Top 5 Things You Falsely Expect While Going Abroad

by Ben Chung

You just got a scholarship to study abroad or decided to see the world through a Gap year! You’re probably giddy with excitement, no? The answer: Yes. You’re probably thinking about what to pack? That book you told yourself you were going to read? Will you bring that retainer you’ve neglected to wear for the last month? You’ll need it to straighten that smile for all the pictures you’ll take.

Dinner at an authentic Italian restaurant in the Philippines.
Dinner at an authentic Italian restaurant in the Philippines. Photo by Tom Gore

It sounds just so exciting, but are you getting ahead of yourself? It’s sad to say, but maybe your hopes for this new adventure are just a little too high. You’ve haven’t even stepped onto the plane/boat/hovercraft that is going to whisk you off to your destination. Maybe you have studied your location in question extensively or have a planned itinerary for your whole trip – this writer certainly doesn’t know. However, maybe this uncertainty is exactly what you need?

You’re expecting too much! Like a good date, leave something to the imagination. Everyone has an opinion, even the most experienced travelers, and those veteran nomads have to still be careful about what they imagine. One preconceived notion can spoil a mind. 

This is a list of the top 5 things you falsely expect while going abroad that will hopefully quell any predetermined foresight, and make you aware of your own preconceptions. Of course, experiences and opinions will vary, but when you do travel, or at least get ready to travel: Keep these in mind. Maybe you are expecting and asking too much from your adventure abroad? A truly open-mind can do wonders.

5. Travelers Expect to Be Active

Surely, you want to return the same smoking hottie that you left as, but finding time to work out and stay in shape is difficult. This is true even when you’re in the own country. Not to mention, the new diet you will be sure to intake. Just wonder what constant bibimbap or paella will do to your already perfect figure! 

Many exchange students, especially, struggle with at least a little weight gain. The organization AFS (American Field Service) even jokingly refers to itself as “Another Fat Student”. However, active doesn’t literally translate to healthy. Maybe your sabbatical will be dull? Perhaps your itinerary is impossible, and it isn’t the adventure of a lifetime. Being active is only fifth overall because keeping oneself entertained is usually possible. One can simply walk the streets, you’ll be sure to find something, not good or bad, but definitely different.       

4. Travelers Expect to Be a Star

Often one hears before they leave for an adventure, “You’re going to be the only American!” or “Are you worried if they ask you a bunch of weird questions?” Surely, all travelers face some intrigue while abroad. Informal face-touching, light interrogation, or maybe some mild hazing, but too often than not, exchange students expect to be the star, the chosen one, while traveling. Now, if you are the only six foot, blond American in your Ethiopian village, or one of the few African Americans in Croatia; you’re probably are going to be a celebrity. However, there are many Americans out there, and a lot of them do travel too. It’s possible, no matter how enthused you are, the locals see you just as another tourist. 

The simple fact of the matter is that maybe you are not as special as you perceive. It’s a chilling, ego-shattering truth, but something to keep in mind. To the locals, you could just be another American rerun. This expectation is only fourth in this list because with enough intuitive and courage, any foreigner can leave a lasting impression. However, the window for self-representation is short. The honeymoon phase ends eventually, and unless you make an effort, you can become just another foreign, wallflower. 

3. Travelers Expect to Feel Exotic

If you are praying in a Bengali temple or maybe bargaining in a Moroccan bazaar, an overwhelming sense of exoticness may take over. The world is a big place full of a lot of different cultures. This is probably why you are traveling, right? To experience them all? 

Sadly as a result of globalization, the world is becoming very capitalized, and simply, American. Some sense of wonder has been lost. This blogger is certainly not saying that the world is just one big, same blob of Homo sapiens, but as “progress” trudges along: the world is losing a little of its luster. The Simpsons are in German, Wal-Mart has taken over grocery stores in Chile, and it’s easier to get shawarma than a taxi in New York City: the world is homogenizing. 

It’s bittersweet because many travelers, well, travel in order to experience foreign lands, but soon, they won’t even need to leave their city to experience an authentic Shanghai or Rio de Janiero. This is a challenge many exchange students face: feeling overwhelming un-exotic. Somehow when society hears “study abroad”, images of Indiana Jones movies still come to mind. However in reality, you are probably going to get off American Airlines, go into the nearest Starbucks, settle into your Swedish host family, and go to sleep on a Chinese made bed. This topic is number three because this preconception of exotic has to start to be mentally shelved, for it is an ever-growing lie.

2. Travelers Expect to Be Understood

When you hear “understanding” and “study abroad”, language surely pops into mind. That’s valid. With dozens of dialects, levels of complexity, and slang, someone who has studied a given language for a decade can still face difficulty with real-life conversation and comprehension. What gives you the confidence to just assume you’ll be speaking perfect Uzbek while having an afternoon tea? A slightly above average ego, or just faith? Probably a mixture of both, but that is not the kind of communication this writer is typing about per say. 

Language barriers are a good precaution to keep in mind; however, this blogger is referring to cultural and emotional understanding. For the first few days, any transition can be, at least, tiresome. Respectfully assimilating to a new culture takes time and effort, and your hosts may not entirely understand your strife, neither may you. 

If you’ve read this far, you are probably thinking this guy has no faith in the average exchange student or traveler. Though this is not entirely true, try keeping an open-mind. Imagine you are a LGBQT exchange student, closeted or not, in a relatively homophobic country. Would you expect the culture to understand, you, a foreigner, there for just a year, month, or even summer? Imagine an emotional aversion magnified by a language barrier while being amplified by cultural apathy. Emotional connection can make or break an experience, and needs to be established rapidly. It’s also sometimes unsurpassable – compatibility is uncertain.  

1. Travelers Expect to Have Fun

The number one thing travelers, exchange students, and globetrotter’s of all levels expect is to simply have fun while going abroad. The idea that a year in Spain or wherever could just be awful is something forcefully forgotten by even the most aged. 

It’s plain and simple: humans tend to avoid things that they fear like disappointment and guilt. Maybe you aren’t compatible with your host family, or you aren’t the cool, foreign student. Life is two-way street, and going abroad is like merging onto the freeway. There are so many factors that can affect your stay, and you are the most important one. You are your own downfall expecting to have fun because perhaps your foresighted destination isn’t the paradise you dreamed of. 

This list shouldn’t discourage those who plan to travel – A truly open-mind can do wonders!