Going abroad is an experience that is often undervalued. Many people who have never had this experience don’t realize all the time, effort, energy, and frustration it entails. Going abroad ISN’T all fun and games, nor, in my humble opinion, should it be. You will have fun, but you’ll also encounter obstacles and unfamiliar situations. Some people will encounter more of these situations than others. Those of us who go abroad usually share only the most positive aspects and it can be frustrating when people assume that we’re living on easy street. No matter how similar or how different the culture is, you’ll have to make numerous adaptations and you may not receive much guidance. Even then, some obstacles will go beyond cultural adaptation. When I studied abroad, my experience was far from easy due to the uncanny number of stumbling blocks I encountered. At first, I was very resentful of this. After speaking to one of my professors and now being abroad again, I realize that in a way, it was a great thing; I had the opportunity to take my stumbling blocks and make them into stepping stones. I grew exponentially and learned so much, even if I learned some things I didn’t necessarily want to learn. I gained major intercultural problem solving experience. This is no skill to be undervalued. Independence, confidence, leadership, negotiation, adaptation, creative problem solving, that there are some things that cannot be changed and must be accepted, these are just some of the many skills you learn abroad beside the obvious cultural and linguistic benefits. If you’re not as happy abroad as you thought you would be, you’re not abnormal. You may not even be doing something wrong. There may be general patterns, but not everyone adapts at the same rate because everyone has a unique experience. Just look at these two different charts showing cultural adaptation. There’s a bit of a difference in the arrival, adjustment, and adaptation/assimilation periods.
Neither chart disagrees that the toughest part is at the beginning. The plunge may not be one straight plunge, it may not even be a deep plunge if the circumstances you end up in foster your adaptation. But then remember going to college. You were probably very excited to leave, but once you got there, you may have felt a little out of place. But hopefully you made friends, got into a routine, and it all became your normal (wondeful) life. I remember asking one of my upperclassman friends during the first semester how long it took until she felt like she belonged at Gettysburg. I think it took me the whole first semester for it to stop seeming surreal. It’s the same way with going abroad.
BUT WAIT! I’m not writing this to scare you away from going abroad. In fact, I’m writing this to do the opposite, to encourage going abroad. I want you to know that even if things are rough, if you want it to get better, then it will. Hence the optimistic title.The most important thing with TAPIF, and I’d say any experience that involves living abroad, is to take anything that can be improved upon and everything that is going well and build from there.This is your experience, your adventure. Own it! Don’t think things will be easy and great from the start. Change isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding. You will grow. It may not always be gentle growth, but travel changes you most often for the better.
In the end, any location is just that. A place. Geography may be influential, but it’s not the land that has a culture. It’s the people. I could not recommend getting involved with your community abroad more highly. Make friends with the other students or other teaching assistants, but make sure to make friends with the natives. The culture is theirs and they can share it with you and help you assimilate into it.
Getting involved wherever you go is so important to me that it’s getting its own post, so be sure to check that out, especially if you find yourself in Nîmes!