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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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