Boarding a flight to London Heathrow, I held no grasp on what was to come in the next three months. At the time, I would have never believed that my study abroad experience would include thievery in London, getting separated from friends at Rome and the Italian countryside or an overnight voyage across Europe to Amsterdam. After returning from the journey that would both fascinate and terrorize me, I realized that everything I thought about studying abroad had been wrong—probably because I took advice from the book Stuff White People Like. Here are the top 5 things from the book that I blindly accepted as truth, and why they were so wrong on so many levels.
- “In addition to accumulating sexual partners, binge drinking, drug use and learning, white people consider studying abroad to be one of the most important parts of a well-rounded college education.” After an overnight journey involving trains, a ship and an excruciatingly long bus ride that ended in Amsterdam, I wasn’t going down to the Red Light district, but I was ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, my friend and I picked the worst travel companions. We now call travel companion 1 the ‘Feminine Chain Drinker’ (an athletic male who gets wasted off cosmopolitans and other drinks that my mother enjoys on Friday night) and we no longer refer at all to travel companion 2 (who met us in Amsterdam, as she was already there hooking up with an Aussie for free room and board at a hostel). Travel companion 1 thought space cakes would kill us and travel companion 2 was a lunatic who suggested we go to church for an hour because "it was cold out." I suppose accumulating sexual partners worked out for travel companion 2, but no binge drinking, drug use or learning for the rest of us!
- “When I used to live in [insert country], I would always ride the train to school. The people I’d see were inspiring.” Once on the subway to my flat from Tesco (where I had just bought 3 packs of cookies, 2 liters of coke and a handful of chocolate croissants), I struck up a conversation with a Brit dressed in a three-piece suit who had the biggest afro I’d ever seen. He told me (in an accent I wish I could imitate) about how he had been invited to a party on Thursday night, and had since been trying to make his way home. Unfortunately, he kept getting invited to other parties. This conversation took place on a Monday night, 4 nights after the initial party he attended. The only thing he inspired me to do was quit college and make better friends who throw lots of parties.
- “You went out to the bar on the first night and made a lot of friends.” At a British 21st (which is a big deal in London even though they can already drink by 18) a brit my age insisted that he would drink me under the table and be sure to turn me on my side once I passed out. How thoughtful. For some reason, Brit’s have this idea that American’s cant drink very much—however, the last thing I remembered was, drink in hand, watching this Brit, empty-handed, ruining the birthday boy’s pictures. But on my way to class the next day, I saw many of the same people from the night before back at the pub. And by next day, I mean at 9am. In this instance, making friends required becoming an alcoholic, a sacrifice I was not willing to make. Alcohol units consumed: thousands. Friends gained: none.
- “You had a short relationship with someone from a foreign country.” She wasn’t exactly from a foreign country, but she was from New Jersey—as a New Yorker, that is foreign enough for me. Thinking my fellow classmate and flatmate to be attractive, smart and witty, I never thought that she was, for months and in the dead of night, stealing from everyone—pita bread, uncooked pasta, cash, clothing and books. When some of my more dramatic flatmates began screaming their heads off about their missing cheese or hummus or whatever, the issue became a full blown recreation of the Salem witch trials. Students were accused of crimes, rooms were searched and bags of evidence were carted away. Only two years later did I discover that not only had she been shoving her face with everyone’s groceries, but she had also been sleeping her way around Europe with no more than $5 in her bank account. Long story short, the relationship was not short—looks can be deceiving, and they can also probably kill.
- “You didn’t learn anything.” I learned many things from my study abroad experience. (1) I learned that other people are unknowable—on a train headed into the Italian countryside after being separated from two friends at Rome Termini Station, I insisted that we all stay together rather than split up to search for the missing two and, labeled ‘insensitive’, one of my best friends proceeded to swing her hair straightener through the air, as if a lasso, aimed at my head; (2) organized religion is a joke—one of my flatmates, a ‘Christian’ boy from the South, told me I was not normal because I wouldn’t let Angelina Jolie spit in my mouth if I ever happened to run into her on the street, and later, he casually watched porn in front of me while I was Skype-ing with my sister; and (3) don’t trust a hoe—I learned that if my girlfriend comes out of an elevator and tells me she just went grocery shopping, but has no bags, she’s probably lying.
Clearly, taking advice from that book was a big mistake, but lessons learned were, I suppose, important. From now on, I’ll pick friends more carefully, wear protective head-gear the next time I visit Italy and hire US government officials to conduct screenings for future girlfriends. Without my semester in London, I’m not sure where I’d be today.