I’ve found it difficult to put my own experience with the “Do’s and Don’ts of Studying Abroad” into words so the following is a fictional narrative of two characters who exemplify opposite sides of the students studying abroad spectrum. While characteristics have been taken from personal experiences in Paris these characters are in no shape or form real people.
A small town American boy sees a flyer for studying abroad. He wonders what Paris is like. He’s seen it in the movies he likes that others used to make fun of him for enjoying. The arts, painters and subtitled Criterion foreign films, things that are different… But he’s used to that notion. That’s why he was so happy when he got the scholarship to go to college in another state. Even then he’s still surrounded by the same types of people. He didn’t get that far. The notion of something new is exciting. He wants to widen his horizons to those outside of this landlocked English space. He gets a second job to pay for his online French lessons and researches the people of Paris and their customs. He purchases his first plane ticket and he goes.
A big city American girl sees a flier for studying abroad. She’s seen Europe with her family. Her grandparents have paid for multiple trips across the globe. She knows the café-a-day drill, but she thinks that the trip to Paris will look good on her Instagram feed and she loves Midnight in Paris. So she applies, gets accepted, and she gets a job because her parents want her to learn to take ownership and take care of herself. They still pay for her program fee. She wants to meet new people and network around the globe. She spends days in the fresh-pressed juicery near her Brentwood house researching the best dining in France and day trips she can take by the train. She plans on visiting London again and focuses on boutiques around the area and bookshops to check out. Her parents book her plane ticket and she goes.
A small town American boy and a big city American girl crash into one another in a restaurant a week after they’ve both arrived. They’re with separate schools. Separate programs. In separate arrondissements. But they’ve both gotten lectures on cultural adaptation. They’ve both learned how they’re supposed to behave and respect those around them.
“Pardon,” he says quietly.
“Excuse you,” she laughs rudely.
They part and return to their own tables. She returns to her friends who have all been laughing uproariously at an event earlier. The waiter comes to their table. He doesn’t speak English that well, but they don’t even try to speak French.
“Yeah so can we get this salad without the egg and the steak medium rare? Could you make sure the latte has a heart in the foam?”
The waiter shakes his head and tries to reason out what they’re saying.
“Ugh do you not even speak English? Is there someone who does?”
“Wait I don’t think they’re serving food right now. Remember what they said about 4-7?”
The waiter tries to explain that they can only get drinks and small snacks currently.
A scene is caused and in the midst of it all the American girl’s purse is taken by one of those Parisian pickpockets the country is so well known for back in the states. A bit of karma, but also a bit of not paying attention to where her belongings are at all times. The girls leave without paying, while Snapchatting their exit without noticing that they’re one purse short.
The American boy apologizes in broken French and compliments the waiter on his kindness and patience and the authentic dish he recommended. He leaves the restaurant in higher spirits, but dampened at the loneliness he feels even with the ability to somewhat speak the native language. There are so many romanticized aspects of Paris he thinks about, but you can only eat in a café and write personal musings before you get so lonely it’s bordering on unhealthy. Humans crave companionship. So he acts on it. He vows not to wallow in his apartment watching Netflix because it’s comfortable. He contacts other students in the group. He finds some common interests, they swap tips on boulangeries and eateries and homework assignments, take stupid touristy photos that don’t hinder locals, and he starts to truly thrive in Paris.
The American girl soon realizes that she’s missing something and rushes back to the restaurant once again. Security footage is gone through and there it is. Plain as the English she depends on. Her purse has been stolen 30 minutes prior and there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it, but rush back to the student apartment and cancel her credit cards and deal with the mess that is not watching her own belongings. She blames the waiter as she rants on Facebook to everyone at home who obviously understands what a terrible time she’s having in Paris. Europeans just don’t get Americans obviously.
Don’t force yourself to study abroad if you aren’t ready to attempt to understand another culture or if traveling really isn’t the thing for you.
Do let yourself out of your comfort zone to try new experiences, meet new people, and discover new things about yourself that you may not have believed possible.