My desire to study abroad started the first week of German class in high school. My paternal grandmother had traveled across Asia and Africa up until she turned eighty. My maternal grandmother also traveled, though not as often. Hearing their stories filled me with wonder and hope that one day I’d explore the world as well.
I finally fulfilled that dream in college. After planning for roughly a year, I was ready—physically yet not quite mentally—to fly to Stuttgart, Germany. The long flight filled me with anxiety, but once I saw the German countryside, all my fears disappeared. The beautiful green fields crisscrossed with rivers for miles as the sun was just starting to set is a sight etched into my memory. While the trip after landing to my final destination of Tübingen was rough and filled with delays, the excitement of being in a new country kept me going.
This was the first time I had been on my own and unable to rely on anyone else as my friends and family were thousands of miles away. I wouldn’t say I lived a sheltered life before going abroad; I actually was forced to grow up quickly when my father moved out. At home, I took care of myself and my sister, watched over the family pets, and ran errands as if I was a second mother of the house. My role was defined by my family, not by my own choice. In Germany, I would learn about myself as I lived by my own means. I would learn how my habits differed from being restricted by my familial duties.
The first thing I learned was how to ask others for help. I required assistance from bus drivers, random people, business owners, and even a bank teller, for directions within the first week. As someone who normally figured out problems on their own, it was difficult setting aside my pride and admitting that it was fine to turn for help when I was utterly lost. It wasn’t worth losing time when someone could help with a small misunderstanding or confusion.
Second, I was able to relax more and enjoy life more. Life wasn’t about getting from one point to the other, but how you went about that journey, enjoying the steps in between even if it contained a step back. Things don’t always happen as planned. You miss a bus or train, your flight is delayed then ultimately cancelled, you don’t budget correctly and eat the same meal for days since that’s all you have, or you wander around a new town with a friend trying to find Wi-Fi because you urgently need to contact someone. When something goes wrong, yes, one can be upset and even cry in the middle of a crowd. But that’s okay as long as the mistake is a learning experience. It doesn’t have to ruin your week or month if it ruined your day. Move on and look at the positives.
Third, try everything. Yes, everything. Whether it is food, an activity, or just talking to a stranger, do it. You may realize that your hate for strawberries was unjustified, that your new favorite food is now döner kebab with all the fixings, or that the stranger in the coffee shop loves Game of Thrones as much as you do. I broke out of my shell in Tübingen. At home, I would never go out to a bar on Wednesday night for trivia or meet for dinner on Thursdays. But in Tübingen, it became a routine, one I loved immensely as I was surrounded by friends and delicious food. One of my favorite memories is watching Germany play against France in the Euro Soccer Cup with my friends after eating nachttisch. Feeling the energy in the room spike as Germany approached the goal, only for it to fall as France blocked it. The anger as Bastian Schweinsteiger received a yellow card or the anguish as France scored was a sensation I couldn’t have experienced elsewhere.
Going abroad allowed me to spread my wings and grow as a person. The friendships I made, experiences I shared, memories I created, and journeys I ventured shaped me unto a more culturally aware person. Being a foreigner showed me how lucky I am to know English and live in America. Most importantly, I want to continue traveling. I tasted a small portion of what the world has to offer. With hundreds of opportunities, I know I’ll be able to travel again. Given the vast world of possibilities, the only question is where.
Picture credit: Jonah Reenders