Oberlin Blogs

Ryba Na Suchu (Fish Out of Water)

September 21, 2014

Margaret Saunders ’16

Over my two years here, I have heard the phrase "the Oberlin bubble" used by professors, campus staff, and students alike when referring to the sensation of forgetting what the rest of the world can be like once you have settled on campus. For many, the Oberlin bubble refers to a comfort zone or safe zone that we associate with being at school, or even a mental state we may have as a result of spending so much time with our peers and professors. After all, Oberlin, OH, is most definitely not the world's biggest tourist town, and throughout most of the year we don't really interact with many non-Obies or townies, and tour groups don't count. Many warn that seniors may have difficulty leaving the bubble behind for "the real world" once they graduate. So I guess you could say that with me starting my junior year in a foreign country, I'm getting a head start on leaving more than one bubble!

Dobrý den and greetings from the Czech Republic! For my fall semester of my junior year, I am studying abroad in Prague with CIEE and Charles University. Though my classes officially begin tomorrow, already I feel like I have left the Oberlin bubble far, far behind me. Not only because of the obvious differences between Oberlin and Prague--the language, the landscape (hills!), the lack of Flex Points to buy my groceries with--but also in changing my behavior to suit this new sphere I have entered. Although I am living with other American students and all of my classes will be taught in English, adjusting to these new circumstances will take some time, if not the entirety of the four months I will be here.

Much of our orientation lectures at CIEE focused on dealing with culture shock, learning Czech social customs and norms, and comparing how American are stereotyped by Czechs with how Americans stereotype Czechs. Many students I've spoken with agree that in Prague we feel pressured to try and blend in as much as possible, and that to a degree we must shed our American customs and behavior to accomplish this. But until now, I had never considered how many of my cultural values have been shaped not only by my upbringing, but also by the culture of Oberlin.

Yes, Oberlin does have a culture, just like all colleges do. I do admit to stereotyping the other students I've met here, and learned that it's hard to meet so many people and avoid reducing their behaviors to their college experiences. Frequently I have to remind myself that the differences between who goes to a big state football school and who attends a prestigious Ivy League university can be small or great for many, many reasons besides which acceptance letter they decided to pick two or more years ago. I try to remind myself that other people can base their opinion of me on Oberlin's reputation--that is, if they're one of the few people who have actually heard of it. And when someone tells me they have no impression of Oberlin at all, I find myself stereotyping my own college: "People think of us as a hippie school." "Half of our students are from LA, and the other half are from New York." "We're known as a bunch of extreme liberals." "Yeah, Oberlin is kind of weird."

At the same time, meeting Czech students and locals proves how foreign all of us at CIEE really are. We are expected to be loud, to tip more than expected, to be too informal or impolite with strangers, and sometimes no matter how hard we try, we can't help but fit these moulds Czechs think we should fill. Nothing I do that's particularly "Oberlin" would stand out to a Czech as something different from the overall sphere of "American" behavior they expect, and maybe most Americans wouldn't be able to notice it either, but my Oberlin culture and how I engage with it is still very present in my own mind. Sometimes it feels like I have to choose which group I want to fit in with and change my behavior accordingly: whether I'm spending time with my friends, American students in general, or Czechs greatly affects how I speak, behave, and even sometimes emote!

Though I surely won't change my entire personality just to be able to buy groceries at the supermarket in Prague, moving through these cultural zones and different "bubbles" has been an incredibly enlightening experience so far. I am eager to explore and share more of my new city and my new college world for the rest of this semester, and look forward to comparing bubbles I have lived in once I return in the spring.

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