Things I Failed to Mention
By Amye Day Ong
Dear Study Abroad Advisee with Ticket and Passport in Hand,
I am realizing now that I may have failed to mention, during our brief one-time appointment, a few things regarding what you should expect to encounter during your semester abroad. You see, a semester abroad is not exactly as portrayed in those glossy brochures I gave you—the ones with students simultaneously jumping up in the air, arms extended, while on top of Machu Picchu and the Great Wall. The truth is you may hate it. Sure, you might take some of those same shots and post them to Instagram or the blog that your family reads to keep up on your globe-trekking adventures, but inside you might feel like you’re dying. That can happen.
The potential reasons for your malaise are innumerable. One could be that the host family you were so excited to live with is actually made up of maladaptive people who just need some extra cash. The program pays the family to house and feed you, and so to them you are a part-time job. As with any job, some people throw themselves into the work and do much more than the compensation merits, while others just try to slide by. The parents may take you in as one of their own. You may call your host mother “Mom” for the rest of your life and really mean it. Or, you may suffer the pain that families all over the world learn how to inflict on their own kin. Your host brother might steal from you. Your host mother might ridicule you. Your host father might strike you with fear even when you’re locked away in your own private bedroom. This is rare, but not unheard of. Perhaps, to ward off this unpleasant scenario, you will go on the offensive and ladle grief onto your host family before they have a chance to serve it to you. Means of doing so include getting I’m-on-the-other-side-of-the-world-and-the-laws-of-the-United-States-and-alcohol-metabolism-don’t-apply drunk every weekend and crashing about your slumbering host family’s house when you make your miraculous 4-a.m. return; leaving crusty dishes, chocolate-smeared candy wrappers, or soiled underwear in your unmade bed for your host mother to find; or, bumming an accumulating amount of cash off your hosts because you still haven’t figured out why all the ATMs in the city seem to be declining your debit card.
But let’s assume you and your host family are clicking together like long-separated continents; still, other things can derail this transformative semester abroad that you’ve been envisioning. Your body, for one, may wholly reject the idea of travel. You can fly it to the other side of the world and find that while your mind is present in this foreign land, fully engrossed in its strangeness and wonder, your body has decided to stay home. Or, more accurately, your body has been brought along unwillingly. As such, it may throw a gastrointestinal tantrum every time you drink water that is not 100% potable or eat food sprinkled with spices it has never before had the pleasure to taste. Hopefully, this is the fullest extent of your body’s mutiny because, let me tell you, you do not want to be gravely ill in another country. This has less to do with the quality of the medical care (though it may be frighteningly subpar) and more to do with the fact that illness is its own form of exile. You can be sick at home in your childhood bedroom and still feel woefully distant from all the joys of life. Imagine how much greater that distance is compounded when illness strikes you in a land that is not your own, in a place where the language may be one that you can barely speak. If you take ill while abroad, you will have to translate twice—first, converting your physical symptoms into your native tongue and, then, into the local language. No matter your level of fluency, you will suddenly realize that a gaping hole exists in your anatomical vocabulary. Without the right words everything gets reduced and simplified. The doctor just hears: “Pain.”
It turns out that a semester abroad is not a vacation. You might have aunts or uncles who say differently, who marvel out loud at your fortune in passing off a four-month holiday for fifteen college credits, but it is critical that you ignore them. They unknowingly confuse the student with the tourist. You are there to learn—to learn things like how to cross the street, which handle of the faucet emits hot water, how to tell someone you’re hungry or full, how men or women flirt, what anger looks like, how to say, “I need help,” or, “Thank you.” It is a second infancy in which you have the benefit of your college-aged mind and can hopefully make quicker sense of it all. And, when none of it makes sense, perhaps your nascent self will allow awe to linger a bit longer than you might typically permit back home. Wonderment at the scope of difference that exists in the world is a delightful thing to come upon.
These changes that study abroad brings about—what people really mean when they say, “Study abroad changed my life!”—operate on an unexpected timetable. There is this notion that all of the changing happens while you are in-country, but this is ludicrous. You change when five years after your program is over there is a tsunami or earthquake or terrorist attack on the other side of the globe and you worry whether one of your friends who you met abroad is there, caught up in the horror. (How close is Fukushima to Kobe?) Your perception of the world, your heart, they both contract. If illness abroad makes the world grow big, international crises experienced once you are back in the U.S., even years after your semester abroad is over, make the earth seem small. I cannot help but think this is good for us. It dispels the separateness that we Americans are so adept at conjuring.
Another good-for-you change (that’s conveniently accompanied by low-grade depression) typically occurs just after you return to the States. Scales fall off your eyes as you disembark the plane and find that the country you left six months prior no longer exists. Instead, some mutant form of America full of previously hidden ugliness is staring at you. You cannot understand why the mass transit is so bad, the food so fast, the people so fake in their friendliness. It is as if you suddenly realized that your longtime boyfriend is actually a total slacker and his sense of humor consistently borders on the offensive. This is good. It is good to fall out of love with your home country and to have affection grow for the foreign land you just left. It is beautiful and sad to find that there is a part of your self that cannot live in the U.S. Before you studied abroad you did not know you had more than one self. You did not know that a part of your soul could apply for citizenship in another country and never return home.
If I am being honest, our limited appointment time is not the only reason I failed to mention these things to you when we met. I do not know how to talk about the things that actually mattered during my semester abroad and how they have affected me years later. (How can I look you in the eyes and tell you that I once had to mime the symptoms for a yeast infection to a pharmacist so that she would give me the right medication? How can I explain the way my Spanish has atrophied with each passing year, distancing me from friends across the globe with whom it is my only common language? When should I confess to you that I am losing touch with my second self?)
I also dare not speak to you of the one-in-a-thousand horror stories of actual students that have gone abroad under my watch. You do not need to know what it is like to calm tearful parents who feel the full expanse of the ocean separating them from their child lying in a foreign hospital bed. Nothing is gained by explaining how hollow my words sound when I tell a female student that I believe her story of rape or harassment even when no one in her host country does. If I shared these slivers of woe, you’d just shake your head and say, “None of this will happen to me.” And, you would probably be right.
So instead, I remind you of the application deadlines. I assure you that the visa process will be manageable as long as you follow all of the consulate’s instructions. I tell you that you will have the experience of a lifetime without saying exactly what I mean.