You’re at a supermarket, a Costco or H-Mart, and you’re shopping for food. You see a plastic table set up with a tablecloth with an employee standing behind it expertly cooking the food for distribution. Free samples. You’re attracted to the colorful packaging and the oh so wonderful smells that are coming from the pot.
So you walk over, intrigued by the curiosity of others and hey look you’ll try one, it’s free food and you’re hungry in a supermarket. You take one bite. It only lasts one bite. But that’s all it takes for you to fall in love with the food.
This is what studying abroad is.
It’s a small sample of a larger product, a sliver of the whole package. Most people take the sample and leave, usually with good memories of what they’ve just consumed, and after all it’s easier to take one small sample then to commit to something entirely new. You’re given enough to enjoy but have you been given enough to experience it?
In my four months here I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grossly improved my French, I know how to ask for what at a restaurant, I discovered what beef tartare was, I discovered how much I loved beef tartare. I know how a French presidential election works, I know to describe, discuss and present my artwork to a roomful of French art students. I’ve experienced what it’s been like traveling to a new country whose language I know very little about, I’ve experienced all the stress, excitement, anxiety, and wonder that comes with traveling. I’ve experienced tenfold more things than I would have had I stayed in New York.
But with all the things I’ve learned and experienced, it comes at a fraction of the experience as much four months can truly offer. My father once told me that in order to truly understand a new place, one must live there a minimum of five years. A Guangzhou native who attended high school in Hong Kong, university in Boston, New York for work, and now in New Jersey for his children, he is somewhat an expert on the subject of understanding living in new places.
Now you can disagree, after all 5 years seems excessive. Whatever you believe is your appropriate amount of time, four months is almost certainly too short. I’ve experienced homesickness but I haven’t experienced it at the level of missing major holidays with loved ones. I haven’t experienced trying to make friends in shitty French at risk of being friendless for years. I’ve been lucky enough to witness Paris through its presidential election but I haven’t seen the city at through every kind of experience, through all its peaks and vulnerabilities that I’ve seen from my one year at New York. The problem with four months is that we are already ready to leave by the time we arrive, there’s less sincere attempts to integrate oneself with the culture, less sincere attempts to make long lasting relationships because the inevitable termination. Of course, your time is what you make it and you can certainly create lifetime memories within just four months. Yet even the most enthusiastic and outgoing individual can only do so much. How much of Paris and French culture do I really know?
At the end of our semester abroad, it’s important to remember this: it is a taste. A wonderful taste, of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but simply a taste and nothing more. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences do not equate to the intimate knowledge a lifelong resident has of their home. Four months makes for a lovely travel trip, but for a raw experience in a new life, remember to come back.