Going to a new place and having the opportunity to travel and study at the same time sounds like a dream, and that’s exactly what it felt like for me when I applied to go to Spain for this spring. Meeting new people, exploring different languages and cultures, experiencing new things…it’s exciting and foreign to many of us, especially those who are used to being in the same place and having the same routine.
I think an important question to ask yourself if you are planning to study abroad for a semester or even longer, is why am I doing this, and what am I hoping to get out of it? Besides the obvious factors of getting to travel and meet new people. Are you trying to seek a home in another culture for a while, or are you feeling lost in life and trying to search for yourself?
I can tell you from experience it’s hard to stay in tune with reality with an experience like this, but completely necessary.
What I mean is that it’s easy to think about what your experience will be like and expecting things to just happen instead of facing reality. The reality is that you are here for a certain amount of time, and at the end of the journey you’ll return home and life might just go back to the way it was before. Whether you are in search of a new home or yourself, I think this is important to keep in mind.
I think you find more fulfillment in this adventure when you choose to explore within yourself before anything else. Being in a new place, having to develop a new routine, learning the customs of another country- these are all factors we gamble on in a new place, and it’s definitely something that takes time to get used to. The good news is you will get used to it, so don’t let that fear hold you back from this experience.
I’ve only been in Spain for two weeks and I feel comfortable and settled in at this point, and am slowly falling in love with the way of life here. So here are some things to consider while trying to immerse yourself in a different culture.
Eat locally – my personal favorite
The best way to learn in a new place is to follow the locals, and that includes what they eat! When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? In Spain, they eat a lot of meat, so as a vegetarian coming into this experience I decided I wanted to try to get into the culture as much as possible and just experiment with whatever I was comfortable with. I am not saying if you are vegetarian you should just convert and start eating meat. For me, learning about what Spaniards ate and what times they ate at helped me adjust more and made the experience of me living here that much more real. If you are just eating the food that you are used to back home, you aren’t really giving yourself that opportunity.
Learning the language
I believe this should be one of your main priorities no matter which country you choose to dive into. The reality is that not everyone speaks English, and will find yourself having to ask for directions, order a meal, or having a conversation with a local and not knowing the language makes it more difficult. Trying to learn and speak the local language will make you feel more comfortable with a foreign culture.
Learning a language doesn’t just come from observation, it’s necessary to practice as well. I know it can be a little hard or nerve-wracking to start up a conversation with a stranger and in a language you may not be super familiar with, but you will learn more from trying to communicate and listening to the other person. If all else fails, carrying around a book with common everyday phrases to that specific language is great in a pinch!
Attending events/getting involved
Basically, don’t stay in your room all the time. Who knows if you will ever get an experience like this again, so take full advantage of it. Walk in parks or neighborhoods around yours to see what’s out there, try a different grocery store to buy food from every time you run out of food, try an art museum or find an activity you normally wouldn’t pursue, and try and keep a conversation going with as many people as you can. I think the fun of it all is just getting out of your personal comfort level, going with the flow and seeing what else is out there in the world!
Expect culture shock
It’s completely normal to feel this, especially if this is your first time going into a country that has a different culture to yours. There is also no specific time limit in which you will have become better acquainted with it; everyone experiences things at different paces. What I can say though, is it does get easier, and you pick up things quickly just by observing and paying attention to what other people are doing, modes of transportation, stuff to do around your city, etc.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is to just take this adventure for what it is, an opportunity to learn more about a different country and to let it change you. Having an open mind and trying to embrace or just come to terms with the different cultural norms will take you a long way. Try not to observe everything as an outsider, and grab onto opportunities or things you could take part in that you normally wouldn’t. If you use your experiences as opportunities to learn, you are going to come out of this with a lot more!
Simran Matken is a Nothern Arizona University student. He is currently studying abroad in Madrid, Spain for Spring 2018.