My fantasy of studying abroad began on the college tour I took during my senior year of high school. Swarthmore College, a floral, east coast school with a tiny acceptance rate was promising to ship me off to Europe and change my life. I was sold and began preparing for my junior fall abroad on the first day of college in Introductory French.
Throughout my first two years here, the excitement of going abroad lived up to the hype presented by admissions. The Study Abroad Office bombarded us with pictures of students smiling in front of castles and beautiful jungles, while Swatties who were fresh from abroad provided us with unwelcome anecdotes about how much they miss the Spanish way of life, or how the crêpes at ML breakfast are “just not the same as in France.” Yes, we know.
I, however, do not plan to reiterate that narrative. I am not about to declare myself a global citizen who suddenly sees what he was missing all along. I learned many things while I was abroad and gained irreplaceable experiences, but I want to share what happens when you do not have the time of your life. I want to share what it’s like when going abroad is very, very difficult.
Before going to Strasbourg, France during my junior fall, I had never been out of the country. Well, I had been to Canada for an underwhelming 16 hours while touring McGill University, but that didn’t exactly douse me in multicultural knowledge. Traveling was never something my family did, and my parents didn’t have any advice for navigating a new country. Even Swarthmore’s gatekeepers Rosa Bernard and Pat Martin couldn’t predict what I was going to experience in parts unknown.
In France, I first learned a lesson of language. My main goal was to learn French, the language of Voltaire and Pepé le Pew. I had risen for 8:30a.m. classes for four semesters straight, and I felt it was time to collect my reward for all my hard, tiring work. I didn’t want to simply learn more French, I wanted to be fluent by the end of my semester. I wanted utterances about baguettes and the Eiffel tower to slip off my tongue without a second thought. I wanted to seem like I wasn’t American. For reasons I never really figured out, this seems to be a common goal of foreigners traveling abroad.
When I listened to others talk about their language immersion programs, I heard a lot of rhetoric about a “click” moment, during which one experiences what seemed like some sort of linguistic nirvana. The “click” advice promised that, after a few weeks of frustration, I could rest assured that I would start to “get it.” My vowels would sound more exact, the syntax of my sentences would align naturally, and native French would no longer sounds like gargling and random tongue flips.
This may have been the worst piece of advice I received. As I learned in Strasbourg, acquiring a new language is a never-ending battle. It’s the look of confusion and possibly insult on the waiter’s face when you try to order water and you’re not sure if you want “eau” or “de l’eau” or “d’eau.” It’s starting out your semester reading “L’étranger” by Camus, giving up after a week, and exchanging it with a translated version of Charlotte’s Web, which you still need a pocket dictionary to get through. It’s the daily struggle that I experienced in trying to understand my professors and internship director during my program.
The second half of my program was an internship in a linguistics lab. It mostly involved asking my director to repeat herself three times in a row and on the fourth time nodding my head and not answering the question that I didn’t know she had asked. I know that my French improved while I was there, but the linguistic barrier drove me crazy, if not made me feel lonely. It accentuated my status as an outsider and, for the first time, brought my identity as an American to the front and center of my attention.
Fall of 2016 was not an easy time for anyone to be an American. In my young memory, politics had never been more vicious. I watched with anxiety as the presidential race unfolded into a cock fight during September and October. I eagerly awaited the end of it until I woke up the morning of November 9th to the living nightmare that no one expected. It was not easy to feel like the only American on that day. There were other Americans in my program, but by that time, I had started working in a linguistics laboratory with only French people, who were, to my surprise, not feeling the same sense of tragedy that I was. The American election was of course covered by French media, but the French people around me were not offering me their shoulders to cry on. France may as well have been a different planet. They were French, and I was an American in France at a time when many in my country were questioning what it meant to be an American. In the moment when everyone I loved was in turmoil over an uncertain future and I was across an entire ocean, I could only think, “what am I doing here?”
I certainly experienced a plethora wonderful things in France. I miss the beautiful cities, food, and language—everything my textbook promised me. I grew accustomed to biking through the narrow streets and sipping little, bitter cups of coffee. At the end of my internship, I wrote a 31-page paper in French on regional French lexicon, something I was quite proud of. I had a touching goodbye with my internship director, too. When we parted ways, she even started to tear up. To be honest I thought it was a little weird, seeing that I never understood a word she said in the three months we knew each other and didn’t realize we had that kind of relationship. Touching, nonetheless.
Most people will say that everyone should go abroad during college. You might never get the opportunity again, or you should do it “while you’re young.” While there is no part of me that regrets going to France, I am happy to be home, and I don’t agree that everyone should go abroad. It is a challenge that, if one is not emotionally ready, can be a miserable experience. If I go back to France, I won’t be ashamed of acting like a tourist. I won’t be embarrassed for shaking a hand rather than kissing someone’s cheeks when greeting them. What I value from my journey was not the tutorial on how to live like the French—it was the lesson on how to love living like an American.