After studying abroad three times as an undergrad, I would hope that I have a few useful words to say about studying abroad. Maybe I do; maybe I don’t. Who knows?
To many college students, studying abroad is still something extraordinary (some high school students study abroad too, but they’re a minority). If you’re an upperclassman and you tell an underclassman that you’ve studied abroad, the typical response is probably still an extended “Wow!”
But studying abroad doesn’t have to be something extraordinary. With increasing communications among the nations of the world, it should be compulsory to study abroad during higher education. In many European countries, college students have to spend at least a semester abroad studying or interning. In America, that is obviously not the case. However extraordinary studying abroad may be, it is the little things, the perfectly ordinary things that you might miss most.
Almost always coupled with studying abroad is additional travel. You’re already spending thousands of dollars on airfare, program fees, living costs, and incidentals. Might as well dish out a few more hundred to see some neighboring cities, provinces, and countries. I’ve traveled a bit, and sure, it’s great to be able to tell friends and family that I’ve walked across the Great Wall (only a section of it, of course), climbed Mt. Fuji (yes, all the way up), seen the Tower of London, and gone through as many galleries of the Louvre as my human eyes and legs could bear. But the things I miss most about the places I’ve visited are not these tourist attractions.
Since Paris used to be the most popular tourist destination in the world (it probably still is, but I don’t know), I’ll use my trip to Paris as an example. It was my first time there, so naturally it was going to be an exciting experience, but I didn’t go for the city.
In Paris, I stayed with a friend I had met while studying in Shanghai two years before. He wasn’t an American or a Chinese national studying in Paris, so it wasn’t as if I would be able to see him once I got back to the US or on my next trip to China. I was looking forward to being able to hang out with him, talk about old times, but he was busy writing a 100-page research paper and transcribing an interview he conducted with the assistant of or some gentleman who works for the Secretary General of the UN, or something like that.
Sure, I enjoyed Paris. I liked going to the Eiffel Tower just to be able to say I’ve been there, taking a cruise down the Seine with the summer sun beating down on me and the other tourists, watching teenage girls with their awed looks surrounding the statue of Cupid and Psyche in the Louvre, and suffering the sounds of American tourists mooching on each other in the City of Love (I firmly suspect in the summer there are more sets of American couples PDA-ing than local Parisian couples doing the same thing). Okay, sarcasm aside, it was a worthwhile experience admiring the stained glass windows of San Chapel (a lot cooler than Notre Dame, I think), observing the grandness of Versailles, and touching the gravestone of Victor Hugo in the Pantheon, where Voltaire, Curie, and other French celebrities are buried.
But what I wanted most was some quality time with my old roommate. After all, he was the main reason I visited Paris rather some less traveled places I would’ve preferred, like Kiev, Budapest, or Prague. Well, you couldn’t say no to free lodging either.
I still remember the night I met him. It must’ve been three or four in the morning. I hadn’t had a roommate for a few weeks and was quite enjoying having the room all to myself. Then he came along. I had just gotten back from a night of clubbing (it must’ve been at Pegasus) and was not so pleasantly surprised at seeing someone occupying the bed that I had gotten used to being empty. Since we were in Shanghai, I spoke to him in Mandarin, “Wo shi ni de shiyou” (“I’m your roommate”), as I shook his hand. Only later did I find out that he spoke no Mandarin and was at East China Normal University to take an introductory course.
We stayed up late talking to each other every night for the next few nights. At one point, he even said in the presence of my American friends, “Man, you and I have got to stop talking to each other!” He spoke excellent English, having lived in America from age one to six before moving back to France.
We just had endless topics of conversation. I was a Chinese American, on my first of many study abroad trips to come. He was a Frenchman who had just arrived in China after a few weeks of touring Japan and volunteering in Kenya. We had loads to talk about (movies, basketball, Michael Moore, girls, etc.), but at the core of it all, we were just two ordinary kids, who might’ve been unlikely friends, getting to know each other.
My conversations with him in our little dorm room are among my fondest memories of my time in Shanghai. If you think ours is an extraordinary friendship, then you’re flattering me. We may not have met under utterly mundane circumstances like a plain day at school, but what we did was completely ordinary: just two friends chatting late into the night. It wasn’t as if we visited the Pearl Tower or the French Concession together.
While I was staying at his apartment (man, Parisian apartments are tiny, but I couldn’t complain), he and I ended up only being able to sit down and chat for a few minutes as we had cookies and milk the morning of my flight. He asked me why I chose to study in Sweden of all European countries (he had wanted me to bring a few Swedish babes with me to Paris). I asked him about his upcoming mandatory advertising internship in Manhattan. We talked a little about my travels since the last time we had seen each other. Then he went to the library with his Dell laptop to work on his research paper, and I left for the train station to go to Charles de Gaulle.
There are many people I wouldn’t have met had I not studied abroad. Naturally, I don’t see them very often anymore. And I miss all the ordinary things we used to do together.
I miss watching movies on my wide-screen Toshiba notebook with the German girls who always borrowed it in Shanghai. I miss playing cards at Beijing Capital International Airport with my Californian friends while we waited for our flight back to Shanghai (and on the flight itself too actually). I miss reading a book by flashlight after sunset in the Costa Rican countryside, where we had no electricity, with my friend from Oregon who was doing the exact same thing. I miss playing Tekken 5 and Naruto 4 on my friends’ respective PlayStation 2 and GameCube in their apartments in Tsuru, Japan. I miss those 15-minute walks we had to school every morning, chatting in English, knowing full well we would have to switch to Japanese once we got to class. I miss watching Friends at 8 p.m. and Family Guy at 9 p.m. every weeknight after dinner in Lund, Sweden (don’t be surprised, American TV rules the world). I miss cooking together with friends in the kitchen we shared while living in Lund. We had fun.
Life doesn’t have to be extraordinary, but it can and should always be fun. And fun is utterly ordinary.