Battling Stereotypes in Eastern Europe

Written by  June 21, 2013

Vodka drinking? Disrespectful towards women? Amber discovers that there's more to a country than its reputation.

No matter how open-minded you are or how much research you have done, there are always stereotypes in your mind about a country before you arrive. You have heard about the culture, the food, clothing, normalities and the language, so you make a few gentle assumptions what the experience will be like.

Living in Vancouver where 40 per cent of the population is from outside of Canada, it gives you a certain perspective of other cultures—but that also sometimes makes stereotypes even stronger in a Vancouverite’s mind. Before leaving for Turkey, I had heard many different things about Turkish people and their country. Truth be told, I was a little nervous to go based on what I had been told and read online. Before going to Poland, I was excited by the things I had heard about Polish people, I was hoping some stereotypes were true. In the end, Turkey and Poland both shocked me on their stereotypes, some being very true and some quite the opposite.

Negative Stereotypes

In Turkey, there were many negative stereotypes about the people that lived across this diverse country. Many stereotypes originate from the fact that over 90 per cent of the population is Muslim or at least identified as a Muslim on their personal identification cards.

Many people have very negative feelings towards people that practise Islam; many make the ignorant assumption that all Muslim people tend to be highly involved in terrorist activities and that many men do not respect women along with various other damaging uninformed assumptions.

Once arriving in Turkey, all the people I met turned out to be more than respectful to women, kind and of course not involved in any illegal activities. Most Turkish people were actually very aware of the negative stereotypes that plague them and they are also very hurt that people from around the globe judge all Turkish people so harshly. I found that Turkish hospitality should be the most well-known stereotype about Turkish people; they were beyond amazing in helping with every step of my adventure in their country. I could not believe the extent of the kindness I met from every Turkish person that helped me from my Host family, AIESEC or even strangers helping a poor lost English speaking student.

Positive Stereotypes

Moving on from such a wonderful place made it hard to decide where to take my next internship. I decided to look talk to my traveler friends and see which countries had a good reputation, which is when I stumbled upon Poland and heard nothing but wonderful things. At first I thought, “But it’s Poland—there isn’t much to see there.” I sadly knew nothing about the wonders of Poland. Since I was travelling on my next internship alone with no other interns joining, I wanted to select an area where I would be comfortable meeting new people.

The major things I heard about Poland is that they are very friendly to foreigners and they like to drink vodka, these are both extremely true stereotypes. During my flight to Poland, I became lost in the airport and a Polish person saw and helped me find my way to the correct place and not only that but once they realized we were travelling to the same place, they also created a list for me of things to see in Poland and when we arrived, they paid for my bus fare to get to my dorm because my money hadn’t been exchanged yet—this was all for a stranger they had seen lost wandering the airport.

When arriving to my dorm, I was immediately greeted by my new roommates and other people from the same floor, many people eager to help and welcome me to the dorm. I couldn’t believe how quickly a foreign place could feel like home to me. I met people from all different regions of Poland and they all had one thing in common, they were possibly the nicest people I have ever met.

After one week I was introduced to the other major stereotype: drinking vodka. Vodka was an alarming factor to me because I am not much of a drinker and have a low tolerance for drinking. The first time we sat near the dorm on some blankets where I noticed there were five bottles of vodka, I was shocked thinking there was no way we could drink this amount of alcohol but they told me that we would probably need more. In the end it turned out to be true (as we were sharing among more than 20 people). But in Poland, drinking isn’t always about the effects of alcohol, it was more about sitting around sharing drinks with friends and being able to talk to each other. We spent the evening, shockingly enough all speaking in English and playing basketball and volleyball into the night.

It changed my mind from the negative stereotype of Eastern Europeans drinking too much vodka and being drunk. It showed me there is always another side to a stereotype even if the stereotype is the common use of vodka in Polish life. I have also learned they add vodka to their cakes and it is amazing!

Being abroad has shown me to open my mind and really be open to other cultures. I am glad I have been able to step outside my comfort zone and have been able to meet such wonderful people from different countries. It is amazing to see how some stereotypes formed and how some seem to just be manipulations of how some people think. During this time I have met people who have broken and proved different stereotypes and these people will stay as some of the closest people to my heart.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Amber Birch

Amber is a fourth-year marketing student from Vancouver, Canada. Amber is currently living abroad for her second internship with AIESEC in Krakow, Poland after finishing her first match with AIESEC Istanbul.

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