It has now been over year since I left Barcelona, one of the most beautiful, charming, and magical cities on the planet. In the year that I’ve been back home (and saving money furiously to return back), I’ve been able to really consolidate my personal, emotional and intellectual growth into 5 major lessons I learned while studying abroad…
1. It takes a change of pace to truly learn about yourself.
When you’re abroad, you challenge yourself in every aspect of your life. You find out how long you can go without eating food, how long you can travel go without sleeping, how much you can struggle while learning a new language, how many cheap 9 hour bus rides you can take instead of the 5 hour train … the list goes on and on.
Before going abroad, I had no idea how much of an introvert I was. I had always assumed that I had been an extrovert. However, when I traveled, even in crowded hostels, I found that I really just needed time to myself at the end of the day- time to take pictures or journal in a plaza. I realized that while I loved to make new friends and meet people from all over the world, my favorite time at the end of the day was when I was able to explore a city on my own.
2. To learn about a new culture, you need to hang out with the locals.
Probably the best thing you can do while living abroad is learning from the people who have lived in that location their entire lives. I was lucky enough to take classes at a Catalan university and lead English conversation groups at that university so I was able to learn about their culture. I remember the first time I went to a topless beach and I was shocked to be surrounded by people my age who were perfectly fine hanging out with their friends of different genders. Yet, by the time June came around and I went on my trip to Mallorca, I became like one of the locals and let myself live freely.
In another instance, I was shocked about the time that Spaniards took to eat their meals.. and how late they were in there days. In fact, their whole days seemed to revolve around food: you would take long lunch breaks so that you could sit and enjoy meals and tapas and drinks with those who were close to you. Consequently, you would eat dinner later and stay up talking for hours. And of course, this adjusted time schedule made everyone stay out later, making me feel incredibly safe to walk home from the metro at midnight.
3. Culture shock helps you learn about your own culture.
Culture shock is important in life… especially for those of us who come from California (a lifestyle that has been disproportionately displayed in television and movies). I didn’t think that it was weird to wear cutoffs and flip flops when the sun was out or it was over 70 degrees. I didn’t even realize that saying “dude” to begin every other sentence was all that strange. I also didn’t realize that student debt was really only an American thing.
Traveling abroad not only helped me learn about other cultures; it challenged made me think about my culture in an entirely new way. I seemed to question the purpose of everything I did, from eating on the go to suburban sprawl to the reason why I’m so obsessed having my own car even though it wasn’t really necessary in Berkeley. Without exposure to another culture, I would have nothing to compare my own to, and no idea that no culture is really all that “normal.”
4. You gain a better appreciation for those who have moved to the states from abroad.
You understand the struggle of trying to learn a new language, or thinking that you mastered a language but in reality you can only talk in academic terms or order yourself dinner. You know how difficult it is to make friends when you are already struggling to introduce yourself. You even know what it’s like to be in a different country and not knowing the difference between rice and barley (how am I supposed to know without any pictures on the box?) When you have these struggles abroad, you are much more likely to identify and empathize with immigrants in your own country…. and you can help them make feel more at home, faster.
5. You will meet incredible people that will change your life.
Whether it is the BBC reporter you met in Ronda, the Chilean hockey player whom you went camping with, your Airbnb host from Budapest, the Australian girl who you ran into at multiple hostels in June, your abroad boyfriend, or even the other American students who were in your study abroad program, you are bound to meet some fantastic people.
I found I was much more open to talking with strangers abroad, asking their stories. What I found? Everyone actually has a really cool story, an inspiring life, and something that you can learn about from them. So why not start those conversations at home as well?
So, my friends, go forth and wander. Travel. Live.