Reflections on My Time Abroad at Halfway Point
Foreign Correspondent in Germany, Rupali Naik, brings her year abroad in Munich to life and gives us an insight into what she has learned so far.
I have reached the halfway point of my study abroad year. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my time in Munich. So, when I saw this topic on the Foreign Correspondent Facebook page, I had to take it. I’ve been pondering what I’ve learnt and who I’ve become; the latter tying into my reasoning for going on my study abroad – I did this on a whim to see how much I’d grow. I finalised my decision to go on my study aboard because I was lost in a town outside of Florence on a field study trip in my second year of university. The art history class I was with had forgotten me while I was in the shop and there was no phone service or internet. But luckily, I received a broken call from my friend, and I was advised to take a blue coloured bus and to get off at a certain stop. Admittedly, I got on the wrong bus (it was green) which took me further away. But with my limited Italian, a man understood where I needed to go. Those twenty minutes that I spent lost confirmed my decision. I had never been on a friend’s holiday, let alone had travelled by myself. But in that moment, I knew I could move to a different country by myself and survive. Nineteen-year-old me was interested to see who she’d become by the end of her time abroad, and it’s safe to say that even at this halfway point, I’ve grown in ways I never imagined.
Nineteen-year-old me was interested to see who she’d become by the end of her time abroad, and it’s safe to say that even at this halfway point, I’ve grown in ways I never imagined.
I’m not too sure where to begin, but I’ll start with what’s been most clear to me. I am studying for a joint honour BA in Art History & Visual Culture and History. When you’re deciding to go on a study aboard, you have to pick one side of your degree to take on to the host university. I decided to take my Art History & Visual Culture side. Despite being disappointed with my placement (Munich was my fourth choice), I became excited to study my degree in Munich because of the multitude of art museums and galleries here. The modules were all interesting too. But at the end of my second year, I was told they were all taught in German. I got here and I was put onto the American Studies course. I was upset at first, but I kept my expectations low and thought that learning something different is quite special. And it actually has been. I’ve been able to take up a Jazz History MA class, a food studies class, focused on African-American soul food and its history, and a film studies class about the American road movie genre, as well as two literature modules: one on African-American literature and the other on the environment. Firstly, I am so very glad I was able to study these unique subjects. My knowledge of how we can view, and track history has widened, and my love of literature has too. More importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve always been fearful to open my mouth in class – growing up I really didn’t want people to stereotype me as that ‘nerdy Indian’. And I would especially keep shut on topics of race because I didn’t want people to categorise me as that POC (Person of Colour) who always talks about race.
Yet soon into my seminars, I realised I had wasted all these years keeping silent; I had so much to say. I found myself speaking more than I had ever done before. This was partly due to the fact I knew I was only here for a year, so all my anxieties lost their hold over me. And this is a mentality we can apply to any of our worries because everything is temporary anyway. I hope this is a lesson I take back with me to England. I’ve gained so much confidence and belief in myself. And oftentimes it seems to me that people, white people especially, don’t know the everyday racism that POC face. So, if you too struggle with wanting to voice your experience then you just should because you’ll likely be educating at least someone in that class. You’re worthy of being listened to and your words have value (- this applies to anyone who get anxious with speaking in class). Moreover, I’ve also been able to use this vigour in my essay writing. In an odd way, I feel excitement over “birthing” an essay now, to make something cohesive that conveys my point of view and thoughts is powerful. So, I’ve definitely gained a love of writing and arguing since being here.
So, if you too struggle with wanting to voice your experience then you just should because you’ll likely be educating at least someone in that class.
On the topic of racism, I’ve felt so very alienated in Munich. When I moved here, I would sit on my U-Bahn (subway train) and be stared at by the whole carriage. It wasn’t until then that I realised I was the only POC on those trains. My first month of being here I felt so uncomfortable to the extent that I was thinking of coming home. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve adopted new styles of dealing with “starers” – my favourite being the simple act of smiling back (as long as it’s not a creepy looking man). These daily experiences are so overwhelming, but when I find other POC there is an instant bond. It’s so heart-warming and unique. And I’ve been able to translate these experiences into my writing. I’ve grown a thicker skin; after all, if my ancestors could deal with the British taking control of their lives and country, then I can deal with casual xenophobia, and the job of owning my voice and the space I take up on public transport.
I’ve also found that balance is key… to everything. There are a lot of familial issues that have sprung up since Christmas, and sadly going back to England over that period wasn’t as nice as I had hoped it’d be. With that, I used to get incredibly anxious over my family; I would worry all the time because, quite unconventionally, I had inherited a lead role in looking out for my family’s well-being (a messy and long story that started when I was eight, but that’s for another time). And I had hoped that forcing myself to go away for the year would teach me how to create a healthy distance in my mind and with them. Thankfully, it has. When issues arise, be that with family or friends at home, there is only so much you can do – which is to stay in contact, listen and communicate any advice you can give. Open and honest communication is key to any relationship. And to either disregard them or be overly involved is a detriment to you. Likewise, yet different, my friends are less of a hassle. Despite my sure decision in my year abroad, I am still saddened that I don’t get to spend my final year at university with the friends I had met during my time there. More recently, I’ve experienced FOMO, but not as much as I had imagined prior to coming here. Being busy with new experiences, settings and people distracted me from that. And all of a sudden, six months have passed. However, I have thoroughly enjoyed maintaining my relationships by sending postcards (admittedly, I’ve become a bit lazy with this) and making calls every weekend or so. I’ve learnt that having goals for when you see your friends is important for long-distance communication. And, after eight months since my final time being there, I am truly so excited to step back into Exeter at the end of February.
On a much more philosophical level, I’ve learnt that the world is truly ours. We are in such a privileged position to be educated, to have a warm room, to have food on our plate – that if you really want something, you can achieve it with self-discipline and determination. I began learning German in September – again like my decision to come here, on a whim. Despite, not knowing the language at all before coming here, I recently gave a presentation in German about my home country and got excellent feedback. I feel like I’ve become so much more productive and active during my time here. And it’s somewhat due to my friend, Emma, who often replies with this when I say that I want to stay in: ‘When you’re looking back on your study abroad year are you going to be glad that you stayed in that one evening?’ Although, this comment is often used against me when I want to stay in bed, it can be applied to other areas of my life. We all have no time to waste; and that time should be used productively and in full. Emma also lent me A Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson in October. The book was not the best in its narration, but as I finished it in the Bavarian doctors waiting room, I was left with a feeling of control. The saying: ‘action causes action’, has stuck with me ever since.
When you’re looking back on your study abroad year are you going to be glad that you stayed in that one evening?
The act of moving to a new country and starting a new life has been so refreshing and invigorating. I have met so many wonderful people and learnt of their life experience. I am excited for the warmer seasons here, to travel, to continue my German, to write and document more, to think of my dissertation and end of University, to think of afterwards. And if you’ve spent you’re time reading this, then I thank you, I hope you enjoyed it. And if you haven’t been able to take away something from this for yourself, then take this: see more of the world and yourself – but know that you don’t need to travel across the planet to do that. Keep an observant eye. Challenge yourself. I recommend you to seek discomfort. To take opportunities you wouldn’t normally take up. To wake up earlier and stretch. To smile at strangers.