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Carpe Diem: Seize the Day - the law of living abroad

This post is relevant to any student (or traveller) who has decided to leave their country on an international cultural exchange programme to live with a new family, study in a new school and discover a culture potentially completely different to the one they left behind.

Unfortunately I was unable to continue with my previous post, which was meant to be a sort of 'prelude' to this one, so before I continue I should clarify a few points.

Seventy five days and counting

Around seventy five days ago, in the middle of summer with a suitcase full of clothes and expectations, I left Italy for the great American continent - more specifically the grand Argentina in the south.

This country, geographically and socio-culturally distant from the Europe we know, has given me a lot of food for thought over the last two months and given me the opportunity to reflect on several important points which perhaps I never would have done if I hadn't stepped outside my comfort zone.

For this reason, a world which initially appeared so distant from my own, with its own difficulties completely different to the ones I knew, became familiar as I recognised it was my own complex adaptation process causing the perceived distance. This realisation gave me an added value to the experience.

Adaption: a decisive step

Moving away and living in a foreign country at my age - whether for 6 months or a year - is not easy, especially the first time. "Maybe I shouldn't have left my own country, who made me do this?" That fateful thought process is not uncommon, but the outcome will be different for each of us.

Adapting will be one of the most complicated tasks of your entire experience, and there is no prescribed formula for navigating adaptation. It is not black or white. You may find it easy to adapt or you may go the other way and enter a personal crisis (which, if you let it, will most probably work out in your favour in the future).

In fact, hidden within this aspect is the extraordinary key to the entire experience. The situation has to be turned upside down: the more problems and questions that arise in the first weeks and months, the quicker you will learn to see reality through a different lens. Problems will no longer be problems and you will be better prepared for whatever comes at you in the future.

These initial difficulties of adaptation will fade with time as your mental programming lines up with what you are experiencing. It is very common and nothing to be ashamed of to find yourself in a new country comparing everything and everyone with what you had at home. The problem arises when you end up making absurd comparisons that make no sense. The basic error here lies in forgetting to take into account the different social contexts of the things you are comparing, or the assumptions you are making in order to compare them. How can something be compared if the context is completely different? Every context has its own story, its own beliefs that combine to make it what it uniquely is. Comparisons are natural and perhaps spontaneous. Categorising and judging is one of the most harmful actions possible.

Time: a recurring element

Carpe Diem: Seize the Day - the law of living abroad

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Time is of fundamental importance and plays a large role in the process of learning to live abroad. Giving a situation time to work itself out is of course a valid approach and may help overcome some of the initial difficulties. However it absolutely cannot and must not be used as an excuse to hide from your problems.

Some things may indeed improve with time, but relying on Time and waiting for your problems to 'fix themselves' could be lethal. Waiting for the right time to act certainly has its place, but prolonged waiting must not turn into passivity. Allowed to play out on its own, the situation may last a short while or a long while, and you have no way of knowing which it will be. All you have are the cards in your hands and all you need to know is when to play them.

Go out, look out, find out

From within this perspective, the social sphere becomes a decisive factor in learning to adapt. If there is just one thing that has helped me these last seventy-something days to settle in, it has been getting to know new people and new contexts. Going out, in all its nuances, is the most simple and efficient way to settle in.

If your first weeks could be defined by "Thinking", the next weeks should be defined by "Doing". Break your own patterns and limits without thinking twice. Throw yourself into whatever opportunity comes your way. Whilst shutting yourself in your house or even your room might seem appealing in the face of the problems marching in front of you, it really doesn't help. It prevents you from living the experience as you really want it, detaching you from the reality of where you are right now.

It follows that it is essential to use all our strength to push aside our perceived limitations and resistance, overcome the wall of passivity and the obstacle of hesitation. Even if you don't think you have the right stimulus or the right motivation you will find that your Will is all the motivation you need.

All of these aspects can work together to make your year abroad an unforgettable experience, but they can be assisted by a combination of the following.

The dangers of social networking

The smartphone, especially in this day and age, is already integrated into every aspect of daily life, but it comes with a host of problems, especially if we are feeling isolated during an experience such as a cultural exchange. In fact I believe the smartphone can prevent us from overcoming a large number of our adaptation problems mentioned above. The ease with which smartphones allow us to keep in touch with friends and family around the world can make us seem close, but it is a double-edged sword.

For example, in the initial stages of adaptation when the first problems begin to arise, use of social networking and contact with your home country can exacerbate the problem. A sense of homesickness and nostalgia may take over, as well as the comparisons and judgements that we discussed earlier.

Furthermore, the distortion of reality on social media can even generate a feeling of "that person is better than me" - not necessarily someone in your home country, but possibly even someone on the same cultural exchange programme as you. This chain of thinking feeds further negative thoughts and only diminishes the experience as a whole. It is worth remembering that the vast world of the internet doesn't always correspond to reality, but that its power over us is strong, especially at the times when we are feeling most vulnerable.

It is therefore clear that "shared content" is a large source of problems so why waste what little time you have on your phone? It will doubtless be distracting you from far more important and useful things that you could otherwise be focusing on.

So, if we assume it is counterproductive to allow ourselves to compare and judge during the initial phase, the same also holds true when evaluating one's own experience. One of the riches of following this inner path is the acknowledgement that no two people's experiences are the same; all are nuanced and unpredictable, unable to be classified or generalised. There is no "law" that lays down the rules or runs the program.

So what is the use of tormenting oneself with complexities, anxieties and fears which don't take into account the contextual differences which cause them to arise in the first place?

Forget your stories

As we already know, our judgements when we first arrive in a country derive from a very natural inability to look around us with different eyes. This signals a potentially damaging 'closedness' of the mind, which most likely comes from the extended period of lethargy and domestication to which we have been exposed in our home society.

Even so, the error is to ignore the real epicentre of the issue. Our tendency is to measure our current situation according to the yardstick with which we measure what we already know (in this case, arrival to the unknown and comparing it to what we left behind).

This is no cause for alarm or shame - most of us will do this naturally. However, it is important to recognise this behaviour, as it can generate disappointments, a sense of bewilderment and cause a mutual misunderstanding between us and our host country. What we need, therefore, is a radical change in our self-analysis and critical sense.

The family, a security

Last but certainly not least is the new family sphere in which an exchange student will hopefully find themselves. The family will be the centre of the experience, and underestimating its importance can be make-or-break. Perceiving your host family simply as accommodation - a place to eat and sleep - will not help you integrate into the society. One could almost certainly say that your enjoyment of the experience depends on your ability to adapt and integrate - and this depends on your participation in family life.

Establish a good relationship with the people who have opened their doors to you. Spend time together doing different activities and share with them as much as is possible for you. Talk to them about your day, even the most boring details - conversation and connection is a powerful tool.

All of these things allow for conviviality and spontaneity and promote communication and the mutual space to be heard.

After all these words I was looking for a few more to summarise the greatest influences on one's own unique and individual experience. There are no rules, there are no dogmas; the quality of the exchange experience will depend on the student's ability to:

Look around, love the challenges and embrace the differences at all times. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Carpe Diem: Seize the Day - the law of living abroad

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