On Being a College Graduate in a New Country

Photo Courtesy of Mish Sukharev / Flickr

Growing up, people around me were enamoured with the idea of traveling the world, with a particular emphasis on the glamour, culture, and pastries of Paris.

I was unfazed.

I was born and raised in Southern California, and then went to college there, content to have my friends, family, and the SoCal sun constantly within reach. So looking back, I’m not really sure how I ended up moving to Paris, France four months after my college graduation. Like every one of my friends, I was staring in wide-eyed terror at this new monster in our lives called “adulthood”, and I was about to meet it in the city of lights and love. The first year here seems like a blur now, with the strongest impression being a sense of having no idea what was going on. I’m still figuring things out, but here are a few typical problems of being an adultolescent that get more intense abroad:

You’ve graduated, and you and your tight-knit friends are now scattered, or (possibly worse) they’ve all stayed local and you’re off gallivanting in some foreign country. A lot of people face trouble reestablishing a network of friends after they no longer have college or high school to herd people together, but things get even more confusing in a brand new country. If you find yourself with a language barrier, connecting with people goes from difficult to nigh-impossible. Even without it – cultural barriers are not to be underestimated. For a while you’ll be surrounded by people who have a different way of thinking than you, and it’ll take time to form anything more than a superficial bond with your new peers and coworkers. Extroverts, don’t be discouraged by your sudden difficulty in social situations; introverts, try not to become a hermit.

I thought I would get lucky here – France is famous for long lunches and numerous coffee breaks. But the pressure to produce results in hard science fields means that I faced the same disorientation in shifting from student life to the workforce. But in a new country, ‘wow’-ing your supervisor and standing out against the crowd is, again, even harder with even a slight language barrier. The trouble in social situations leaches over into work: drinks with co-workers, work events and networking opportunities all take more effort. Keep learning about the culture and the language and, in due time, you’ll be alright.

Learning the rules for relationships takes some time and experience, and – just as with everything else – a new country means new rules to learn. In France, one can usually be considered exclusive or “together” once the first kiss happens, or after a certain number of dates have occurred. Conversely, I’ve heard Parisians marvel at the strange courting customs of New Yorkers: the concept of dating multiple people at once, and the necessity of explicitly having to confirm whether you want to be exclusive with someone. This particular discrepancy may be exclusive to France, but in any culture there will always be differences in how people navigate the murky waters of “romance”.

Your Whole Life
I won’t sugarcoat it, it’s a hard life. Drastic changes in lifestyle cause stress, struggling to adjust to a new type of society causes stress, and being thousands of miles (kilometers?) from your friends and family causes stress. Frustration from not knowing why suddenly everything is difficult also causes stress. With all this in mind, and taking into account the three points above, I would have to tell anyone who is considering starting their life abroad the following: muster all the naïve enthusiasm your millennial-born heart can handle and do it. Play “What Doesn’t Kill You” on full blast, pack your bags, and ready yourself to put yourself in the wildest situation you’ve experienced yet. Ready yourself for the feeling of having made a huge mistake, while knowing full well there was no way you could ever have passed up such a radical opportunity anyway. Jump headfirst into the shark tank and get ready to swim, since you’re certainly not planning on sinking. And above all else, take some time for yourself to relish the opportunity for the gift that it is – even if it does put you through hell.

And when things get too rough, treat yourself to a croissant.

David Davila wrote this piece for Flux, a forum for those of us encountering adulthood. He (Pomona College c/o 2012) is currently located in Paris, France (subject to change from week to week) and is trying to figure out if he wants to be a neuroscientist, journalist, performer, or something in between. In the meantime, follow him at @CozyNeuroses to witness his shenanigans.


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