After being a university student for four years and then working with InterVarsity for the next eleven years, I still live according to the rhythms of college life. So naturally, I connect experiences as a newbie expat with the experiences of a typical newbie college student.
1. You don’t know where anything is except for your room/house/apartment.
Welcome to your new campus or country! Find an exploration buddy and work outward from your location in concentric circles.
Don’t worry about wandering around with campus map or iPhone in hand. Everyone else who was a newbie did the same thing. Residents might laugh at you and mutter “Freshman!” or “LaoWai!”, but that’s better than getting lost.
The good news: wherever you wander, you can always find your way home.
2. You buy expensive food because the store/restaurant/cafeteria is closest to you and that’s the only place you know of.
Yes, you do buy that tiny $3 bag of chips and that $1 chocolate chip cookie. How could you not when the C-store is in your residence hall and driving to the nearest gas station would require you to lose your sweet parking spot? The cafeteria offers lots of good food fast, and you have a meal plan, so you don’t even see the money leaving your fingers.
In the States, I would reject Starbucks in favor of my local coffee shop. Here, while we lived in our transition apartment for two weeks, I gladly waltzed over to the expensive Starbucks EVERY DAY because it was nearby and familiar.
In time, I’ll be going to the local wet market for vegetables and will probably turn into a tea-drinker. And you, incoming freshman, will eventually find the grocery store and figure out how to cook for yourself. Noodles may not be as tasty as the cafeteria food, but it’s a whole lot more economical.
3. You make do with what you have.
This is my only knife. My only frying pan. My only cutting board.
Sure, there’s a bunch of stuff coming in the air freight shipment, but that’s stuck at customs for four weeks until we get our residence permit. The frying pan is the only one of these items that we brought in our luggage from the States. To conserve space in the luggage, we put the kids’ stuffed animals inside (fried horse, blue monkey, or pink elephant, anyone?).
In a dorm room, you don’t even have SPACE to get a whole set of dishes. So you use the one cup that you got from a student org the day before classes started. I literally made mac and cheese in a cup for my entire first year of college because, aside from a spoon, that’s the only dish I had.
And you know what? Living simply and being inventive is good for us. It makes us grateful.
4. You willingly participate in the shuffle of fast friend-finding.
The university world and the expat world are both highly transitory. Most undergrads are around for 4-5 years (if they don’t transfer halfway through). Many expats have contracts for 3-5 years.
This means that lots of people come and go, affording ample opportunities to find friends who are also searching for new friends. In the hunt to gain close friends, many people will spend time with whoever they can. After all, “beggars can’t be choosers”, as the saying goes. Your freshman year, the question of the day often becomes, “Who will I eat lunch with???” And the highlight of the day is having someone ask you first if you would catch a meal with them.
By the time the dust settles after your first 4-6 weeks, you discover that you have some real gems that stick with you for the rest of your life and that you may also have a few folks you’ll eventually drift from. And that’s okay. Every person is a blessing.
5. You take comfort in connecting with people who know your background.
One of the greatest elements of the university and of living overseas is the diversity. Thousands or millions of people with unique cultures and worldviews give you the opportunity to grow. At the same time, familiarity gives some foundation in the midst of change.
I’m a farm girl. As a freshman, it didn’t take me long to find every true farm kid who lived on my floor. Bonus points if they lived West River. They “got” my values and my way of life.
I’m an American. As much as I love diversity, it brings peace to have some people around who can give a fairly close guess about what I really meant when I said or did something. Speaking the same language is huge, too. And hey, I’m actually living West River again! Thank you, Puxi!
We can push ourselves to avoid those like us, or we can be tempted to insulate ourselves within a homogenous community. Don’t fall into either ditch. Enjoy the gift of knowing people who “get” you, and make the effort to love and learn from people who are different from yourself.
6. You rely on people who are happy (or paid) to help you.
In the university world, these people are the admissions ambassadors, the RAs/CAs, Greek brothers or sisters, and whatever kind-hearted upperclassmen take pity on you.
They are great go-tos for questions like, “How do I buy books and still have money for food?” or “What groups can I get involved in?” or “Where do I pay my tuition fee?” or “Is it worth skipping Spanish 101 and going straight to 102?” or “When my roommate said (or did)… what WAS that?”
Overseas, these people are your company’s local employees, relocation agents, and whatever experienced expats take pity on you.
They are great go-tos for questions like, “Where can I buy milk that’s safe for my kids to drink?”, “How do I hire a helper for the house?”, “How do I get a cell phone plan?”, “What kind of moped should I get?” or “When the local on the street yelled at me, what WAS that?”
These people, especially the happy and unpaid ones, are priceless. Thank them profusely and become that kind of person for someone after you.
7. You discover ways to develop your spiritual life.
The statistics are miserable. It’s often said that 60-80% of kids who grow up in church in the U.S. will walk away from their faith in college. It makes sense. Maybe they’ve gone to church for years and were bored out of their minds, or they had a terrifying experience one time and will never go back. Or maybe they just don’t care and get busy doing other things.
On the flip side, the university can be one of the absolute best places for up-and-coming adults to explore or strengthen their faith. Everyone is trying to figure out their life’s purpose, their strengths and personality, and what really matters to them. As a freshman, you walk in with lots of questions that need answers.
In fact, ANY life transition is a good time to seek God and find answers.
When I stepped foot on campus, one of the first things I did was to check out some Christian ministries. It was there that I found my life-long friends and grew in love for God and for people, not to mention in leadership skills. And they are so accessible. I’ve met dozens of students who knew little to nothing about Jesus when they came to campus, only to find out that their Christian friends were smart and really fun! And then they discovered that Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher, but is God, cares about them and the world, and is worth giving their lives to.
A couple weeks ago, I met a really great lady from Singapore. She told me that when she came to this city, her faith was pretty flat, but after joining an international church, her faith in Jesus Christ has come alive.
I expect the same for me and for you. Our understanding of God will grow and flourish as we seek Him in a new place.
8. You take risks you wouldn’t normally take.
See the black dots in the middle right of the skyscraper? Those are people washing the windows!
Within my first two weeks on campus, I met dozens of new people. One upperclassmen guy, after meeting me once, called me (on my dorm room landline – gasp – so outdated!) and asked if I wanted to go with a group of mostly upperclassmen to a city 50 miles away, at night, to play laser tag. “Of course!” flew out of my mouth without hesitation. Complete strangers, the dark of night, in their vehicle, no cell phone, no escape plan… sounds like a great idea!
Within my couple weeks in Shanghai, a friend invited me to get a pedicure with her. Seems fairly simple. Except that it meant meeting her there, which meant finding transportation. Jump in a taxi with no Mandarin language skill, tell the driver where to go in toneless Mandarin, sit back for twenty minutes and trust that he knows what I said, answer all of his questions with a “yes” (no idea what he asked me), tell the driver where to stop without knowing where the spa actually is, and try to avoid getting yelled at by said driver… sounds like a great idea!
And both turned out well. Some risks are worth taking, especially if you make great friends out of the deal.
9. You get homesick.
Yep, I had my first cry session this week. My daughter got an ear infection and woke up screaming in the middle of the night. We made it to the clinic in the morning, but before we left Chaya said, “I wish we lived in an apartment instead of this house” and I thought, “Me too!” A lady showed up at our patio door with her cousin in tow, who wanted to be our ayi (house helper / nanny), and I tried to gesture that my daughter was sick. Said good-bye to them, after the lady assured me that her cousin was an amazing ayi and I was told to call her to let her know if she is hired, and off we went. I had to get all three kids home in a downpour. I banged my son’s head on the taxi door trying to get him out of the rain, and Chaya wailed because she thought we were leaving her behind at the clinic with some woman she’d never met.
We got home, I cried, and I literally just wanted to call my mom.
What’s that? You’d never just want to call your parents? Ha! Just wait until your first semester.
When I was a freshman, I thought I needed to be strong, so I called home about once a month. Probably not the best idea. However, I do remember forging a note mid-October, in which I cried out to God that I had no idea why I was in college because it was lonely and I had no purpose there.
In college and overseas, you miss some of the events that happen at home. You might find out that your dog died a week ago or that your family went on a vacation without you. It’s tough to be away. And it’s okay to grieve.
Thankfully, rainbows show up after the rain. By my second semester, I had a place and a purpose. My four years at the university remain one of my favorite periods of my life so far. And it WILL be the same overseas. Eventually, I will be able to say that these three years remain one of my favorite seasons of life.
10. You study hard.
University, Day 1. The easy day. You get your syllabus, which lists every single project due throughout the entire semester. And you return to your room in freak-out mode.
You try to learn equations that kick your butt. You memorize a map of France only to begin your quiz and discover that you have to DRAW the river before you label it. You form study groups, go to study sessions, find your regular spot in the study room.
Overseas, Day 1. You are half asleep from jet lag, forcing yourself to stay awake as long as possible, manage to order food at some restaurant, go upstairs to use the toilet and discover that you have no idea how to use a squatty potty AND you didn’t bring your own toilet paper with you.
You begin to learn a new language. You try to cross the street with three children without getting smashed by a truck. You observe people and start to discern if that person acted like that because it’s normal in this culture, or if it’s just them.
Your new lessons may not get easier, but you’ll find a rhythm to your studies. And hopefully you will be a lot smarter in the end.
11. You make some mistakes.
We went to a jiaozi restaurant near our house this week. While my husband ordered, this guy who had finished his meal came over and observed. After Josh had completed the order, this guy started smirking and shaking his head. He shook his head and smirked all the way out the door. He even shook his head outside as he peered back in at us! I felt embarrassed, and I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be embarrassed about.
In college, I dated a guy that I liked as a friend but wasn’t really into romantically. I felt that I should date him because he was a good guy. It made sense, but it didn’t turn out well. We both hurt each other and I ended up calling it off. Dating him was a bad idea in the first place and even now, I wish I could undo that segment of my time in college.
This is life. We do things not-the-right-way, or we unintentionally (or intentionally) hurt people, we say the wrong thing, we do something in a time that’s not right… or we do something we never should have done at all.
One of the reasons we moved overseas is because our kids need to see us receive grace. They need to see us accept undeserved favor from each other and from God. Because we are going to fail. And when we do, we can say “I’m such a terrible person” or we can say, “I’m good because I’m not as bad as that other guy.”
OR we can say, “I’m a broken person in need of Someone who can give me grace.” We can take grace from Jesus Christ and clutch it tight, like the gift that we’ve been asking for our whole lives. We can let Him put us back together and make us new.
So, whether you’re entering college for the first time or entering any new stage of life, may you accept grace and take delight in your journey.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” – Ephesians 2:8-10