This co-blog post is brought to you by me and fellow blogger, Emily Wilkerson and by the fact that I am studying abroad in London this semester! I have been here for a little over a month now, and while I can officially walk from home to school without getting lost, there is still a lot I have to learn about living in a foreign city. Luckily for me, the Oberlin Blogs is a source of social networking and support. So I sent Emily, who studied in Germany all of last year, my Top 5 questions for being abroad. I came up with these based on what I have been witnessing and processing these past few weeks, my challenges navigating my large and always busy new city, and my curiosities about other Obies' experiences abroad and how we can relate our experiences here back to Oberlin. Her answers are recorded as the responses below. All that said, on to the questions!
1. How do you make local friends?
I was very lucky while I was abroad because I lived in a large student housing complex that was mostly populated by locals and had a ton of social events. If you aren't so lucky, try becoming a regular at places where students hang out. Student bars and restaurants (especially ones with pub quizzes or similar events), public parks, and especially student organizations are all great places to meet people. Once you're there, it does require some bravery to actually strike up a conversation, so I'd also recommend bringing a friend with you. When you're with someone you already know, you're probably more comfortable and more "yourself" so it's easier to be brave.
2. How do you find your own places in a big foreign city?
I highly recommend a bit of solo exploring (or exploring with a friend if being alone doesn't work for you). Maybe do a little research online to figure out which neighborhoods are safest/cheapest/most student-friendly, but don't start out by looking up particular establishments. Just devote a few hours over the course of maybe a week to poking around and chances are you'll naturally feel yourself gravitating to a few places - a café, a pub, a particular park bench, a used bookstore. If you spend some time there and realize that you want to come back and maybe even bring some friends, you've found one of your own places. If that doesn't work, you are now allowed to google, "best cafés central London."
3. What to do when you miss American things/people/habits?
I most often found myself missing American food, usually junk food or things my mom cooks. At least once a week I'd find myself in a conversation about good Tex-Mex, hamburgers, Dr. Pepper, etc. Eventually I e-mailed my mom and asked for my family's Swedish meatball recipe. I bought the ingredients and invited a few people from my program over to help me out with the cooking and eating. It ended up being a lot of fun. A night of American food with American friends was the perfect cure for homesickness.
4. How do you manage the bad aspects of not being in the "Oberlin bubble"? (i.e. less tolerance, mainstream societal norms, people staring when you don't shave, more overtly racist/classist/sexist jokes etc.)
This is a tough one. If someone you don't know is doing something ignorant, I'd say look to your friends for backup and remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. If those things aren't an option, maybe you're on public transit and have to wait a while for the next stop or you're by yourself, take out your headphones to give the visual cue that you're ignoring them. I found it best to disengage in this sort of situation, which can be difficult, especially when someone else is the target of ignorance. However, as a foreigner, especially as a female foreigner, you can get yourself into serious trouble in these sorts of situations. If something really isn't sitting right with you and you need to take action, just do so while taking your own safety into account.
If someone you know is doing something ignorant, I think it's worth it to try to explain to them why you don't appreciate what they're doing. Of course, this doesn't always work, but when it does, it's the best possible sort of intercultural exchange. For example, once my friend told me that "maybe the reason you [Americans] have so many problems with race is because you talk about it all the time." Awful, right? But I was able to explain to him why what he said made absolutely no sense. That was the start of a really productive conversation about how Europeans and Americans think and talk about race and in the end, we both learned something.
5. Is there anything that I absolutely have to do while I'm abroad?
This is a totally cliché answer, but I think you have to travel. You don't have to visit another country or even fly anywhere, but you should try to get out of London for a weekend or two. If anything, I think it's great to travel to other places in the country you're studying in; it helps contextualize your stay. You also don't have to spend a lot of money. True, traveling is more expensive than staying in one place (come to think of it, this may not be true if you live in London), but as a student, you're probably entitled to some sort of discount transportation and cheap, safe hostels abound. You're already in Europe and who knows when you'll be able to come back. Take advantage and take pictures!
Reading Emily's responses has done a lot for me in terms of reassuring me that what I'm feeling and struggling with is ordinary. It was hard to just up and leave the campus that I care about and my structures of support. But the Oberlin-in-London program is a unique opportunity to engage with immersive learning for a semester, and studying abroad is something I have always really wanted to do. So I knew I had to go and since I got on the plane I haven't regretted it. Not everything has come easily, but I'm going to take Emily's advice on walking around neighbourhoods and finding where I'm drawn too. And I definitely am going to hit my mom up for some home recipes, because the ache for American food is real.
Thanks again to Emily, for doing this post with me, and for your invaluable insight! I hope you are staying warm in Oberlin's -20 degree polar vortex!
So much love from (50 degrees and sunny) London!