{ Letters From Home(s) }

Frances:

Dear Brendan,

I imagine that you are probably very excited to finally return to Oberlin! It's been eight whole months since you were there. What's weird is that I'm now going to be absent from Oberlin for eight months as well--meaning we won't cross paths for fifteen months! Such is life when you make a home in so many places at once.

There are definitely so many parts of Oberlin that I'll miss when I'm away: bagels from the Local, co-op meals, brunch at the Feve--they're not all food-related, I promise!--being with my best friends, walking through Tappan in the thick, swampy humidity that you can see drifting in the gleam of streetlights in the summer, walking through Tappan while silent snowflakes drift around you in the wind, SURF, going to concerts in Finney and the 'Sco, and a million other things I really can't experience anywhere else.

As for you, Brendan, I hope that you are looking forward to your return to the icy tundra that is Oberlin in February. I know it can sometimes feel overwhelming to return to a familiar place after a long absence; I sometimes feel this when I come home to California at the end of a semester. I remember coming home over my first fall break freshman year, and having the weirdest feelings about seeing everything in my hometown perfectly preserved, just as it had been in my homesick memories all along. Yet I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that I was different, even after only two months away. I still feel this nagging discomfort every time I return to my two homes, in California and in Oberlin.

Like me, you may feel compelled to pick apart everything that seems a tiny bit different in a sea of familiarity--both in your surroundings and yourself. You may be expecting to enter into a world where everything is as you left it, but, as is natural, things have been developing and expanding since you've been gone. (Just ask Kelly Clarkson.) The new Oberlin Inn is no longer a giant pit, and has an actual shape now. Magpies is gone--but apparently an Indian place might move in! Some professors may have retired, some friends of yours might have graduated, but there are new first-years to befriend, and new visiting professors to take classes with. You yourself may have a new outlook on things that affect you and your life at Oberlin, and you may feel that your experiences in China have made you a different student, friend, activist, or liver of life in general. That's okay; you will find a way to reconcile any parts of your life that feel out of synch.

If I were you, I would try not to worry about all the change, though. I would focus on one thing at a time, one little moment of joy and recognition at a time, and before you know it, you'll be in the swing of things again. Take some time to step away (physically, mentally) from your schoolwork and root yourself in this place, where you will have the privilege to make one of your homes for the next year and a half. Take a walk in the Arb, build a snowman, watch the sun set from a window in Mudd, and let Oberlin welcome you back.

See you in September,
Frances
________________________________________________________________________________________________

Brendan:

Dear Frances,

Studying abroad can be a great experience. I know that for me, it was possibly the best educational experience I've ever had, and a lot of fun, too. I am sure you will have a great time, since you manage to find fun in every situation- even huge cuckoo clocks and creepy cheese towns. However, I think there are a few things you should make sure that you remember when you're going abroad.

1. Be careful with your money but not TOO careful.

This one might be a little different for you, being in Europe rather than in China where everything is really cheap. Many of the people on my study abroad program had a lot more money than I did, so they often wanted to go places or buy things that I would never think of going to or buying because of the price. I was intensely careful about saving money, since I was worried I would run out. I ate in the university dining hall (where I could get a meal for 2-5快, or ~33-83 cents) very often, even though the food there was fairly disgusting, and I turned down a few activities that I thought were too expensive.

This worked out fairly well for me. I ended up having to help my friend have enough money to get to the airport, since by early December she only had $7 in her bank account (and needed to spend $5 in order to withdraw any money). While I'm glad I didn't end up in that situation, I think I may have been overly careful. I ended up with a lot of money left over, and while I'm happy to have it to use in the future, I probably could have afforded a few more opportunities that I may never get again. So, basically, make sure to be aware of your finances, but try not to let them get in the way of potentially life-changing opportunities.

2. Use the opportunity to take courses you can't take in the U.S.

One of the main reasons that I chose my program was because there was an Environmental Studies course offered there - in Chinese. During the time that I've been at Oberlin, there has not been a course offered that counts for both of my majors. Therefore, getting an opportunity to take a class that integrated my different interests was something I was very excited about.

However, the other class I chose was perhaps more significant to me. I chose to take a course on ethnic minorities in Yunnan, since I didn't really know anything at all about them, and there was really nowhere else in the entire world that I could get this kind of learning experience. Learning about minorities in Yunnan while being in Yunnan was a truly unique experience, and one that I am glad I got to have.

I'm not sure what courses you will have on your program, but I am sure there will be some unique ones that you couldn't take at Oberlin. For example, one of my friends from high school just studied abroad in Sweden. All of her courses were about Sweden, from gender in Swedish society to Scandinavian art and architecture, to an actual Swedish class. I don't know that Oberlin offers even a single Sweden-related course, so I think this is super cool. What a great opportunity.

3. Make friends, but remember that your time is limited.

One of the best parts of my study abroad experience was the people that I met while there. I think that you are going on a larger program, but my entire study abroad program was made up of 11 people (including myself). We took classes only with each other, lived in the same building, ate many meals together, and went on a lot of trips together. Before I went to China, I had been worried that only having 11 people would mean that I would get sick of everyone and have a bad experience, or that if I didn't get along with some of the people, my options for friends would be limited. However, while I can't say we all got along perfectly all the time, our group really became a sort of family. I usually hate when people say that, since I think it is incredibly cheesy and somehow obnoxious - but in this case, I think it's true. I'm really glad that I got to meet my classmates.

I also made a few Chinese friends. My roommate and I had a great relationship, and I was perhaps even better friends with some other people's roommates - one of them brought me to events related to my new-found interest in anthropology, and another spent 3 hours helping me edit a final paper. I still communicate with one of my friends there, who would always introduce my other (American) friend and I to wacky Chinese rom-coms, almost every day.

However, the problem with these great friendships is that now I don't see any of these people anymore. It's really strange that there are so many people who I saw every single day for almost 4 months, but will quite possibly never see again in my entire life. I still keep in touch with some of my classmates through Snapchat and Facebook, and some of my Chinese friends through WeChat, but that's not really the same.

I knew from the start of the program that I would probably not have another chance to see some of these people ever again. While I'm glad that I didn't let my tendency to think way too far in the future let me miss out on too many experiences, I also sort of wish I had been more mentally prepared for the end of our program. In particular, one night I watched Farewell My Concubine with two of my friends, and it really brought me down, both because it's basically the most depressing movie ever, and because I thought it would be the last movie that we watched together. I'm not one to get sentimental, but I was uncharacteristically upset by the end of my program, simply because so many things seemed so final. I wish I had been more prepared for that aspect.

4. Make some time to travel.

This probably is a given for most people studying abroad. However, since I'm me, I honestly expected I would just spend the whole time I was abroad studying and not really go anywhere. Luckily, I was wrong, and the trips that I took (although they made me very nervous because of my aforementioned extreme financial cautiousness) were some of the best parts of my time abroad.

I also learned a lot from my time traveling. I am not one to normally advocate for learning from experiences (mostly because I just love school so much), but my experience abroad changed my view on that a little bit. While I don't see myself dropping out of school to go on a road trip anytime soon, I think that in the future I will be a little more open to taking non-school-related opportunities.

I'm sure that traveling in Europe will be more expensive than in China, but it's also, in some ways, so much easier to go many places. While I did quite a bit of traveling, I never even left the province I was in, and I sort of wish I had gotten to see some other places in China as well as the places that I went in Yunnan. However, Yunnan is as big or bigger than many countries in Europe. My friend who was in Sweden, who I mentioned earlier, took a $20 flight from Sweden to Lithuania. That's not something I can quite wrap my head around. Since I've only ever been to the U.S. and China, being able to go to other countries that easily seems really cool for me.

5. Have fun!

I can't leave it at 4 tips, since 4 is an unlucky number in China. I obviously would never advocate for having fun at the expense of learning, but I still feel it's important to have fun while you're abroad. Since there are so many opportunities to do new things while you're abroad, I don't think it's hard to find ways to have fun.

Have a great time,

Brendan


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