The intense experience of studying abroad leaves many people in love with the country where they studied. The emotional rollercoaster of the study abroad experience, the people one connects with, the fantastic sites and vital self-development all conspire to leave someone with nothing but the fondest memories. Granted, a good deal of the positive emotion is justified; a study abroad experience is an essential educational moment that helps with important elements of self discovery. However, until recently, I realized that my view of where I studied abroad had been clouding my thoughts of the future.
I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the fall of 2009 and I went through the well-known emotional cycle familiar to many who have studied abroad. When I first arrived, everything was fresh and exciting in my mind. However, difficulties in cultural adaptation combined with a bit of homesickness combined to make me feel frustrated and disappointed with my stay. Then, as I integrated into the culture and became adept at the challenges of daily life, a new satisfaction and confidence led me to leave the country on a high note. This whole progression seems to be common to many who study abroad.
Something not often discussed is the affection that one often develops for the country in which they study. Superficially, students fill their rooms with memorabilia and the country becomes the focal point of many conversations after they return. However this all points to the fact that the country has become a part of their identity.
I am no different. I have carried my lessons from Argentina – a passion for Argentine culture and a slight Argentine accent in my Spanish – since I returned. Most importantly though, Buenos Aires became, in my mind, an ideal city, somewhere that I was able to indulge in passions, experience great emotional upheavals and overall, live life to what I saw as its fullest potential – a kind of idealized version of the real world that all my work would inevitably lead me back to.
Since August, I have worked with a friend and fellow study abroad student of mine to organize an alternative spring break trip where we would bring 12 members of the UMass community to the city that touched us so much.
Strikingly, the first few hours back in Buenos Aires at the beginning of this past spring break didn’t feel exceptional for me. The weirdest part about being back was that it didn’t feel weird to be back. While I anticipated being thrilled to see certain street corners and eat at familiar cafes, I simply accepted the places as if I had never left. Frankly, things didn’t seem too special. My favorite bar in the city, somewhere that had seemed so trendy and unique, just seemed run down. It wasn’t as crowded as it used to be, some chairs showed signs of age, and opening the door was a struggle.
Even the volunteer work was disenchanting this time around. When I volunteered the last time I was in the country I learned to recognize that even the smallest contribution could inspire hope in the face of crippling, slum conditions. I’ve carried this philosophy with me over the past year and a half, and it was what inspired me to organize the spring break trip.
However, this time while I worked, I only became more depressed about the inevitability of some Argentine people’s suffering. When I returned the last time from Argentina, I set out to study economics so as to better understand how I could improve living conditions in the communities I had worked with – this only led me to become more frustrated with the system that put them down. Now, as I watched those around me experience similar revelations to those I had during my first trip, I was saddened that I couldn’t recapture what it was I had once known.
At the end of the trip, I was frustrated. Buenos Aires felt demystified, and its warts stood out more prominently than before. I anticipated a series of epiphanies, but I found food that didn’t taste as fresh as the first time I had it, winding streets that didn’t hold any more mysteries, and volunteer work that felt futile.
But this was the wrong way to perceive my experiences.
It was a good thing that Buenos Aires seemed less exciting. I am now able to accept it as a real city, not some mythical place. The people in it don’t symbolize an ideal part of my life anymore, but people who I have vital and human relationships with. The causes that I fight for seem more difficult, but I can accept their reality more readily. Most importantly, Buenos Aires doesn’t stand as a separate part of my life anymore, but a normal part of who I am. I’m ready for the next adventure and ready to accept that the adventure isn’t just in the travelling, but what one accomplishes when one goes.
Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]