Coming Back to America

I’m not really happy to come back to America. I’m going to miss being abroad. I’m going to miss the people I met, and the experiences I’ve had while being here. Everything is going to feel so different when i come back. When I first came here, I was so homesick and I wanted to be back home, specifically in New Paltz, but now that it’s time to go, I’m going to miss the people and places. But I’ so glad to have had this experience, and I will always treasure it, and I would totally recommend it to others who are considering studying abroad.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is something you will inevitably hear about when you decide to embark on a journey half way across the globe. I was told I’d have trouble adapting to the culture, the language, the customs, traditions, and the currency. I was convinced however, that the term “culture shock” was an exaggeration used to describe how maladapted individuals responded to normal changes you experience when living in another country. I considered myself a versatile and malleable individual who could handle anything thrown my way. Looking back, I realize this was my way of coping with the anxiety I felt from entering the unknown; which of course is 100% normal. The first week in Prague I was actually shown this graph:

 

 

I brushed it off as I was also taking in hundreds of other bits and pieces of information. But the wiser more experienced version of myself is now here to tell you that there is a high chance that you will experience culture shock. Plain and simple. If you are living in a country where you are a foreigner, culture shock is inevitable. Once the excitement of being in a new place and experiencing new things wears off, frustration, to some degree, will take over you.

 

Let me paint a picture for you:

Imagine you are midway throughout your semester and have just been reminded by your professor that your ten-page research paper is due in a week. Now I know what you’re thinking: you’re a responsible student who stays on top of your work and forgetting you have a paper due is not in your nature. But when you’re exploring a city you have limited time in day in and day out whilst traveling during the weekends, due dates are easy to forget. Luckily, European professors do not give homework for the most part but their easygoing character also means they won’t be constantly reminding you of when your big papers and projects are due. So now that you have some context of the situation you may find yourself in, imagine it’s also around the time where you begin to feel home sick. When holidays like Thanksgiving come up or a beloved one’s birthday, you will begin to miss home (I recommend disconnecting from social media as much as possible to counter-act this).

 

Now picture yourself in this hypothetical scenario, with these things lingering in your subconscious, and all of a sudden you find yourself unable to communicate with someone at a café. They don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language fluent enough for them to understand either; this can be really frustrating!

 

Halfway through your frustration you remind yourself that you’re a guest in someone’s country and this is to be expected thus allowing yourself to “brush it off.” On your way home (yes Prague became home) you are being stared at and laughed at. You tell yourself that it’s normal to stand out but you feel your blood start to boil a little. This is culture shock. When the excitement of being in a new place wears off you are faced with the fact that you are somewhere where you stand out all the time. You may begin to think everyone’s constantly staring at you and judging you and well, they probably are.

 

The most efficient way I’ve found to get over culture shock is to accept that you are a foreigner in another land. I find that it helps to think back to all the times you innocently laughed at someone who didn’t speak English, who was completely lost with no sense of direction, or who simply annoyed you because they were “tourists.” Accepting that you are a tourist in another country will make for a less frustrating realization of cultural differences. The faster you can accept this, the quicker this “shock” will pass on by. And trust me, it will pass. If you make an effort to get out of your comfort zone, nine out of ten times you will be rewarded. The reward is life long friendships, new perspectives, gratitude for the people in your life, and personal growth.

 

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman

Brussels

I spent a few days in Brussels, and it was a really awesome experience. My hostel was right near Grand Place, which was really convenient, and it’s beautiful. I went to some museums and really enjoyed taking in the surroundings. One museum was the Royal Museum of Art, which is really cool, and quite huge. I also went to a small town called Bruges, which was a train ride away. It’s very small, but so unique that it was so worth it to spend a day there. I had amazing food and delicious chocolate. Brussels definitely has a lot to see and do, and of course eat, and I think I would definitely like to go back and get to see even more of it.

A Must See: Aushwitz

The German phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” means only work can set you free. This sign is visibly seen as you enter the former concentration camp in Aushwitz, Poland. Oh the irony…

It was a six hour overnight bus ride from Prague to Aushwitz. We departed at midnight so naturally none of my peers or myself got a good nights rest. There was one unpleasant and ironically unforeseeable misfortune that backtracked our trip there: a thick fog. This fog caused a lot of traffic as drivers could quite literally not see the road. However, this didn’t stop Eva, our wonderful tour guide, from rushing our breakfast in order to make it to the camp by 7am. It was important to get there at the very beginning of opening hours as typically Aushwitz is extremely packed, ultimately taking away from the experience.

It’s easy to lack empathy when you learn about the history of Jews in a middle school history class. After visiting Aushwitz, every single one of my peers, Jewish or not, shed a tear. I saw the actual gas chambers bodies were disposed of in. I saw thousands of shoes and suitcases that belonged to actual people who were murdered. I walked through an underground tunnel built for the prisoners. I witnessed some of my friends search through a massive book of names of the victims killed; many of whom found their relatives and cried with grief.

What I saw in Aushwitz was terrifying, horrifying, unjust, but necessary to have witnessed. Yes I knew about the atrocities that went on at this extermination camp, they were unfortunate, but distant. They were stories, statistics, numbers, and seemed very far away. Truth is, not very long ago, had you lived in Europe, you could have been a part of this brutal history. What if this was my family? My sister or brother? My cousin? My child? My friend? My neighbor? Visiting Aushwitz makes it personal for you, regardless where you come from.

For all my traveling enthusiasts reading, traveling with the intention to understand the history of a place will make your experience much more worthwhile. It will forever change your perspective of the world and the people that reside in it.

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” Aushwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

 

A Milano Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday- it’s a holiday that my family goes all out for. When I was younger, we would sit around the dining room table on Thanksgiving eve and write out gratitude leaves. My mom would make so many dishes- main and side- all from scratch! I always admired her hard work on this holiday. Then, on Thanksgiving day, my grandma, aunt, and cousins (all 20 of them), would come in the afternoon and we’d spend the day eating delicious food and watching Star Wars. Being away from home on Thanksgiving was going to be tough, so I decided to throw my first Thanksgiving with my flatmates and friends who I made abroad. Half of us are American, so we celebrate Thanksgiving every year. But for the other half of us, this was their first Thanksgiving! It really was special to me that I got to share one of my favorite holiday with people of all different backgrounds.

Another thing about me- I L O V E cooking. I made chicken cutlets (because here in Milan, turkey is REALLY expensive), corn, green beans, gravy and an apple crisp. Others brought mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, veggie lasagna, tiramisu, chocolate cake and lots and lots of wine. It definitely was a Milanese Thanksgiving haha.

We spent hours playing card games, eating good food, chatting and more! It was one of my favorite Thanksgiving’s that I’ve spent so far. I am so grateful for all of the people who came- and some who couldn’t make it 🙁 These people are unapologetic and kind and intelligent. I’m so glad I had this opportunity to be here in Milan. I don’t want to leave just yet!

Citizen of the World

I have not written a blog post since I have arrived. Why you may be wondering? The experiences I have been through in nearly the two months I have been studying in the Czech Republic have been so incredibly life-changing that it’s evoked a feeling of lethargy. Thats weird isn’t it? I expected the opposite to occur; I thought I’d feel alive, empowered, ready to overcome procrastination, and be the best most productive version of myself. But the truth is that it has taken some time to process everything I have been living day in and day out while abroad. I had to give myself time to truly reflect on my experiences here before being able to write about them. So without further adieu, I share with you the insights I’ve gained from my journey here.

 

For starters, arriving in Prague was like a fairytale. This is one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world. The architecture, the history, the theatre and arts are only some of the various things Prague has to offer. Don’t take my word for it see for yourself:

Brunch in the sky

 

 

The view from my classroom makes it hard to focus sometimes

In the beginning, everything was so fast paced it was truly hard to take it all in. One day I’d be visiting Terezin, the former Jewish ghetto where terrible, horrible atrocities occurred, and the next day I’d be hanging out at a pub with people from all around the world. Now that I have a firm grasp of my surroundings, I have finally been able to settle in and reflect on my experiences. I travelled pretty much every weekend since late September up until late October. I visited Germany, Holland, Greece, and Poland. Each and every single country I’ve visited has somehow taken a piece of my heart. The history I’ve learned and the people I’ve met have undoubtedly changed my perspective on life. I no longer label myself as only being Colombian or American but rather a citizen of the world.

My point in saying this is to emphasize that we are all one human race and identifying ourselves with being of a certain nationality, many times creates a division to understanding people from other backgrounds.

Let me ask you something. What do you see in this picture? Look closely… You see a group of women of different ethnicities and even ages. The woman all the way in the back was my Airbnb Dutch host in Haarlem, Holland (right outside of Amsterdam), which I learned as I arrived is a rich white neighborhood. Now I don’t know how a group of six very different women were able to break the walls within us all, but the openness of our conversation was truly something beautiful.

Our Airbnb host opened up to us about the preconceived stereotypes she had of us when we first walked in. She wanted to express to us the shame she felt just because she was experiencing something she wasn’t used to. We spoke for what felt like hours about racism and thanked each other for destroying many stereotypes our very different societies had instilled on us. Connecting with people in such a raw and real way is what makes traveling so worthwhile.

 

0-100 Real Quick: Dealing with Culture Shock in Milan

This post is loooonngggg overdue. I’ve been caught up with traveling and assignments and just living my life that I haven’t had much time to sit on my computer and be consistent with this blog (which I will work on from here on out). However, tonight I am feeling motivated! I went out to dinner with my close friends that I’ve made here; it was the first time I stayed out past 9PM here in Milan. Being out late made me realized how living in Milan no longer feels like a foreign feeling, but like second nature to me. So, I thought, why not use this time to reflect on the changes and differences in cultural norms I experienced during my first weeks here in Milan.

The food here is all pasta and cheese and meat! Sounds like a dream to most right? As a vegetarian/vegan, I actually found it quite hard to go out to restaurants and find a vegetarian/vegan option, let alone find a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. However, I did make friends (unintentionally) who all happen to be vegetarian! We make it our mission to find good vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and we’ve stumbled upon a few so far.

Dress here also happens to be completely different than what I am used to. After all, I am in the fashion capital of the world! At home, I am used to wearing off-the-shoulder tops, jeans and my vans or boots everywhere I go- overall, super casual. Here, you are expected to be more modest yet still fashionable. Exposed skin definitely gets you some glares but it is something I’ve come accustomed to- my collar bones are my favorite feature, how can I not show them off? Another thing I noticed is that women wear sneakers with EVERY outfit which I’ve come to love and be inspired by. Women wear sneakers with slacks, jeans, dresses and so much more; I never considered sneakers fashionable until this point and now, I can’t stop wanting to buy them! I have a pair of Nike Cortez’s waiting for me at home 😉 Overall, being here makes me that much more into fashion and style; not to mention I’m taking a course titled Sociology of Fashion in Milan at my university here.

A social interaction I wish I could bring back to the states with me is aperitivo! Aperitivo is basically like Italians happy hour; you buy a drink (which can range from $8-$12) and then you either get chips, a meat and cheese platter or even a buffet depending on the establishment. Aperitivo is a great way to socialize with your friends after a long week of classes and have a good time.

I’m not going to lie and say that it was an easy transition coming to Milan- like I was warned by the study abroad advisors, I definitely did get frustrated about certain things not being as convenient as they were in America. However, it is safe to say that I finally am in a groove here in Milan, and I am really enjoying my time here.

Ciao Milano!

I landed in Milan bright and early on a September morning. It was chilly and sunny, which is the perfect weather for me. It had blown my mind that just 8 hours before, I was in NYC, in my home, with my parents and my pets, all of whom I hold close to my heart. I was excited, yet super nervous to start this journey, especially without my parents, siblings or even best friend to hold my hand through it all- literally.

When I stepped off the plane and into the airport, everything felt normal. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or different; people in the airport spoke English, and there were other Americans in close proximity considering we had just gotten off of a plane that departed from JFK- my main concern was getting from the airport to my apartment which was an hour away. I made it to a train called the ‘Malpensa Express’ which connects you from the airport to the central train station in Milan. My 5 foot 3, 135 pound self trucked my 80 pounds worth of bags and luggage across towns, transferring from the airport, to the Malpensa Express, to the metro. What an experience! I was so determined and focused on getting from one point to the next that I couldn’t even think about anything else.

However, when I got to my apartment, that is when reality set in. I am here. IN MILAN. WHERE I WILL BE LIVING FOR 3 MONTHS. Is this real life? I couldn’t believe it. I felt so overwhelmed with emotion, I couldn’t help but cry. I knew that these next couple of months would bring intense change for my life, and although I knew that it was necessary for this change to occur at this point in my life, I wasn’t exactly ready to step out of my comfort zone and accept that it was going to occur starting now.

A Semester Abroad…

One week from today, I will be 4,081 miles away from home for three and a half months. To be completely honest, I didn’t even make a list of things I should pack until yesterday. I’ve been too busy enjoying my summer working and spending time with friends and family. Lately, everyone around me wont stop asking me how I’m feeling about these upcoming months, but how can I feel something that hasn’t happened yet? It feels unreal. It’s like starting a new temporary life, I don’t have the slightest idea of what’s to come.

I’ve dedicated this summer to self -care and self love, something that is not stressed nearly enough these days. Practicing being present and living life in the moment may just sound like this inspirational quote you saw on Instagram, but many people make it their life motto to re-learn how to live in the now. If you can quiet your thoughts and de-attach from them, you learn to live a more peaceful and overall happier life.

So while the idea of spending a couple months alone in a country where the people don’t speak English may sound daunting, I feel mentally capable of handling any obstacle that may present itself. More importantly, I am full of gratitude for having the opportunity to get to know another side of the world.

So why did I choose to study abroad in the first place? Well besides the obvious reasons of wanting to expand my horizons, being able to travel inexpensively all over Europe, having the opportunity to become more independent, and being able to take awesome classes from a very different perspective, I chose to study abroad mainly for the immense amount of personal growth I know I will achieve during these couple months. There’s something about being alone half way across home that brutally forces you out of your comfort zone and into the world of adulthood. I don’t know what’s to come but I do know I will make the most out of it.

 

Goodbye USA!

China: The Awakening to a New World from a small long islander

Hello all! I am currently writing this post from my dorm room in Guilin China at 11:37 PM. Before I discuss how my 2 weeks have been so far, let’s rewind to the day of me leaving America (and I guess I should also introduce myself a bit.) My name is Beth and I am from a small town on Long Island called Cedarhurst. I was born in China but came to America when I was 15 months old. I have always wanted to go to China and experience my culture firsthand ever since I was a little girl (age 7 or 8) I have never traveled to another country on my own, which as you can imagine, seemed super exciting as well as super terrifying (haha).

The trip to get to China was a bit hard considering I didn’t sleep the entire way there (20 + hours awake) but when I finally arrived at the Hong Kong airport, I was in such awe. It was a huge airport! There were at least four  floors and each floor was like a maze. The flight from Hong Kong to Guilin, Guangxi, China took about an hour. As soon as I got off the plane I was greeted by a taxi driver who spoke zero english and that’s when it hit me, I was truly in China! (I know, you’d think it would’ve hit me earlier) The taxi was organized by my host institution, CLI (the Chinese Language Institute) I got to the dormitory at 3:35 PM. (I was super jet lagged) I was given a tour around the campus by CLI interns 5 minutes later. My intern’s name was Elben. She was very nice and spoke english very well. That night I fell asleep at 8PM (earliest I probably ever went to be in my entire life). I was extremely happy to be in China, I could not wait for the next day to occur.

When the next day occured, it was not what I thought it would be like. It was very rough and confusing because no one really spoke English in my dormitory, not even the staff… My expectations of having New Paltz abroad were slowly disappearing. No one spoke english well enough to understand me, which was super scary! I remembering sitting in the main lobby of the building, freaking out, wondering when I would get food (none of the local shop owners speak english in Guilin) Luckily, I met my first Chinese friend named Andrew. He spoke fluent Chinese as well as English. ( my savior who took me to Walmart, YES, there is a Walmart in China!)

Now let’s fast forward to now. (2 weeks in Guilin) My language skills have improved so much in just a small amount of time. Before China I knew about 30-40 Mandarin words, now, I know at least 100! (It’s only been 2 weeks!) I can understand the locals enough to get by and order food and of course go shopping for clothes (be warned: Chinese clothing sizes are much smaller than American sizes, a small in America is a large, sometimes even extra large in China!) I have met some amazing friends that I can not wait to share with you guys later in my posts, I have also been on some beautiful sight seeing excursions, organized by CLI, and I am becoming more and more fluent in Mandarin everyday! Who knows, my next post could end up being all in Chinese! (Don’t worry, I won’t do that to you guys)