Yes, there’s nightlife and accents and atmosphere in London. There’s food and fair weather and incredible tourism in Rome. There’s beer and history and astounding diversity in Berlin. But there’s no fantastic games of charades that must be played in order to communicate with those around you, and there’s no air pollution to make city sunsets burst with auburn red. In Western Europe, the biggest challenge you’ll likely face as a foreigner is adding up your pocket change to buy a pretzel from that street vendor.
There’s a whole world of places where obtaining enough or adequate food is a challenge. Not only for the global poor because they can’t afford it, but also for tourists and foreign students who do not lack the financial means to acquire a wholesome meal but do lack the requisite Malagasy, Khmer, Lao, or Hindi words in their vocabulary.
To put things in perspective, this is by no means an accurate representation of all regions where the global poor live and certainly no reason to avoid studying abroad in these places. While studying abroad in Europe could result in some of the most cathartic and formative experiences in your life, studying abroad somewhere else offers greater challenges and potentially greater payoffs. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to just avoid Western Europe altogether and seek the unorthodox elsewhere. Here are just five of them.
You’re exposed to ways of life (significantly) different from your own.
Studying, living, or simply being abroad somewhere in post-industrial Europe is, frankly, quite similar to studying, living, or simply being anywhere else in the post-industrial Western world. So you switch the language on signs from English to another and convert to the metric system. Good one. That must’ve been challenging with your smartphone’s built-in translation and conversion features.
Traveling to someplace other than this select group of nations is a crash course in dealing with discomfort. You won’t always be uncomfortable physically, but you will certainly be an outsider – this is a good thing. Being the outsider is a lesson in understanding the life ways of “the other.” Not everyone looks, acts, talks, eats, drinks, loves, and lives the way you do, and that’s alright.
When you study abroad anywhere other than Western Europe, you’re humbled because the people you never encountered until now are the most incredible humans you’ve ever met. You’re humbled not because you’re self-centered and pretentious, but because the hard work that others do on a daily basis is inspiring.
You’re humbled by the truth that life can be hard, and, while your problems are difficult (don’t doubt that #firstworldproblems are real problems), others’ problems are difficult too. Your cab driver from ashen, polluted, industrial Hubei Province crossed half of China to build a life for herself and her family. She is proof that, collectively, humans struggle, and, in our struggle, we empathetically understand one another.
You recognize your own privilege.
In comparison, life back home is relatively easy. There are fewer immediate concerns about your physical well being, potable water comes out the tap, and supermarket shelves are stocked. For at least some things in your life, you’ve got choices. That might not mean you’re rich, but in some respects you’ve been given a lot more than others.
These things are privilege. Though you might not share in the material wealth of your country, the fact that you come from a country with choices is privilege. The ability to study abroad or study at all is privilege. You might feel guilty or ashamed to benefit so arbitrarily, but with these feelings comes a blurry but powerful recognition of injustice and inequality.
You have the potential to become more passionate, interesting, and any other adjective you’d like to be described as.
When you’ve exposed yourself to new ways of life, let yourself be vulnerable, humbled, and privileged, you will start to develop the traits you wish you had. Living outside of the hyper-commercialized post-industrial world will, in a broad sense, expose your weaknesses, which you can subsequently address and repair, and your strengths, which you can enjoy and fortify. In many ways, you will find what you seek.
You begin to understand beauty.
Mountain scenes and rainforests are just part of what is beautiful in this world. Unexpected things like a bamboo steamer full of pork dumplings wrapped in paper-thin rice flour dough is beautiful. Rusted old structures in the middle of grassy fields and getting slightly lost (anywhere, in general) are both beautiful in their own ways. Making friends is beautiful. Traveling alone is beautiful. Many things are beautiful for many different reasons.
When you seek the unorthodox, you will start to perceive and understand the beautiful value in the world around you.
Image by Joshua Earle