Eloise: Finding my Feet

Eloise is from England, and is studying her final year of a bachelor’s degree in French and History. She has just completed a year’s internship with a church in France.

As I sit down to write this, it’s actually a year since I got on a plane and went to live in the South of France for ten months. Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I’d known it was coming and had been mentally preparing for a while – I’m a languages student and so knew from the start of my degree that I’d have to spend third year abroad – but felt completely unprepared when the plane took off and it hit me that I didn’t have a return flight booked in a fortnight (or at all, actually, as I didn’t know what dates I’d be coming home for Christmas).

Obviously, I was there to improve my French, a language I’d supposedly been learning since the age of eleven. And yet, for my first month or so, I felt like a complete fraud; here I was, claiming to be a university student studying French and yet it felt like I could barely string a sentence together. It didn’t help that the region I was in, Languedoc-Roussillon, had a regional accent, and so even the basics of communicating in French were made even harder!

Culture Shock

I was interning in a church, which threw me straight into the deep end of having to interact with French people from many different walks of life on a daily basis, as well as living with a host family from the church. For the first few months, this meant that it felt like my brain was constantly switched on, and I had to work twice as hard as everyone else all the time. Even social situations that were laid-back and relaxing for everyone else were exhausting and stressful for me. One of my overwhelming memories from my first few weeks abroad is how tired I was, all the time!

Having grown up going to France for summer holidays, I thought I’d be able to cope with the culture shock – how different could it be really? Turns out, culture shock was a massive issue for me, and I never really got over it, though I did get used to it. I learned to laugh things off as a ‘cultural thing’. I felt like I didn’t fit in – from the sense of humour, to the food, to the fact that I’m stereo-typically English and drink a lot of tea, and the French don’t.

It took me ages to feel like I’d made friends, in part because I was so shy and scared no-one would like me. Now I’m back in England I regret not being more outgoing to begin with; when I did make friends, we did some really fun things together and I wish we’d had time to do more and develop our friendship further. At the end of the year, whilst part of me couldn’t wait to go back to England and embrace home comforts and not having to speak French for a while, there was a part of me that wished I was staying longer, as I felt like I’d finally found my feet and could actually ‘do’ this whole living abroad thing.

Living the Language

I think a misconception of a year abroad is that you’ll learn the language with no effort; you’re living there, how could you not? Whilst this was true to some extent, I actually found that I really had to make myself go out and find opportunities to practice my language skills, from trying to make friends instead of staying in and watching Netflix, to going to museums and taking the French leaflets instead of the English ones.

My language acquisition seemed to come in stages; I didn’t notice any difference for ages, and then when I went back to France after spending Christmas in England, I suddenly noticed a huge improvement. I also felt like I started to rapidly improve again in the last few months of my stay, and if you’d shown me at the beginning of my year abroad how confident and comfortable I’d be using French day-to-day, I wouldn’t have believed you.

A year abroad,  in my experience, is definitely not the idealised study break everyone assumes, in which language students spend their year posing for Instagram and getting a tan, all in the name of ‘immersing ourselves in the  culture’ (although I did do both of those things). It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and there were so many moments when I wanted to run away to the airport and get on the first flight home. But it was also one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things I’ve ever done. Living in a new culture and pushing myself out of my comfort zone meant I learned so much about myself and grew in confidence.

Don’t be afraid to be different

To anyone about to head off to live abroad, or thinking about it, can I give you a piece of advice? Embrace the new culture, but also don’t be afraid of being a little different- one of my fondest memories is hosting an English meal for a group from church and introducing them to English food, from fish and chips, to Lancashire hotpot, to a Devon cream tea, merging where I grew up with where I go to uni. Introducing them to a part of my culture strangely helped me feel more at home in theirs. Although I never managed to convert any of them to tea drinkers!

I started my year abroad crying on the airplane, convinced I would completely fail and never be able to speak French. Ten months, a lot of tears, some incredible highs (eating ice cream on a beach, surrounded by mountains, staring at the bluest sea I’ve ever seen and realising I  actually got degree credit just for being there, wine tasting in Paris living the year abroad dream for 48 glorious hours, the moments when I realised I’d been speaking fluent French without trying…) and some awful lows later, and I ended my year abroad crying on the airplane, because I’d somehow found my place in this strange little corner of France, just as I was leaving it all behind.

If you would like to hear more about Eloise’s adventures in France, you can read her blog ‘Eloise in Roussillon’ here.

Maurizzio: Studying Abroad

Maurizzio, originally from Peru, has studied at universities in the US and the UK. He shares how those experiences are shaping his career, and offers some advice for anyone planning to study abroad.

Looking Back

I walk into the Starbucks and order a cup of coffee.

The man waiting for me gives me a quizzical look. ‘You take your coffee black?’ he asks. I nod.

We sit down and start to chat. It looks simple enough, but this man is here to evaluate me for a job. The atmosphere might look relaxed, but here I am, at 31 years old, seeking employment as a professor in one of Peru’s most prestigious universities.

His eyes scan my CV. ‘Maurizzio Zamudio, Peruvian. MA in History.’ He recites my information as if I he were teaching it to me for the first time. ‘I see you studied abroad. Where exactly?’

‘University of Exeter,’ I reply.

Fast forward one year and here I am, at 32, a full-fledged university professor lecturing in 2 different departments on topics related to Art History. Apart from that, I also give conferences on crisis management because, as my mentor says, ‘History is the history of crises’. In my spare time I’m polishing my two novels for their future publication.

That’s a lot.

Sometimes I wonder how it got to this point. I’m not complaining – I just really want to know how I came from being unemployed to having too much on my plate. Part of me knows the answer.

Let’s roll back the clock to 2005 when, at 17, I left home to do my Bachelor’s Degree in the US. Then to 2015 when I went to the UK for my Masters. The years spent abroad studying are definitely one of the many reasons employers jump at my CV.

Feels good, but I must give credit where credit is due. Without those experiences abroad, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m now.

‘Are you going abroad by yourself?’

I got asked this question multiple times. It makes sense, because leaving home for a foreign country on your own is a daunting task. It isn’t easy to adjust to a new language and new culture. You will make mistakes and mess up. But the important thing is to remember those are natural things. The whole ‘fish out of
the water’ feeling is what you are supposed to be going through.

Is it really that bad?

It doesn’t have to be. Granted, you will feel alone at first, but that’s natural; in my case, I knew no one on campus when I arrived. To me, what made my experience abroad were the friendships I made. You will make them too. You will meet people like you, newcomers who are just as lost as you are. Don’t feel embarrassed; everyone is just as scared as you are.

However, let me stress something; do go out, do meet people. I’m an introvert and I had to drag myself out to talk to people. I’m not the kind who does well in big groups, so I ended with a small circle of friends, but I knew I could count on them. Those people are lifesavers.

Depression is real, and being far from home, international students are more prone to it. Don’t give it an advantage.

Finally, I know you are there to study, so do study and get good grades, but don’t let studies take you away from enjoying the place you are in. Organise a road trip, go watch a film, do touristy things.

You are only in that city for a few years. Enjoy it.

Find Maurizzio on Twitter @Maurizzio_Z.

Learning ‘Home’: 6 Ways to Settle into Life Abroad

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.

George Santayana, The Philosophy of Travel

We’ve talked about this before: culture shock is hard. Making friends is hard. Moving abroad is so, so hard.

It’s not all bad – I have lived in different countries before and absolutely plan to move again, so don’t be discouraged! Think of all the friends, cultural understanding, language skills, food and general joy that will be added to your life from this experience.

But let’s not be too flippant about this – we need to have realistic expectations. Be kind to yourself, because humans do struggle with uprooting and replanting in totally unknown territory. It’s confusing and overwhelming and a little scary.

So these are my tips for making that process a little easier for yourself.

  • Build a routine. Depending on your reasons for moving, this might be harder for some people than others! But how about setting aside every Saturday morning for a cooked breakfast, or Sunday afternoon for an outdoors walk? Could you honour a simple routine – like watching a movie once a week, or meeting a friend for coffee – that would give your crazy schedule some structure, or at least a little treat to look forward to? You can’t be stressed every waking moment of your day, or you will be miserable. Commit to a routine that includes rest and recuperation.
  • Eat familiar food. Not all the time – your host country probably has amazing dishes on offer that you definitely don’t want to miss out on! But don’t feel bad about eating something you’re comfortable with every once in a while. Make yourself feel at home, and find that balance between cultural immersion and your comfort zone. When I lived in China, I loved the food! Chinese people are so proud of their cuisine, and rightly so. I tried new things, and braved unusual delicacies, from raw pig’s cheek to barbecued duck’s tongue. Did I also go to McDonalds every week for some oh-so-familiar fries? Absolutely.
  • Find people you trust. You’re going through a huge, emotional transition, and you shouldn’t try and do it alone. Find other ex-pats who know your struggles, and who can help you straighten out your confusions. Talk to locals who have lived abroad; ask them what they found hard, or helpful, and how they dealt with it. No one can fix your homesickness or culture shock for you, but it will help enormously if you have people you can vent to!
  • Stay healthy. Maybe this is obvious, but eating a balanced diet, getting outside, exercising, and drinking plenty of water will make you feel good, and improve your mood. Don’t let those things slip just because everything else around you is changing. You are only human, and you need to look after yourself holistically if you want to make a healthy adjustment to your new life.
  • Be brave. Try the things you’re nervous to do (within reason!) Talk to locals. Try out your language skills on shopkeepers. Figure out the public transport. Set yourself little, achievable challenges that will keep you learning and engaging with the host country.
  • Sleep. You’re body needs sleep, so let it sleep! You might be jet-lagged, or overwhelmed, and in need of a little extra rest – so rest! Have a nap. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little more time to sleep when you’re in a new place. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Bonus tip: It’s going to be okay. Keep going – you’re doing great.

Love, Dani

  • How have you dealt with culture shock in the past? What would your advice be for people moving to a new country?

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

Culture Shock Blues

‘Culture shock’ is a word we use quite liberally these days – “moving to that part of town was a bit of a culture shock!” or “there was quite a bit of culture shock when I changed schools’. And all of these things are valid – change isn’t easy!

That said, when we throw that term around as much as we do, we can forget just how profound the experience of culture shock can be in a completely different country.

Culture shock can rear its head in the form of loneliness, tiredness, isolation, homesickness, withdrawal, irritability…the list goes on. You might find yourself missing a food you never even liked that much before – it just reminds you of home. You might find yourself getting emotional because of a smell that reminds you of your family’s cooking. You might even find yourself lacking the energy to leave the house, because being surrounded by all the new sounds, accents, and maybe languages, is draining.

4 Phases of Culture Shock

We commonly think about culture shock in four phases, and these phases will last different lengths of time and manifest themselves a little differently in every person.

I like this illustration from the Swedish for Professionals website

We start with the Honeymoon Phase: these are the golden weeks where everything seems new and exciting. The locals seem charming and the food is delicious and the weather is beautiful. This was the best choice you’ve ever made.

If you’re on a quick holiday, you might find that you never get past the Honeymoon Phase! If you stick around a little longer though, you’re going to run into some difficulties. Next up is the Frustration Phase (also known as the Anxiety Phase.)

This is the part where you start to realise all the things you don’t know about this country, and the list of things that make no sense to you is probably growing with every minute you’re there! Why do they talk to me like that? Why can’t they just eat normal food? What do those signs mean?

It might feel like you are notoriously different, chronically out-of-the-loop. It might feel like there’s no hope for you to ever feel at home here.

But there is hope, because all of these things become easier with time. That’s what the Adjustment Phase is about.

You’ll start to learn your way around, and gain independence. You’ll be doing your own shopping, maybe even chatting away in a new language. You’ll start growing friendships and building community around you, and you might start finding answers to some of those niggling cultural questions.

And then, after all the hassle, frustration, and learning, there’s one final stage. It might take months, it might even take years, but it exists: the Acceptance Phase.

This doesn’t mean you fully understand your host country, or are necessarily fluent in the language. But it means you’ve found your place there: you’re settled, and that’s where your life is now. You’re thriving, or at least, at ease in this culture that used to be so strange to you.

These phases aren’t clear-cut or prescriptive, but they are a really helpful guideline to give you an idea of what to expect, and to justify what you might be feeling. You can prepare yourself before you leave: know that there will be difficulties, and that that is completely normal.

Nobody ever said crossing cultures would be easy. It takes time and patience – both with your host country and with yourself! But it is possible, and it will get better.

Love, Dani

  • What elements of culture shock have taken you by surprise on your travels?
  • What are your tips for dealing with culture shock?