Instagram vs. Reality: One Girl's Honest Account of Studying Abroad
Sitting in my new dorm room, more than 4,000 miles from my home in Kansas, I held my head in my hands and cried. As an American studying abroad in England, I felt overwhelmingly lonely and isolated from the British culture around me.
“It’s like when you have a bad day,” I typed to my Mom over Facebook messenger, screen blurred from my teary vision, “because little things keep going wrong. But living abroad is having those little nuances building up all the time to make everyday feel more difficult than it should be.”
Needless to say, my fall semester abroad included way more tears than the program’s brochures of smiling students promised me. I’ve traveled to many places before, from Russia to Portugal. I’ve loved seeing new cultures, trying new foods, and the challenges of getting around when you don’t know the language. But I came to realize that visiting and living in a foreign place are entirely different experiences.
Before I left for Norwich, England—a medium-sized city in the English countryside—to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia, I would look at my Instagram and Facebook feeds of friends who had studied abroad before me. I’d see their smiling faces in front of the Eiffel Tower, holding up the Tower of Pisa, or hanging out with new international friends. I’d daydream about having similar experiences painted in VSCO cam filters. That’s going to be me, I thought. I’m going to have the semester of a lifetime.
As a reasonably well-traveled native English speaker, I assumed talks of culture shock didn’t apply to me. Maybe I’d have to satisfy my caffeine addiction with tea instead of coffee, but I’d seen enough British TV shows to know what I was signing up for. However, once I arrived and after the excitement of being somewhere new wore off, I became lonely, anxious, and increasingly sensitive to the cultural differences. I was thrown off by cashiers asking “you alright?” at the register (Why? Do I look as unwell as I feel?), having to carry around more coins than cash, and how the sun would set before 5 p.m.Perhaps the biggest difference was how much more reserved my British peers seemed.
While I had lots of great moments, the reality of study abroad is that those moments are counter-balanced. I spent more time alone that semester than I have in my entire life. I walked around campus solo; I ate most meals with my headphones in instead of chatting with someone else; and, my poems submitted for my poetry workshops all had to do with homesickness. Still, I tried to make friends.The person I became closest to was a girl from Munich, Germany, who expressed similar feelings of isolation and difficulty making friends. “What’s wrong with us?” we’d laugh over coffee. But come December, I realized that was the wrong question to be asking ourselves.
There was nothing wrong with me or other international students. The difficulty in studying abroad is also why it’s so rewarding. Yes, I only posted Instagrams of my weekend trips in London or smiling with my German friend, but what my followers didn’t see was my panicked episode of missing a train and having to reroute my way home, or having to mentally prepare myself to leave my apartment to simply get groceries.
I have empathy and admiration for anyone brave enough to leave home to seek out new experiences. Coming home, I made sure to sign up to be a future “buddy” to incoming international students at my university in Kansas. “Get off Instagram and stop comparing your experience to what it’s ‘supposed’ to be,” I’ll tell them. “Embrace the reality of living in a new place.” To study abroad is to be alone and uncomfortable; but in doing that, it is to feel alive.
By Anna Meyer, 21