Looking Past the Screen

Unpacking the study abroad experience

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By Kelly Leung
By Kelly Leung

While I was in Paris, the city experienced flooding so extensive that boats couldn’t fit under bridges. The excess water halted the usual traffic of tourist cruises on the Seine River and museums were closed to save the artwork from water damage. On my way to grab a coffee, I walked amid strikers contesting labor law reforms on a street lined with armored police officers.

Problem solving in tricky situations was one thing, but being faced with the discontentment and morbidity of our world, even on a smaller scale, made me feel insignificant. Exposure to turmoil in Paris allowed me to see the city as more than just an icon of romanticism that’s often reflected in the media but as a city being dealt conflicts like any other — more than just enjoying a croissant on a sunny day.

On the morning of March 22, terrorists struck a Brussels airport and metro station in an attack that killed 32 civilians and injured hundreds. As I watched the breaking news with devastation and disgust, I packed for my 10-week study abroad trip, which began in London and ended in Paris. My nerves were overlaid with fear as I stared at my boarding passes.

I’d been looking forward to the experience since I applied a year ago, but felt squeamish as my departure date got closer. It felt strange to embark on a new and exciting adventure at a time of such turbulence in the world.

Communities have become war zones, and nowhere is a guaranteed a safe space. Innocent people become victims by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone is subject to danger — study abroad students included.

London and Paris are beautiful, but I felt distant from it amidst tragedy. Studying abroad is an extremely privileged opportunity, but my apprehension and sense of estrangement infringed upon my experience.

Ten weeks in a new place is more than just vacationing — it is living, and living isn’t always smooth sailing. Being in a new country means integrating into a new culture, learning the customs and finding new routines.

I had a glamorized vision of both cities that didn’t account for everyday problems and unrest. I encountered obstacles big and small and felt silly for allowing trivial inconveniences, like getting locked out of my apartment and language barriers to affect me so much.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram glorify travel and promote the utopian ideals of what that encompasses. Uncaptured imperfections are made invisible through photographing only what’s desirable, and not necessarily what’s real. People get wrapped up in taking photos for the sole purpose of documenting their trips (myself included) and can’t truly appreciating their experience. The explanation for sightseeing was often “I want a picture.” No kidding, a photo-op was ultimately the goal.

I know that others who have studied abroad have experienced similar feelings, but there isn’t testimony of what isn’t glamorous with study abroad on the web. I searched online travel blogs and journals but found few that opened up about these experiences. I wondered why people weren’t sharing these tougher narratives about their travels.

There’s not enough unfiltered discussion about the ugly parts of traveling. It’s important to unite those who feel like outliers in their experiences. I’ve noticed more dialogue around mental illness and body image on social media feeds — this rawness is a step in the right direction, but it shouldn’t stop there.

Many photos I shared of my study abroad trip weren’t an accurate reflection of my experience. Although I enjoyed myself, the photos on my social media didn’t speak for the late nights I struggled to find my way around, the times I got cat-called on my walks alone or the isolation I felt from being so far from friends and family.

Many feel a connection with the place they study. They fall in love with a city, a person in the city or both. Some discover new versions of themselves while abroad they didn’t know existed and have intentions to move back some day. I didn’t fall in love with the city or a significant other, and in some respects my negative experiences outweighed the positives.

While I may have not been infatuated, I gained perspective and learned how to be independent during a time when I felt that both myself and my surroundings were unravelling.

There shouldn’t be a formulaic way to study abroad. It’s fine to stay put in the city you’re studying in rather than travel to a new one every weekend. It’s okay to miss home and be scared of what tomorrow will bring. There were days when I lay in bed and did nothing but watch Netflix, and that’s okay too.

Before leaving, I viewed the conventional route of studying abroad as finding a group of friends and venturing out with them for the rest of the time without distress. I realized I couldn’t run away from news headlines — there are tragedies no matter where you are.

My experience didn’t fit the cookie-cutter expectations I had, but hey, that’s okay.