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50 Things I Learned While Studying Abroad

Ain't no mountain high enough...

Maybe it's because my last name is Lee, or maybe it's because my Dad always jokes that I was a spitting image of my (Asian) doctor at birth, I often come to the conclusion that it is no accident that I ended up living in China. I have a faint memory of a page from my third grade textbook, when Mr. Sheehy explained to our class what a "pagoda" was and where we could find them; what's more, my best friend as a kid was crazy for eggrolls (and boys!) from a young age, leading to many shared trips together to our favorite buffet on Route 30 over the years.

Ever since I heard of its existence, I knew I wanted to study abroad. Originally, England was my destination of choice, but some years and an Economist article later, I knew China was what I wanted to see first. My first summer after college, a scared 19-years-young girl broke in her new purple luggage and climbed on a plane headed to Shanghai. Fast forward five weeks, three cities, and countless dumplings later, she began planning her return trip to China before she had even left!

My first experience studying overseas was a time of growth and independence. I wouldn't say I had the most culturally immersive program, but I enjoyed spending time with my university classmates and admiring the colors, sounds, and unfortunately, smells, of what I came to dub "Planet China."

I considered returning to China for a semester program, but wanted badly to take advantage of the most unique opportunity for study abroad that my university offered. A love for adventure coupled with a growing interest in social justice landed me in the middle of southern Africa, in a country whose name I'm pretty sure I didn't know how to spell until I got there. Namibia and South Africa are home to the most challenging, heartbreaking, wonderful, fulfilling, confusing, and life-changing experiences I have had to this day; corny or not, a huge part of me was left behind in those tall, sandy desert mountains, and I still struggle to comprehend everything I learned there.

After a few more return trips to study in China, many inspiring conversations with my advisor, a handful of on-campus presentations, and landing a job being a study abroad cheerleader for Go Overseas, I am here to share with you fifty things I learned while studying abroad.

  1. Koreans use metal chopsticks instead of wooden/plastic ones.
  2. Traveling: Like being a kid all over again.
  3. Maps in China have China and the Pacific Ocean placed in the center, versus England and the Atlantic as is more common in the West.
  4. Ligers do exist, but there are less than ten on the planet.
  5. In Russia, it's good luck to be pooped on by a bird.
  6. "Rose" is a common (and delicious!) flavor for desserts in other countries.
  7. Foreign financial aid can be more destructive than helpful.
  8. In England, the first Harry Potter book is titled "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone."
  9. The best time to see the Chinese practice Wushu and Taijichuan is at daybreak in the park down the street.
  10. In Southern Africa, sunsets are known as "sundowners" and they go best with "braii" (BBQ).
  11. Dinner in Mexico is eaten after 10 PM.
  12. Australia's aboriginal people and the US's Native Americans face similar struggles in society.
  13. Vietnamese coffee is served with condensed milk.
  14. You can find a "Bob Marley" bar just about everywhere.
  15. North Koreans can study in Beijing, China. I even had a few as classmates!
  16. Xenophobia is not unique to American/Mexican relations.
  17. In traditional African thought, AIDS victims could be cured by having sex with a virgin.
  18. I want to create a word to describe the feeling of when you first realize you understand a foreign language in passing. It's a combination of elation, pride, and motivation, but it needs its own word.
  19. Red and blue police lights are universal.
  20. I can actually climb a mountain.
  21. At border crossings in Africa, you have to get off of the bus/ out of your car and disinfect the bottom of your shoes before entering the new country.
  22. I can eat strange foods and survive!
  23. Riding a bicycle in China is the equivalent of playing a real-life video game.
  24. You don't need to understand the lyrics to enjoy the song.
  25. Goodbyes never get easier.
  26. I'm from the United States, not America.
  27. There are no fortune cookies in China and people in Mexico don't actually eat burritos.
  28. The best seat on the airplane is a window seat, but only if you're not sitting over the plane's wing.
  29. Mongolians drink alcohol made of horse milk.
  30. Some people consider Americans really weird for always insisting on wearing shower shoes.
  31. Mandarin can be very practical. For instance, the word for "owl" in Chinese translates as "cat head bird."
  32. Other countries have their own version of Facebook, like Renren in China or VKontakte in Russia.
  33. People in Northern China are typically taller than those in the South.
  34. Fear and misconceptions are the most dividing factors between people today.
  35. People have heard of Indiana.
  36. Long distance relationships are challenging, annoying, and rewarding.
  37. It's not uncommon to start Skype conversations with "Is the cat still alive?"
  38. A favorite photo from Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert
  39. Many young people use the TV show "Friends" to improve their English language skills.
  40. In Colombia, instead of saying "God bless you," sneezes are responded to with wishes for "salud, dinero, y amor" (depending on the number of times you sneeze).
  41. In Cambodia, American dollars can be used as currency.
  42. Brits and Americans use their forks and knives differently.
  43. In Japan, you may be denied entry into public bathhouses if you have a tattoo.
  44. There are penguins in South Africa.
  45. I will never "be smooth" when someone greets me by kissing me on the cheek.
  46. 20+ hour train or bus rides are a good idea (in theory....)...
  47. In China, you can count to ten with one hand. 8 looks like a gun and 6 looks like "cowabunga!"
  48. Some countries are taught there are five continents (when clearly there are seven)!
  49. I'm a millionaire in Zambian kwacha.
  50. Spanish eggs have crispy edges and soft yolks.
  51. Saying "thank you" in Afrikaans sounds a lot like saying "Buy a donkey!" in English.
  52. It's probably not possible to learn every language on earth or see every country on earth, but that's not going to stop me from trying.

Any and all travel has educational potential, whatever its inspiration and purpose. What and how much is learned, however, depends greatly on how open the traveler is to what the road offers.

It won't take but a five minute conversation with me for you to realize my love for study abroad and my wholehearted belief in its ability to help shape and mold young individuals into becoming citizens of the world. Some say studying abroad is one big, expensive party - and maybe they're right - but at the end of the day, if this is the first experience that is going to inspire students to continue traveling and questioning and exploring more cultures and languages, then I truly believe only good can come of it.

As a study abroad program advisor in China, I have the opportunity to witness the changes students undergo throughout their experience - complete shifts in attitude, confidence, and tolerance. It is nothing short of beautiful. It is my sincere hope that these students return to their home countries and serve as inspirations to others, communicating through both their actions and words the importance of accepting people from all walks of life.

Students should be intentional about their time abroad and consider their experiences as journeys filled with opportunities to learn, share, educate, and serve. Studying abroad encourages and challenges students to uphold and promote these values.

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Megan Lee

Megan Lee is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She currently leads study abroad programs in China and the South Pacific. Keep up with her on Twitter @peglegmeg and Google+.