my experience as a study abroad student | having anxiety in a foreign country

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Let’s begin at the end.

Two weeks ago, I asked you if you’d like to read a post about having anxiety, while studying abroad. I only expected one or two tweets, a simple “yes!” as a response. I casted my line with no expectations. But then, the tweets started rolling in. Many of you were either apprehensive about studying abroad, or wanted me to share my experience because there are many misconceptions about studying abroad. While I understand that not everyone’s studying abroad experience will be like mine and that studying abroad is what you make of it, I just want you to be aware of both sides. It was an experience that I am grateful for, but would never do again. There were many moments in 2017 that I wish that I could repeat…but this, this was not one of them.

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The First Week

I started out anxious, and I wanted to be optimistic. I really did. My heart raced as soon as the plane landed and we walked through the airport. Pure chaos as soon as I got off the plane. There were herds of people. Shouting in Mandarin. Security scanning our foreheads. Canines sniffing our carry-ons. I felt like I’d just stepped into another dimension. I swallowed hard as I handed the border patrol man my visa. He looked me up and down, then waved me on. The worst was over…as far as the airport went. After gathering out luggage, we stepped outside into a typhoon. Not joking. A category one typhoon swirled around us, drenching our bags. “Welcome to Hong Kong,” a man told us as he snatched up our bags, and told us to follow him to his luxury cab.

For the first week, there was non-stop rain. Non-stop wind. We often had to dash under awnings. There was hardly any sun. The sky was always a dark gray. I’m the type of person that if the weather is gloomy, then I am gloomy. I am also the type of the person where first impressions are everything. (I guess I’m weird like that.) But Hong Kong was not impressing me at all. I tried to let go that the weather was bad. But then it was the rude restaurant service. The constant cigarette smoke being blown in my face as I walked by. The loud sounds. The tall buildings. The fear of them crashing. The speeding cars. The shoving pedestrians. The long walks. Being shoved into the MTR like cattle. The language barrier. The lack of food. The confusing currency.

I felt as if I living outside of myself, my body just exposed and helpless, and I hadn’t even started studying yet.

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Actually Studying Abroad

I’d had panic attacks almost every day leading up to my mom leaving. Once school started, I told myself that I would have to be strong. But I was lying to myself. I couldn’t be strong, not here. I missed my Atlanta friends so much. I was not comfortable. I lost myself. My classes were intense. I signed up for a math class that consisted of at least two hours of math problems every night. Sitting at my laptop, the computer light burning my eyes, I wondered why I had signed up for that stupid class. Outside of my bedroom door, my roommate slammed her bedroom door, sending a pulse of anxiety through my chest. (This went on for weeks. I hate loud sounds.) My bedroom was tiny. I barely had enough room to walk. I had a wardrobe and a bed. That was it. While my roommate across from me had a bathroom and nice view of the pool. I felt so confined. Stuck and trapped. Our dorms were forty-five minutes away on a bus. The majority of the students were rude and stuck up. I didn’t fit in here. I didn’t fit in anywhere.

I met a few people along the way, who I would eventually sever my ties with because they were toxic. I passed math with a C. I gave a final photography presentation to a room full of my fellow students, yet everyone stared at their phones. I constantly felt like I was drowning. It seemed as if there was no way out.

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The Downward Spiral

Things got worse, before they got okay. The first time I got sick was around midterms. I went to the local doctor, a really friendly Irish man, who told me that I had a viral illness. It was gross and debilitating. Sore throat. Lethargy. Cough. Chills. Fever. Yep, not fun. Fast forward two weeks later, and it came back. When I went back to the doctor, he said that it was caused by stress and anxiety, both which weakened my immune system. On top of that, I had a skin rash that caused dark, open sores on my arms. I couldn’t wear long sleeves. I couldn’t sleep with the sheets over my arms. There was constant itching 24/7. My entire body was a kaleidoscope of stinging brown patches. This made me so insecure, nestling myself into downward spiral. I was always in pain. Physically, my skin felt like it was on fire. Mentally, I was trapped in a haze, where every sight and sound was amplified into a panic attack. I was too afraid to go outside, but then again I felt trapped in my small room. There were nights where I rolled around in my bed, panicking and crying, because I felt like I was in a little box with no air and no light.

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Hong Kong was not my cup of tea. It is a loud and smelly place. While the culture is rich and interesting, navigating daily life is the ultimate struggle. If you do plan on studying abroad, make sure you ask people for their real opinions. Many just sugarcoat it with, “oh it was fun. The food was good.” Ask them, “what else”? Ask multiple people. Gain multiple perspectives. Search online for a review by including your college name and study abroad experience. Some reviews can be obscure, so you may have to dig deep. Watch YouTube videos. Find blog posts. Gain all of the information that you can, so that you know what you’re getting into. Talk to people at least a year before you plan to go, so that you can make the perfect decision for you. (Unfortunately for me, a friend had told me all of the horrible things/the hard experience they had in Hong Kong. I was aware, but it was too late. My visa application had already been sent in.)

Also consider the time that you will the studying abroad. I went during fall quarter, which is when my college holds a huge photography gallery show, picks students for a work-study program with a company, and hosts festivals. I missed out on so much by going abroad fall quarter. I would recommend going abroad at the least exciting time of the year, where events aren’t happening and there aren’t any career opportunities on the horizon. (I regretted missing those opprotunities for a VERY long time.)

I truly hope that you found some insight in this post. I know many of you were interested in hearing my story, and I wish this post was about how I conquered my anxiety in a foreign country on my own. But the truth is, I didn’t conquer it. Instead, I walked through it. Even though it was a true hurricane–or in this situation, a typhoon–I weathered the storm. I now know what I want and what I don’t. I know that studying abroad, leaving my friends, and going into something blindly is not for me. While others are spontaneous in that sense, I am not.

I talk more about orientation and the first five weeks in this post, which is a little less about mental health, and is a little more of a lighter read.

Thank you for letting me be honest and real. It may have just seemed like a brain dump, but this is what happened, as I remember it.

stay as you are,

-hello ninetyseven

MORE HK POSTS:

my experience as a study abroad student | visas, orientation, and the first five weeks

getting lost & found in prince edward

spontaneous adventures in hong kong

how to take artsy photographs + instagram hacks

struck by sham shui po

the cutest brunch date

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21 thoughts on “my experience as a study abroad student | having anxiety in a foreign country

  1. I really appreciate you for writing this and being open to sharing your experience. Tbh you are the first person I’ve heard who would say they wouldn’t do it again, which I was a little bit surprised at because I’ve heard so many great things about it. But after reading through this I can completely understand why, and it is something I will keep in mind for if/when I actually start applying for studying abroad. Again, thank you! And I hope you’re doing okay now and that the new year is treating you well so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The new year is lovely so far! And I’ve been panic attack free for a while. I appreciate your kind words and thoughtful comment. It’s really heartwarming to hear that people are genuinely interested in reading something like this. I SO appreciate it. It’s definitely something to keep in mind because I think people underestimate how intense it is, taking in everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you did an honest post about this! I feel like everyone acts like they have a great time when probably a lot of people will have had the same experience as you. I can’t imagine doing a presentation and having everyone looking at their phones, how horrible. Well done for getting through it!!

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  3. Omg your experience is shocking!! I might travel abroad for 2 years in montreal, now i am so scared 😛 but at least i have my boyfriend and some family members there’ thank you for sharing your experience, i am sorry it didn’t go well for you 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No!! Don’t be scared. You will be okay. Studying abroad is different for everyone. This was just my experience because I’m an anxious person and I went at a really bad time!! Have fun in Montreal!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That was an intense post! I felt like I was right there with you. I planned to go to Hong Kong during one quarter in college, but now you have me re-thinking the whole trip. I might just go study aboard at the campus in Lacoste instead.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Small world! I’ll be starting SCAD in March. Your post made me think that you went there, but then I was like I don’t know maybe Hong Kong was just a coincidence. So do you like the college so far other than the studying aboard portion?

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      2. I like SCAD in general, but when you come, please come to the Atlanta campus! It’s the best one! I went to Savannah my freshman year and hated it and you already know about Hong Kong. Atlanta is the most chill and friendliest campus!

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      3. Yeah that’s campus that I plan to go too. I’m to have to commute from the north suburbs to the city cause the housing is full from what they said. You basically have been to all the campuses 😂. Did you live in Savannah or did you just want to start there?

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  5. This is such an honest and raw post, I think it’s so great you’re adding to the conversation about mental health/studying abroad in this way. It is so easy to find so many positive things about it that can stop people from truly considering what it will be like for them personally. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience in HK, but I’m glad you feel comfortable enough to share this xxx

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