Going abroad has to be one of the most eye-opening experiences anyone can commit to. When it comes to studying abroad, one tends to automatically think about packing extra pens, pencils, notebooks and Post-It notes. It's true that these things will prove themselves to be very important during your travels within a new country, especially if you plan on seriously trying to learn to the language of that country. But there's something even more important that shouldn't be overlooked.
Most people who study abroad do so for school, hence the name "studying abroad." These visitors are students: young men and women working on their undergraduate degrees, people who are on their way to completing a Master's or other professional or specialized certificate of achievement, and some are still in high school. Some who study abroad do it strictly to satisfy their own personal curiosities. They may not be formally enrolled in any sort of academic institution, but perhaps they would like to study abroad for their own career paths.
Whatever the reason for choosing to live and study, or even work, overseas, there are bound to be plenty of idiosyncracies that come with a foreign city, different societal attitudes, and cuisines. You will run headfirst into things that strange, interesting, hard to comprehend, or even unfathomable! You might even grow to despise the country you pictured differently in your mind before hopping on the plane, but even in that extreme case, there's no way that there won't be at least one thing that you'll miss from your temporary home across the seas once you've left. I'd say that above all else, it's important to keep an open mind when you decide that you want to live in a foreign country for any extended time frame.
When anyone comes to me saying that they want to spend time overseas- could be for 2 months, could be for 1 year- they might note that they're slightly worried that they'll be homesick. Well, I can't promise that you won't eventually feel homesick. It's only natural; it will hit you sooner or later. My best advice would be to prepare for being away from home for a prolonged period of time if you can. For example, one summer try to be away for a couple weeks. Whenever you can take a vacation again, try for a month, and so on. This way, you kind of know what to expect. Sure, you'll be in your home country if you use this method of preparation, but it's better than jumping into a situation you can't get out of for a few months and not knowing how to cope well.
Besides homesickness, you can't avoid meeting people who will have (perhaps vastly) different political views and ideas of social order. One afternoon, while I was teaching in China, I was chatting with a young female student after class. Most of the class was all packed up and had headed out the door to be picked up by a parent. This young student was about 8 years old. She wanted to speak with me privately about how her grandfather had told her mother that sending her to school was a waste of time... because she was a girl. She mentioned to me that she didn't know how much longer she'd be able to attend classes. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her, but unfortunately our meeting was cut short when her mom came to bring her back home. She came to class for about another month before never showing up again. Sometimes I wonder what she's doing now. I desperately hope that she's still attending regular school.
I remember when I was a brand new teacher in China, I had been setting up my classroom for my evening classes. In my school, each class had a designated advisor, someone who explained to the parents how their children were performing in class, and why they received the grades they got on exams. These advisors also spent a few minutes with students who showed up early to class, reviewing material with them and occassionally played games with them. One evening, I waited for the computer to boot up in my classroom, when I suddenly heard the class advisor- let's call her Sandy- say something very startling to the kids.
The unit were had started the week before was about family members: mom, dad, aunt, cousin, and so on. These students were very young, only 4 years old. While Sandy helped the young kids review, she asked them questions in Chinese to see how well they understood. She asked them questions like, "Can your uncle hit your mother?" to which some students replied, "Yes, he can." "What about your grandfather? Can he hit your aunt?" "Yes!" Now, I'd like to think that my Chinese is pretty good, and I'd hate to think that the advisor truly thought that this way to talk to 4-year-old kids was acceptable. It's not as if our school was located deep in the countryside where this type of thinking was more widespread. We were in the middle of a prosperous city, a short trainride away from the capital! Still, to this day I regret not speaking up about what I'd heard. I hope that my ears deceived me that night, but deep in my gut I feel like they hadn't.
I don't want these recollections to prevent anyone from visiting China if that's what they want to do. There are PLENTY of people in China, of course, who think domestic abuse is disgusting, PLENTY of people who won't tolerate treating girls and women as second-class citizens. All I wanted to do was point out to my readers that there are people who think this way, inside and outside of China. You will probably meet people a Sandy or talk to someone who's family treated them unfairly, like that young student of mine. Depending on the country you visit, these ways of thinking could be either rare or common.
That's why I think that a traveler's biggest asset when studying abroad is to be openminded. Be prepared to see and hear beautiful things. Be prepared to see and hear downright terrible things. You could meet someone who's bigoted, or maybe just having a really bad day. Who knows? Arrive at your chosen destination with a blank slate. Keep an open mind, don't be afraid to stand up for those who need it, be thankful for what you have, and you're sure to have a memorable time.
- Marisa T.