Mary Filiatrault knew she wanted to travel after she visited her best friend in Italy. Even though she could not understand what the language the Italians were speaking, it was an eye-opening experience that made her wonder what exactly they were saying.
“I realized, ‘Wow they were making a lot like of noises with their mouths and I want to understand,’” said Filiatrault, a senior at University of North Alabama. “I realized because I love people and I want to talk to anybody and everybody as much as I can, I wanted to learn as many languages and get as proficient as I could to be able to break those barriers, have those conversations and understand differences.”
Since then, Filiatrault has been traveled out of the country with UNA’s study abroad, a program that allows students to go overseas and take classes with people who share the same majors, but from all over the world.
Filiatrault was able to spend seven months in Germany and immediately after, received a scholarship with the Chinese government to study in China for a year.
“It was kind of terrifying in the beginning because I grew up from Chicagoan parents so I was taught a lot of city rules – to be skeptical of people – and I really applied those especially when I was in abroad,” Filiatrault said. “After a while with a better understanding of my environment, that kind of went away. I would say [now] that I like to adapt easily so where I am, is where my home is.”
When she was Germany, she stayed in Aachen, a city nearby the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
“[Aachen] is a really good place to experience different cultures with really nice people,” Filiatrault said. “My only complaint would be how close the buildings were. Like sometimes, I could go a long time without looking up and seeing the sky because I’d look up and see building after building; however, even that was part of the ancient charm of historic Aachen.”
Whereas in China, Filiatrault stayed in Tianjin, a municipality in Northern China, which was more modern-looking than her previous stay.
“It reminds me a lot of Chicago,” She said. “Some of the people who were with me in Tianjin, who would tell me the history of the city, would say that a lot of the skyscrapers were built within the last 10 to 30 years, and so the entire city just grew from 0 to 100 right away. It was really interesting.”
Filiatrault said going from Germany to China was a complete 180.
“Oh, it’s so hard [to choose a favorite] because I feel like I have learned so much in both of them,” She said. “It’s a very humbling experience, essentially you’re a child again. You come into a culture and you don’t know anything, you can’t speak correctly, you can’t express your thoughts and you don’t know how to do the most basic things that you learn when you are young – to shop or doing laundry, all these different things.”
She said when you go abroad you are only dependent on your ability to learn.
Filiatrault was able to take a lot away from her experiences in the two countries. She learned that there are major cultural differences between China, even grocery shopping.
“In Germany, for example, I would bring my own bag because they are very environment friendly over there, and I would put my groceries in my own bag, I’d take it to the front and I’d check out, always with cash,” Filiatrault said. “Then, in China, you don’t pay with cash or even card. Typically, you pay everything with your phone. In China, I started to put things in my bag like I did in Germany because I assumed it was similar, but I got stopped for stealing.”
She said she did not speak the language at the time so it was a lot of hand gestures and a bunch of I’m sorries before the police took pity on her.
It was harder for her to get out of her comfort zone and ask for help while she was in Germany.
“I was embarrassed to do certain things because I knew I didn’t know,” Filiatrault said. “Like buying a ticket for the train, one time in Cologne I was trying to go back to Aachen. I could read everything on the machine, but I didn’t know how to pay. Instead of just asking someone, I waited until everyone was gone to figure it out and just press all the buttons.”
However, in China, she realized that she needed to get rid of her pride and ask questions because it was holding her back from learning.
“The less I am able to see people get to know about my culture from an outside point of view but also get to know their culture and history too,” Filiatrault said. “I’ve realized the more resistant I am to ask someone for help, the less I am able to learn how other people think and experience. For me, it was perfect and miserable all at the time, knowing that every single day I woke up I was going to have to figure something out, but the challenge is what beautifully forms the experience.”
Filiatrault said she has never been the kind of person who liked to ask for a lot of help. She has always been more of a caretaker but to be assisted was “very humbling.”
Among many other lessons that she has learned, Filiatrault also saw how her American culture could be misunderstood by others.
“A lot of times [in Germany] I was told that I smiled too much, that I was too loud or that I was too friendly,” She said. “At first, I took that really personally and I was really offended by it because I was only trying to be friendly, but it was really a good thing that people were telling me this.”
Filiatrault said that she was able to learn that if she was smiling all the time, being too friendly or too loud, people might not want to communicate with her because maybe it seemed suspicious or it made them uncomfortable.
“In China, I feel that in Asian cultures, smiling can be taken as a sense of embarrassment,” She said. “Sometimes when I would try to talk to someone or I would make jokes, and I thought they were smiling for the same reason as me. I didn’t realize until later that this was embarrassment for some – whether it be someone being embarrassed to speak English or something that I would say that was maybe off colored to another culture. So, I really learned to be very sensitive about how I was speaking.”
Filiatrault often found herself feeling uncomfortable in conversations that strayed away from her own conversational norms. While something as simplistic as “How is your family?” was a typical question thrown into a conversation, Germans preferred to know a person’s political views.
She said she realized she had to stop asking people about their families because they often got offended by it, and yet people would come up to her and ask questions like: “What do you think about President Trump? What do you think about guns?”
“That was a big culture shock for me,” Filiatrault said. “Not only did I realize that when I was intending to get to know someone better or to be polite and asking them about their lives, I was offending them; I was also being offended by someone asking me about something I wasn’t used to be asked about.”
In the midst of overcoming language barriers and cultural differences, she was able to make plenty of friends from all over the world – ones that she remains in touch with regularly.
“These friends are people I know – in like 50 years – if I’m ever just randomly overseas, or if I ever need to talk, I can always send them a message,” Filiatrault said. “These are lifelong friends and I think a lot of time, we take that for granted.”
She said when you are abroad and you are all struggling, and that it is having something like that in common is what makes a relationship so strong because you meet in tough times.
“You vent about tough situations, so when you’re [overseas] and you don’t have something as simple as the comfort of familiar food, you’re able to bond with these people over something that’s really just much more deeper and personal than I feel a lot of relationship you might make otherwise,” Filiatrault said.
Senior Dakota Rosson said that he met Filiatrault in German class, where they talked about her interests in studying abroad. Rosson had already been abroad in Germany before and was able to help Filiatrault with his familiarity of the country.
“I did a six month study abroad [in Germany],” Rosson said. “The whole experienced, I loved it, but it was difficult.”
Rosson said he learned that he does have some anxiety, and that was something he had to get over.
“Being in that environment kind of heightens your weaknesses and that’s something people don’t really talk about with study abroad,” He said. “It’s not always what you see on Instagram, it’s a lot of things you have to work through.”
He feels like these are things everyone is going to go through at one point in their life, so why not beat it now and learn about it?
“It’s the best way to grow, putting yourself where you are uncomfortable and seeing what happens,” Rosson said. “You’ll be surprised about how much you’ll learn about yourself - what you like, what you don’t like, how far you can go.”
Filiatrault does not only plan on limiting her travels to western European countries and China. But rather, she hopes to have enough money to visit her friends in other countries too.
One day she said that she would like to go to Morocco, Turkey and India.
“Morocco because I love the designs,” Filiatrault said. “I think it’s so beautiful and they speak French, so it would hopefully be easier for me to get around. Turkey because I have a great friend in there and also because I love the food. India because it’s so different with one of the oldest cultures. Also, I would like to get to know the concept of polytheism from a more personal rather than textual experience.”
The whole study abroad program was a learning experience, but perhaps the biggest lesson that Filiatrault has learned is that although people are so different, they are equally alike.
“We just kind of wrap our lives and situations up in different gift wrap paper, but in the end you open it up and it’s the same present,” She said. “And I just think that’s so beautiful.”