Why Studying Abroad Is Worth the Discomfort
Travel is never without its hiccups – and that’s a good thing!
Long vines of blooming jasmine cascaded over the wrought iron fence that separated the courtyard of the apartment complex from Calle Juan Pablo II. The evening sun fell in strips between the buildings along the empty street and cobbled sidewalk. A beautiful scene. Exactly the sort I had been told to expect on my semester abroad.
I had trouble appreciating that beauty, however, as at the time I was rather preoccupied with ascertaining where on that lovely cobblestone sidewalk would be the safest place to sleep for the night. After a cancelled flight, a midnight ride in the dented, cigarette-smelling van of an old Russian man, and nearly passing out while flying through a thunderstorm over the Atlantic, I had arrived at what was supposed to be my home for the next four months only to find a locked iron gate between me and the sleep that by then I was convinced was all I had ever really wanted in life.
Thus began my semester abroad in Sevilla, Spain, a semester which, if you ask me how it was, will cause me to adopt a dreamy look and exclaim some kind of generic positive adjective, such as “Awesome!” or “Incredible.” And you know, it really was those things in certain ways and at certain times. At other times it was difficult, stressful, lonely, and frustrating. But, in general, people don’t want to hear about those times. I don’t really want to talk about them all that much, because they disrupt the pleasant narrative I’ve got going. People want to hear, and I want to believe, that living and studying abroad was always awesome and always incredible.
But travel is not always beautiful. Going to a foreign country does not guarantee you will have a good time. In fact, going to a foreign country is a pretty good way to ensure that you are going to have some pretty bad times. But travel is good. And it is often when travel is at its least delightful that it is at its best. I had a variety of great food experiences while in Spain, the most notable of which was acquiring a now-insatiable taste for green olives, but my overall culinary experience was not as heavenly and “to die for” as the standard travel narrative might lead you to believe.
I stayed in the home of an older woman named Rosa. Rosa was responsible, according to the contract with our study abroad program, for providing my roommate and me with three meals a day, and this she did faithfully for four months. I am grateful to her for that. But, Rosa’s food was nothing particularly special. Usually we just had bread and a large platter of some kind of beans. It kept us alive and healthy, but not much more.
People, it turns out, are pretty normal wherever you go. Everywhere you go will have it’s good cooks and it’s bad cooks. There will be nice folks and awful folks. If you hear someone who has come back from a trip gushing about how amazing the food was or how incredible the people are, that person probably did not spend enough time there to taste the reality of the place he visited. People are people; nobody and nowhere is perfect.
The flipside of this is that nobody is normal. Travel may not be an eternal fount of good experiences, but one of the best things it has to offer its participants is a realization of just how different people and their lifestyles can be. Many travelers fall in love with the different way their host culture does life.
Often when we think of a different culture, what comes to mind are the large scale and noticeable differences like language, food, dress, and art. But during my brief stay in Sevilla I realized just how deep the differences can go. Things were different, which I didn’t even realize could be different. These subtleties can be one of the more romantic aspects of travel, but often they are a source of discomfort and loneliness for the traveler. Questions arise such as: How do I order food at a restaurant? Can I say hello to someone I don’t know? Why is everyone laughing at that thing I just said? Why is that person standing so close to me? How the heck do I make friends?
Forming relationships is hard when all shared social norms, sense of humor, and cultural context aren’t there. But I would argue that that sense of discomfort–of never quite fitting in–is one of the best things that can happen to you as you travel. For one, it engenders compassion. I work in the writing center at my school, which means I get to work with lots of international students, particularly from China. While I had imagined before that they must have had some unique challenges in their studies, my capacity to empathize with their struggles has grown so much now that I have been on the other side of the culture barrier.
But there is another benefit of this uncomfortable experience, which may be one of the most important. Unfortunately, it is one I rarely hear spoken of, and that is a newfound appreciation for one’s own culture. Having a culture in itself is a beautiful thing, to have a place where you swim in the language as easily as a marlin in the ocean, where you can walk into a coffee shop and know just how and what to order, where you can make a joke and people (maybe) laugh.
I loved Spain. I loved wandering the narrow streets behind the cathedral and arguing with Rosa about whether roasted chestnuts taste like baked potatoes (they totally do). But going to Spain also made me realize I like my home a whole lot, and I like Americans. I like a good home-cooked burger, and I think American English is a beautiful language. I love saying hello to people I pass on the street as I walk my dog and the service-with-a-smile I get at the grocery store, even if the cashier is faking it.
So by all means, go abroad. I cannot guarantee that you will enjoy it, although I sincerely hope you do. I can assure you, however, that even a miserable experience abroad will be good. Your mind will be opened to all the places and people that are outside your little corner of the world, and you may find that, despite its shortcomings, your corner of the world suits you remarkably well.