Going Abroad- What You Don’t Hear

Guest Post By: Jane Tang, a Sophomore studying Marketing and Information Systems at the Foster School of Business. This Fall, Jane went on an exchange at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.

I’ve started writing this so many times trying to come up with the perfect thing to say, but I realized that “perfect” isn’t necessary because the whole point of this experience was anything but. All the messiness, all the emotions, and all the mistakes were what made this experience distinctively memorable.

“I’ve never known someone who studied abroad and hated it”, “It’ll be such an amazing experience”, “I loved it and know that you will too” etc. These are the types of things I remember people saying to me right before I left for the Netherlands to go on my exchange in Rotterdam, and they are the descriptions that greatly characterize studying abroad to students who are unfamiliar with it. While these statements hold some truth, they are disappointingly empty. You don’t hear about the bad simply because there’s too much to say. There’s too much confusion and heartbreak mixed in with the euphoria so when people get asked how their experience was, the months of life abroad are summarized into something along the lines of “It’s amazing!”

And it is amazing. It’s really amazing. Experiencing the world—all the difference in culture and the ways of interacting with people, having to use Google Translate to communicate, seeing inside the insane mind of the earth through its dramatic landscapes—is humbling. It taught me how to listen to others a bit more, how to deal with the unfamiliar, to wonder and marvel more often.

I wouldn’t take any of it back, but I can also confidently say that it’s not all a “floating on clouds”, “not a care in the world”, “so romantic” thing that people too often paint it out to be. 

If you could see how much the first weeks sucked, I don’t think anyone would be excited about hopping on that plane overseas. My first week can be summarized with: “Ok, I’m here… Now what?” I didn’t have a working phone, I couldn’t get around, I couldn’t read the street signs, I didn’t know what the local grocery stores were called, I didn’t know anyone. This was the first time in my life that I was completely on my own and left more vulnerable than I was comfortable with. I lied in bed doubting every single decision that I made which led up to being “stranded” in this foreign place for the next four months. I was so homesick and desperate for anything familiar that my first meal– a sandwich I bought from a local supermarket (what should’ve been a small victory)– turned into a sob session where I put on my playlist and cried over the mention of “California” or “New York”… just basically any state in the U.S.

But after that initial settling in period, suddenly I found that I had a favorite spot in the city. Suddenly the constant rain and wind mixture didn’t seem so inhospitable anymore. Suddenly things felt more normal again, resembling the daily life I knew. Of course, there still were days when the Dutch language was a source of confusion and frustration, and biking in the rain meant that I would get sick the next day. Going abroad means that you have to recognize there are going to be times when loneliness is the only company you have and you miss home, so you take refuge in a place that advertises “American breakfast”, or a Starbucks, or a Five Guys. There are times when you’ll be sick of the surface level conversations and meeting new people is the last thing you want to do. That’s okay, don’t feel guilty about the occasional day off. But for the most part, drag yourself out of your room and go be. Say “yes” even if it’s something you wouldn’t typically do because the “yesses” lead you to meet the friends you’ll travel with, see history and museums you never thought you would, and stranger things. It’ll lead you to moments where you’ll be framed by the stands of cheese and fresh produce of the local Tuesday market in front of the Markthal with a view of the cube houses (something you never get sick of), or appreciating the canals in Amsterdam, or biking next to windmills and cows in Kinderdijk, or eating stroopwafels and gazing at the poetry painted on the walls in Leiden. And in those moments, all you can think about is how lucky you are that the universe worked it out so that you are here, and how you want to stretch the seconds of the moment out so that it never ends. It leads you to moments where you fall in love while munching on snacks with legs dangling over the river, or where you’re sitting in the middle of the sidewalk exchanging stories with someone you just met. It leads you to stories you can tell about that one time you listened to a classical concert in an old church in Prague where Mozart once played the organ, or that time you met a stranger in an alleyway in Edinburgh and ended up hanging out for the rest of the day, or the time you bathed in a geothermal river surrounded by snow in the middle of winter in Iceland. The stories that you walk away with piece together to form this quilt that is distinctively yours to claim and, in the stitching, you’ll find that you’ll surprise yourself with the things you do. All of it changes you in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated and that is more than enough to justify all the pain and the preparation and the nerves. 

But nothing makes the experience more worth it than the people you meet. The friends you make are the memories you’ll look back on fondly, they are the nights filled with laughter, the faces you remember and associate with all the places you go. These are the people that you find yourself surrounded by on a Tuesday at 3 in the morning because time slipped away, and no one wants to leave. They make you realize that all the stuff you buy to bring back home mean nothing because the memories you made together are really the most valuable. You’ll laugh and cry over the stupidest things: the questionable decisions, the inside jokes, the group projects and classes that you’re struggling through, the long bus rides, all the tripping over cobblestones and uneven streets (there’s a lot of it). And all the time you thought you had in the beginning suddenly isn’t enough and you promise yourself that you will come back sometime and visit because that spares you a bit of the pain that comes with having to say goodbye, and that is the only way that you can get yourself to leave in the end. 

And nothing I say means anything because the beauty is that everyone is guaranteed to experience it all differently. So there are a lot of things that I can tell you, but the most important thing and the only thing that you need to hear is “just go”.  You have to just go and see for yourself.