If you have decided to read this article because you are on the fence about studying abroad, let me just say: Do it. I am writing this article now at an airport in Prague; my study abroad program has just ended, and I am already reminiscing about it. From the new foods to the friends made, I can without a doubt say that studying abroad was the best semester I have spent in college. To avoid becoming that-one-friend-who-won’t-shut-up-about-her-semester-abroad, I am going to talk about it once in this article and then never bring it up again. That way, if one of your actual friends also keeps going on about their study abroad experience, you can show them this and say: “I know. I get it!” So without further ado, here are my biggest takeaways from living in Prague this past semester.
You’re going to be nervous
Going to Prague, I was literally flying out of my comfort zone to a place where I knew no one, could not speak the language, and was — unlike in Berkeley — going to be one of the few Asians in the program, let alone the entire country. My thoughts on the plane spanned from “It’ll be fine if I don’t make friends” to “Oh my God, what if people yell racial slurs at me but I won’t even know because it’s in Czech?” It didn’t help that on my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Prague, it seemed like everyone on the plane was going to study abroad and all somehow knew each other. I thought I had already missed out on the window to make friends even though the program hadn’t even started yet.
It’s like freshman year all over again, only this time you can legally drink
It was pointless worrying about all those things because the first two weeks of orientation swiftly showed me that everyone was looking to make friends. It felt like a national version of freshman year — people were discussing their majors, their hometowns and the schools they went to. Coming from Berkeley, where it feels like everyone is either from NorCal or SoCal, it was exciting to interact with a program full of people from the Midwest, East Coast and even the South. I learned what a Chicago accent sounded like, what Frank’s RedHot sauce is and that the word “slaps” is apparently slang in Florida. I also realized that I assumed everyone knew everything about California. When I told people I was from the Bay Area, I got reactions ranging from “Cool. Which bay?” to “Oh, so Maryland?” to “Is that Los Angeles?”
Culture shock is real. Very real.
People don’t smile in the Czech Republic! There is literally a thing called “Metro face” in Prague, which is a look of stone-cold indifference that everyone puts on. It may seem unfriendly or rude, but that is just how it works here. It doesn’t help that staring is socially acceptable, so you may turn your head on the Metro only to come face to face with a Czech citizen churlishly making intense eye contact with you. By the end of the semester, I had perfected my Metro face and was staring right back at everyone.
Food, glorious food
Czech food starts and ends with various forms of meat — from beef goulash to pork sausages. Being vegetarian, the only Czech food I could really eat was fried cheese with tartar sauce, which is delicious but very dangerous nutrition-wise when it’s your only meal option. I had to look outside the local cuisine, but thankfully, there are plenty of international options in the city. Ironically, pho and burritos were the meals I most often ate, which is my exact diet in Berkeley. It was like I had never left. I was also lucky enough to travel to other countries on the weekends and I had the best time sampling local cuisines. Waffles in Belgium! Fondue in Switzerland! Pasta in Italy! More pasta in Italy! The best thing I ate were pierogies in Poland, which — and this is not an exaggeration — tasted like little pockets filled with happiness. I fell in love with pierogies so hard that on our last night, I went to a 24-hour pierogi place at 2 a.m. to eat them one last time.
Right before I get off my travel high horse, let me just say studying abroad forced me to step of my comfort zone in the best way. Everyone’s study abroad experience is going to be different, but I cannot recommend it enough. I got to take a break from the Berkeley bubble and meet people I never would have met otherwise. I had once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I will cherish (and subtly brag about to my friends) for a long, long time. My stomach is a little bit heavier and my wallet is a little bit lighter, but if I could go back and do it all over again, I would.