The other day I read quite a nice article on “Things I Wish People Told Me While Studying Abroad“. A lot of what that website posts is pretty brain draining but it was a nice article and I thought I’d throw my 5p into the pot as well.
In 2007/08 I studied at a girls’ university in Nagoya, Japan. Coming from a class of mainly boys, it was a parallel universe for me, and that’s not even factoring that it’s a Christian university! Nevertheless, it was possibly the best year of my life so far.
So, now that you have my exchange student backstory, here is my list!
1. Do your research.
There are certain things that you may not be able to get in the place you’re going to study in. For example, the Japanese don’t sweat so much and so deodorant isn’t so common. So, if you are going to live there for a while, you should take enough to last you through. It’s always better to do some research so you end up taking with you the right things, even if it means you sound a little silly; I can’t remember how many times I’ve been asked if they have tampons in Japan (the answer is yes – they do. And yes, they ‘fit’ western women, too. They’re just a little expensive.)
2. Shun your countryfolk.
This is going to be controversial.
When I went to Japan, I went there wanting to learn as much Japanese as humanly possible. In my uni course it was common for our weekly test scores to be read out loud to us all by the teacher, and I wanted to come back and be at the top of the class so I’d never feel the embarrassment of having low scores again.
In my class in Liverpool, I was pretty much the only girl, and so I was sent by myself to the girls’ university, while everyone else was paired off and sent away. It was hard because at times I felt real pangs of loneliness, but it was awesome at the same time because I made friends mainly with people who weren’t from English speaking countries. When I visited my classmates in Fukuoka at the end of October I saw that they had a great community of English and American people to enjoy Japan with. It seemed really nice and friendly, and that was great, but I was kind of glad that at my university my friendship circle were Korean, Thai and Japanese people, and that I was forced to speak only in Japanese with them.
If you are studying abroad to learn a language, I highly recommend being stuck up and shunning people who are also native in English. You won’t be popular, you will be looked down upon by others, but you will make that language your default language and improve at a much higher rate.
Living in Germany and trying to learn German now, I really wish I could have a situation like I did back in Japan.
3. Do all the things.
Being an exchange student is very different to being a working expat. As a working expat, and as an adult, not only do I work full time but there’s all this horrid grown-up stuff like life admin. Taxes, student loan forms, papers for this and signatures needed for that…it’s all a massive faff. And all this faff and all this work means that it’s hard to just enjoy all the things your adoptive home has to offer. Lots of people I know go off at the weekends to various German places but I never get round to doing that.
As an exchange student, nothing much is expected from you. You have a few hours’ classes a day, maybe a part time job to keep the beer money flowing, but that’s it. I did SO much in that one year in Nagoya. It was awesome, and I recommend that anyone going to study abroad just does ALL the things. Not only all the touristy things, but also regular things like going to the hairdressers, eating the local speciality, eating the craziest food you can find, perhaps even dating a local. Make a bucket list and tick all the things off. They all make for amazing stories.
4. Culture shock IS going to happen.
I talk about culture shock in a lot more detail in this other post I wrote about living abroad in general, but it still applies to studying abroad as well. It’s good to keep in mind that you will have days when you feel really negative towards the country, and days when you just can’t get your head around why something is done a certain way there when it’s so much better/different back home. It’s completely ok to be like this – it doesn’t make you racist or a bad person. It’s simply the process you go through when spending time abroad.
5. Don’t forget to take a slice of home with you.
Life as an exchange student is probably the first time living abroad for many people. It can be a very challenging experience, though it’s one I wish more people would go through. It depends on the person, but it’s usually a good idea to take with you things that remind you of home. I have a stash of photos of my friends from school and of my family that I take with me and pin on my bedroom wall wherever I am in the world. It’s also a good idea to take with you some comfort food with you like your favourite chocolate or cookies, and save it for a day when you wish you were back home. Music is also a good idea as well – I never really listened to UB40 or Fairground Attraction until I lived abroad; now I listen to them when I miss my family because that’s the music my mum listens to.
There is probably lots and lots more advice for exchange students out there, so please get in the comments if you have something that I missed! And just in case you have no extra advice to add – when/if you live abroad, do you prefer to go out of your way in making friends with the locals? Or do you prefer to surround yourself with people from your home country?