When I find myself in a new city I often try to walk somewhere alone and avoid using my GPS. I love the feeling of belonging as I fall into the crowd of locals on their way home from work. It brings me a sense of peace and home wherever I may be. The only problem I have encountered with this activity is how often people stop me to ask for directions. It is always difficult to give directions in a new place. But the first time I was approached by an old French woman asking me for directions in a foreign language I think my brain short-circuited. We ended up looking it up on my phone together and as I struggled through explaining the map to her, I was jolted out of any illusion of assimilation.
This was not the only time I was asked for directions, approached by someone selling something, or a waiter did not follow the exact script I wrote in my head. These experiences always reminded me of my inability to jump into French with no preparation. I had to ask these people to repeat themselves and hope I understood by the second time because I was usually too embarrassed to ask again after that. However, little by little I felt my ability to jump into French growing and the time it took me to think of a response getting shorter. I did not even come close to becoming fluent during my short time in France, but after experiencing so many moments of complete confusion, I am confident I can finally give someone directions in French.
Studying abroad is a quintessential part of many people’s college experience, but culture shock is a quintessential part of studying abroad. Studying in a new country is a chance to learn new cultures, practice new languages, and make new friends. It is also a daunting idea. It can mean feelings of loneliness and isolation for those studying in an unfamiliar place. I chose to study abroad this spring semester and learned a tremendous amount about how to navigate both the good and the bad of it all.
The one thing students are warned about over and over before traveling abroad is culture shock: the discomfort of being thrust into a new culture and environment all at once. Culture shock is very real, and it affects different people to varying degrees, but I am here to say that it is not insurmountable—if you know how to handle it. It is an amalgamation of encountering one unfamiliar situation after another, which creates a large ball of confusion and stress. The worst culture shock comes to those who are unwilling to learn and adapt. I learned from every unfamiliar situation I encountered and found quickly that it is satisfying to feel like you are starting to know what you are doing. Over time, I learned how to navigate my local grocery store, how to order food, and I was riding the metro and giving directions like a local. Culture shock is all about the attitude you arrive with; if you are not ready to exceed your comfort zone, you may have a more difficult time.
This is not me saying I was open to every experience or never felt overwhelmed. I had to learn on my own what it means to challenge my comfort zone and immerse myself in French culture. In fact, I spent a lot of time feeling stuck in my comfort zone. The program I was in brought 35 Americans from all over the country, and we stuck together. It was fun having people to speak English with and relate to about our struggles, but I quickly realized I was inside an American bubble. I had to choose if I wanted to let myself stay in that bubble or if I wanted to give myself the best chance to truly immerse myself in French culture. In the end, I would say I never really chose. I found myself in situations outside my comfort zone often, but I also chose to have American friends by my side to take on challenges together. For some people, this may seem like a waste of a semester. To me, I found a balance between comfort and fear that kept me stable and encouraged me to keep experiencing France.
Now, I wish I could say studying abroad was perfect and that I had no bad experiences, but that is not entirely true. Loneliness is real and hard. In the U.S., I live over 1,300 miles away from Seton Hall, so I thought four months without seeing my family and friends would be easy. Before studying abroad, I was always missing home or school. In France, I suddenly was missing both. This in combination with the large time difference brought a feeling of loneliness that would hit at times. It is not like the homesickness I felt freshman year of college or at summer camp as a child. It was an intense feeling of isolation that I felt unable to resolve because I was on the other side of the world. There were days when all I wanted was to go home and sleep in my own bed, so I had to learn quickly what things helped me navigate and move past those feelings. At first, I tried doing things that reminded me of home, such as watching my favorite show or tracking down a store that sells peanut butter. However, I realized after a while that what really helped was doing things to make Lyon feel like a home. Since I was only there for a semester, I did not buy a lot of decorations, but I began saving tickets and photos, and I even made a glass water bottle into a flower vase. Little by little, I made my dorm feel like my own place. As I grew closer to my friends, I began going to them when I felt lonely rather than having to wait for my friends and family back home to wake up. I still missed my friends and family in America dearly, but creating a space that felt like home was my saving grace.
After four months on my own on the other side of the world, I can say studying abroad was the best decision I have made in my college career thus far. All the long travel days, struggles to communicate, and difficult days were worth it to create some of the best experiences of my life. I met people from all over the world, created lasting bonds, had experiences that would never be possible back home, and did it all while improving my French. I will always recommend this opportunity to anyone who is considering it and, even with my struggles, I look back on this semester with only joy.
Anna Thibodeau pictured in France