Romanticization of the Abroad Experience

I come from a place where the most exotic destination most people travel is the Jersey Shore. These next-state over voyagers are content; I, a yearly visitor to such mid-Atlantic oases, don’t judge, but one can only visit a New Jersey beach so many times before beginning to wonder whether there’s more to traveling than boardwalks and pirate themed mini golf courses.

Like countless other daydreamers, I always yearned to travel abroad, the most enticing category of destinations among “anywhere but here.” Books, films, and Internet searches inspired visions of journeys filled with eye-opening adventures, film-worthy romance, and everything else that constitutes having “the time of my life.” I couldn’t wait to become “cultured” — whatever the hell that meant.

I never methodically or realistically plotted how I would make these foreign dreams come true; I just hoped they would happen somehow, some day. Studying or working abroad in college was on my brain, although no particular place or activity was. Visions of over 190 countries were clumped together like clouds; I was just excited about the whole sky of stars rather than a particular star or constellation.

After this past summer, after the stars of opportunity and financial support aligned, I was finally able to say “I’ve traveled outside the United States!” Everything from passport preparations and vaccinations amped up my anticipation to travel. I knew that struggling abroad was a possibility, but I was so ready to fall in love with a country whose name rolled off the tongue, attracting calls of “Oooh!” and “That’s so cool!” in summer plan revelations.

My enthusiasm lived on amid long hours of travel and less-than-enthralling orientation programming. Yet within the first week, I realized that I didn’t feel epically different: I was still me, just amid unfamiliar surroundings. Life still felt like life, not the fantasy I had thought one enters after leaving her home country’s borders.

Throughout my time away, my dream morphed into reality. Certainly, I had my moments of magic, with views that could have entertained my eyes for too many moments and social interactions that provided endless laughs and stories to tell. However, there were also moments that left me merely feeling “meh,” times when I was yearning to go home, and of course, that one time when I cried in front of my host family and some strangers. I often wondered how much of my unhappiness was my fault, because I thought being abroad was supposed to be amazing. I feared that I was being a brat, as I didn’t even have to pay for this opportunity that most people may never have, and one that I wouldn’t have experienced if I didn’t attend Harvard.

Make no mistake, I’m grateful for my summer experiences. However, as I didn’t fall in love with a new place or new career path, I wondered what I really got out of this summer. Reflection revealed one revelation in particular: how we romanticize traveling abroad.

I know what you may be thinking: It’s just another case of high expectations run amok. However, I believe the expectations I set high and struggled to meet are reflect a larger phenomenon. When one announces plans to travel, immediate responses regularly include “That’s amazing!”, “I’m so jealous!”, and “You’re going to have such a great time.” Friends and family expect you’ll bring back souvenirs, stories, pictures, and maybe even a new look influenced by your voyage. Difficulty and dissatisfaction aren’t on the trip agenda, much less on the return list.

Perhaps we set and try to meet these expectations because traveling abroad often requires extensive physical, mental, and financial adjustment and resources, so we tell ourselves our endeavors must yield great benefits. Maybe, like my younger self, we want to believe in the fantasy that is so easy to impose on places unvisited and far away.

Social media doesn’t help; just as it does at home, it provides a polished portrayal of reality. People post pictures of breathtaking monuments and architecture and envy-inducing cuisine. I shared videos of the fun I was having with new friends, not transcripts of the calls I made in failed attempts to get an earlier flight home.

I’m all here for the benefits of traveling, like broadening one’s horizons, meeting new people, and learning about a culture via immersion. I realize that plenty of people have a lovely time abroad, and my experience was limited to one program and one country. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity and extremely privileged to not have been leaving home out of necessity, for safety or security reasons. I just ask that we be critical of the narratives we tell and uphold about traveling, both pre- and post-trip. Investing a lot of time and money into a trip isn’t a transaction that will guarantee your hopes and dreams will be realized. A total change in surroundings and culture doesn’t provide complete erasure of discomfort, boredom, sorrow, or the parts of yourself and your past that are still troublesome.

I’m still eager to go abroad again, and next time I’ll be sure to pack reasonable expectations. I now know that some circumstances and environments make being happy and living your truth easier than others. For now, I’m no longer searching for that place that doesn’t make me want to be somewhere else; I’m trying to create it here.

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