Interrupting immersion when the waters just get too deep
I'm sure that International Studies Advisors all follow the same script when instructing students on what to expect on their year abroad. Ironically, that same script could have been written for a scuba diving instructor or first time swimmers teacher giving a lecture entitled "What to do if..." Really now, who decided it was a good idea to use drowning language to describe a year abroad in a foreign country?? What's with all this talk about "immersion?" It seems like every time I've vented about a particularly trying moment I'm met with helpful advice like: "you either sink or swim," "you'll feel overwhelmed but don't get taken over by the undertoe," "your emotions will follow a wave-like cycle, with it's fair share of crests and troughs," or, the subject of this blog, "you might feel like you have to take a break, come up for air: DON'T GIVE IN, you could be swimming in the wrong direction from where you need to be." And what's embarrassing is that I can remember giving my own international friends and AFS sisters similar nuggets of wisdom. I quess it's easy using such terrifying analogies when you're the one safely sunbathing and drinking coronas on familiar shores.
Maybe I'm being a little melodramatic with the drowning analogy, but the coincidence really is uncanny. The truth is, though, that being immersed in a new culture and, most especially, a new language can feel like you're flailing and paddling just to stay afloat. I'd seen the handout/poster/slide a fair few times before coming to France: The one that looks like a wave and is encased in a grid labeled by the months that a student would be abroad. Normally around holidays exchange students are bound to feel down. That's the trough part of the wave. But then they'll experience a surge that is usually triggered by a small success or a particularly fun outing with their new international friends. That's the crest part of the wave. Then the wave takes a downward turn again when the student realizes just how far away she is from ever being able to understand what these crazy people are saying to her.
That last one was about where I was this past week. But rather than heeding my diving instructor's advice of not interrupting the immersion experience for at least the first semester, I took a trip to England. This blog is my attempt to answer the question that other international students might encounter: Is it or is it not a good idea to take a breather from language immersion by returning to one's home county or the equivalent for a short time?
For one month now I've been living in France while I waited for my classes to start. I'd made friends with other exchange students with whom I could practice my French and I even made a handful of french friends. I began attending a French church. I did my shopping most mornings at the local market and around town where I've had to practice my French, and I intentionally put myself in situations where I've had to use it or at least listen to the languge. I travelled to surrounding towns and villages, and let me tell you, navigating french transportation is enough of an exercise in logic as it is in french comprehension. I did all of this for nearly 4 week with a smile on my face and a feeling that I was improving exponentially by the day. The majority of the time I thought "I can do this thing."
Then last week hit like a face-plant into a sandbar. Missing 3 family birthday parties and a family reunion in one week could give even the the hardiest of home-sickness immune travellers a flare-up of the pesky other traveller's bug. Soon the sun didn't seem to shine quite so brightly, the French didn't seem quite so polite, and my French verbal abilities seemed to have shrunk to the size of a snail on that tourist's plate. Against perhaps my advisor's and my own better judgement, I decided to fly up to England and visit my fiancé for a long weekend. I needed to see him, I told myself. I needed the break. And indeed, I did!
This particular blog entry isn't about the joys of seeing a loved one after a long absence. Nor is it about the pure and basic happiness a person can derive from simply walking around a hilly English city and collapsing in a surprisingly sun-soaked garden. This isn't about how important it is to take time out with your mate without schedules and itineraries so that you can both simply enjoy being together and enjoy the incredible world in which we live. But all of those things definitely contributed to why I am now a decided supporter of the mid-immersion vacation.
<Thus endeth the interlude>
There are many reasons why international advisors advise us not to go back home for a visit or to welcome "home" to our foreign shores during the first part of the experience. We could get out of the habit of thinking, speaking, hearing and living the culture and language in which we're immersed. This is very true. We could become suddenly homesick when we reincounter this familiar way of life and these wonderful, familiar people. Again, also true. For English speakers, the thought might cross our minds that our's is the language everyone else in the world learns anyways so why even bother... especially if it's going to be this hard! *In my best pouty voice* Hmm, this too is partly true and certainly a tempting thought to a person contemplating ripping up a scary return flight. All these and more thoughts and fears crossed my mind during the course of my weekend in Angleterre and many of them became realities. For example, for 4 days I didn't speak French, which did indeed make it a bit difficult to get back in the swing of things upon returning. I eventually did, but those first couple conversations were stutterers.
Furthermore, after 3 years of being in a long-distance relationship and the subsequent multiple farewells that unfortunately must be voiced, saying goodbye to my fiancé after 4 days together in England even when we knew we'd see each other again in 3 weeks was probably the hardest we'd ever faced. Why? I'd say that for me it was definitely the fear... added to the usual feeling of loss and saddness. Fear of going back to the unknown again when I'd experienced the comfortable for 4 days. Would I be able to recall all that I had learned during my month in France? Upon returning to more bureaucracy, more queues, more language struggles, would I stll think that it was worth it?
At last, there is an encouraging part to this story. I spent my first day back in France doing things that a week ago I had been complaining about sans cesse: I waited in lines, I walked beaucoup des miles just to go from one office to another to try and sort out uni inscription paperwork. I spoke french and was even made to do it for a grade! And yet, for the first time in over a week I didn't mind it. In fact, I felt like a veteran. Before leaving for England I had been painfully aware of all the words I didn't know, how much better everybody else spoke french than I did and how I'd never manage to become even somewhat proficient. Today I was aware of only how much I had learned in a month. Yes, I'm aware of my weaknesses, where I need help, but I can see these needs in a productive, more positive light. I had un-immersed myself for a few days and was able to appreciate the strides I'd made from being immersed. Now I feel energized and ready to take on another month of "new."
Could this be just another "crest" in my emotions wave? Most probably!
Still, giving myself a vacation from the new was what inspired this positive upward turn. The hardest part was just getting back on the plane. But isn't that the hardest part of traveling no matter which part of the grid your surfing?