The last thing you’ll ever catch me saying when asked quickly about my year abroad is that it “changed me.” I’ve changed, of course, but saying so has become a joke, expressible only in ironic fashion like instagram’s “hot girl summer” fad. People are seemingly unable to valorize their abroad experiences without feeling the need to trivialize them, as if abroad didn’t actually change them. I believe this self or societally-imposed trivialization often comes from a place of frustration and insecurity. I can imagine that someone who didn’t go abroad, whether by choice or otherwise, might be tired of hearing how their friends just adored gazing at the Sistine Chapel, or are like, totally like, in love with red wine now. And how those who actually discovered something within themselves, or want to be proud of their beauty, are afraid to say so.
Unfortunately, when done gracelessly, talking about an abroad experience can very quickly devolve into an occasion for one to vaunt their newfound worldliness. Though it’s okay to reminisce fondly about some truly marvelous experiences, to do so in order to make someone else feel “less than,” or “deprived of,” is inconsiderate. Thus, reverting to a cliché like “abroad changed me” might be our generation’s way of cutting off those discourses before they begin. Because of this trend, people who have been abroad often feel apprehensive about discussing our experiences with those outside of our intimate circles.
I find this unfortunate, not only because people feel silenced, but because the one-way nature of the trivialization implies that people who didn’t go abroad have nothing to share.
I do sincerely believe I have changed since leaving last year. But the change wasn’t necessarily predicated on me physically being in Paris. So it frustrates me that people aren’t asked thoughtfully about their time at home, as if their years don’t merit unpacking either.
The fact is, being asked about one’s time abroad has become analogous to the worn-out question, “How are you?” It is asked to be polite, not to be responded to.
“I’m good,” we all lie and continue.
Frankly, I went through a lot last year, much of which was difficult and awkward and unpleasant. But when someone perfunctorily asks me about how abroad was, we both know this isn’t the answer that is expected of me. It’s easier for both of us if I say that the sunsets near Sacre-Coeur made my heart warm, or that I miss eating pain au chocolat in the morning. That way I don’t have to actually explain how things weren’t at all like they looked on Instagram. And they, upon hearing my inauthentic response, don’t have to reflect on their own experiences.
It’s hard for us to make time for authentic and enriching conversations. And it’s even harder to open ourselves up to the kind of reflection that allows for a year abroad — or at home — to be more than “incredible” or “boring.”
For me personally, when I could tell that I was being asked about my year in earnest, I shared some really profound conversations, about who I was and who I’ve become. It was about the me within me and all of the things I learned when I happened to be in Paris — the kinds of things that so many of my classmates had also grappled with while they happened to be at Middlebury.
I’m not necessarily arguing that people need to take interest in other people’s abroad experiences. Nor do I think that we should all start living by a creed of brutal honesty by responding to a quick, “How are you?” with a long monologue on how life’s been beating us down. We are social animals who have learned how to navigate social cues and sometimes we just need to check those boxes and keep on living. But if I might suggest one thing to my classmates (and anyone reading this), it would be to consider what we all might be missing out on when we trivialize or satirize our experiences. Whether it be about abroad or “hot girl summer”, or simply how we’re doing, we might surprise ourselves with our responses by thinking about them sincerely. We might just learn something new about who we were, who we are, and where we want to be going.