The middle-class sabbatical of University exchange is something I’ve realized I’m not very good at. I’m good at plenty of things like getting people to reveal deep secrets, eating dumplings, singing and dancing to soul music. But I’m rather bad at doing middle class white girl rites of passage in regular fashion, like the time I went to ‘schoolies’ in Byron bay and joined a cult for a week or accidentally became a Christian for a while over the 2009 Christmas holidays. In irregular Lou fashion, my time on exchange has been, a quirky one at that.
You see I have really enjoyed my time overseas. I have met some inspiring, humans, like my manager at the Women’s Centre, Nadine- a woman who possesses a kind, fierce, super human soul and warms the room with every sincere word she says. Or the 90 year old Wiccan, first nations, tarot card reader who I happened upon in Seattle. Who up to this point has made some weirdly correct predictions about my life and my loved ones.
But here’s a couple of reasons why my exchange has been a little different from what I expected:
I’ve nearly stopped drinking alcohol while on exchange
That’s right, I’m an exchange student who has just about stopped drinking. Sure, it doesn’t sound too radical but the culture of university exchange is so embedded in what is technically considered ‘long term binge drinking’, a regular activities with my friends can consist of going to a pub/drinking venues on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening. To stop drinking, despite nearly all your social interactions with the greater university community relying on the presence of alcohol is a really difficult thing. Never in my life has bed at 11.30pm been so seductive.
I have begun meditating.
That’s right, I started meditating, everyday. Who travels across the world ready for crazy party adventures and instead finds themselves in bliss and solitude? Me. My weekly 4 hour Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Class (MBSR…google it) has taught me so many skills to control anxiety, depression and homesickness. Without it, I’m not sure I could have lasted up until this point in time in Canada. I have managed a silent 6 hour meditation workshop, a silent weekend retreat is up next in Melbourne.
I suffered a bout of depression and anxiety
There’s a strange expectation (delusion?) when you go on exchange that many of your problems will simply dissipate or stay at home waiting for you. My anxiety while on exchange has probably been sitting at it’s worst in over two years. When you move countries, attend a new university, move into a new home, make new friends and then live through a Canadian winter, life can become extremely tough and disjointed. Thoughts about people in your home country ruminate and become obsessive, your new friends are lovely but you don’t want to burden them and the world despite all the beautiful privileges you have been given can become grey and lifeless. Luckily enough, everything passes. And what was a difficult time, on reflection was also a brilliant strength and coping exercise.
I learnt to play the ukulele
Yep. Having no job and studying on a pass/fail basis makes plenty of time for new skills. And as a result of learning the ukulele I’ve been asked to perform in a group at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in September.
I have three weeks left of exchange and my 3 and a half months in Canada could probably be compared to the Rocky Mountains, (which I had the pleasure of exploring over the past 4 days)- modulating, intimidatingly beautiful summits, cloudy, fresh and healing. I have met some of the most inspirational women who are leaders of their own fields at my University, like Habiba my gender studies teacher who is a middle age Muslim woman from Bangladesh who holds a PHD and rocks an admirable FTP attitude. She smashed down every engrained stereotype of what a muslim WOC is ‘supposed’ to look like or think. A true inspiration. The admirable, tough women I have met through my time volunteering at the women’s centre has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort whenever I felt lonely, overwhelmed by sexism or needed a cup of tea and a piece of cake.
My time is not quite yet finished here, and I have plans to tear the New Orleans Jazz festival up at the end of exams. But as I start to clear out my small room on residence I can say that my time on exchange was simultaneously difficult and rewarding. And I would strongly recommend it to anybody who has flirted with the idea of flipping their life upside down and moving across the world for 4 or so months.
P.s final word of advice; if you are in a romantic relationship either break up with your partner before you leave or go into it on an ‘open’ basis, so if you happen to kiss somebody or become involved with another then you’re not ‘cheating’. Of all the relationships that have kept on going while over here (and that’s not many) those are generally the ones in an ‘open’ style relationship . But then again, just because you’re on exchange doesn’t mean you’re going to get a whole lot of sexy loving’ cuddles from hot men/women. Trust me.