movements. Time and time again, Schwartz’s theory has given us the tools to understand that each culture and/or nations emphasizes a different set of values, and has shed light on how this shapes our personal identities.

By now you might be thinking, what the hell does some Dr. Psych in the Middle East have to do with living abroad? Well, Schwartz’s value research is actually quite significant for those of us claiming to be global citizens because our values are essential pieces of who we are, increasingly so when we travel. While traveling inevitably exposes us to new values, the reasons behind our migration and the length of our stay really determines whether these values will stick.

Whether or not your migration is by choice, or whether or not you’re moving permanently, or whether or not you feel attached to your home culture are all things that affect what cross-cultural researchers call “acculturation” – in other words, adjusting to and “acting like” the new culture. (Mind you, the culture’s openness to accepting you and the level of prejudice you face is a whole ‘nother conversation.) In fact, a lot of research points to the fact that our age is a major determinant to; the younger you are when you (permanently) move, the more likely it is that your values might shift towards those of the new culture’s. All of this to say, for students who move abroad for the short-term (i.e. 1-5 years) it’s unlikely that your core principles are going under the bus on our way into town. Still, you will face some confrontation that can be both harsh and rewarding, and it’s good to be prepared for it.

Growing up, I was never one to passively accept the value systems imposed on me- half because I questioned everything, and half because I was a rebellious little sh*t on a mission (what that mission was, however, changed as often as my outfits.) Needless to say, I ended up falling in with the counterculture and rejecting most conservative mainstream American values. So for me, living abroad presented a bit of a challenge between trying to settle in without harshly negotiating my politicized values. More than this, though, it was a seriously beneficial opportunity because it gave me a chance to test my progressivism in a sea of new perspective and evaluate which held water and which didn’t (so to speak). For my own sanity (and arguably my own comfort), I made a point of it to network and build up my “critical friends” community early, jumping on board with a Feminist reading group and then registered for London’s Feminism Conference in 2013. For the most part, I just wanted to keep that part of my heart n’ soul active, but eventually I realized that despite the many similarities, feminism in Europe has a different face than that of the U.S; this was where the learning truly began.

As a feminist abroad, the arguments I once had about my social structures were stripped completely out of context. Countercultures by their nature often hold beliefs that oppose those of the mainstream, and politicized countercultures (i.e. feminism) often prioritize these beliefs based on the inequalities that their mainstream structures impose. The pathway to inequality is paved by each context’s sociopolitical history, and so the pursuit of social justice is dependent on the complexities of that history. As a West Coast native, I learned quickly the value of humility as a feminist in a new cultural context. Quite frankly, West Coast elitism just didn’t fit into the international equation because suddenly your once-limited world opens up to an almost startling depth of perspective when it comes to how deep the corruption runs in the veins of the earth’s politics, and you’re forced to reconcile your priorities with the priorities of those who now surround you.

In hindsight I wouldn’t say my values changed, but I would say that my experiences as a traveler and as an expat added some international insight to my feminist fanny pack (heh heh, get it Brits?) When you’re a student abroad, I (and several cross-cultural studies) would argue that you aren’t immersed in the new culture nearly long enough to completely alter or reverse the 20-something+ years of indoctrination your homeland has already done. But the experiences do give you perspective and the contrast needed to understand the full context of who, what, when, where, why, and how’s your value system came to be, which is critical for any human being’s personal development if you don’t want to walk through life an ignoramus.

So in sum, your values likely won’t change but might be altered slightly, but only in the sense that they improve based on that you’ve gained tremendously valuable (*pun intended) life experience to back it with. If you’re coming from a critical perspective, you don’t suddenly leave all of your beliefs sitting on the shelf back home while you rage like an Ivy League frat boy and reek havoc on your new environment; you take this mindset with you, and view everything from the eyes you always looked through.

For those of you who’ve traveled with a different, less political set of values, what are your experiences? If you’re a student who has moved abroad for a few years, what advice might you bestow upon the next generation of expats?

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