Fisher out of water: Learning to embrace the not-so-glamorous parts of studying abroad

Amsterdam landscape featuring 2 ferryboats on a river canal, with tall window-adorned buildings in background.
(Emma Tao • The Student Life)

Since arriving in Europe, I have encountered several instances of culture shock — the uneasy feeling one experiences when first exposed to a new culture.

It started before I even arrived at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. On my nearly 10-hour KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight, I was surrounded by Dutch people who communicated with the lovely flight attendants in their native language. Sitting completely by myself in a row added to the isolation of not being able to have those same interactions.

When I arrived in Amsterdam — the city famous for its canals, “coffee shops” (cannabis shops), Red Light District and biking culture — culture shock appeared in different ways than I had anticipated. 

I thought I would be struck by a constant smell of marijuana or local cyclists trying to run me off the road — none of that has happened. I live miles away from the city center, where many of the “coffee shops” are located, and cyclists safely maneuvered around me when I pedaled too slow. 

Instead, a couple of other events caught me by surprise. On my second night, I plugged my white noise machine, a sleeping device used to block out disturbing sounds, into an outlet converter and then into the wall. It seemed to be working well, and I felt content knowing that it would help me sleep in my smaller, slightly more uncomfortable bed over 5,000 miles away from home.

As I was preparing to go to sleep, the noise suddenly stopped. Bewildered, I walked over, flipped the button on and off and immediately discovered what had happened. Smoke was quickly billowing out of the machine, and it smelled like burning plastic. In a panic, I unplugged the device and quickly threw it out before the toxic fumes could fill my apartment.

After opening my large bedroom window, unfazed by the chilly air, I pondered the nearly-lethal event: I forgot to use a voltage converter!  

In addition to feeling disappointed that my trusty device was ruined, I had a realization. This failure was not so significant and would likely be the first of many along my journey.

A far more common, more socially uncomfortable occurrence was being spoken to in Dutch. During the first week, I walked into a Vodafone store to set up my phone plan. Both of the employees were attending to other customers, so I patiently waited for help.

After one of the employees was ready to assist, I requested help, thinking I was first in line. One woman thought otherwise and started firmly speaking to me in Dutch. I slightly panicked and felt embarrassed because previously, I naively assumed that locals would recognize I was American and speak to me in English. 

About one week later, I was in a similar situation but reacted much more calmly. As I was approached by an employee in a Nudie Jeans store, I simply responded: “Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch,” and he switched to English. This inspired another realization. There is nothing shameful about being a foreigner, and people will generally respond nicely if you speak to them with respect.

It is better to embrace culture shock than to resent it. Persevering through the fear of making mistakes and owning your identity will allow you to focus on something that really matters — interacting with and learning from the local culture and its people.      

Gabe Fisher CM ’21 is TSL’s study abroad columnist. He is a government and psychology major who enjoys golfing and spending time with his twin brother Max when he isn’t studying or writing for TSL.

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