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Study Abroad 101

Exchange Student Problems, Study Abroad 101

How To Beat Homesickness

Homesickness. It is probably something everyone has to deal with at some point in their life, and it´s awful. However, despite what it might feel like, homesickness might not necessarily be about you missing ‘home´ but more about you missing ´a home´, in the sense that you might miss the feeling of a more stable, reliable and familiar situation. The lack of a familiar situation can make you nostalgic for the things you had before, even if you never even liked them at the time (in the academic world, this is called the Nutella Syndrom). This can result in you trying to hold on to the past, which will make the homesick, ending up in a vicious cycle. However, you can break this cycle by following these two steps.

Step 1: Make Peace With Your Old Home

It´s very normal to feel homesick from time to time, but it´s a horrible feeling that ultimately will make all parts of your life much harder. After all, your home what you have known for a big part of your life. The challenge is to find a balance in cherishing the memories, without this interfering with your new life.

Now, in order to get rid of your homesickness you have to make peace with the fact that the place you are longing for is not a reality at the moment, and that doesn´t have to be a bad thing. Things change all the time, and so you have to change. Try not to think in the past but in the future.

A very important part of not trying to live in the past is to make sure the way you are keeping contact with your friends and family back home isn´t taking over your life. If you want to know what the best way to keep contact with home is, click here to read the article ‘How To Keep Contact With Your Friends And Family While Being Abroad´.

One thing that can help is to write yourself a letter about all the things you didn´t like about home. You can write this letter beforehand, in a moment you are angry or upset, but if you are suffering from homesickness right now it might be a better idea to write a list of things you didn´t like. This can be anything from the weather to family arguments or a bad valuta. This is not necessarily to demonize your old home, but for you to find a balance. When feeling homesick people often romanticize and idealize their old home, and ´ ideal´ places could never live up to reality.

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Step 2: Create A New Home

This might seem like an obvious one, but getting a new home will most likely take care of the nostalgic feelings you are having about your old home. The best way to do this is to create a routine that you follow. Decorate your place in a way that makes it feel like home. Of course, this is easier said that done, but here are a few things you can think of.

Create A Routine

Try to do certain things at the same time. That means waking up at the same time, taking a morning walk around the same park, getting coffee at the same place, giving a dollar to the same homeless man in front of the supermarket. Creating a new routine will help you find your place when everything is new and will help create a more stable environment.

Part of this might be to decorate your house, and make it into a home! Hang pictures on the wall (preferably pictures that aren´t of your friends and family back home). Try to make it a nice environment that will make you feel comfortable and more at ease.

Learn The Language

When you move to a different place and don´t know the language, it´s hard to expect to feel at home. Learning the language might be hard, but putting in all the effort in the first months will definitely pay off on the long run!

In order to make more contacts, you could also join a Language Exchange group, or ask people around you to help. You would be surprised how many people are willing to help you learn! But don´t forget, you are the outsider, which means you will have to take most of the initiative. Local people already have a social circle and even if they really did enjoy meeting you, for them there is just not the same amount of pressure to make a new friendship or to make an effort to meet you.

Create New Traditions

One of the things we usually miss about our old homes are the traditions. Therefore, an easy solution to missing the old traditions is to make new ones. Have a dinner night at your place every Friday night. Have a certain spot where you and your friends always meet. Try to incorporate some of the local traditions into your daily life. Even if you don´t get them, or they are not the same as they were at home, new traditions will quickly make you feel more at home and before you know it, you´ll be in some other place feeling homesick for the new memories you have created. 

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Make Friends

Obviously having a group of friends around you is very beneficial to your well-being, and I don´t think I have to spend any more words explaining why. If you are not sure how to go about making new friends, don´t panic. In the post ‘How To Make Local Friends Abroad´ I explain how you can find yourself some local friends.a

Again, don´t forget, you are the outsider, which means you will have to take most of the initiative. Local people already have a social circle and even if they really did enjoy meeting you, for them there is just not the same amount of pressure to make a new friendship or to make an effort to meet you, which is why it is sometimes hard to make friends abroad. Don´t worry though, realizing why people sometimes don´t  seem to care as much as you do is half of the work. Don´t feel afraid to ask someone again if they couldn´t make it the first time.

If you´d rather have international friends, you might want to consider joining an Expat or Exchange student network. Facebook offers a great amount of Facebook group these days, so just try and search for ‘Expats [ insert city or province name ]´ and see what comes up!

Or maybe you could even join a dating site or use an app like Tinder to go on romantic dates. Having some love in your life could make all the pain go away in a second!

Talk about it

It´s okay to let people know you are struggling with this. Maybe not everyone will understand to the same extent what it feels like to miss home, but the majority of people are more than understanding to the subject, and the fact that they know you are going through this can make them more open and helping towards you.

One of the most comforting things in hard times is knowing that you are not alone. Therefore, it might even be more comforting to speak to other foreigners, as they are probably going through the same process. Even if other people don´t seem to show it, you will probably be surprised how many people are feeling just as miserable as you at times (and are really good at hiding it!). Feel no shame, you are not alone!

Keep a journal

I would recommend everyone to do this. Keeping a diary can help you reflect on your emotions. It´s good to read back things you have written years, months or even days before. It can help you remember the things you maybe didn´t like when you were back home, or how much you longed to go abroad. It can also keep track of your progress in the process of feeling at home in your new place. Reading back the first impressions you had, how lost you felt in the first days will make you realize how far you´ve come already.

 

In the end, time might be the best remedy. Don´t beat yourself up about, because feeling homesick is natural. Just don´t think that going back home will solve that problem.

If you ever feel the need to talk, you can always reach me through the Nationality Unknown Facebook page

 

Exchange Student Problems, Homesickness, Mid-Exchange, Study Abroad, Study Abroad 101

Why Christmas Might Be The Hardest Time To Be Abroad

To be honest, I am not a big fan of Christmas. In my family it is not really a big deal, plus I hate cold weather. Two reasons why I thought I wouldn´t have a lot of problems being in a tropical paradise around this time of year. I was excited to experience such a big event in a different country/culture, and I was excited for not having to spend it in the actual winter. But in reality I thought the time around Christmas to be much harder and in all honesty, it might have been the only time I actually felt homesick. Here are some reasons why Christmas for many students might be the hardest time to be abroad

#1 It´s a family thing

Like I mentioned, yes, Christmas is usually celebrated with family, and although I did not actively missed my family during my exchange as I was just too busy with other things, not spending Christmas with them did feel a little weird. Suddenly I felt nostalgic over all the drama that usually comes with the last days of December.

You don´t even have to be a family person to miss your family during Christmas, which would make it all the harder for those who do actively miss their family. Being with a new family that probably still feels too new to really feel the same comfort with as at home, not having this ´tradition´ to look forward to, which can make it a hard time of year

#2 It doesn´t feel like ´ Christmas´

Yes, you know it´s going to be different, but you still have this expectations of a feeling you always get, so when it´s 30 degrees warmer outside or your family doesn´t have a Christmas tree, it might not ‘feel´ like that celebration you usually love to much, and it´s hard to get into something when you are not ´feeling it´.

#3 It comes at the worst time of your exchange

Depending on when you leave for your exchange, Christmas usually comes in the middle of an exchange. This means you have probably already gotten used to your host country. Everything feels normal, to the degree it starts getting boring. Your host family starts to feel like real family, to the degree that you are starting to feel little annoyances with them.

In the Cultural Adjustment Cycle, you would commonly find yourself in stage 4 now, where you have overcome the initial adjustment and are now getting to know the deeper issues of a culture.

 

For those who have not seen it during their orientation camps, culture is often compared to an iceberg. There are a lof of obvious things that everyone can see. The way people dress, eat, etc. These things are strange at first, and you have to get used to them, but they are also quite easy to accept.
But any iceberg, as we all know, is much larger underwater than above the water, which means there are many many more things that we don´t see. Those things are not only harder to see, they also go way deeper into someone´s way of thinking. Eating might be a fairly easy thing to change, but things such as hand gestures might be so unconscious they are way harder to address.

And to continue the iceberg metaphor, icebergs are more likely to clash ´underwater´.

Without making this post too preachy; it is normal to have a little dip during this Christmas period. It is in fact part of your cultural assimilation (and means that you are on track). Believe me, I had a period where I hated everything about my host country. I wasn´t necessarily feeling homesick, but I was also not understanding the local culture which was extremely frustrating. But in the end, it passed, and without trying to claim I now ‘fully understand´ my host culture, bit by bit you will start accepting, understanding and appreciating it more.

But for now, good luck in these hard times and I wish you all a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

Note; These experiences are generalized and are not the same for everyone. If you are having a great time and are feeling none of these issues at all, I am really happy for you 🙂

Exchange, Study Abroad, Study Abroad 101

How To Make Local Friends Abroad

Making local friends ain’t always as easy as it sounds. When I went on exchange I told myself I was never going to spend time with any international students. After all, I was there for the culture, the local people. Why would I spend time with people from other countries?

Well, because international students get you much better. They know the struggle. Making local friends isn’t always easy, for a number of reasons.  But looking back, I honestly regret not putting in more effort to make local friends. So learn from my mistakes and get the most out of your exchange. It might be hard, but it certainly can be done, and having a group of local friends will make the process of feeling at home, fitting in and your entire exchange in general a whole lot easier (and more fun too).

1. Learn the local language

This might sound obvious, but it is a very important step towards making local friends. Even in countries where people tend to speak English as a second language, at some point they are going to talk their native language and when you don’t manage that language, you will feel excluded. In the beginning, people tend to adapt for you, translate things for you, but after a while it will be harder for them to keep adapting themselves for you.

Dedicating your first months abroad to learning the language will definitely pay off in the long run, trust me. I think learning the local language, at least a little bit, is a way to respect the people of the country you are staying in, and having local friends can actually help you a great deal to learn it! So ask people if they want to help you, tell them you are looking for conversational partners.

2. Join a sport/club/anything

Why not use your time abroad exploring things you have always wanted to do? Join a club, go play a new sport or try learning how to play a new instrument. Doing those things you will most likely meet new people. Not only that, these people will also already be interested in the same things as you! Meeting like-minded people on a regular basis is one of the best ways to meet new people, and it also gives you the opportunity to explore new hobbies and do things you have always wanted to do. Two birds, one stone!

3. Don’t expect it to be like other friendships

I have heard so many people about how the friendships are not the same, how you don’t have the same jokes, but guess what; building a friendship takes time! You can not expect to have the same kind of relationship with your new classmates as with your lifelong friends.

Even if you would spend the same amount of time with them, it wouldn’t be the same, because people are different and therefore the friendship is different. With some friends you cry while listening to Classic Rock music, others you punch in the stomach. Just because a new friendship is not the kind of friendship you are used to, doesn’t mean that it is not as good as all the other ones.

4. Ask for people to introduce you/take you somewhere

If you already know some people (whether it’s friends, classmates, host siblings or cousins), don’t be afraid to ask them if you can join them when they are going somewhere. Just try to meet as many people as possible, until you find someone who shares interests with you

5. Get out there

However logical this may sound, many people don’t actually do it. In order to meet new people you need to be outside. This will end up being a vicious circle. You stay inside because you don’t have friends, but by staying inside you won’t make any new friends, so you keep staying inside, locking yourself into your room with some new show on Netflix.

And yes, Netflix is amazing and in many ways your best friends, but it doesn’t hurt to sometimes close that laptop and get outside. Try going to a bar with someone you know, or just go for a walk in the park. You might actually meet people while doing so.

6. Always keep trying

Local people tend to have a life of their own, which means they don’t have as much necessity to meet with you as you do to meet them. It can be annoying or hard to keep asking people to hang out with you. But don’t give up! Don’t be afraid to take the initiative.

Just because they don’t always ask you out, doesn’t mean they don’t like spending time with you. They might feel uncomfortable asking you, since they don’t know you very well and they don’t want to bother you, while in fact for most exchange students it won’t be a bother at all. So make that call! What do you have to lose?

7. Remember nobody has a million close friends

That is right. You don´t need to be close friends with everybody. Sometimes just having that one person you get along with can be enough, so don´t be afraid to invest in one relationship instead of continuing to make new contacts. Although making new friends is never a bad thing, being abroad you only have a limited amount of time.

Depending if and when you are going to go to back home or to another country, you don´t have to invest in making as many contacts as possible, as long as you are enjoying yourself with one person or a small group, you are all set.

 

Exchange, First months of exchange, Study Abroad, Study Abroad 101

Why Making Local Friends Abroad Might Be Difficult

The idea of going abroad and making tons of international friends is amazing.

But in reality making friends is always hard. Whether you go to a country where people are open or to a country where people are more reserved, it is always going to be a struggle.

In the beginning, people might (or might not) be interested. But people won’t stay interested forever.

Yes in the first weeks you might get lots of attention. The rumor spreads that an exotic foreigner is in town. People come up to you. You get 27893 Facebook friend request a day of people you don’t even know, or at least you don’t remember their names. People constantly greet you and come up to you with strange questions.

But after a while people have asked you everything they want to hear and they go back to their own group of friends while you are left being the only person that doesn’t speak the language and you realize, it ain’t all rainbows and sunshine.

There are a couple of reasons why making friends in your host country is difficult. The first one is: they don’t need your friendship. Local people already have a life of their own with their own friends and own family. You want to meet with them on Friday? Sorry, that’s when they have baseball practice. How about Sunday? Sunday is family dinner. Their lives were probably filled before you came in and as interested as they might be in you, there is no necessity for them to keep in touch or do something. You, on the other hand have nothing to fall back on and are left alone in your room on many occasions because of this. Usually a friendship is born out of a mutual balanced effort but because you are foreign, the balance is different.

The second reason why making friends is hard is because you don’t know how the culture works. In your country you might meet your friends for coffee after school, but maybe in your host country people usually meet at someone’s house to watch a movie. These types of differences in customs can make it very hard to make friends because you don’t know what to ask for. You keep inviting them for coffee and they are turning you down because they already have plans to go to the beach, because that is what people in that country do.
It’s like watching puppies and kittens play for the first time. It is not that one is less playful or willing than the other, they just have different ways of playing with each other, and that can be very hard.

And yes, it´s so much easier to connect with other foreigners.

Because they get you like nobody else. They might be from a completely different culture but they know the struggles you are going through, and that unites you. With them you can talk about the quirky habits of your host family and about the weird questions local people have asked you.

Before I went on abroad I told myself I would only make local friends. I wasn’t really interested in making any exchange friends and talking English all the time, because that was not the reason for me to go to Panama. In the end, 70% of my friends were exchange students (foreigners in Panama but also Panamanian returnees) and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Being on exchange is such an indescribable thing, but with your exchange friends, you don’t have to describe it because they already understand.

Nevertheless, this should not discourage you from making local friends. They might not get you as perfectly as the exchange students, but that doesn’t mean their friendship is not going to be as good. It will be different for sure, but looking back I wish I had made more attempts to make local friends. I tried, but not hard enough.

But it is not too late for you. So don’t be that person that comes back home and realizes they only made international friends. Because even though those friendships are amazing, it is a waste to be a in a country without getting to know it and it’s people. So go out there and make some local friends!

Do you want to make local friends but don’t know how? Click here for tips!

Exchange, Homesickness, Study Abroad, Study Abroad 101

How To Keep Contact With Your Friends And Family While Abroad

... and how not to

As a returnee, there are many advises I can give you. And you have probably heard all of them.
“Enjoy your exchange, it is the best year of your life, make the most of it” etc etc. But the reality of an exchange is often harder than it seems. People keep telling you to have a good time, while in fact you might be having a really hard time. You miss home, you miss your friends and if you could you would Skype with them all the time.

Don’t.

Instead try to keep in mind the following when keeping contact with your family.

 Avoid constant contact with your friends and family back home

I know this seems harsh, but the fact is that being in contact with home constantly will not only keep you away from the experience of being there, it will also make the homesickness much and much worse. Yes it may seem to help at first, but in reality it will only make you realize that what you have back home that you don’t have in your host country. And yes, you might not have friends that know you completely. Your host family might not understand you at all times. But that is the experience. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and you should – yes, I will say it again – make the most out of it. photo-1414604582943-2fd913b3cb17

Regulate/schedule the times on which you Skype with your friends and family 

Does that mean you can never talk to your loved ones? Of course not. But keep it regulated. Make a schedule and don’t talk to them more than once every few days. Having a fixed time for talking to your friends and family back home might help you feel more calm, because instead of every time you miss them you will talk and using the contact as some kind of drug, you are regulating it.

Write a blog

Sometimes you just have all these thoughts and emotions that you want to share with people – or maybe not. One thing I can definitely recommend from my exchange is keeping a blog.

Why?

First of all, because everyone can read it. That means you don’t have to tell your mother, aunt, cousin, friends and neighbours all individually what exactly you did that weekend. This will safe you a lot of time in unnecessary conversations on social media. If you don’t your feelings to be out in the open, you can always keep an email list and send it to everybody personally.

Another reason why keeping a blog is great is because later you can read it back and remember all the little details of your exchange, which is great! (Trust me, you will forget about 80% of what happened)

In the end you will probably not write on your blog as often as you’d like, but that’s okay. You can even just make smaller updates of maybe 100 or 200 words. Any update will be read with a lot of joy back home and keeps them updated on how you are doing.

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Write letters

Another great way of writing off your emotions is to write letters. During your exchange you will probably start appreciating your friends and family much more than you did before. Let them know!

Let’s face it, it doesn’t get more personal than a letter. I think every time I received a letter from my mother I cried, no matter what she wrote down, and I know she had the same reaction to my letters. You just don’t get that kind of intimacy through a Whatsapp message.

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Don’t tell them about all the times you are feeling down

I know you want to tell them. You want to tell someone you know (and someone who knows you) but the truth is, when you are having a good time you will probably not tell them. Not so explicitly. That means that in the end, parents get worried, friends think you are having a bad time while in fact, you are probably only having a bad time when you are talking to them.

It happened to me that a lot of people started sending me messages asking me if I was alright. Apparently I had told my mom I was having a hard time, but that feeling passed. Not for my mom. And when my family asked her how I was doing, she told them what I had told her; that I was having a bad time. By the time the messages reached me I had already forgotten that I was feeling down the days before.

In conclusion, it is very hard for your family to know what is going on. They don’t know the cultural context and they don’t know the experience of studying abroad. The information you give them is always limited and that’s all they get, and although it might seem comforting your parents or friends are probably the last people who are going to understand what you are going through. 

My parents often tried to give me well-meant advice. “Can’t you just..” “But why don’t you just.. “. No, actually it is not that easy and it is hard to explain that to someone who hasn’t been there.

Remember it is only for a limited period of time

And although that might seem like an eternity right now, time will pass by extremely fast and before you know it you are back home on the couch with your parents. Only you don’t have so many things to tell them, because you already told them everything when you were there. In your exchange, as in life, there is only one certainty: it will end! Once you are back home you are going to wish you had spent less time on the internet talking to the people you would eventually talk to again and more time talking to the people around you.

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