Navigating Difference While Abroad

Roma Sarathi headshot
Roma Sarathi
December 24, 2023

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to post about this as it is a topic that I find a little difficult to talk about, but I think it could be helpful for a lot of future students to know what it’s like feeling different while abroad and what I did to counter that. When I say “feeling different," I’m mostly talking about my appearance and my race, as Granada, while it may be more diverse than other cities in Spain, often found me confusing as an individual.

Once, upon entering a bazaar near my host mom’s house, I got asked if I was from India or Pakistan. I was unsure what to say, neither being completely true, but I hesitantly replied that I was from India. The owner of the shop hummed and nodded to himself, and finished ringing me up without another word about the subject. It wasn’t a particularly harmful question by any means and he didn’t seem to treat me differently based on the answer to my question or my appearance in general, but it was a jarring reminder that I did not really “fit in” to the city’s expectations. Not as a local, not as an American, and not as a girl either.

Something I noticed from a lot of the college girls my age while taking a class at the University of Granada, commonly referred to as UGR, is their very specific style that I often found in the windows of Zara or H&M. Not all of the people my age in the city dressed like this, but in the Facultad de Educación on Cartuja campus, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. I tend to wear more casual masculine clothes, or when I decide to wear dresses or a skirt, it’s never from a famous outlet and almost always from somewhere like my mom’s closet or a thrift store back home. The combination of my style, my short hair, and my Indian features sometimes got me looks just walking into a store or from passersby on the street. Again, most of these looks stemmed from harmless curiosity and people-watching, but it did always make me feel like an outsider. I sensed I was being observed by the locals in a way that made me, for a brief moment, the bug under their microscope.

I wish it could say that it got easier to deal with and it stopped after a certain amount of time there, but that would be lying. It did continue throughout my entire study abroad and I consistently felt like there was nothing concrete I could do. I noticed I started getting a little more insecure in how I looked, just in general, and it got harder and harder for me to remember and understand why I didn’t try to fit in with the examples around me. The support of my roommate and some friends I had made in the program were honestly the only things that motivated me to continue dressing the way that I do and feeling like I could still be myself in a different and contrasting environment.

After one night out in Granada, I confessed to a friend that maybe my life there would be easier if I dressed more femininely and she responded, “But would you feel like yourself?” and after I answered that I wouldn’t, I realized how easy it was to fall into a trap of insecurity and self-doubt. I worked hard to love and care for myself the way I do, and I shouldn’t let my uncomfort in a new location with new people change that. It’s difficult to feel and look different abroad where you might be without your support system or other people who understand what you’re going through, but the small community you make in your program, whether it be with the students or the staff, might be the only thing that helps you to keep remembering how you want to present yourself to the world.

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Roma Sarathi headshot

Roma Sarathi

I am a Linguistics major at Bryn Mawr College with a vow to learn as many languages as I can. You can find me eating Trader Joe's Chili & Lime Flavored Rolled Corn Tortilla Chips and rewatching a comfort show or movie.

2023 Fall
Home University:
Bryn Mawr College
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