Imagine gathering a group of strangers and putting them in close promixity together in a foreign environment with some sort of goal in mind. Then you watch to see what happens.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Yeah, it’s the fundamental formula used for most reality TV shows.
It is also the basic structure for something else most of you are probably less acquainted with: studying abroad.
Not all study abroad programs operate like reality TV shows, but they all have the potential to. Just imagine: a group of students, most if not all of whom did not know each other before the trip, are off to a country where they probably don’t speak the language, and they’re all the friends they have on that side of the world.
If you’ve never studied abroad before, you’ll have no idea how time passes differently when you’re in a foreign country with people you hoped and hoped you would become fast friends with. Time passes much more slowly. Everyday is a new experience. Everything as mundane as going to school and ordering lunch are novelities to you. Everybody is also new to you. You find out little things about each other everyday, figuring out along the way whether you’re going to enjoy these people’s company in the long run. Sometimes, you end up making your decisions pretty early.
Smaller study abroad programs (ten or less people) usually function more like reality TV shows. Any more than that, and it’s just high school all over again with all the cliques, in-groups, and out-groups.
That’s not to say subgroups can’t form with a base group of ten or less, but the point is that everyone knows everyone. When I studied in Sweden, because there were nearly a hundred of us, I can clearly remember that there were certain people I never had a conversation with. I had my regular circle of buddies, and that was enough for me. Humans are intrinsically lazy like that.
When I studied in Japan, however, there were only ten of us Americans with ten Japanese who were paired with us as “tutors.” Everybody knew everybody and talked with everybody. Naturally, I grew closer to some Americans and some Japanese than to others, but I talked with everyone.
This is where the reality TV show part kicks in.
You’re in a whole new country. Typically, you’ve come to expand your horizons, and that’s exactly what you’re doing, but the irony is that you have also shrunk your immediate social world. You don’t speak the local language (yet), so befriending random people is out of the question. You don’t really talk to your classmates because, believe it or not, as curious as they might be about you foreigners, they’re too timid to speak to you. Some countries are exceptions, though. Some people are exceptions too.
So, you basically have a pretty set group of people whom you spend time with. Chances are, you’re also living together. It’s a perfect formula to get people to grow close to each other very fast. (I grew very close to the people I met in Japan, and regardless of anything I say in this article that relates to Japan, I never regretted a thing I did while studying abroad there.)
A romance abroad is an exciting idea. There’s no way you can go around that statement. As difficult or awkward as it might sound, it is undeniably interesting.
Does anyone have any idea where I’m getting at yet? Do you watch The Bachelor or any of those other shows that are meant to show the ugliest and, theoretically, most beautiful sides of the love between a man and a woman (I don’t think American TV would ever see a reality TV show about homosexual couples)?
You grow to like each other. Very fast. Sometimes, you grow to like the same people. That could be very good, and it could be very bad.
News spreads. News turns into gossip. Then it spreads faster. Alliances form. Information gets transferred only through certain channels, some slower than others, some so slow that it no longer matters when the information is heard.
Some international students simply don’t care about any of this, but it’s hard not to be pulled into the whirlpool of emotional activity going on. Plus, those who don’t care don’t have as much fun. They don’t go through as much unnecessary drama either, but there’s usually something to be learned in unnecessary drama. I personally found my experience abroad in Japan to be more complete because of it. There were quite a few nights when guys and girls were on opposite sides of the negotiation, trying to get information out of each other.
It all sounds very silly, and it was (come on, are reality TV shows anything but silly?), but you just don’t realize it when you’re doing it. It all felt very real, and it was. Once again, it was because everyone knew everyone.
All this is encompassed by the pervading knowledge that this will all end. Whether you’re there for just a summer, a semester, or a full year, it will end. You might bring friendships (and maybe more) back with you across the ocean or across the border, but it is all too fleeting (I shall refrain from indulging in a philosophical sidenote about how all life is beautiful because all is fleeting). If you’re studying abroad for your entire college education, then your experience is outside of the scope of this article written by someone who has, for better or worse, never studied that long in any one country.
Because you know it will end soon, you try to live everyday to the fullest, which is what everyone should do everyday, but you have to keep perspective in mind. Most young humans aren’t capable of imagining their lives ending, but they can imagine half a year from now. Because you try to live everyday to the fullest, you make decisions you might be too timid to make otherwise. Sometimes, they’re rash decisions, but they’re your own nonetheless.
We all know reality TV shows are anything but reality, but we believe in the reality TV whips up for us because it’s great entertainment. That’s at least one difference between studying abroad and reality TV shows. Despite all the similarities, studying abroad is irrefutably real.