If you haven’t considered going abroad, or are considering going abroad to some mostly-English-speaking European country, I want to convince you otherwise. Let’s jump right in here.
I studied abroad in Yogyakarta, Indonesia from June-July 2013. It’s an amazing city packed with people, arts, and beautiful sights:
It’s almost impossible to choose a highlight because the whole trip was life-changing, but if I had to pick a single moment that did it for me, it was climbing Mount Merapi, an active volcano. The guides climbing with us on the 4-hour hike up that started at 1 a.m. breezed through it in sandals, but most of us had a hard time. There was a point when I was climbing toward 5 a.m. and the sun started coming up. I just had to sit down, in the gravel, and stare out at the sunrise. A few hours before, I had been left by the guide to continue forward on my own. I only had a backpack with me and brought out my very American comfort food (oreos and coca-cola) to celebrate the fourth of July on the side of a volcano. It was an unreal experience.
I had always been jealous of those pictures on U of M’s website of people carrying the M flag all over the world, and I proudly got to wear the flag as a cape the whole time. It definitely made climbing a lot more difficult, but I’ve never been happier to represent my school, my country, and artists across the globe.
My international experience has changed the way I view artists’ interaction with other artists, as well as subject matter. In the US, the art world depends very much upon self-promotion, innovative ideas, and the artistic ego. In Yogyakarta, it’s the opposite–yes, artists believe in their work and try to make a living selling their pieces, but there is a huge spirit of collaboration.
It’s paralleled by the environments in which the US and Indonesia operate. In the US, the ‘American ideal’ is achieved through owning personal space (whether it be a house or apartment or a car), while in Indonesia personal ownership is very fluid and not nearly as important. The buildings are open-air, and people carpool by van or motorcycle almost all the time. Artists could benefit much more and make better work through collaboration, and that’s what I learned through my experience.
It’s a concept that’s hard to learn: to let go of your ego and some control for the greater good.
Letting go of my expectations and preconceived notions of going abroad was a big challenge. For a long time I was terrified about leaving the US because I assumed the world hates our citizens. But just like we have that moment in elementary school when we realize other people have personalities and we’re so much more complex than whatever black and white image we’ve constructed…sorry for that long comparison…we realize that the world is so much bigger than can be generalized.
Being a white, secular redhead meant that I stuck out like a sore thumb in a country that is 98% muslim and sees insanely few white tourists. I couldn’t walk the streets or see the sights without being bombarded by children (and adults) asking to take my picture because of the way I looked. Many people said they’d never seen blue eyes in person before. To boot, I could only string together a few competent sentences in Bahasa.
To say that I was nervous to go would be a huge understatement.
Especially upon learning about all the political corruption and current social and economic issues before I left. But my experience was amazing. Halfway through the trip, I barely noticed the loud calls to prayer at 5 a.m. I wasn’t off-put by the wild chickens roaming the homestay. Even if I couldn’t speak the language, and if no one knew English, we’d just laugh it off and shrug.
I learned so much about the people, the culture, the art community, the country’s history, and in the end, myself.
(with the unfortunate side effect of learning what 43 hours of flying one-way does to the human body and psyche.)
det -> lax -> tokyo -> singapore -> jakarta -> yogyakarta
What I’m trying to say is this: without culture shock, you’re not doing anything. Sure, it’s glamorous to pack up your bags and spend a few months in Europe. Do some couch surfing in Barcelona and take a cheap flight to Amsterdam. See the red light district and then hop over to Germany for Oktoberfest. Isn’t the whole point of traveling to learn something you can’t get from a book? To see things that inspire you and better you? To meet people and immerse yourself in a culture you didn’t think you could understand?
As it turns out, Europe will always be there. You can do the whole honeymoon thing, and backpacking after you graduate thing, and mid-30s trip with your old high school friends thing. But if you’re going to study abroad, take advantage of the stupidly accessible people and resources your school/the internet has to offer.
Go somewhere you never thought about going.