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Beyond the Comfort Zone

“I Would Do It All Again in a Second”

Deciding to go abroad, especially to a place very different from home, can be scary. I was feeling uneasy as I browsed through travel accounts in my college study abroad office and came across this report:

“ I am black,” wrote one student. “Living in Japan as a black woman was one of the most terrible experiences of my entire life. Wherever I went people stared and pointed at me. Children laughed and wanted to touch my skin and hair. I constantly felt like some kind of monster, and many nights I cried myself to sleep, desperately homesick. Throughout my four months there, the situation never changed.

“ And I would do it all again in a second.”

How could this be? I asked myself, visualizing my own blondish-blue-eyed self among the small, dark people of Nepal, my tentative intended destination.

“ Just one day facing a foreign culture and meeting, getting along with, and learning from people so different from myself was worth more than an entire semester at college,” the student’s statement continued. “The amazing things I experienced, even the negative, have opened my eyes to another part of the world and a new culture. No matter how terrible a time you have, you’ll be glad you went.”

That night, thinking back on her words, I signed my application for the Pitzer College in Nepal program and put it in the mail. I didn’t know if my experience would be fun, or even enjoyable. Maybe it would be terrible. But I did know I would learn a lot and remember it forever. No matter what, I would be happy I went.

And I am.

Yes, it was frustrating to be faced with the fact that when menstruating, I was too impure to sit on the kitchen floor that had just been smeared with a fresh layer of cow dung. It was perplexing to hear that someone had developed a rash because of a snake-spirit in a corner of his field. It was alarming to be rushed to the hospital with a case of the mumps and find a sign on the examining room wall chastising the staff for leaving used needles lying around. My experience was not what I would call “fun,” but it was everything else that a purely light-hearted vacation experience is not: challenging, enriching, alarming, enlightening, and thrillingly unusual.

I would strongly recommend that anyone considering an experience abroad think about going beyond their usual boundaries by traveling to a destination far different from the home they are used to. No matter what kind of experience you have while you’re there, you will learn from it and most likely be happy you had it.

Edinburgh After Nepal

Combining my 4-month program in Nepal with another semester abroad, this time at the Univ. of Edinburgh in Scotland, allowed me to experience the difference between the out-of-the-comfort-zone adventure and the closer-to-home trip. I went to Scotland directly after returning from Nepal, and in comparison to where I had just been Edinburgh seemed strikingly similar to the U.S.

I reveled in the familiarity, logic, cleanliness, and comfort of the good old Western world. Here was a place where you did not have to boil water before drinking it. Here I could ride a bus through the city without worrying about how many times we would have to stop for obstinate cows. In Scotland I had the kind of fun I had sorely missed for the last four months. It would be fair to say, in fact, that I had the time of my life. Like many students who study in Western European cities like London, Paris, and Madrid, my semester included little school work, lots of nights out, much traveling, and a whole lot of good times.

My Scottish and American friends and I danced the night away in Edinburgh’s many free clubs. It was wonderful to travel through Europe by train, sampling the sights and the food in each destination. Visiting the Isle of Skye with my new French boyfriend was an unforgettable experience.

But if I had to choose one semester over another, I would without question choose Nepal. Dancing in a borrowed sari in front of a clapping, singing group of 200 Nepali women on a festival holiday was more remarkable than dancing 20 nights away in clubs. Coming face to face with global inequality as strange men proposed to me on the spot in the hopes of getting a visa to the U.S. was far more eye-opening than a fun trip with a new and temporary boyfriend. Designing my own research project to learn about Nepali marriage customs by interviewing women in a newly-learned language taught me more than sitting in a lecture hall ever could.

In the end, I was glad I had followed the advice of my anonymous counselor who told me that what was terrible could also be worth doing. I found, once I got there, that it wasn’t terrible at all, and not nearly as terrifying as I thought it would be. It was, in fact, amazing in a way that my time in Europe was not and could not possibly be. Stepping out of my comfort zone was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I encourage anybody else who is considering it to put that application form in the mail tonight.

If you’re scared, all the better; you’ll be that much more amazed.