Colleen Cable ’13 is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing whose study abroad experience in New Delhi, India (SIT) not only introduced her to new food and hot weather, but brought about the ever important realization that the learning process is both overwhelming and amazing.

In her own words:

“More than the curriculum or the classes, going abroad to India changed the way I think. 

‘You will learn and unlearn and relearn practically everything on this trip,’ said the presenter who was teaching “Survive India 101” to 22 green Americans right off the plane at the Dehli airport. At the time it seemed like an alarming proposition, but after only a few days, it became my mantra for the rest of the trip.

Something as simple as using the bathroom encapsulated that phrase because using an eastern toilet (a polite moniker for a porcelain hole in the ground) became a relearning process. How do you do this? Isn’t going to the bathroom something I should know how to do? I began to learn how to use this foreign appliance, while unlearning how to use a western toilet. Whenever I was faced with a western toilet in India, I had to hesitate. Wait, what’s this again? All this knowledge, even if it’s common at first glance, gets jumbled around until I couldn’t remember what was normal.

Even though using the bathroom isn’t exactly the most serious or life-changing feat, there were other examples of this principle in action. It happened when my prejudices were challenged on a visit to the slums, it happened again when I had to navigate around a strange city, and finally on my independent study project when I had to interview tea workers about their jobs. Oh yeah, I had to interview them in Hindi.

My realization of India is that I can forget what used to be normal and still not completely adapt to a new normal, instead living in a sort of halfway zone, like straddling a state line or being caught in the question “are you in or out?” I’m convinced after my abroad experience that in between is a good place to be. It may be a stretch, but now in classes at school, I want to always remain in no man’s land, constantly questioning what is normal and what is not and finally how those two places work together. Just like relearning how to use a bathroom, I want to approach Gettysburg with the phrase, ‘You must learn and unlearn and relearn everything on this trip.’” 

Colleen’s experiences also brought to the surface other aspects of studying abroad. Most students, at some point, encounter home-sickness, struggles with language-barriers, and general frustration at being an “outsider.” While these challenges can be difficult, Colleen’s anecdote is only one of many that show that the beauty of study abroad sometimes emerges in the midst of our struggles.

“I sat at another Indian host-family’s dinner table staring at a poster hung on the wall that said, 'Fruits are good for health,' with an astounding number of perfect fruits assembled beneath.

This must have been the third or fourth homestay I was shuttled to and the novelty of staying with a host family definitely wore off. I was tired of looking at endless family photos of people I would never meet, eating massive amounts of rice and dahl, and being followed and watched all of the time. Needless to say, I was getting frustrated. This frustration was compounded by the fact that this family seemed bent on teaching me Nepali, the language of the region in which I was staying for the time being. I only learned Hindi in my SIT school back in Rajasthan and that was difficult enough. My lack of enthusiasm did not deter this family. On the contrary, I think my apathy encouraged them.

There must have been twelve people herded into this miniscule dining room, all watching me eat my pound of rice and bowl of dahl. I looked dejectedly from my pile of food to the poster on the wall. The host-brother saw me looking and pointed to an apple on the poster and said the word apple in Nepali. With twelve pairs of expectant eyes on me, I repeated the word and then followed that with the English word. They all repeated that. The boy pointed to at least eight or nine more fruits on the poster and we all had a little lesson in translation.

Finally, I asked what this fruit was in the corner that was weird and oddly shaped. He stared at it for a while and then replied, 'Actually, I don’t know.' It was something in the way he said it or the ridiculousness of the situation, but I broke down in an embarrassing fit of laughter. To my relief all twelve of them stared to laugh, too. And not just pity laughs, but big belly laughs.

In that weird moment of learning the names of fruit in a different language, and at one of the heights of my frustration, I finally learned the kind of language that has no communication gap – laughter.”