What Study Abroad Meant to Me

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

Since I started college I have heard so many of my friends and peers debating whether or not to study abroad. Do I have time in my schedule? What will I miss at my school in a semester? Is it worth it? These are the questions that usually come up. Obviously, the answer to the first two is personal, and I cannot answer it for anyone but myself. Equally obvious is how easy it is for a language dork such as myself to justify studying outside of America for a time. Regardless of these two caveats, having gone through the experience I have some insight into that final question: as to whether or not study abroad is worth it the answer is an unequivocal and unqualified yes. As far as I am concerned there can be no exception to this rule. I know there are some genuine and justifiable reasons why an individual might choose not to study abroad, but if it is an option for you personally, please do study abroad. Study abroad absolutely anywhere and for at least a semester. I cannot imagine that you will regret it.

Having spent a bit of time to reflect on my experience (not a lot, mind you, plenty of reflecting yet to be done) I can offer my take on what I got from my own study abroad experience. There were some really specific things I got out of it that cannot be applied as general advice to any student who might be considering study abroad. For example, I needed to intensively work on Arabic, so I chose a language pledge Arabic program. I also wanted specifically to get to know the Middle East on a personal level (we are on a nickname basis now, Alexandria is her formal name, but she goes by Alex). Neither of these things are true of many people.

These two aspects were central and critical to my own study abroad experience, but there are general gains to be made by any American student studying abroad in Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, or wherever the wind may blow them, and this is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of study abroad. I cannot speak for everyone’s life path of course, but you may never have a logistically simpler way to settle in for several months into a completely different country, and having gone through this now I firmly believe it is an experience everyone of our generation should try to take advantage of, but not exactly for the reasons people emphasize.

A lot of times people try to sell study abroad as if it is a sort of extended vacation with some classes thrown in to justify your time. When done right that is exactly what it is not. I am on a vacation right now, and an amazing one where I am seeing a lot of incredible European cities that are all brand shiny new to me. We are in each place for a few days—just enough time to see the sights, eat the food, and travel to the next place. There is definitely something to be said for this type of travel—it exposes you to the world’s diversity and allows you to soak in some history. I believe any kind of travel is genuinely enriching, and I absolutely encourage it, but it cannot replace the experience of settling in. On this kind of trip you end up hopping from place to place noticing how different every city is from where you live, or perhaps how different they are from each other—but in any case the point of pure travel is seeking and appreciating difference.

Study abroad—and by this I mean for at least a semester as it really does take that long to be able to reach this point—but study abroad is about seeking and appreciating the ways in which people and places are the same, and now as any other time, that is an incredibly important lesson to learn. We have heard it constantly stashed into neat little slogans since kindergarten, but seeing this lesson come together in an environment that had originally shocked you as incredibly foreign and different is the only way I have yet experienced to truly comprehend it. Of course this goes in stages, and honestly you may not feel it until your time is done, but the lesson will seep in if you have taken the time to truly engage with your host country.

Fresh off the plane, more than likely you will see the differences everywhere. People are speaking in a completely different language (maybe some more rapid version of one you have been studying in a textbook or maybe one you are wholly unfamiliar with), people dress slightly differently and have different ideas of what to do with their hair, people use different hand gestures or they use the same ones to mean something completely different, the architecture looks different, the city looks older, take your pick. All of these things will stand out to you on your first day, and many of them will continue to surprise, delight and frustrate you for the next few weeks or possibly months. But every day your new city will hold a few less surprises and a few more familiar faces. Every day that gibberish the people on the streets seem to be able to communicate in will be that much more comprehensible. And this is when you slowly start to realize that people everywhere are just people, with the same motivations, the same worries, and the same dreams. They go about it a different way because they grew up in a different corner of the world, and so often we allow that simple fact to obscure the great many things we share. People love to love and be loved. People will do so much to support and protect their families—in whatever form these families may come. People like to find an order and an explanation for the world around them. People plan for the future. People set goals for themselves. People enjoy making connections. People do what they need to do to get by. People live by a set of values they believe in as much as they are able to—sometimes tied to religion, sometimes of their own devising. People make mistakes. None of these things are limited by nationality. The story will be the same anywhere you go.

You can sit next to your teacher’s poster stating “Appreciate our similarities, celebrate our differences” every day for a year, and you still won’t appreciate just what it means until you have seen the foreign melt into the human before your own eyes. I saw it in Egypt, and I assure you Egypt looks and feels foreign to an American arriving there. By the time my mom was visiting me at the end of the semester, I had suddenly seemed to forget so many of the less glaring ways Egypt was different to me when I first arrived, and seeing her discover Egypt in a week demonstrated to me the difference between travel and study abroad. To be clear, “people are people everywhere you go” is not an insight or a thought that is new to me. I, like most people, have never consciously thought anything else. But the thing is, this lesson is too important to leave to chance, and one must be absolutely certain that there is not the tiniest speck of doubt in one’s subconscious that people of X, Y or Z country that is in whatever type of conflict with A, B or C other country are in fact people. All of the most terrifying events in human history, where people have acted in unimaginably cruel ways toward their fellow human beings have come as a result to at least some extent of dehumanization. People on one side of a conflict somehow managed to convince themselves that people on the other side were less human than they were, and that they had nothing in common with them. Apparently it is a surprisingly and horrifyingly easy belief to shed. I am hopeful that a future world in which more people have had the chance to settle in and get to know people of a different land on a personal level will be a world in which this belief is harder to shake for whatever political ends may be at hand. That sounds like a really lofty statement when what I am basically saying is that you personally should study abroad for a semester—but I think the point I am trying to make is that the more people this world has who have who studied abroad, the more people it has who know in the deepest corners of their mind that people are people, and surely that is the world we all want to live in.

So this generic letter is just one more way of saying thank you to everyone who made this semester possible for me. Thank you and all of the love in my heart.

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Lost and Gained

Like I said in my last post, I have not had as much trouble adjusting to Egypt as I expected to originally. I haven’t had any long, intense bouts of homesickness yet, but there have been brief moments, for example, when the Wi-Fi at the Medina entered its fourth straight week of simply not being present, when I have briefly thought of things I miss about everyday life in America. This morning was one of those moments, due to my actual need for Internet that simply didn’t exist, but since I found this lovely cafe with a very friendly staff and a view of the sea I am feeling much better now (don’t worry!). Since I have a deep attachment (obviously and inevitably) to my life in America, but am also learning to appreciate the differences of my daily life in Egypt, I choose to look at this as a list of things I have lost and the corresponding thing I have gained. Of course, what should be first on this list is something I discussed at length in my last post, so I have not included it here, but it would read: Lost: The assumption that things will generally work as intended or events will begin on time, Gained: A more carefree and calmer approach to daily life. That is still probably the thing I appreciate most about my life in Egypt. However, there are plenty of others, and here are just a few.

1. Lost: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Gained: Bassem Youssef

So far, this is one of the things I miss most (not totally sure what that says about me). I do love my political satire, and I have very rarely missed an episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report since starting college. Between the language pledge and the very, very crappy and unpredictable Internet, I have not gotten to watch them at all since arriving in Egypt. To make matters worse, Jon Stewart is going to be in Durham in March, and my whole family will be going without his biggest fan! Lucky for me though, there is a counterpart here in Egypt, and slowly but surely I am beginning to understand him. His name is Bassem Youssef, and if you are a religious devotee of The Daily Show like I am, you will have seen him interviewed last summer. He really is extremely funny, and he consciously structured his show after the Daily Show, so it is quite a fitting substitute. I found a few YouTube channels online that subtitle full episodes in English, but it takes them quite a while so I was stuck with episodes from November and December, and quite recently they broke into January. Now that I have gotten a bit more used to his voice, as long as he sticks to political topics where my vocabulary is a bit more extensive (thanks Al Kitaab!), I can normally understand the main idea the first time around without subtitles. I am now watching more recent episodes once they get posted on the show’s official YouTube channel (and once I find a decent Internet connection) and I tend to watch them about three times in a row. It is still a struggle but it is definitely much easier than it was a month ago. Certainly, in a post (or possibly ongoing) revolutionary state, there is room for political satire, and he very freely expresses his opinion. If you want to see an example, this is a brief clip of his show from December 21, 2012 (be sure to turn on captions in the bottom right hand corner to see what he is saying in English!). This particular clip is serious rather than funny, but I think it shows the strength of the program’s writing and his willingness to tackle any subject.

2. Lost: Snow, Gained: A Mediterranean coastline

Now I know snow is supposed to be a pain for New Englanders (yes, I sometimes call myself a New Englander/Mainer after just two years there…), but I have to say that all the blizzard pictures up on Facebook and the Bowdoin website made me pretty jealous of the ability to go build an igloo outside. I love playing in the snow, and sometimes there is nothing like a good old blizzard to make you feel like a five year old again. I did genuinely miss having an actual winter as I looked through the pictures of Bowdoin as a winter wonderland. But I have to say that the weather here is pretty incredible, and whenever I miss the snow too much I can always walk the two blocks down to the Corniche and stare out at the Mediterranean for a while. Different, to be sure, but it makes a decent replacement.

3. Lost: The ability to casually cross the street, Gained: Adventure every time I cross the Street

Now Brunswick is by far the easiest place in the world to cross the street. I remember visiting Bowdoin for the first time, and standing on a corner with my mother in downtown Brunswick debating whether or not we were going to cross the street, and noticing that a car was waiting calmly and patiently for us to make our decision before he drove past us. That is not the way Egyptian driving works. Egyptian driving is one of the least comprehensible phenomena I have ever witnessed. There clearly seem to be rules of conduct, as Egyptians all seem to be driving in the same manner, but I have yet to figure out exactly what they are. I have decided that it definitely seems to be a competition, and if you let a pedestrian cross in front of you or let another vehicle in front of you for any reason whatsoever, you have lost. On top of that mentality, they have dispensed with any idea of lanes. Cars tend to drive in a zigzag pattern in order to win whatever race they are currently engaged in, and I have commonly seen five or six cars across the width of what ought to be a three lane road from an American perspective. When we were walking through Cairo we came across a few gridlock situations where I legitimately could not conceive of the intended traffic pattern as cars seemed scattered about randomly, facing in all sorts of directions, and no one could move. Every morning on my walk to class, I have to cross a pretty large intersection, and it is always an adventure. The whole first week I would basically hold my breath and run across when I thought I saw a gap, which of course is not quite the Egyptian way (though this was by no means the only thing giving me away as a foreigner, so I wasn’t overly concerned about it). I have gotten fairly used to this now, and have discovered that fortunately the cars here do in fact seem averse to the idea of actually running a pedestrian over. Nonetheless, it is a great way to be sure you are nice and awake before your first class of the day.

4. Lost: All my Thorne and Moulton favorites (Looking at you, Chicken Tortilla Soup), Gained: Koshary

We polar bears are pretty fond of our dining. I doubt many college students studying abroad commonly note missing their cafeteria food, but to be honest Thorne and Moulton are pretty lovely. Fortunately, Egypt has its very own comfort food, and unfortunately I am quite addicted to it. Koshary is a dish very specific to Egypt that essentially mixes all the carbs you can throw into a bowl together and adds some spices and garlic sauce–basically a dish custom designed for me. Though different restaurants differ in sauces and a few ingredients, usually Koshary consists of macaroni, lentils, chick peas, fried onions, sometimes some rice, sometimes a second kind of pasta, and then a spicy red sauce and a delicious garlicy sauce. It fills you up in no time flat, and makes sure your breath smells absolutely terrible, but oh my goodness is it delicious comfort food sometimes. Also, there is a nearish place where you can get a bowl of this deliciousness for 4 guinea, or about 60 cents, yes please! (Note: I am planning to do a longer food post soon, so Koshary will probably show up there too, but it had to go in this list as well).

My first bowl of Koshary (back during orientation)

My first bowl of Koshary (back during orientation)

5. Lost: Feeling like a moderately intelligent person when I speak to anyone, Gained: The feeling of Extreme Triumph when A New Person Understands What I am Saying in Arabic

Arabic is hard, honestly. There is simply no way around that. I do feel like I am improving quite quickly in terms of being able to understand what is being said to me, but my ability to appropriately and quickly respond in dialect is still lagging a bit. Earlier today my friend and I arrived at a cafe and had the hardest time trying to ask the waiter what their hours were (though since it turned out this cafe is 24-hour, perhaps the question simply confused him). I have a few conversations like that almost every day, where someone hears something completely different than what I am actually trying to say, and when they start speaking to me in competent English it makes me feel like such an idiot sometimes. However, most days, I do get at least one conversation in where I both understand what I am being told and asked, and the other person understands what I am trying to say. My ability to hold a conversation with Salah (the cheery shopkeeper from an earlier post who is one of my favorite people in Egypt) is one of the easiest ways to turn a difficult day around. Fortunately he is around the corner from my dorm, so if I need to lift my spirits I can almost always make an excuse to go purchase a water bottle from him. It is even better whenever I am talking to someone from the first time if they respond with “Oh, you speak Arabic?” with a mixture of shock and delight. I quickly temper their expectations by saying “A little,” but that doesn’t lessen my joy at being understood by someone new for the first time. There is something about being in a completely new environment that opens you up to appreciating the little things, and that is honestly a really pleasant outlook to have on life.

Till next time!