As you hopefully know if you have been following my blog since the beginning, I absolutely adored being abroad. I think that everyone, time and money permitting, should have the chance to study abroad before they graduate from college (and maybe even after, depending on how ambitious you are!) Living in a country that’s not your own, within a culture that isn’t yours, and speaking a language that isn’t your native tongue is both humbling and rewarding. However it is not without its ups and downs. Here are some of the things I wish I knew before I went abroad, to keep in mind while you are gearing up!
- Pack Less
I was told to pack one bag. I did pack one bag… of clothes. Then I packed another bag of shoes, books, and random items that I thought I would need at the last minute. The shoes were useful, but I hardly touched the books. What’s worse is that I bought more books. So many that I needed to spend 70 bucks to ship them home – and that was the cheap method (i.e they haven’t arrived yet because it can take up to two months.)
I ended up buying gifts for friends, food, t shirts, and all manner of other things. Both of my bags ended up being barely under the 23 kilogram limit, even though I also sent 12 kilograms back home. My friends who were there for the year ended up throwing clothes into thrift shops and trash, which was an event in the land of trash sorting. So just do yourself a favor and pack only one bag, and bring an empty bag with you. That way you can avoid the 200 dollar extra bag or overweight bag charge.
- Pack the Right Things
There were three things that I ended up using all the time – my duffle bag, which I packed within my smaller bag, and my rain coat, because it was the rainy season most of the time I was in Tokyo. On the other hand, I ended up not needing the sweaters I packed for the first two weeks, or half of the books that I brought with me. On the other-other hand, I would have saved a lot of money if I packed my towels, and I hated the pillow that came with my room. So how do you know what to pack?
I would suggest the following items that are worth the extra bulk:
- One set of business clothes. I brought a nice dress and a blazer, with stockings and heels. I ended up doing two or three presentations over my time in Japan so they were nice to have. However I brought too many dressy items, which could have made more room for other stuff.
- Any weather specific clothing that is expensive or hard to buy. Going for a year? Bring a winter coat. Know there’s a rainy season? Rain coat and boots. I would forgo the smaller items, like hats, gloves, scarves, and umbrellas that can be picked up when you are there.
- Shoes… but there’s a limit. I couldn’t buy shoes in Japan, because I have “huge” (size 9) feet (Japan caps at a size 7.5 for women a lot of the time.) So brought way too many shoes. I would bring a pair of gym shoes, heels or dress flats, and then one pair of fun shoes (Doc Martens, Riding Boots, etc.) If you are going during a rainy season or winter, a pair of boots is also acceptable. You don’t need fifteen pairs of shoes, no matter how long you are going.
After that, just pack two weeks worth of clothes. Bring stuff you can layer. Bring the basics, and stock up on cheap jewelry when you are abroad. You can buy clothes and toiletries there. It may be rough (I once bought a moisturizing face wash, thinking it was lotion, and used it for like three weeks as lotion wondering why it was so sticky and slippery), but so much better than paying a 200 dollar baggage fee.
- Make yourself uncomfortable
I had a weird program experience, in that I was fairly comfortable with the language, had been to the area before, and knew several people in my program and in the city. So while certain things were nerve wracking, I was pretty comfortable. I joined a club to make myself uncomfortable, and it was one of my most fun experiences. I talked to strangers at bars. I went clubbing. I went to a naked bath. All of these things are cool experiences that I wouldn’t have done if I had stayed with my friends speaking English.
We are all adults. We should know when we are too uncomfortable to handle it. The goal of abroad is to make yourself juuuuuust enough uncomfortable that you can have amazing stories to tell, but not so uncomfortable you get homesick or your mental health suffers. It’s a fine line, but here’s some things that can help:
- Talk to “the natives” – don’t just stay in your little (American/English speaking) group. This is harder than it seems!
- Eat new foods. Yes, it looks gross. Yes, it may actually be gross (I am not a fan of fermented soybeans.) But it may be your new favorite, despite the name (Calpis *cough)
- Join a club. Not just at the school. Do a community activity, like a drawing class, or help out with a movie screening.
- Travel outside of your immediate area. That may be as far away as a different country, or as nearby as a shrine where they hold an annual penis festival. The experience may be underwhelming, but it will let you stretch your wings.
- You may not make new (insert name of country here) friends. That’s okay.
I was only in Japan for four months. Lifelong friendships are not made in such a short period of time, no matter what orientation may try to tell you. Language barriers increase that difficulty. The fact that you are only here for a bit may make people less inclined to spend time with you. Or maybe it’s a cultural thing, where entering the “inner circle” takes years – time you don’t have. That is totally fine. The people in your program will be your temporary friends. Just like Freshman Orientation. But still…
- You may not have the time of your life – THAT IS COMPLETELY NORMAL
Every study abroad pamphlet talks about how going abroad will the “Experience of a Lifetime.” That’s the thing – it will be an experience of a lifetime, but it doesn’t have to be positive. Some people have experiences abroad that are worsened by home sickness, feelings of isolation, bad host families, or just bad luck. Sometimes being abroad can trigger feelings of depression or anxiety, due to a new circumstance, new language, new culture, or a new climate (season affective disorder is no joke.)
I have always wanted to live and go abroad and travel. I LOVE traveling. And even I felt a little out of sorts for the first half of my time in Japan. And that’s with all the support I had going in. So imagine how it could be without those things in place? You may realize that you hate traveling, and are really a homebody. You may realize that you may do well with one or two new stimuli, but not seven or eight. Going abroad will teach you so much about yourself, and you will return home a new person. Or at least, the same person with new confidence in who you are.
Keep track of these symptoms (the signs of Culture Shock) when you are going to your new country AND coming home:
- Extreme homesickness
- Feelings of helplessness/dependency
- Disorientation and isolation
- Depression and sadness
- Hyper-irritability, may include inappropriate anger and hostility
- Sleep and eating disturbances (too little or too much)
- Excessive critical reactions to host culture/stereotyping
- Excessive drinking
- Recreational drug dependency
- Extreme concerns over sanitation, safety (even paranoia), and being taken advantage of
- Loss of focus and ability to complete tasks
If you feel like this, speak to a local mental health specialist (your program should provide you with people who speak your language) or your program coordinator. And remember – you don’t always have to stick it out. I know as many people who extended their time abroad as those who shortened it. Sometimes you just aren’t feeling it. Nothing drastic has to happen for you to want to come home. Just learn the difference between when you are feeling uncomfortable and when you are feeling distressed. In fact, being abroad may teach you that.
So go out there, my friends. Know that you are a part of the select thousands of Americans who go abroad each year. And, most importantly…
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME