Richard was immediately intrigued last spring when he saw an ad that declared, “Pack Your Bags. Morocco is Calling. All Expenses Paid.” The Experiment in International Living was running an essay competition with the prompt, Why do you think understanding other cultures is important — now more than ever?
A sophomore at a Boston-area high school, Richard wanted to spend the upcoming summer abroad. And at a time when Islam and the Arab world was constantly in the headlines — particularly as a result of the U.S. government’s travel ban — he was also eager to understand more about the Arab world.
“I believe that fear and the lack of understanding of the Muslim culture creates a divide,” Richard wrote in his essay. “We, as Americans, should learn more about the Islamic culture because it will allow people to change the way they think towards the culture.”
Richard knows firsthand how people can misperceive others. He’s Vietnamese-American and often finds himself explaining Vietnamese customs to his friends, who mix them up with Chinese or other Asian traditions. “Being in a position where you don’t know a different culture kind of puts you at a disadvantage, so I think learning a different culture would help you expand your mind and your views on the world,” Richard explains.
Having impressed The Experiment staff with his thoughtful answers, Richard won the essay competition and earned the chance to expand his own mind on the Experiment trip to Morocco. “I kept an open mind and I went there ready to pretty much do anything,” he says.
Over the course of four weeks, Richard and his Experiment group immersed themselves in Moroccan life: they traveled to the modern capital Rabat, the former Imperial City of Marrakesh, and Fez, known for its ancient walled city. They rode camels in the Sahara Desert. They learned Morocco’s Arabic dialect Darija. And they stayed with local families for two weeks in the small agricultural village of Ait Ouahi, where they learned how to cook, weave, and dance shoulder-to-shoulder.
There was, of course, some culture shock. Though Richard had traveled to Spain the previous summer and lived in a homestay in Alicante, he had never been somewhere so little influenced by Western culture. For instance, in the tribal region of Ait Ouahi, there were no Golden Arches of McDonald’s lining the streets and no wifi access in his home. Five times a day, the Islamic call to prayer rang out from telephone poles, startling him at first. And it was extremely hot in the mountainous village.
But his Experiment leaders helped Richard and the other participants cope with the radically different culture in their orientation in Rabat and also by placing students in homestays near one another. Whenever Richard needed help or wanted to talk to another American student, he only had to walk 30 feet to the host family next door that housed one of the girls in his group. “I didn’t feel as lonely or intimidated or out-of-place, but I also had the experience to share with someone else,” he says. In time, he adjusted to Moroccan life — and gained a deeper understanding of the Arab world, just as he’d hoped he would when he entered the essay competition.
“I’ve been more confident in addressing some of these world issues where people are prejudiced against a certain religion or a certain race,” he says.
In the past, Richard used to be afraid to speak out when he heard friends or acquaintances express something incorrect or biased against Muslims, for example, connecting the religion to terrorism. But after spending time in Morocco, he says he now has the knowledge to correct these kinds of statements. “Now I can actually support Muslims and say that these [terrorist] ideologies don’t support what they support,” he says.
Now in his junior year, Richard is hoping to spend another summer abroad, though he’s not sure where yet. He’s still in touch with his friends from his Experiment program, which he credits with helping him to learn more about himself and his worldview. The time away from home, too, boosted his confidence and independence. Richard recommends the experience to anyone.
“Although there might be a few hardships and a few times when you might feel in a state of culture shock, I definitely think you should attend this trip,” he says. “It really does open up your eyes to new worlds.”