“You might want a little bit more than that,” he probably said. I wasn’t really listening, to be honest, because the bag looked pretty full. We were nearing the half-way point.
“Seven,” I said, adding the final shirt. There were seven shirts, slacks but no dress shoes, camera but no power volt adapter, a 500-page guidebook but no pocket maps.
Yep, I think we’re good.
When I set my dad’s 1970-era mountain backpack on the scale at the airport, they looked at me like something was wrong. It wasn’t even close to the free, fifty-pound limit. I looked at the line behind me. Business men had seventy-pound rollers for a weekend trip; people on cell phones had duffle bags as big as my backpack that was supposed to last six months. Had I made a mistake?
When I arrived in the Madrid airport, I met a guy who turned out to be studying abroad on the same program as me. We were standing in line at the conveyor belt picking up our bags. I helped him grab one of his three checked bags off the belt. “Careful with that one, it’s got the textbooks,” became: “Can you help me with my luggage?” I took one of his two heavy rollers and we began making our way through the Madrid metro system. There were no elevators, and there were no escalators. I’m glad I was able to help, and it definitely taught a valuable lesson about packing.
Most people say that you should pack light, but that doesn’t go far enough. Bring only one bag, and bring it half-full.
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“Half-full: not only should your pack be half-full, but you should be half-full as you come to another country to “fill up.” Half-full means that by going to another country, you will inevitably fill up as you learn about yourself, your new friends, their culture, and your home back in the US.”
A half-full student is a wise student because they are a student who comes to learn, not expecting what they already have at home. A half-full student is someone who comes to another country to experience that culture for what it is, not for what it lacks. You’re not going to Asia or Africa or Europe to experience the same life you have at home, with washing and drying machines, fast food, cell phones, and picket fences, right?
So what do you fill your pack with? And consequently, what do you fill yourself up with when you get there?
Part of preparing yourself for studying abroad is to expect that you won’t be living like an American; you don’t go to another culture to experience your own all over again. Go to learn about the people in a country, and if you’re interested in them and their language and culture, they will be interested in you. So how do you show interest in other people? The same way that you do at home: by making them feel important and valuable, by talking to them, interacting with them, saying hi and goodbye, learning their names and what they like and dislike, and doing things for them that make them happy.
One of the wonders and goals of studying abroad and seeing more of the world is the opportunity to cultivate an interest in the world—wherever you happen to be in the world at a given time. So when you return home, do so with a full bag and a full heart, knowing that you reached out and made friends in another country, learned their geography, their art and cinema, their food and how they cook it, and what types of trees grow there. And when you get home you can then be just as interested in learning the names of all the trees in your backyard, and the names of your neighbors, and the stories of the people you ride the bus with. Studying abroad should expand your world—so that in the process of becoming interested in another country, you become interested in your own—and that is what will make you more engaged, more caring, and more receptive to the concerns and needs of people all over the world.
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I’m still unpacking my bags. Some things that you put in your bag stay with you awhile; others stay with you forever. My shelf at home is filled with new things from that time to share with family and friends and my old backpack now sits in the garage collecting dust.
It’s torn in places and a little patched up but it’s still half-full of unexpected treasures that won’t ever be completely unpacked, treasures that, like good family and friends, are hard—impossible even—to ever let go of.
-Steve Hanna, University of Idaho