This post – first in a two-part series – has evolved a fair bit since I started writing it a few months ago. At first it was going to be a general post about mental health and studying abroad, and then it was going to be an anecdotal post about misconceptions about going abroad. Now, it’s something in between as well as a big old – hopefully structured – rant.
When you study or work abroad, everyone and their supervisor thinks now is the time to offer their (often unsolicited) opinion about what you’re doing and how you’re living, despite the fact that you’re already navigating a sea of unfamiliar and intimidating decisions, having just rocked up in a new country on your own, and probably don’t need the added stress of being judged for everything you do or don’t do. I’ve also had my fair share of that, and thought I would take a semi-humorous look at some of the things I’ve had said to me.
(A note on why I’ve discussed mental health here. Because the Year Abroad is compulsory for language students in the UK, and because it is a big deal – at many universities it’s pretty structured, with mandatory log books and reports – there are a great many myths and clichés that abound. Some of these are hammered into you by your tutors and professors, while others are perpetuated by fellow students. Usually they’re pretty harmless and can be taken with a generous pinch of salt, but occasionally they can do some serious damage, especially if you’re already feeling isolated, incompetent and defeated. While the discussion about mental health and the year abroad has opened up in recent years, a lot of the focus is on practicalities: medication, EHIC and email-based support in your home university. I wanted therefore to address some of the mindsets and expectations that, while meaning well, can take a suffering student from bad to worse.)
Disclaimer: while I have exaggerated the statements for comic effect, I have personally heard some variation of all of these. This is a highly anecdotal article and, of course, the experience abroad will be different for every person. You may find you have heard or been affected by few or none of these, which is great, but that definitely doesn’t negate their existence! These are usually meant well, and I don’t mean to attack anyone who has said any of these to me, as it generally comes from a place of concern. This post is kind of written for myself in a way, and if it helps one other person, then writing it was worth it.
- You’ve got to try and speak Spanish all the time! Literally all the time! Every second of the day! In bed! In the shower! If you snooze, you lose! Remember, you’ve got to be fluent by the time you come back!
Um. Yes. Speaking your target language as much as possible, ideally in a range of situations, is the point of the year abroad, and what will improve your language skills the most. It can be rewarding and hilarious and terribly embarrassing all at the same time. But speaking a foreign language all the time – especially if your command of it isn’t great – is tiring. I’m an introvert, which means that interaction with people tends to sap me of my energy, and I can openly state that when that interaction is in Spanish, it’s twice as exhausting. “Wow, you live with a Spanish woman! Your language must be great since you’re speaking all the time!” is what everyone says to me. Yes, I adore my landlady and we get on like a multicultural house on fire, but I frequently come home from work absolutely exhausted, with no desire to speak to anyone, even in English. There’s no way I’m going to pop myself down on the sofa while she’s watching Ahora Caigo and start chatting away about Spanish politics. If you’re an obsessive worrier, it doesn’t take much effort to lie on your bed fretting about how terrible you are for not taking advantage of every single moment available to you, and how everyone else must be speaking loads and loads of Spanish, and you’ll surely return in fourth year with the conversational abilities of a poodle.
Please, do not stress. While you will not pick up everything by osmosis, it’s amazing what just being in the country does to your language skills. It’s more important to rest and relax than to beat yourself up about every lost moment not speaking Spanish. You’ll speak better anyway when you’re not exhausted from all the stress of mentally berating yourself. It may sound silly, but I know I’m not the only one who has been driven to tears through all the worrying about my (lack of) language competency. It’s much better to turn on the television and hope to absorb a few words while chilling out, than to force yourself into conversations you don’t want to have. You are not being lazy.
- Don’t you dare go abroad and just make loads of English-speaking friends! Don’t even think about seeing your university friends – if you speak even a word of English, all your Spanish will shrivel up and die. DIE.
Oh god. Chill, yaar? This is linked to the previous point, in that any meeting with English-speaking friends is apt to make you feel like you’re lazy and a slacker. Here you are, being given sideways looks for chattering away with a fellow Brit in a café, while everyone else in your year obviously has huge groups of incredibly cool Spanish friends already. There’s literally no way you can compete, even though your awkward schedule has made it nigh-on impossible to socialise with any of the Spaniards you meet. You’re probably wrecking your “immersion experience” and should just stay home doing grammar and watching Telemadrid instead.
Again, the whole “don’t make English-speaking friends” is meant well: when you’re abroad, it’s super easy to fall into expat-only cliques, and this is intended as a friendly shove to encourage you to swallow your fear and try out your language on unforgiving natives. But it ignores the fact that the year abroad can be one of the loneliest, most isolating experiences, particularly for anyone with social anxiety or similar. Even for those with no real history of mental illness, night after night spent alone in a new place with no support network and nothing familiar around you can lead to feelings of depression and unhappiness. Don’t force yourself into loneliness because you feel guilty: English-speaking friends are a far, far better alternative than social isolation in a new place. It’s important to build up a support network wherever you are, especially if you suffer from poor mental health: you can always start seeking out Spanish friends once you’re more established. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having English-speaking friends to do grammar with, to make you feel less homesick, to listen to your rants about the infamous Madrid rudeness, or generally because they happen to be fantastic people. It would be a shame to miss out on a great friendship simply because the other person is not a fluency vehicle.
- I can’t believe you’re not doing anything better than teaching English. How tragic – especially with your education! I can’t imagine doing anything that low-level: I insist only on the most prestigious positions – who cares if they’re unpaid, right? You could do better: you’re just not ambitious enough.
No one believes me when I tell them how harshly I’ve been judged for teaching English in Madrid. Surely that’s what everyone does on their year abroad, right? You’d be surprised. I’m not sure whether this is something specific to Oxford or present in every university community, but there is certainly a hierarchy in action when it comes to employment on the year abroad. People turn up their noses at the thought of teaching English in Spain, seemingly unaware that there is not much else to do as an unqualified young person here in a country still reeling from financial disaster. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy your job – it will always be classed as inferior compared to something in an office with a fancy title, preferably involving the words “Business”, “Marketing” or “Relations”, in any order. Let’s conveniently forget the fact that not all of us can afford to undertake unpaid internships – I certainly don’t have the luxury of choosing the option that would undoubtedly look better on my CV but make a huge hole in my savings every month. And it’s important to remember that.
The worst thing about all of this judgement is that it frequently comes from those who ought to know better – the feminists, the campaigners for equality. These people will fight for everyone’s right to their own life choices, then turn around and berate others for not being ambitious enough. I can’t tell you how many different people I have heard this from. I am on my year abroad having fun and learning a great deal – I didn’t realise I would have to fit into your narrow view of what “ambition” or “success” really mean. Surely I am successful by virtue of having struck out on my own after a disastrous work placement, working far fewer hours, earning enough to break even, while building a life and enjoying myself? Why should that be negated if I am not a high-powered intern?
I would also like to point out that health problems can mean that a person is unable to work forty hours a week in a bank, and they should never be made to feel guilty for this fact. Neither should anyone feel inadequate for simply not wanting to pick something like banking or law. Not everyone is the same, and something that works for one person could be a disaster for another. Rules of common courtesy do not suddenly disappear when your friend goes abroad – if you wouldn’t sneer in the face of someone in your home town working at the supermarket, why treat your friends abroad with rudeness?
Due to people’s reactions when discussing my year abroad, I have deliberately not told many people my plans for when I move again in two weeks. Unfortunately, the harsh judgement I received the first time round had an impact, and I’ve also internalised a sense of inferiority about my next job for being a lazy cop-out when I could be doing something far more high-powered and ‘appropriate’ to my level of education. I had originally planned to explain why I chose my next job, but I really shouldn’t have to justify my choice of employment at all.
I feel students need to drop the competition some of us hold with each other, and recognise that other people’s choices are none of our business. Some of us do not prize our future career over everything else or spend every minute building up our CV, and that’s okay. I don’t care if you think I’m wasting my Oxford education by working as a waitress, a shop assistant, a nanny or a teacher – I will do what is right for me at the time, not what other people believe I should be doing. And it doesn’t matter whether I choose to do that just for a month, a year, or the rest of my life – I will be the judge of my own success. As long as I am being paid enough, treated well, and am enjoying it, who cares? I am personally more vested in protecting my mental and physical health and my carefully built-up savings than impressing everyone I meet with a fancy job title, and I am tired of having to explain myself.
Enjoyed this? Part Two is here.