The Salt Chronicles

Okay, I need to get this off my chest. France is so much more racist and misogynistic than the US—you know it’s bad when there’s not one, but two, threads on the TAPIF Facebook page featuring rants about sexual and racial harassment from men. And you know what the worst part is? It’s not just the women pouring out all their salt—some male-identifying assistants have also noticed the rampant sexism towards their friends, colleagues, and students. Don’t worry, the tale only gets better from here—like one of those horror stories that you can’t stop reading even though you know you should chuck it into a fire to stop the nightmares. Fortunately, it turns out that, if you’re Asian (East Asian, at least, I can’t speak for other minorities), you get to learn that misogyny and racism often go hand-in-hand! Here, let me casually list out all the experiences I had this year in France alone. Don’t worry, these are just the ones I remember and doesn’t even factor in studying abroad:

  • One old man referred to me as “a yellow girl.” What is this, the 1900s? Last time I checked, it was 2017. Yes, I know I’m bad at math, which must be such a surprise, but believe it or not, I do know how to read a calendar.
  • One old man actually said to my face, “Once I had Japanese conquest” and then tried to ask me out for a drink. Sit all the way down, child, because even if I weren’t gay, the chances of me going out with you were smaller than covfefe.
  • A group of high school boys actually uttered the words “ching chong” when I walked past them in the hallway. Ah, yes, let me ching the chong out of you. Don’t know what that means? Here, I’ll give you a hint—reorder the words “up” and “beat.”
  • Some random guy on the sidewalk wouldn’t shut up about how Asian girls always look younger than they actually are. Sorry, Sir Too-Easily Sunburned, I can’t help it if your ass will get old and wrinkly long before mine does.
  • On two separate occasions, guys shouted at me from their cars, though luckily I didn’t hear/understand what they said. Really, it’s too bad looks can’t kill/maim/injure.
  • One man repeatedly shouted “Une chinoise!” after me at the train station in Laon, prompting S to offer to walk me to the bus stop. Like, do men not realize how bad it is when other men have to offer to walk a woman somewhere for her protection???
  • One guy insisted on getting my number even after I lied and said I have a boyfriend. Please, Mr. Incredibly Stupid Or Desperate Or Both, take a hint. I promise it doesn’t require too much of your brain, even if yours is really small.
  • One man kept walking up to me and making kissing noises in the Gare du Nord until I stalked away instead of punching him in the face. Tbh I should’ve attacked him with a stale baguette.
  • Two men remarked, “Une petite chinoise” as they walked past me, thinking I couldn’t understand them. Seriously, what is it with white people thinking POC can’t understand or speak a country’s native language?
  • One old man stopped at a bus stop purely to ask me out for a drink. The only thing I would’ve been drinking that evening was his blood in a ritual sacrifice to Satan.
  • As I stood in a grocery store picking out a carrot and some potatoes, one middle-aged man walked behind me and said, “Tu es bien jolie.” Who gave him the right to use the informal “tu” instead of the formal, polite “vous?” No one. Not even the friend zone.

If you think these instances are bad, you should’ve seen some of the other comments from female-identifying assistants. Race notwithstanding, they’ve been punched, groped, followed—on foot and by cars—and made the victims of lewd comments and actions. Like, really? Keep that in your pants. No one wants to see it.

The most accurate comment I’ve read on the Facebook page? “Fuck men.” That essentially sums up why I’m gay. Kidding, this is why I distrust men so deeply. I’m not saying that racism and misogyny don’t exist in America. They absolutely do—look at who our “president” is. I’m just saying that, while I’ve experienced racism in the US, I’ve never experienced it and misogyny at the same time. The only thing terrible thing that’s happened to me in America was getting “cat called,” or having a guy lean out of a pickup truck at R-MC and yell, “If you believe it, you can achieve it!” sending Madeline, Nat, and me into a fit of laughter. And the racist moments have just been variations of “Where are you really from?” and “You speak English so well!” At least I could respond to those with cutting sarcasm: “My mother’s vagina” and “Thanks, I grew up here.” But what are you supposed to do when you’re 5’5” and will never top 100 pounds and your opponents are the patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity?

As one of the assistants pointed out, “It’s so sad that we have a ‘normal’ level of harassment for being female or not being a white cis male.” Because the consensus across the 200+ comments seemed to be that all these moments of harassment escalated solely in France. “Now hey there,” some fragile meninist might argue, “it’s because you were traveling alone in France!” Nope. I’ve traveled alone to Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, and not once did I experience racism or misogyny in those countries. I’m sure that, at some point or another, all the people who commented have been outside on their own at least once in America or Canada—but none of that sexual harassment ever reached the frequency or intensity they did in France.

Bottom line? Even if you promised to get me into grad school and secure me a job, I wouldn’t be able to explain to you why France is more sexist and racist than the US. One might argue that it’s because they’re less diverse–but my college was incredibly white, and no one there ever harassed me for being Asian and female. And because of that, I wouldn’t be able to live in France unless I spent my entire salary on those weird white-washing, skin-whitening creams. Like, you know it’s bad when you spend nearly an hour bonding on Facebook with a Chinese-Canadian assistant you’ve never met before over how racist French men are.

PS. Not linked to misogyny, but some teacher thought I was my prof référent’s adopted child because apparently English assistants can’t be Asian. Ah yes, I have come from the land of Oriental rugs to teach your white people my flawless English.


You’ve been in France too long when…

  • The best compliment you can receive is no longer, “You speak French so well!” but a friend saying, “I always forget you’re lowkey savage af” and “I’m sure if you helped raise my kids they’d be savage af”
  • Your mom brings back a frosted buttercream cookie from the day care, and your first thought is “Ooh, pretty cookie!” And then you bite into it and nearly spit it out in disgust because it tastes like processed sugar and you’ve been ruined by French pastries. Yes, France will sometimes turn you into a snob
  • Eating the first freshly-baked egg tart in seven months nearly makes you weep at its deliciousness
  • After signing a form at Toyota, you slide it back to the employee, who says, “Thank you.” You almost reply, “De rien,” think “Shit,” and then end up saying nothing
  • You’ve given up counting the number of times you’ve accidentally used French with friends
  • While searching the fridge for baby carrots, you start talking to yourself out loud in French, wondering where they could possibly be hiding
  • Your phone now autocorrects your English into French. It knows you’re a nerd.
  • While wandering through a buffet with your friends and surveying all the unappetizing food, you mutter, “Someone bring me back to France”
  • You have to unsubscribe from a newsletter full of travel tips about France because now it just makes you sad
  • At Sam’s Club, your dad suggests buying croissants, but you basically go “nah” because you know they’ll taste of imitation and failure compared to French croissants
  • Iszi and Nat are talking about setting traps for college students, and someone mentions using free beer as bait, and you say, “If you put something French in a box, I’d go get it” …especially because one of your friends just gave you a set of The Little Prince bracelets for a late birthday present
  • Nat’s talking about finding your passion in life, and you figure that French is already a given, so you say, “I like my gossip”
    • She responds, “You’re made of salt and you’re made of French, so you can probably be salty in French”
  • You sort of lived off of chocolate chip muffins from Greenberry’s a few times a week at R-MC, but when the coffee shop ladies give you one for free after graduation, you can barely eat it the next day because it tastes overly processed and sweet
  • The final clue in an escape room is a map of Paris, and you recognize the city instantly and are so delighted to be holding a little slice of France in your hands that you pretty much stop paying attention to the rest of the room. Luckily, your friends aren’t captured by the Francophile trap.

You’ve been in France too long when you…

  • Keep accidentally spelling appartement the French way, and then your friends all make fun of you. Why do I love them, again?
  • Feel personally offended by the rain. Like, I didn’t leave dreary northern France for grey skies and sadness
  • Forget just how…white France is in comparison to America
  • Listen to a voice message on the home phone, and the guy speaking has a southern accent so your first thought is, “Why are you so hard to understand can’t you speak in French?”
  • Check a Starbucks gift card balance via telephone for your mother and automatically select the French option
  • Wonder why American serving sizes are so large, especially because you ordered a small
  • Stare in amazement at the fact that grocery stores have more than two cash registers open
  • Shrug and say, “Don’t ask me, I haven’t been here for 7 months”
  • Cannot understand why a bag of croissants has Italian but not French on it
  • Forget how nice it is to be able to carry groceries from the car to the door
  • Sigh in relief at the fact that there isn’t someone smoking every five feet outside
  • Basically weep over your first bites of tofu, mango, Pocky, and Rice Krispies in nearly a year
  • Are deeply impressed by the fact that Americans actually pick up their dog’s poop
  • Bemoan the state of American “bread” and mutter to yourself, “That’s not a real baguette” every time you walk past one in a grocery store
  • Want to know why restaurants have ketchup but not mayo, and then you remember that American mayo is revolting
  • Forget the tipping system exists in the US
  • Realize in astonishment that, in America, businesses are actually open after 8pm and on Sundays
  • Accidentally use French, again, but at least this time it was just over Facebook with Madeline
  • Have never been more confused than when, after your parents insist on buying you a new car, the Toyota dealer drives you to the parking lot in a golf car. I’m an able-bodied person with two fully functional legs…?
  • Look at your glass of water in a restaurant and think, “I wanted water, not ice with a side of water.” Bring me back my carafes d’eau? 

Final Thoughts

After having sobbed on several of my friends and inhaling my first peanut butter sandwich in seven months, I’m beginning this post with a disclaimer: in all fairness, I can’t judge the TAPIF experience properly because I spent a good two months mentally checked out of the program, writing essays and poems and rewatching Parks and Rec. (Sorry, teachers, but hey, at least I did my job). Regardless, I’ll give this post my best shot—it’s going to be quite long, probably essay length, because that’s the kind of writer I am. Anyways, these 7 months in France were jam-packed with so many firsts in my life: working as an adult—and in a foreign country; living rent-free; coming out; protesting (twice); going to my first official concert; BSing public speaking without being nervous about it; watching my first play in French; making phone calls—in a foreign language—without panicking; and losing my brother.

Teaching: Right before diversity graduation last year, two of my friends said that French kids were the worst, and wow, were they not kidding. Some of the things I’ve seen the students here do would have gotten them straight-up suspended in the US. Now, I’m not saying that they’re all awful; most of the kids I encountered were quite lovely—it’s just that, in four or five classes, the students blatantly provoked and disrespected the teachers. For whatever reason, though, those ill-behaved students never directed that ire toward me—and I don’t know what it says, that they’ll willingly listen to a soft-spoken American who looks like a high schooler, but not their own trained teacher…it’s absolutely bizarre to have a class of 20+ secondes listen to you without complaint.

I’ve witnessed so many different teaching methods, including some I’d use and some that I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot-pole. But what working in schools has really taught me is that, even in high school, teaching is just glorified babysitting. And if you have no idea what you’re doing, well, that’s fine—the students won’t have a clue that you’re just pulling words out of your mouth as you go.

French: My writing skills probably deteriorated, seeing as I only wrote emails and never got to write any essays, much to my great disappointment. (Yes, I know, I’m a nerd.) I wouldn’t say that my speaking skills improved, necessarily, but I certainly got a lot more comfortable using French, to the point that I reserved BlaBlaCars and Airbnbs with French-only speakers without hesitation. While studying abroad, I wouldn’t have done that if you’d offered to pay me. One of the Americans in Caen asked me, “How’s your French?” and I replied, “I majored in it, so fluent-ish,” but I think I can officially remove the “-ish” seeing as I’ve begun and maintained conversations in French with native speakers. And accidentally used French after being back in the US for all of a day.

Public speaking: This is going to sound really bad, but apparently I don’t mind speaking in front of people when there’s no grade at stake (or microphone standing before me). Sure, I’m still a socially awkward human being, but 6th-grade-me would’ve been so proud of BSing a lesson on Hitchcock. (Take that, 6th-grade English teacher who said that being painfully shy would hurt me later in life. Sometimes I feel like I talk purely to spite her.) However, I still hate being the center of attention: when the Claudel teachers raised their glasses to me, my first instinct was to turn around and run outside. Although…part of me can’t help but wonder if I maybe hated speaking up as a student because I didn’t want to fulfill the “smart Asian” stereotype. Yeah, 12 hours of work a week leaves you with way too much thinking time.

Hours: Please make us work more than 12. I nearly lost my mind from the boredom, watching too many TV shows (15) and working on an assortment of half-finished poems and essays.

Location: I chose Amiens because I’d spent a year abroad in the south and wanted to experience something completely different. But boy, did I have no idea how different it would be. In the future, could I see myself living in the north of France? Nope. I need sun. I nearly experienced seasonal depression because, I kid you not, from November to February there were weeks where I didn’t remember what the sun looked or felt like. Also, it’s beyond sad when you have to unpack your winter coat in late April.

Salary: I got lucky because, for the first—and probably last time in my life—I didn’t have to pay rent. And even though I splurged on travel and presents, I actually left France with more money than I arrived with. It helps that groceries were incredibly cheap, about 20 euros/week. (Some assistants were complaining about spending 200 euros/week. Excuse my French, but what the hell were they buying…? During the months I didn’t travel, I was hard-pressed to spend 200 euros/month on the cafeteria, phone plan, laundry, food, and transportation.) Oh, and in case you were wondering, exchanging money from euros to dollars makes you feel so much richer.

The –isms: Too long. I’ll cover the racism and misogyny in a separate post.

Homesickness: I did and I didn’t want to leave France—I missed my friends and family, but I’m also going to miss essentially being paid to travel. However, most of why I didn’t want to leave France has everything to do with grief. At least over there, even if my emotional support system was back here in America, I didn’t have to deal with living in a house hollowed by my brother’s ghost, where I’m confronted with daily reminders of him. And, well…how many TAPIF assistants have to return home to a funeral?

Now for the million-dollar question: would I have renewed the contract? I honestly don’t know. Tragedy changes everything. It feels like a lifetime ago, but before December, I think I was considering working in the sun-soaked south, Martinique, or Guadeloupe. But even if I hadn’t lost Justin, I can’t say with certainty that I would’ve repeated TAPIF. Despite the immersion experience, I didn’t get to help students on a more individual level like I’d hoped to. Perhaps this was due to being the guinea pig English assistant split between two lycées for the first time; still, in many classes, it was hard to shake the impression that I was being used more as an American accent or a babysitter than as a cultural or near-peer asset.

I don’t regret my choice, though, which I suppose, in the end, is the best thing anyone can say. I’ve gotten to see so much of the world and meet so many incredible assistants (26 of them, somehow???), as well as some amazing teachers, something that would’ve never happened if I’d ended up settling for an entry-level job that I would have most likely ended up hating. Honestly, I’ve been absolutely floored by some of the kindness that some of the teachers have shown me, from Nico and Marylise inviting me to stay over on new Year’s Eve after they learned that I’d lost my brother, to Marilo offering to let me sleep over Sunday night and drive me to the train station the day I left France. Not to mention, what other job would’ve let me travel to five countries? Across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, I got to see 19 cities: Amiens, Lille, Brussels, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, Dijon, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Caen, Bayeux, Mont St-Michel, Galway, Dublin, Bray, Glendalough, Howth, Rouen, and Giverny.

(Okay, I lied, I do have one regret: not making it down to Saint-Malo, which is fine, because my one regret from Nice was not seeing Versailles. I accomplished that eventually…or 2 years later. Anyways, my point is, I’m not done with France yet. I’ll be back at some point, during another chapter of my life.)

I’m going to finally shut up and bring this post full-circle by ending with a disclaimer, too: no two TAPIF experiences will be the same. So much of it depends so much on where you’re placed (the city and the school[s]), the assistants you meet, and your expectations and attitude. I know my time here in France has changed me—but how, I can’t say, especially because my situation was so complicated. I can say, however, that I’ll be able to look back upon my time here fondly, that the seven months of my life I spent here have given me a lot of good memories that will make me smile whenever I reminisce about the struggle of being an assistant in a country with terrible bureaucracy.

Experiencing French Theater

Remember that time I got so excited about writing a French paper that I promptly turned in a 6-page draft instead of the 4-page minimum? And then made all my friends yell at me when I, unsurprisingly, muttered that I constantly go over page limits? (Problem? Me? Nah. In case you don’t believe me, I have Snapchat proof.)


Anyways, my explication de texte allowed me to delve into proto-feminism for the first time, something that (along with my professor) has been nudging me towards grad school. So when I saw that there would be a performance of Marivaux’s play Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard, how was I supposed to pass that opportunity up?

At the Maison des Arts et des Loisirs, I certainly was not expecting a line, but somehow the largest number of people I’d ever seen in Laon, outside of school, was crammed into the lobby. Honestly, I didn’t even know the city had a theater. At the counter, I’m sure could’ve lied and said that I was a student to get a cheaper ticket price, but seeing as there were a few teachers from Claudel nearby, I decided not to take advantage of my baby face for once.


When the 1-hour 15-minute long play started, I’ll admit I was a bit confused. Not because I couldn’t understand the French, but because the first five minutes were completely silent and I could not for the life of me fathom the presence of the radio, laptop, or phone–the comedy’s supposed to take place in the 18th century. I quickly realized the company had given the play a modern twist, which worked out in their favor, allowing them to add little comedic touches here and there in order to enhance the original script.

(Quick summary of the play: Silvia, a noblewoman, decides to disguise herself as her maid Lisette in order to observe and interact with her fiancé Dorante. Unbeknownst to her, Dorante has the same idea, disguising himself as his valet Arlequin. Shenanigans ensue.)

Some internal screaming may or may not have been involved when I recognized the scene that I chose to analyze in FREN 437. I mean, it’s not at all nerdy to look at a French text from a feminist perspective by examining the radical concept of choice within the socio-economic context of the 18th century.


Highlight of the play: watching Dorante fail miserably in his valet role. At one point, he was supposed to make bread, but had clearly never cracked an egg in his life. It resulted in him scooping one egg off the table and then placing the second in a bowl, smashing it with the whisk, and scooping out the fragments of shell.

Watching one of my favorite plays come to life–in a different language, no less–was a well-spent 12 euros, and I finally understand why teachers constantly say that plays need to be watched or read aloud.

Des notes divers

It’s bizarre to think that my time here in France is almost over—1 more week at Méchain, 2 weeks of vacation, 1 more week at Claudel, and finally 1 week of…something (relaxation? travel? sleeping? crying?) before I fly back to the US on May 8. During these past five months, I’ve seen and heard and tasted and experienced so much—the expected and the unexpected, in ways both positive and negative. It’s been a long, unpaved road, full of beginnings and middles and endings. I’m still trying to process everything, so as things start to wind down, I’m dumping a mélange of miscellaneous notes here.


Caen: April 7-11

Plans: Mont Saint-Michel (for me) and Bayeux (For my English major friends…I don’t actually know how I managed to collect so many, considering I didn’t even major in the subject.)

Galway: April 11-14

Plans: Cliffs of Moher

Dublin: April 14-20

Plans: Trinity College, National Library and Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Howth, relive my Engl 381 essay on James Joyce

April 28 – May 7:

Good question. I have no idea what I’m going to do after the end of my contract, though I low-key want to visit Giverny and Rouen.

After TAPIF:

I’ve been sitting on this news for two weeks (only my friends and family know), but I’ve been accepted to a non-profit program called City Year! From mid-July of this year to mid-June to next year, I’ll be tutoring/mentoring at-risk kids in DC. My two future roommates and I have already been looking at potential apartments, and I’m excited for this next chapter. In many ways, TAPIF has been a wonderful opportunity, but being split between two schools, I get the impression that I’m being used as an accent rather than a near-peer asset. Hopefully, City Year will give me the opportunity to help students on a deeper level. I also just want to be able to do something after this nightmarish election, and if that means working long hours for a meager living stipend, then so be it. Funnily enough, a fellow Amiens assistant will be in DC, too, though for different reasons. Small world.

On a completely unrelated note, I really need to break this habit of somehow ending up with more books than I brought with me to study abroad/college/TAPIF/wherever. At this rate, suitcase packing is going to be such a pleasure. Somebody please explain to me why Hermione’s magical, bottomless purse hasn’t been invented yet?

Graduation and Studying Abroad

I’ve been awake since 6am because I couldn’t sleep, so forgive me if this post lacks coherency. Anyways, in a lot of ways, graduation reminds me of the end of my year abroad. Both experiences just felt so surreal—and still do—because they were definitive epilogues to different chapters in my life. Granted, I spent three years at R-MC versus one year in Nice, but I honestly don’t understand where the time went. Am I really free of school forever? (Hush, ignore the fact that I might go to grad school.) I have, however, left behind a place that indelibly marked my life and helped shape who I am today, much like Nice did.

Parts of both experiences also passed in a blur. With regards to France, I barely remember saying goodbye to my classmates, running across airports, and climbing into planes. And today, the whole getting-my-diploma has blended together into a haze—according to one professor and two friends, I had a cheering squad, but I noticed absolutely nothing because I panicked a bit and thought, “There are too many people watching me I have to get off this stage right now.” (I did, however, succeed in not tripping!)

Plus, when I finally got home after France, I was sleep-deprived and exhausted, yet oddly awake, which is a perfect description of my mental state right now. Though funnily enough, I didn’t start crying until the plane landed in Richmond, because I guess that’s when the fact that I’d left behind a lifetime of memories in Nice finally hit home. But I haven’t really cried yet after graduation, and in all honesty—despite having cried ten times before graduation about having to leave my friends and professors—I think it’s because the fact that I’m forever done with undergrad hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

That’s where the parallels end, though. Firstly, when I left Nice, there was no pomp and ceremony because I was brain-dead from seven straight hours of exams—and then I had to finish packing and leave bright and early the next morning. Secondly, in France, I didn’t have six professors who made me blush and internally scream in distress, “I HAVE TO LEAVE RIGHT NOW IMMEDIATELY” when they casually showed me off to my mom. (I’m an adult. I can handle compliments with grace.)

(As I’m typing this post, three of my friends are telling—no, yelling at—me to email one of my favorite English professors a picture of us and call the poor, innocent guy “dope.” That’s the final difference—my friends in France weren’t such terrible influences.)

Pre-Graduation Thoughts

Despite all the times I’ve been salty about R-MC (and despite the grudges I continue to hold against a certain part of FYEC and the stolen Honors House being converted into offices), I’m still half-hesitant about leaving. As graduation draws inevitably closer, I’ve been thinking about the things that study abroad has made me grateful for here. It turns out that, ironically enough, leaving my college for a year is what made me love it more—my amazing friends, my incredible professors, and the acceptably beautiful campus.

And after crying four times during the latter half of the last week of classes—and making some of my professors cry as well—I’ve finally figured out what terrifies me most about the prospect of teaching. It’s not, surprisingly, the fact that I’d have to talk in front of people and grade potentially terrible papers. Rather, it’s the fact that I’d have to deal with “leaves and leaving,” in the words of one of my favorite professors.

It’s just…how do teachers and professors do it, knowing that the students they help and watch blossom will eventually walk out of their life? I mean, at least nowadays there’s email and social media, but I still I feel like I’d become a sobbing mess. Departures are part of the human experience, I guess, but that doesn’t make them any less depressing.

Life after Studying Abroad

A lot of people and websites help you begin your study abroad experience, but few actually prepare you for life after going abroad. Even now, more than three months later, I’m still not quite sure how to explain the after-experience. It’s manifested and expressed itself in unexpected moments:

  • The first time you use your debit card in eight months, you have to contemplate and delete the PIN three times before you get the right combination.
  • After both you and your mother can’t finish a small cup of ice cream, you realize how truly huge American serving sizes are.
  • Sometimes an awkward silence falls between you and your friends, because even though you’ve known them for years, how do you fill an eight-month gap? But at the same time, you can’t remember the last time you laughed so hard, your stomach hurt and you could barely breathe.
  • When you listen to “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, you discover that it’s emotionally painful, because it takes you right back to the time you went to Rome for spring break, where you ate a slice of zucchini and tomato pizza while sitting in a tiny restaurant with orange, floral-patterned tablecloths.
  • You’re reading a book that’s set in London, and as the author begins describing the narrow streets, you can’t stop the smile spreading across your lips, because now you can picture those narrow streets perfectly.
  • You visit Virginia Beach, which thankfully has sand, but the water looks so pitifully gray compared to the Mediterranean.
  • Using each letter of your name, your friend makes you a playlist “for dreaming of big stories and bigger adventures,” and you’re not sure whether you want to cry or smile.
  • At your public library, you finally find the miniscule French section, but your excitement quickly fades away because none of the books are actually written in French.
  • You reread one of your favorite books, set in Paris, and it takes on a whole new meaning while making you incredibly nostalgic. It mentions that someone who stands on Point Zéro is destined to return to Paris someday, and you wonder if that’s true. You hope it is.
  • A potential employer informs you she really wants to hire you for their cheese department because of your “European experience,” somehow assuming that you must know a lot about cheese after spending a year abroad in France.
  • Spelling used to come effortlessly to you, but now you, after all that French, find yourself pausing while writing in English, wondering if you spelled a word correctly.
  • After months trapped at home in the suburbs without a car, you have never missed public transportation more.
  • You spend several minutes staring sadly at the exorbitant prices of textbooks. How can one textbook possibly cost the same as an entire week’s worth of groceries?
  • A book touches a special place in your heart when its setting changes to Rome because of two quotes: “‘It makes me feel so small. Well, not me. But my life, you know?’” and “Rome was under their nails, in their hair, and…they would never be able to wash it out: and that even if they could, they would never want to.”

Final Thoughts

As I lie on my bed, finally in my room, at home at last in the US, I’ve come to realize several truths about studying abroad: (Buckle down. This is going to be a really long post. Like, research paper-length.)

  1. I thought that studying abroad would make me fluent. Now, I understand that mastery of a foreign language wasn’t something that I could pick up during eight months of immersion. There are so many nuances to a language—accents, enunciation, slang—that, while not impossible to pick up, make it more difficult to learn. Plus, languages are constantly evolving. I mean, there were adults who’ve lived in France for years who were in the same classes as me. But my French has certainly improved, and the truth of the matter is, I can understand/speak/read another language fairly well—and that, to me, is an accomplishment. If you kidnapped me and abandoned me in the middle of a francophone country, at the very least, I’d be able to survive. (Please don’t get any ideas. I just got home, and I prefer to be un-kidnapped, thank you very much.)
  1. I also thought that coming to France would give me some grand insight on what I want to do with my life and my French major + English-writing minor. But I still don’t know, and that’s okay. The notion of knowing what you want to do for the rest for your life when you’re only 21 is ridiculous, as ludicrous as the idea that, when you enter college at 18, you’re supposed to know exactly what kind of path you want to follow. (Sheesh. Half the time I don’t even know what I’m going to eat for lunch, and you expect me to know what kind of job I want to work until I die?) The important thing is that I got the chance to explore my opportunities.
  1. I’ve realized that life moved on without me, whether I like it or not. I was sort of living a brand new life over in France, but my friends and family carried right on with their regular lives, and it’s just bizarre to think that my absence didn’t really affect anything, if that makes any sense at all. I’ve started to feel like a stranger in my own skin, trying to fit into an old yet unfamiliar environment. Everything’s simultaneously same but different, and that produces the strangest mix of feelings—sometimes I feel like a time traveler, an anachronism who doesn’t belong in this life. I’ve never really had a favorite quote, because I’m book-obsessed and can’t pick just one, but this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald really resonates with me now: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”

So, you might be asking, is it worth it to go abroad?

I’m not going to lie: homesickness hurts. It digs a hole into your soul and tears a scar into your heart. You’ll feel like you’ve lost a year of your life, an entire school year that you’ll never be able to recover. You’ll miss Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays. The smallest, seemingly insignificant things might make you want to break down into tears: you’ll grin at an inside joke and turn around to tell your roommate, only to realize that she’s across the ocean, in another time zone, in another country. Your friends will have forged new memories without you.

But here’s the thing: you were there. You might’ve been physically somewhere else, but you can still exist in the form of memories and wishes—so when you’re desperately, hopelessly homesick, for all you know, thousands of miles away, your friends might be missing you at the exact same moment. And once you go back home, you’ll start to collect, cherish, and store little details that you never noticed before. Somewhere in your heart, after a year-long absence has helped you dust off the dirt of quotidian life, you’re going to store little treasures like the shape of a friend’s smile, the lilt of a friend’s voice, the way they push their glasses up the bridge of their nose. Isn’t there a quote or something like “Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” Well, it’s true; everyone grows more beautiful while you’re away from home.

And while you’re abroad, you’ll be able to carry the memory of friendships forged through solidarity. You’ll meet people from all over the world, people you would’ve never imagined crossing paths with—I’ve met students anywhere from 18 to married to mothers to working, from all over the world: Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Sweden, Columbia, Madagascar, Uzbekistan, the Czech Republic, Iran, Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Slovakia, Poland, China, Vietnam, Paraguay, England, Canada, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, and yes, even America. (And by happenstance, I’ve met people from India, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Australia.)

When I first set foot in Nice, totally disoriented after lack of sleep and jetlag, I was so confused from hearing French all the time. I barely knew how anything worked. Aside from setting up a bank account and getting a student card, I basically had to figure out everything by myself. It took me nearly two months to realize there was a laundry room in my dorm, which was unfortunate, considering I’d hauled my laundry up and down hills, off and onto buses. I had to discover the quickest ways to get to class, the most direct path to the grocery store, the bus stops closest to the train station, bank, and library. Inevitably, I got lost (several times), and while I was frustrated back then, now I can look back on those moments with amusement.

Eventually, though, I learned where to find delicious sandwiches for lunch and when to avoid the lunch rush. How to stand on a bus without losing my balance every time we rounded a curve. How climbing down an entire mountain, despite the gorgeous view, leaves your feet and calves completely sore. How L.L. Bean backpacks might instantly mark you as American, but at least they’re handy for storing groceries and carving out a personal space bubble on the bus. How some people will look at you strangely for speaking in English with your friends. Though now, the bizarre thing is that I’m unaccustomed to being surrounded by English.

But the memories aren’t all going to be great ones. As usual, during school, you’re going to suffer from the stress of exams—especially when they’re all in a different language. (And when you have to handwrite at least 1500 words.) You’re going to complain about boring professors who seem to be only capable of droning on and making you want to sleep, or awful, ignorant professors who call a harmless part of your personality a “complex.” For the first time, probably because I’ve never really gone out and about in a city by myself before, I got targeted by disgusting men/boys who deserve to be eaten—two called me a “bitch,” one hit on me even though I clearly wasn’t interested, and a group threw a rock at my temple. And it turns out that, even if you’re no longer in the US, people will still want to know where you really came from. (Me: “I was born in America.” Annoying person: “But where did you come from before?” Me: *Seriously? What do you want me to say? Two X chromosomes? My mother’s uterus?*)

Weirdly enough, when I left, I only felt a bit sad. I didn’t start crying until the plane landed in Richmond, though I have no idea if that was affected by the fact that I’d been awake for 16 hours, or if there was no one sitting next to me.

All experiences have their ups and downs. We can’t all be “on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.” (Kudos to you if you get the reference, and if you’re still reading this.) As excited as I was to finally go home, when it was time for me to leave, a part of me didn’t want to pack my suitcases or step into the airport. I already miss the sunny beauty of the endlessly blue Mediterranean Coast, though I can’t say as much for the education system. (Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay for it.) But in the end, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. (But for all the books in the world? Maybe. Okay, who am I kidding? Probably.)

Have I changed as a person? Definitely. I’ve always been terrible at describing myself, but I have noticed one difference—I’m not quite as shy as I used to be when I have to interact with strangers. While I guess it’s a positive change, it’s just…weird. Apparently, using horribly American-accented French in order to survive alone for eight months tends to do that. Who knew studying abroad could make you more confident?

I think that the beginning of this poem I’ve been working on is really the best way to sum up my experience in Nice:

I left my heart for a year to chase down all my dreams

I didn’t quite unlock the door, but I still found a key

Within the feathered, anchored hopes that strummed my heartstrings

There in the city sprawled between the mountains and the sea

(Disclaimer: These are my thoughts on my experience. Everyone’s different, which means that they’re going to have their own unique semester or year abroad, so don’t take everything I said to heart. People affect your study abroad experience, but your year abroad ultimately affects you. It’s your choice to make, and don’t let people persuade you into or dissuade you from going.)