When people talk about their experiences abroad, they generally use words like “amazing, life-changing, inspiring.” They may rave about how the experience “changed them,” or adopt a new set of vocabulary specific to the place that they stayed. I won’t deny or minimize these experiences – living independently in a new place does make you see the world, or at the very least your own world, differently. It shows you what you didn’t know that you didn’t know and introduces you to new people, experiences, and things. I will, however, counter these claims with another thing that I’ve felt a few times when living, traveling, or studying abroad. Sometimes, being in a new place can be utterly overwhelming.
The last thing I expected to do this summer was move halfway across the world, to a place where I don’t speak the language (a first for me), and complete the first month of an internship by myself. Quite honestly, it feels like a constellation of coincidences that has led me to this work, this place, and these people. I am spending most of my summer interning with an anti-violence organization that serves the *LGBTKHQ+ community in Kolkata, India, something that is both in and out of my comfort zone.
Quite honestly, this city is so different from anything that I’ve ever experienced that I found myself overwhelmed my first few days here. I had prepared myself for heat and humidity, but had no idea just how oppressive midday would be. I was confused when I had to navigate the city and its public transport. There were so many new smells. The city was beautiful and colorful and full of new things, but it was also loud and crowded. My first week, I was excited to explore this new environment, but also kind of nervous to be here by myself. Here are a few things that helped me deal with the hard parts of living in a new place.
Language. I knew before coming here that the people I would be working with would speak a language that I don’t. I did my research before coming here and determined that, for the purposes of this internship, Bengali would be the most useful thing for me to learn. Bengali isn’t on Duolingo, so I downloaded Mango (you get membership privileges with your Pennkey) and started learning a few phrases. I wasn’t very disciplined with my language learning and, to my own disappointment, only came prepared with a few phrases. These phrases have served me well! Telling my colleagues that it was nice to meet them made them smile, and there are more places you can use the words “vegetable” and “so-so” that I realized. If it’s not a conversation starter, at least my Bengali can make people laugh. At the very least, learning a few phrases of the local language before I came made me feel like I had more control over what I was doing here, and the people I’ve spoken my bits of Bengali to have been amused.
There will be food that you don’t know anything about – not what’s in it, not the name. The first few days this was daunting and I ate a lot of bread and honey sandwiches and coffee. Then, I started looking at what other people were eating and making vegetarianism the only determining factor of whether or not I ate something. My strategy became look, point and ask if the dish was “veg,” and eat it if it was. In situations where I didn’t know what to eat, I found a few things that were familiar and ate those if I was too tired to take a chance on an unfamiliar street food. There is also a lot to be said for making you own food! Oatmeal, rice, cereal, lentils, and fruit are my go-to foods.
Transport. Getting around in a new city can feel like a labyrinth, especially if you have to figure it out yourself. Kolkata has an extensive public transport system. To me, the metro feel like the most navigable – it runs two ways, it comes frequently, it’s cheap, and you can get a smart card that will last a long time. There are sections of each metro car that are reserved for women, usually in the middle. One perk of riding the metro is that I can understand the announcement that the next station is _______, and the platform is on the ________ side in Bengali, Hindi, and English. TheY announce it in all three languages each time, in that order. The metro is really, really crowded, which was a little bit hard to adjust to (I’m reminded of the scene from Fantasia, pictured below).
I got into the habit of standing near a group of women, following them into the right section, then finding a person in a hurry on my way out of the metro station, so that they could clear a path and I could just follow it. I didn’t realize before coming here that, since cars drive on the other side of the road, “lanes” of foot traffic are also reversed. Auto traffic was daunting at first, with lots of cars and beeping, but following a group of people when crossing the street made it feel less scary.
Lack of Context. One of the best things I did before coming here was sit down with a couple of people who were from or knew a lot about Kolkata and ask them what I needed to know before coming here. The advice that I got was invaluable, but there are a few things I would like to add. First, when in doubt, watch what others do and follow. I also find it helpful to look for a woman around my age and ask for help if I’m unsure of something.Free
Time. In a new place, free time can be a blessing and a curse. It lets you catch up on any work that you need to do, unwind, sightsee… but it can also be lonely. It’s one thing to want to see new things, but when everything is new it can be paralyzing. If you find yourself feeling like you don’t know what to do in a new place, there are a few approaches I would recommend.Lonely Planet and other travel blogs can give you an idea of what a tourist would do in your city, and sometimes it can be nice to shift from foreign intern to tourist for a few hours. Plus, the Lonely Planet app lets you download city guides and use them offline.If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the things that you could do, try to find something familiar. For me, this was exercise. I adjusted my budget to lower meal costs and account for a few yoga or dance classes, then made these part of my routine.
You don’t have to be doing something all the time. Take time to ground yourself with people and things that you care about. I started to set aside some time each night to reach out to friends and family and see how they were doing. This both helped me feel connected to people that I cared about and let me know what they were doing.
While the first week here was overwhelming, it was also spectacular. I used my bits of Bengali to go see temples and even took a boat across the river. I went on a day trip outside of the city and saw mangroves on a budget tour with a big family from Bangladesh. I found things to do and people to spend time with and, little by little, things became less overwhelming.
*Here, this stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, kothi, hijra, queer and other identities.