What? Mongolia versus Australia? Did I read that right? What could those two places possibly have in common? Well, apart from a hemisphere, not much – and that’s exactly why I’m comparing them. You see, in January, I flew to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – or as the locals call it, UB – for a six-month internship as an English teacher. If you’ve read any of my other articles on this blog, you probably already knew that. It’s something that I write about a lot. I went to Mongolia for many reasons: to learn how to teach, to travel, to learn a new language, to make friends on the opposite side of the world, the list goes on. The biggest reason that I went there, however, was I simply wanted something new. I love Boston, I love studying there, and I could’ve been happy co-oping there I’m sure, but at a certain point, you just have to leap out of your comfort zone and explore something totally new. So, in the name of change and personal development, I leapt. Into the freezing, smoggy, Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
I quickly learned that things were not the way I’d expected them to be. I knew it would be cold. It was cold. I knew it would be polluted and smoggy. It was polluted and smoggy. I knew that most people wouldn’t speak English. And most of them didn’t. The thing that I didn’t know (or just didn’t understand) was how difficult it would be to adapt. How challenging it would be to just… exist. The first time that a Mongolian child points and yells excitedly at you, having never seen a white person before, it’s a pretty hilarious novelty. The first time you have to use gestures to buy food, the first time you speak a word in a new language and someone actually understands you, the first time your beard freezes on your way to work due to the insane cold. These are some of my most cherished memories from my time in UB, but as my stay went on, these experiences began to have the opposite effect. I began to feel less like a novelty and more like an alien, constantly drawing stares just for being there. It began to wear on me. Much of the hope and excitement that I had before my trip had vanished and I had been swiftly pulled back into reality.
However, as challenging as this all was, I’m glad that it happened. I’m glad that I was challenged because I came out of it a better person. I’m more in touch with who I am, I learned a lot about Mongolian culture, and I’ve seen amazing things that I never could have if I had stayed in Boston.
Fast-forward to today, and I’m in Sydney, Australia – a huge, clean, city with practically perfect weather, where practically everyone speaks English. Australians are often stereotyped as being fun and friendly, and holy heck is it true. The vast majority of people I’ve met here have been kind, generous, and often downright hilarious. There’s always something to do, some new cuisine to try, some new landmark to check out, it just never stops being awesome and fun to explore. Even on days where I feel like I’ve already done everything, I can head to the amazing beaches and relax. Aside from the insanely high cost of living, Sydney is essentially my paradise.
In the time that I’ve been here, my biggest challenges have been making friends and deciding where to eat. At first, making friends was difficult – I was experiencing culture shock, and I was generally intimidated by living in a new place, but eventually, I managed. Unlike Mongolia, it was actually very easy to make friends once I set my mind to it. The fact that everyone speaks English is probably responsible for that, but I’ve also found that it’s much easier to make friends with people who share a similar culture to yours, and Australia is much more similar to the USA than Mongolia – in every aspect. These days the only things that I really worry about are coursework and sunburns.
By this point, you’re probably thinking that it’s entirely unfair for me to compare Sydney to UB. Obviously, I like Sydney so much more, so what’s the point? Well, it’s not quite as black and white as I’ve made it seem. Yes, Sydney is an easier place to live, there’s a lot more going on, and generally, I’m happier here. But the experiences that I’ve had in these countries have been entirely different. I chose Sydney for my study abroad because I wanted to be somewhere I could relax easily, somewhere familiar enough to home but still interesting enough for a bit of culture shock. I went to Mongolia for entirely different reasons: chiefly, to step as far outside of my comfort zone as I could. So the fact that my life is easier in Sydney doesn’t necessarily mean that this experience is more valuable to me than my last one, it’s just valuable in a different way. If I had gone to Mongolia expecting to relax in the sun and order fancy food in English all the time, I would have been sorely disappointed. In the same vein, if I had gone to Australia hoping for the culture shock of a lifetime, I’d have been sorely let down.
So what’s the point of all this? The main thing that I want to convey here is that your global experience will be precisely what you make it, and that you should carefully consider what you want before you choose a destination. If you’re looking for a huge change in a culture that’s crazily different from the USA’s, don’t be afraid of it when you get there. Try to be prepared for whatever you set yourself up for, and you’re likely to get by just fine. Finally, wherever you go, don’t forget to breathe and let yourself have some fun. You’ll get through the hard parts eventually, but the exciting bits will stay with you for a lifetime.