The minute this post hits the interwebs, I should be landing on good ol’ Asian ground, ready to drag my limp body along in the devastating heat through the streets of Hong Kong, my homeland. My exchange year is officially over; I am back. The word ‘back’ starts to sound funny – I’ve spent exactly 359 days away from Hong Kong, almost a full cycle on the calendar, and mildly surprisingly, I have – my subconscious, probably, has – begun to call another place ‘home’. When I say ‘I’m back’, I feel like I’m once again arriving at the busy Lund Central and Clemenstorget from a short flight, with either piercing or refreshing wind hitting my face, not the pressing humid air. For better or worse, no, I never felt truly home sick once. Been there done that; I’m way over it. There’s just too much to see, too much to do.
But there’s the problem. However long a year, or just a term may sound to you, it feels ridiculously short in retrospect. Depending on how much you fell for your new home, a lifetime might not even suffice. A lot of us try to do too much at once, cramming all the plans of our dreams into the calendar; which is completely understandable, but that way, we tend to miss certain things that we never realise we should have done until it’s too late. Throughout my year, I’ve been very open to shaking up my routine and lifestyle, so overall I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve done; yet still, there are so many things I wish I could have done earlier. So, contrary to my usual style and theme, here are 10 things I suggest you consider doing if you’re going on an exchange:
1. See the world – every corner you can reach
You might think this is a no-brainer; it isn’t. We, especially non-Europeans in Europe, can’t help but get excited for all the countries we can see: France, Italy, Greece, Scandinavia…We end up flying non-stop from capital to capital to fit everything possible into our plans.
But sometimes, just sometimes, there are hidden gems we miss, especially in our host country.
Taking Lund as a starting point: have you thought about what stood behind these buildings and gardens? Have you probed into the endless Swedish woods and harbours and picked some wild berries? Have you explored the incredible multiculturalism in Malmö and the way the communities interact? Have you spent a night in the mountains of southern France? Do you know Oslo celebrates Sami culture annually, or Cracow hosts the largest Jewish culture festival in the world? Or simply…have you danced “små grodorna”?
Staying a long time in a foreign land or continent doesn’t only mean to leave your footprints everywhere, but also to witness the changes and cycles throughout the period that you’ve never seen, the happenings that tourists never pay attention to, and this nook and that cranny that you might not have the time to discover otherwise – everything worth recording in a personal diary 😉
2. Get emotional support – old and new
Getting sent all of a sudden to a complete new environment can be daunting. It’s like losing all you have, all you knew, all you are in one go, and throughout your time, you’re rediscovering all that from scratch to complete your metamorphosis. And it’s not an easy task either; it can feel lonely at times. Maybe a lot of times.
There are different sources you can find your emotional support. In the 21st century, many might fall back to their loved ones, meeting them on video on a regular basis. There’s nothing wrong with that, but here’s an idea – what about getting some new emotional support? It might be hard to find someone that resonates with you within a short period, or heck, you might not even be able to convince yourself that you can.
But all you have to do is pretty simple: go to an event, chat up new people, and if you’re on the same wavelength, continue it online or at similar events. Make them your default chatting partner for all your random thoughts. (Unless…is that just me?) Slowly pour out as much of yourself as you would to an old friend. It’s like getting into a pool the first time. Sure, you can hang on to the edges if you like, but why not, just for once, grab a swim ring and get out there?
3. Stay out of your comfort zone – constantly
They say you have to step out of your comfort zone to truly experience something different. I say no; you have to stay out of it, as much as you can. As long as you have your ‘swim ring’, get as far as you can into the ocean, in your very limited time period. Shake up your habits and routines!
I’m a musician. What that means is I have a pretty fixed routine of practising and doing musical stuff. And I believe many of you, while not necessarily tied to your profession/major, have a list of things that you do on a daily basis. Throw that list out of the window! Do things you’ve never even dreamt about. I never drank alcohol before coming, and now I run a pub at a student organisation. (Okay, I did it only once. But still.)
You might think, wouldn’t all these new routines take a toll on my professional skills, or even my identity? Yes, I haven’t written a single note on a staff in half a year. And you know what? I have 2 more years after this to be fully engaged in my musical training, and 2 before this, but hardly 1 year abroad – and who knows if I’ll ever get another chance in my life again! Of course you don’t give up your profession entirely, but I say changing up things is worth it. And after experiencing so much, I feel like I will be more reinvigorated to bring my nose back to the grindstone, taking new ideas and personal traits with me.
4. Manage and balance your time
I’m not even going to try convincing you to study, mostly because I’m not that convinced either. So unless you study one of the demanding subjects, just fulfil the minimum requirements.
You have better – I mean equally worthy – things to spend time on. Namely, everything I mentioned above. Plus maybe becoming a better chef.
Yes, go travelling, as I said. But it’s a balancing act to be both a traveller and a student. Student not as in one who studies, but one who leads a student life. And if you have problems juggling the two, contrary to everyone else, I’d advise you to go more with student life than travelling.
Take note – you have an entire lifetime to explore the world and go sightseeing, but only a few years to be a student, and probably no more than one as an international student. If your aim is to travel and see sights, then by all means go. But if you want to really expand your horizons and change your worldview, ironically, stay.
But not in front of the computer:
5. Get out of your shell – before you regret it
I technically lived in Vienna for a while two years ago. It entailed both a German course and an excuse to live in every musician’s dream city. And the result? Lots of regret. When I try to recall my time there – an entire month – I remember my little room, before my computer, more than any other of the gorgeous parts of town. In one month, I managed to make two Viennese ‘friends’. Yes, in quotes.
It’s 2016, and it is extremely easy to spend entire days in a tiny room, connected to the virtual world, be it browsing sites, consuming media, or connecting with old friends. (At least it’s the case among my acquaintances.) I’ve done that several times this year too. But that experience in Vienna gave me the motivation and a constant reminder to minimise that kind of lifestyle. Instead, go out there somewhere. Anywhere. Bathe in the sun, time-travel in a library, bike to a beach, or heck, just party all night. Anything is better than a monotonous life that might as well have been in your hometown. You might even find looooooooooooooooooooove hehe!
6. Interact with both international and local students
Who should you meet with though? ALL of them.
In many universities, especially in Sweden, you’ll be provided with countless opportunities to interact with other international students. I’ve done Easter egg hunts and Nordic saunas. Take those opportunities. But also seek actively to break into the local student community! Try to take courses with local students, spend time with them at meals or pubs, join events intended mainly for local students etc.
I’ve seen countless people, (unfortunately) especially Asian students, hanging out exclusively with other students from their own country or ethnicity. If you’re reading this before your departure, you’d sneer and find it dumb – “why would I even do that?” – but when you’re in the foreign and insecure environment, you’ll have a natural tendency to gravitate towards your own people. Fight it. Don’t be afraid to straight-up avoid people from your own university! You have much more time to hang out with them back home.
It gets even more exciting if you aim at…
7. Blending in – you might never become local, but you can come close
“You never truly know yourself until you try to become another person.” – me.
In a foreign country, you’re bound to meet people with even more different lives than people you already know. Observe what they do, and take their lifestyles as a reference. You might pick up some new things or habits that you never knew suited you!
Every culture does different things. They have their own colloquialisms, their own mannerisms, their signature activities…I heard somewhere that ‘after work’ (yes an English word) is a Swedish invention. And of course, we have our fikas, but also small things – gestures, behaviour, ways of reacting – that you don’t notice until you start observing and imitating. Perhaps without even consciously knowing.
I was quite happy when my friends say I act quite Swedish, and especially when new acquaintances were genuinely surprised I’m from Hong Kong (thanks multicultural Sweden!).
Blending in and being accepted as a true member of the community is not only a fun challenge, not only helps you maximise your exposure to the local culture, but also, through compare and contrast, reinforces who you originally are, and your sense of identity – or even cultural pride.
Of course, you never truly feel local unless you…
8. Learn the lingo – skip straight to the practical part
Even in Sweden, the country that speaks best English as a second language, you feel left out when hanging out with a group that have to switch languages just for you to join.
Look to your left – see the name of the blog? No way I’m missing this chance to do a bit of self-promotion! For the 91.5% of us who don’t live in the Schengen area, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll never live in another country, especially in a completely different culture. Who knows whether you’ll ever again get the opportunity to be fully immersed, to experience the feeling of speaking your mind in a foreign tongue, and to feel truly accepted in a new society?
When I picked my host university, I knew I had to try this – so I picked Sweden, where you can definitely survive without knowing anything other than hej, but where you can also opt to pick up the language in a matter of months. In the end, I jumped the gun just a bit, started doing ‘preparations’ while I was still in Germany, gave it a boost by way of a sprint challenge, and pulled off a ‘fluent in three months’.
I don’t care how you might want to dispute the word ‘fluent’; the point is, I was confidently joining my Swedish friends at pubs, watching their most popular TV shows of the time, and that’s what counts. Which is why I emphasise: get to speaking as soon as possible! Usually the methods of Fluent in 3 Months don’t suit my style perfectly, but I can’t help but agree on this: if you don’t have much time, you gotta make use of every day.
Join language cafés (they’re fairly popular at least here in Sweden). Focus on mastering the most commonly spoken words and phrases. Don’t be (too) ashamed of using your new friends as your tools. And don’t be shy to hang out in the foreign language, even if you haven’t mastered it yet – because chances are you won’t speak it perfectly within a year. But doing this will propel you closer to speaking it perfectly.
You might be skeptical, because I’m a relatively experienced language learner, but trust me: all you need is right in front of you, on our best friend, the Internet. Time and time again polyglots have proved that as long as you have the motivation and put in the work, you can go very far in one or even half a year. If you are interested in self-studying a language but don’t know where to start and how to prepare, feel free to click around this site, follow my updates or visit me on various social media.
9. Rethink your perspective on the world – question what you took for granted
During my year, I never really felt a culture shock, either due to my adaptability and desire for escape and change, or because the Swedish culture is quite heavily influenced by the “Western” culture that we’re all familiar with and expecting. Yes, we drink a lot here, eat traditional foods on Christmas and Easter and virtually everyone goes to the gym.
But digging deeper down, what is a nation’s culture? Do pictures of particular cities or folk costumes come to mind? I don’t have a degree in the matter, but for now what it means to me includes what people do, how people think, what people talk about…and then festivals and stuff.
One does not simply learn about a culture by reading about it online. You have to be here, talk to the people (as I mentioned), and find the differences between you and them. They can be as tiny as cooking lettuce (…you guys don’t do that?) or as grand as moral values.
And then you think. Why are we different? Why do we look at these things and concepts differently, even though we are fundamentally the same species? You think about what your society taught you as a kid, and what values or concepts you have learnt to take for granted as an adult. Why these things couldn’t have been any other way, to you, for twenty years of your life.
That is culture to me.
I still remember how right before I left, my friend left a message: “can’t wait to see your transformation!” I was like, I’m still going to be me – what could happen?
I cannot answer this question yet – this post is still my very last post being written in Sweden. And I can’t possibly know it either, without reintegrating into my original circles and letting my peers observe the changes.
My prediction? Probably not much change would have happened to me. I’ll still be doing the same things, in mostly the same ways.
But I’ll understand more clearly why I do those things in those ways, and I’ll be doing them with more conviction. (Either that, or I’ll be drinking and working out at a gym all the time.)
10. Enjoy the life there, because it might be the only “second life” you’ll ever get.
P.S.: On this very same day, 29 June 2016, I wish Rhapsody in Lingo a happy first birthday 🙂