I have the benefit of hindsight for this post, which is something that I wish I had when I first got to Ireland. My program started at the end of December. On the 30th, I packed up and drove with my parents to the airport, got on a plane, and flew off to a foreign country by myself. It was completely scary, exhilarating, and nerve-wracking. I’ve been in my host country for almost one whole month, which almost doesn’t seem possible. I could have sworn I stepped off the plane yesterday. At the same time, it means that I have a bit of a knowledge that other people studying abroad in different countries don’t have quite yet, and that’s about settling into your host country.
They tell you before you leave not to expect to get right into the swing of things. It’s true, you can’t expect to just land in a country and know the customs automatically. For example, my site director had to constantly remind my group that we had to look right first, not left, while crossing the road because the cars drive on the opposite side of the road here. Another example is grocery shopping. My first trip to the store I bought a whole bunch of stuff (four large bags full plus bedding that wouldn’t fit into a bag.) That was a bad idea because I didn’t have the advantage of a car, so I had to carry everything back to my dorm room, and it took way longer than it should have to get everything back to the room. Yet another example is the language barrier. Language differs, even in an English-speaking country like Ireland. I had a hard time understanding the accents and the colloquialisms and slang that the Irish use. I was confused a lot, and half the time didn’t understand what people were saying to me. My last example is the school system overseas. It is different from the United States. Ireland, for example, tends to focus on personal study and research, so time in the classroom is short, but time with the subjects is not. I have never had to read as much outside the classroom as I have had to do here. Not to mention, the classes are in a lecture format, meaning that instead of participating in discussions, like I am used to, I sit and listen to the professor and try to discern important notes to take.
Mix the confusion of getting used to a different culture with thinking about home and missing your family, and it’s really tough. One thing that I am extremely grateful for is that there are other Americans in my group, going through the exact same process I am. I can talk to them about it, and we understand each other. While that’s a good safety blanket, and it is important to connect with the others in your group, that’s not how you settle into a new country. To truly settle into a new country, you have to go out and meet the locals and participate in local life. Yes, hang out with other Americans, that’s okay, but don’t stay in your dorm complex with them. Get out on the town, see what there is to see, converse with local people, learn about their customs and listen to their opinions of their nation. That’s how you get acclimated. I’m really fortunate to be living in a house with all Irish people. I’m the only American, and while that sometimes is a hindrance when I’m trying to explain about life back home, it really helps when I want to get out and meet more people, because they are more than happy to introduce me to their friends and take me out into Galway City. I have to say, it wasn’t until my first night out with my roommates that I felt like I really belonged in Ireland.
It’s been about a month now, and I have to say I’m pretty settled. I’m getting used to the teaching style, I never buy more than two bags of groceries, I am beginning to look right first instead of left while crossing the road, and I can even understand the Irish accent a majority of the time. It takes a while to get used to living in a different place. Just be patient. Give it time, and it will happen.