Trials of the LDR: What it’s like loving from a distance

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In a recent post on LDRs (long distance relationships), I talked to all ye blog-folk about the ups and downs of being in a long distance relationship and what to ask yourself before committing. With the consent of my loved one, I want to go into more detail about what it means to be in one. I’m airing out my $h1z.

Being in a long distance relationship is one of the most painful forms of love I think one can experience, especially when your communication is limited. I thank the universe on the daily for modern-day technologies like Viber and Skype, because otherwise I think I would collapse entirely.

Like I’ve said before, one of the hardest parts of being in a long distance relationship is communication. Suddenly, your love languages and pet peeves are no longer your biggest concern; now it’s making time for each other, accounting for the time differences, making sure not to miss that Skype date, trying not to take it personal when you don’t hear from your extra-significant other for 5 hours, adjusting and bridging the gaps between it all with trust.

When my partner first left the States after our Christmas vacation, I fell apart. We took turns crying and comforting each other and promising we’d overcome the distance. I also promised him I wouldn’t watch him leave the airport, but then I hid crouched on the top of an escalator while 20 or so airport patrons eyed me suspiciously so I could watch him weave through security; I couldn’t handle the thought that I might a regret a single second I didn’t spend memorizing his face before he left. He wasn’t moving to New York for a temporary stint, or to Boston for graduate school, or abroad for a 2-year development contract; he was boarding a plane back to Europe indefinitely. Our pockets were empty and nothing was coming through the financial pipelines. We had no idea when, or if, we would ever see each other again.

Since that day, nothing has changed. Neither of us have jobs, we’re both struggling to put food on our tables and pay for a bed to sleep in. We’re literally a world apart, but yet we fight to figure out how to survive without letting go of the future we painted together in our head over the past year.

I feel like most of the blogs I read about long distance tend to gloss over the hard parts and convince you it’s going to be fine. No one talks about the fact that you’ll cry yourself to sleep (and sometimes, awake) for the next three months. No one tells you that you’ll pick a fight because your partner didn’t sign onto Skype exactly when you agreed to. No one tells you that every day will be its own test, or that every bump in the road will make you deeply question whether you’re both going to make it. You’ll remember how the hours spent physically together felt like minutes, but in your partner’s absence each day will suddenly feel like a year.

Going out feels like walking through jello with weights strapped to my feet. I try to tell myself that the only thing I can do is move forward until we move together, but every breath feels like a betrayal, and every step feels like it’s taking me further away from him and from our life together. Focusing on anything that doesn’t directly relate to going back feels impossible. Laughing with friends feels like one big fat lie. But despite all of this, giving up and moving on is absolutely inconceivable.

Sometimes it feels like a marathon race; each day we get through is a mile run with blistering, bleeding feet. My closest friends are my hydration stations, my best books are my gel blocks. When I try to read blogs and relate to an LDR community that tells me it will be okay, all I see are stories of people who knew when the distance would end and I’m reminded exactly how uncertain our future is. I try teasing apart the problems and walking myself through them one by one, but like a bad 80’s hairdo it’s just too much of a mess. Questions about when we’ll be together are tied to questions about my career choices (or lack thereof). The nostalgic ache I feel for his bad jokes and Greek recipes is the same nostalgic ache I feel for the River Thames and long rides on the Tube. You can’t separate the pain when it’s blended together in one long memory.

My typical Zen(ish) approach to problems doesn’t apply here, because “just be”ing doesn’t get me a job or a bank account stacked enough to buy my vacation back to London. There’s no guidebook for navigating endless long distance relationships, and there’s definitely no “Dude, I know exactly what you’re going through right now” when you’re returning from a year-long stint abroad to a city where almost nothing and no one has changed.

Now, while I recognize this subject diverges from my typical “international student life” theme, I can’t help but use this to give future students a fair warning of what falling in love with a European does to your soul when there’s an expiration date on your Visa. And selfishly, I can’t help but write this simply to ask for empathy from the people around me who don’t understand why I keep trailing off at the end of my sentences and/or staring out the window with a blank expression as lost as I am in my thoughts and/or breaking in to sudden and inexplicable sobs whilst junking on New Girl episodes or watching kittens on Facebook. Or at least just explain that last bit a little..

And thus, I close with a semi-appropriate quote written by someone I know absolutely nothing about outside of Wikipedia:

And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.
-Khalil Gibran

The Ever-Changing Traveler: Do our values really change when we move abroad?

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Arguably one of the most difficult parts of picking up my life and moving 5,000+ miles across the Atlantic was leaving behind my network of “critical friends” and jumping into a less critical, more traditional world. I’m not going to lie, before leaving my comfortably leftist cocoon that is the Bay Area, I was afraid that somehow leaving behind my community would mean leaving behind my values, too. The experience begged the ever-unanswered question, how does one resist negotiating her hard-and-fast values without isolating the world around her? Ultimately I think the answer is going to look different for each of us, because it largely depends on what (or whether) you’re willing to compromise, what you’re hoping to gain from your experiences, and most of all why you’re on the move.

In the world of cross-cultural psychology, the consensus among researchers is that one’s culture largely dictates one’s set of values (though how and why culture determines this is still debated). Dr. Shalom H. Schwartz, one of the most revered and established cross-cultural psychologists in the field, has spent his career grafting one of the most widely referenced theory of values. His theory has led to research about how which values are important to each culture, to each gender, how they’re affected by political regimes and social movements. Time and time again, Schwartz’s theory has given us the tools to understand that each culture and/or nations emphasizes a different set of values, and has shed light on how this shapes our personal identities.

By now you might be thinking, what the hell does some Dr. Psych in the Middle East have to do with living abroad? Well, Schwartz’s value research is actually quite significant for those of us claiming to be global citizens because our values are essential pieces of who we are, increasingly so when we travel. While traveling inevitably exposes us to new values, the reasons behind our migration and the length of our stay really determines whether these values will stick.

Whether or not your migration is by choice, or whether or not you’re moving permanently, or whether or not you feel attached to your home culture are all things that affect what cross-cultural researchers call “acculturation” – in other words, adjusting to and “acting like” the new culture. (Mind you, the culture’s openness to accepting you and the level of prejudice you face is a whole ‘nother conversation.) In fact, a lot of research points to the fact that our age is a major determinant to; the younger you are when you (permanently) move, the more likely it is that your values might shift towards those of the new culture’s. All of this to say, for students who move abroad for the short-term (i.e. 1-5 years) it’s unlikely that your core principles are going under the bus on our way into town. Still, you will face some confrontation that can be both harsh and rewarding, and it’s good to be prepared for it.

Growing up, I was never one to passively accept the value systems imposed on me- half because I questioned everything, and half because I was a rebellious little sh*t on a mission (what that mission was, however, changed as often as my outfits.) Needless to say, I ended up falling in with the counterculture and rejecting most conservative mainstream American values. So for me, living abroad presented a bit of a challenge between trying to settle in without harshly negotiating my politicized values. More than this, though, it was a seriously beneficial opportunity because it gave me a chance to test my progressivism in a sea of new perspective and evaluate which held water and which didn’t (so to speak). For my own sanity (and arguably my own comfort), I made a point of it to network and build up my “critical friends” community early, jumping on board with a Feminist reading group and then registered for London’s Feminism Conference in 2013. For the most part, I just wanted to keep that part of my heart n’ soul active, but eventually I realized that despite the many similarities, feminism in Europe has a different face than that of the U.S; this was where the learning truly began.

As a feminist abroad, the arguments I once had about my social structures were stripped completely out of context. Countercultures by their nature often hold beliefs that oppose those of the mainstream, and politicized countercultures (i.e. feminism) often prioritize these beliefs based on the inequalities that their mainstream structures impose. The pathway to inequality is paved by each context’s sociopolitical history, and so the pursuit of social justice is dependent on the complexities of that history. As a West Coast native, I learned quickly the value of humility as a feminist in a new cultural context. Quite frankly, West Coast elitism just didn’t fit into the international equation because suddenly your once-limited world opens up to an almost startling depth of perspective when it comes to how deep the corruption runs in the veins of the earth’s politics, and you’re forced to reconcile your priorities with the priorities of those who now surround you.

In hindsight I wouldn’t say my values changed, but I would say that my experiences as a traveler and as an expat added some international insight to my feminist fanny pack (heh heh, get it Brits?) When you’re a student abroad, I (and several cross-cultural studies) would argue that you aren’t immersed in the new culture nearly long enough to completely alter or reverse the 20-something+ years of indoctrination your homeland has already done. But the experiences do give you perspective and the contrast needed to understand the full context of who, what, when, where, why, and how’s your value system came to be, which is critical for any human being’s personal development if you don’t want to walk through life an ignoramus.

So in sum, your values likely won’t change but might be altered slightly, but only in the sense that they improve based on that you’ve gained tremendously valuable (*pun intended) life experience to back it with. If you’re coming from a critical perspective, you don’t suddenly leave all of your beliefs sitting on the shelf back home while you rage like an Ivy League frat boy and reek havoc on your new environment; you take this mindset with you, and view everything from the eyes you always looked through.

For those of you who’ve traveled with a different, less political set of values, what are your experiences? If you’re a student who has moved abroad for a few years, what advice might you bestow upon the next generation of expats?

Going the Distance: Are long-distance relationships worth it?

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My short answer is this: nobody knows but you.

Long distance relationships (LDRs) are unbelievably difficult. Before meeting my partner, I swore up and down that I would never put myself through one of these horrendous, torturous, seemingly pointless relationships. But here I am, doing it. The reasons behind why many of us chose to put ourselves through this can simply be reduced to this: we love who we are with, and we want make it work.

Over time and through my many relationships, I’ve learned one thing for certain; the heart knows what it needs. If you listen to it with patience, acceptance, and openness, you will find all of the answers you need from the very beginning. Only you know the inner-workings of your relationship.

You can certainly last the strain of separation, if both partners agree to it on mutual terms. Any healthy relationship that is built on a strong foundation of genuine friendship, respect, trust, and loyalty to the commitments decided amongst you and your partner (polyamory-inclusive) can be navigated through most forms of struggle. With that said, the harsh realities that a long distance relationship entails are something to be seriously considered, and above all discussed by both partners, before making that decision.

I find that in many cases, partners go with this laissez-faire mentality that “it will either work out or it won’t,” but this is complete bullshit. As most LDR veterans will attest, your relationship needs a goal, an expiration date, a plan that you’re both working towards in order for it to work. Plans can change, so long as you’re constantly working towards the same future.

Based on my experience and the many conversations with fellow LDR peeps, these are a few questions to consider:

1. What’s the plan, and is there an end date? The average separation period for LDRs in the States is 14 months. Many LDR veterans say that having an end point to work towards can be extremely helpful for both partners. Since nearly a third of LDRS start off in college, it’s no surprise that partners tend to be goal-oriented. In fact, 70% of LDRs fail because of “unplanned changes.” So it seems, one of the most predictive factors of LDR success is whether or not you’re working towards what LDR experts call a “proximal relationship” – basically, being able to cuddle not through a screen.

2. How’s your communication? If you groan upon hearing the same old “communication is key” cliche, brace yourself; communication is by far the most important factor in making the distance work. The evidence now suggests that faulty attachment and “psychological distance” can impact communication barriers. Attachment refers to your bond with your loved one, and so, in laymen terms, this basically means that if your bond breaks, you psychologically experience the distance, and it can break down your communication. As it turns out, this indirectly affects your satisfaction and commitment- which means the more psychological distance you feel, the less you want to stay. Strengthening that bond through communication is essential.

3. Check in with yourself- how’s your anxiety? I’m not going to omit the truths here that due not just to separation but to unemployment, finances, and the general instability of life, I’ve had struggled with my fair share anxiety (including frequent panic attacks) in the absence of my partner. And psychologists have found that in fact, elevated anxiety can lead to insecurity about your relationship. In my case, I found it helpful taking steps I needed to in order to restore balance within my life, so that anxiety doesn’t negatively affect the relationship. There are plenty of ways of doing this: journaling, meditating, breathing techniques, yoga (which you can now find all over YouTube), to name a few.

4. How far apart will you be? The average LDR relationship has a separation of about 125-150 miles. While this doesn’t necessarily predict whether or not you’re gonna make it through, it does indicate how difficult it will be to travel to each other. Financial stress has been suggested to end relationships, and a longer distance means international phone calls, expensive plane tickets, travel expenses etc. While this seems trivial, it can be a huge hindrance to the relationship; if your partner gets sick, or has an emergency, or if you don’t have a job and you haven’t seen your partner in three months, the strain of that expense can inevitably take a toll on you and your relationship.

5. Ok, you miss him/her/them- but how’s your social life? Take it from the queen of isolation, socializing is both essential to surviving the pain of separation, and at times excruciating to do. When you have a reality you love more than anything that’s 5,000 miles away, nothing can completely take your mind aware from it. As juxtaposed as they are, there are two things to avoid: 1) Too much isolation, and 2) Too much distraction. The key, as with all things in life, is to find a balance between these two. While some say that replacing the time you would have had with your significant other is dangers, others say that isolating yourself too much can be equally hazardous. My advice: make time for your friends and get out of your routine, but make sure you’re regularly spending time with your partner in whatever capacity you can.

6. What’s the point? This is, by far, the most important question. What is the point? Though the dynamics vary between relationships, there’s no denying that across the board, LDRs can be excruciatingly painful at times. So ask yourself, why? Why do you love this person? What makes you want to commit yourself to this person acknowledging that you’re gonna sacrifice the many benefits of having a significant other? Was it a vacay-romance? Are you committing to the person, or the idealized version? I’m not suggesting in any way that the distance won’t be worth overcoming, or that it can’t be done, but I am suggesting that before putting yourself through hell, you might want to make sure you’re doing it with the right person, for the right reasons.

Why do I need to ask myself this crap if I know I love this person, you might be asking? Here’s why.

There will be days where he is too sick to stare at a screen and tell you if he’s okay or not, days where you won’t hear from him, days where those of us notorious for worrying too much will think the worst and begin sifting through news stories. There will be days where your friends will hear from her when you don’t, or taker her out to the pub and you won’t be able to. There will be days when a Skype call doesn’t replace that arm around your shoulder, or that big spoon to your little spoon, days when that stuffed animal your best friend brought to cheer you up won’t kiss you back like your partner used to. There will be fights that can’t be recovered from with a soft I’m sorry and a gentle kiss on your forehead. There will be no make-up sex to make you feel close again. There will be no sex, period. There will be no shoulder to cry on when someone in your family dies, no one to hold your hand when you’re freaked out about the future, no one to wake up next to in the morning.

These are the things you give up temporarily for distance, and you owe it to yourself to first explore what for. Going there doesn’t mean that you will chose not to, it just means that you’re legitimately weighing the pros and cons with your partner before going knee-deep into the Hard Times Valley.

Experienced LDR veterans – what have you learned having been through the mill? Or those of you in or about to be in an LDR, what questions do you have for those of us who are older, wiser, and arthritis-ridden?

Reverse Culture Shock and Graduate Depression: The best part’s over, so now what?

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When doing your research about moving, living, or studying abroad, you’ll undoubtedly find that experienced expats have tons of cliché tips we’re willing to share about our ups and downs. There’s a hefty handful of common stories that get recycled, all of which are key preparations for any expat in the making. Among the many experiences you’ll read about and have to brace your britches for, perhaps the most commonly referenced is “culture shock.” Culture shock, which is more accurately referred to by psychologists as “acculturative stress,” can be roughly translated as the stress we feel when we’re suddenly confronted by a new environment, complete with new foods, new laws, new languages, new social norms, etc. In sum, culture shock is that paralysing fear that scares you $h1tless because you’re in a place that neither your body nor mind are familiar with, and the following process of dealing with this (sometimes vomit-inducing) fear until you adjust.

In a recent article about the complicated realities of moving abroad, Geeraert and Demoulin- two psychology researchers at University of Essex who study the effects of acculturative stress- highlight how some of the complexities of culture shock differ between students and other migrants. Authors Geeraert and Demoulin argue that students are “typically highly motivated, they are placed in local families, and they receive support from the exchange organisation throughout the experience,” and point out that “these circumstances will be very different from many other migrant populations.” (This distinction will become clear in a minute…)

Reverse Culture Shock

What you won’t typically find on Dr. Google, though, is what is called “reentry” or “reverse culture shock,” which refers to the culture shock one experiences when migrating back to their home country. Often times, this adjustment period comes as an unfortunate surprise to those returning from their lives abroad. As Margaret Wang points out in her book about culture, preparing students for this re-adjustment period should begin before they ever leave their home turf. But as she also points out, most universities and study abroad programs don’t offer what she calls “reentry training,” and thus often utterly fail to prepare students for the shock they’ll experience when they return home.

Reverse culture shock is basically another form of acculturative stress that takes place when coming home. Living abroad for any extended period of time inevitably tests your limits, expands your comfort zone, and gives you exposure to the world in ways that eventually become your comfort zone. But whilst you’re dabbling in new activities, consuming new foods and adjusting to new customs and territories, your loved ones back home are adjusting to your absence and moving on with their lives. And so, while most things remain the same, you come home to two very stark realisations: 1) Your close friends and family have built a life without you in it and 2) you’ve changed in ways that many of them won’t and/or can’t understand. Arguably the most difficult part of the re-adjustment process is the realisation that very few people back home understand what you’re going through.

I speak purely out of my own experience here, but I can not stress enough how important it is to try to prepare yourself for this process, keep in tune with your needs and reach out for resources when you need them. The first time I went through re-entry shock was as an undergraduate student when I returned from my quarter abroad in Dublin. Reintegrating to my normal routine after four months of eye-opening experiences was a process I slightly resisted and didn’t fully understand. Luckily for me, I also had my best friend and college roommate, who had just studied abroad in London, to share my misery with while we slept on air mattresses in our shared flat for the next 6 months.

Now, keep in mind that there are gravely significant differences between the experiences of students and other migrant populations. As Geeraert and Demoulin pointed out, students have the privilege of returning to a university that offers many health and wellness resources for anyone who struggles throughout (not to mention rapidly ongoing stream of events and projects to jump into and move forward through.) Those who are moving back home after working abroad, living abroad, or especially after having lived in asylum are going to have very different sets of resources and circumstances, and thus the process is going to look different based on their situations.

But the shared take-home message I’m trying to convey is that coming home is difficult because you are not the same person you once were; life abroad changes you, for better or for worse, and so relating to what you once called “home” isn’t going to be easy as you might expect. In lieu of this, it’s even more important to pay attention to your needs and honour them as they come up. Note: The tips I share at the end of this blog are accessible to people returning from all types of circumstance, and don’t require to you to have money or access to specific resources.

Graduate Depression

For students like myself who are returning after a full programme (i.e. an entire Master’s or Bachelor’s programme) abroad, however, there is an added stressor that needs to be recognised and prepared for, and that’s what bloggers now refer to as “post-college depression.” Often times, graduates who are suddenly confronted by the real world go through periods of melancholy while they readjust. In some cases, graduates can even exhibit serious signs of depression. Hannah Webster suggests in her recent article about graduates coping with depression that this period is often either instigated or affected by one’s loss of identity, sudden financial stress, unreasonable expectations and/or family pressure. (But really, what recent grad hasn’t cringed after being asked “What’s next?” for the umpteenth time?) Some authors argue that the unprecedented rates of student loan debt juxtaposed by spiking unemployment rates and the recent push against college graduates towards low-income jobs is also to blame.

Whatever the straw that breaks your back, the melancholy and depressive bouts students face after graduating can have severe implications. Stories (like this one) of students committing suicide after graduation seem to be popping up more and more as loan debts and defaults increase. Our futures are being capitalised on before we ever see the opportunity to make something of ourselves, and that reality has our generation in a global panic. To make matters worse, we YoPros are flocking to the big cities in search for our fleeting opportunities, leading to a rent market that is impenetrable and rent prices that are becoming astronomical- like London’s, which I could no longer afford by the time I returned to the U.S.

Makes for a bad combo

Why are you reminding me of these depressing realities, you might ask? Because the combination between readjusting to your own culture and transitioning from the comforting academic bubble back into the real world, can be really, really detrimental to one’s mental and emotional well-being. Especially if one is lacking the necessary resources (i.e., health insurance for therapy, which a broke post-grad would need insurance for) or the necessary social support (who have since moved on with their lives since you’ve left them for your adventures overseas.) Feeling sad and nostalgic about the place you’d begun calling home and somewhat worthless about your uncertain future and pitiful career prospects is not an ideal grab-bag of emotions to be experiencing all at once.

So, now what?

In the wise words of Baz Luhrmann, “the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience; I will dispense this advice, now.”

In my years of experience working with art therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, yogis, fitness trainers, natural gurus, crunchy health-types and otherwise creative types, I’ve come to learn one very pervasive truth: self-care is important. Through the advice these friends have shared and lots of personal trial and error, I’ve pocketed a handful of trusted tips to pull out in moments just like these where the funk is real and the uphill before me is daunting.

1. Start a routine. Coincidentally enough, this is one of my greatest pieces of advice for getting through the initial culture shock, but it also works the other way around. Chances are that by the time you left your adventures abroad and repatriated to the homeland, you had struck up a routine in your old life. Coming home doesn’t mean you have to drop that routine. One of the best parts of going abroad is bringing what you’ve learned and the ways in which you’ve changed back with you. So, incorporating something you once did into your new life might be a really great way of reminding you that yes, it happened, and yes, you’re a better person for having had the experience. It also doesn’t have to be something you learned abroad; I will get real personal here and admit that my personal cure for tough transitions is Gilmore Girls. One episode each night. I MAKE NO APOLOGIES.

2. Make a plan. One of the toughest parts of returning is feeling that the most exciting part of your life has ceased. If this is the case, give yourself something to look forward to! You don’t need to drop your savings on a ticket right off the bat, but make a plan for the distant-enough-to-save-but-not-SO-distant future. Pick a timeframe, start planning your next adventure, enjoy doing research in the meantime, budget your life around it and just enjoy being part of the wanderlust community. Never again will you return from a trip feeling your travel bug has been sufficiently fed, but you will forever be planning ahead and giving yourself something to keep motivated with and it keeps you moving forward. Whatever your plan might be – adventures don’t always equal travel. Go get that PhD, start that business, get that thesis published, write that book, record that song, start that blog, etc. There are numerous ways to move forward in your life, the key is just to do the moving forward.

3. Find the beauty. After graduating with my Bachelors, I picked up a temporary job at a remote camp in the Pacific Northwest. I remember sitting in my room, staring at the world map on my wall with my very dear friend Shay Button while sharing our tales of burning inner wanderlust, and admitting that I sometimes felt something was missing because I wasn’t abroad. And what she said to me next I will never forget: “I know what you mean, and I think it’s why, no matter where I go, I try to experience the world through the same eyes I did when I was in Italy. I try to carry that open-hearted, open-minded wonder with me everywhere I go.” In that moment, she taught me how to take home one of the best experiences of living abroad we each have; pure, unadulterated, unwavering openness. So, I encourage you to bring this openness into your life in any and every way you can, and use it to find the beauty in things you once saw as dull an unexciting. Sometimes, finding beauty in the mundane is enough to transform our mentality and improve our whole perspective.

4. Write it down. Feeling über angsty? Feeling nostalgic about your times abroad? Missing those loose ends? Full of stories with no one to share them too? As unfortunate as this is, it seems that those who don’t share our experiences as travellers sometimes feel that we sound obnoxiously privileged and, at times, a bit patronising or condescending when we do try to share them. To be fair, they’re absolutely right; shoving tales from an experience that someone else may not have had the privilege of having down their throats is, in a sense, selfish and unfair. With that said, one of the most important forms of processing the experience and reintegrating back into your own culture is talking about it, is sharing it, is connecting with others through it. So write it down. Write it in a journal, a private blog, a public blog, create a scrap book, write a song or poem about it, a memoir, a novel, create a film or a slideshow with pictures. Do something that gets the memories and the feelings associated with them out of you and into something tangible that you can come back to as many times as you want. Then, if you so chose, you can share it to those who actively show their interest in hearing about and seeing.

5. Run, run, run. Let me start by saying that this is very much my personal way of dealing with rough transitions; I run. In fact, I arguably do 1-4 on this list while I’m at it because I start a new running routine that works me towards a goal (i.e., 10k or half marathon) and I use my running routes to find hidden treasures in my new (or old) surroundings. In fact, running has been shown to cure depression where medications can’t, and so it’s my main fall back and what I immediately turn to when I feel my general life-mood slipping into that unhealthy sort of deep. But running isn’t the only cure; I think the key take-home message is to find a way to incorporate daily or every-other-daily movement that elevates you out of your depression. Swimming, dancing, kickboxing, yoga (Yoga with Adriene’s 30-day Challenge is a great place to start!) are all great ways to keep your blood moving, your mood elevated, and your heart and mind healthy. Pick your poison, but push yourself to get out – even if it’s just a relaxed, calm, half hour walk around the neighbourhood, every bit helps!

Share your tips, or ask away! If you’re about to head home, what have you done to prepare? Or what would you like to prepare for? If you’ve studied abroad and come back, or you’ve done the living abroad and the whole shebang, what was your experience coming home? What did you do to cope?

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Needle In A Racist Haystack: Job-Hunting in the U.K. for Foreigners

Few experiences have brought me to understand the meaning of the simile “like finding a needle in a haystack” quite as deeply as job-hunting in London as a non-EEA/EU citizen.

Prior to coming abroad for my Master’s programme, I did a bit of research and found that many non-EEA/EU students were leaving the U.K. shortly after their studies because they couldn’t find work. Though I knew this, as a friend of mine who (who is beyond competent, responsible, and intelligent enough to easily find work) had studied for 2 years in Manchester returned jobless and tired from the hunt. Then, within my first 2 weeks at Brunel University, I met a fellow postgraduate from California who had just completed her dissertation and was gearing up to head home for the same reason. And I kept thinking, these are Master’s students for %$@#’s sake- what the hell is making it so hard to find work?

After some time living, experiencing, and reading through the many uncensored sources of media in the U.K., it’s become obvious that the U.K. makes it difficult for foreign nationals to stay intentionally. Up until a few years ago, students could apply for what was called a “Post Study Work Visa”, which was classified as a Tier 1. However, this visa was pulled in order to make way for new legislation for immigration. From here on out, foreign nationals can only stay under the Tier 2 work sponsorship visa. In order to apply for this, companies now must meet a set of criteria, pass the ‘resident labour market test’, fill out a bucket load of bureaucratic paperwork and financially sponsor any and all foreign nationals they hired into their company. In laymen’s terms, this mean that the British government pulled any avenues that made it easier for foreign nationals to find work and started asking British companies to prove that any foreigner they hire is more qualified than any British or EU citizen whom also may have applied for the position.

So now, the U.K. has very cleverly pitted foreign national applicants against the EU and British applicants also hunting in an already extremely tough job market. To make matters worse, in my experience EU members are finding it quite difficult themselves to find jobs as non-EU members. Many of my EU compadres from uni have been applying since May and have put out between 500-700 applications with only a handful of interviews; only a few of these friends have managed to find permanent work. Of the many postgraduates hunting for work, the first to score a permanent position was home-grown British. And good ol’ GB is starting to get a global reputation for her lack of empathy, as this could explain the significant drop in Tier 4 student visa applicants from non-EU and non-EEA citizens in recent years. But while students are suffering from investing tens of thousands of pounds into a British degree without reaping any benefits from the British workforce, we are small pawns in the grand scheme of the British worker’s war. One that makes the struggles of a U.S. student with an accessible job market to return to seem pretty minor.

Since the economic collapse that echoed around the globe, the U.K. has taken several measures towards ensuring “British Jobs for British Workers.” UKIP, one of the nation’s most notoriously conservative and patriotic parties, has led the march behind excluding non-British citizens from the increasingly tough job market. As countries like Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, and Spain have endured some of the most devastating effects of this collapse in the European Union, workers have begun to migrate to the U.K. While many of these workers come in search for opportunity, they are instead welcomed with bitterness and blatant rejection. When asked to comment on the fact that Bulgarians and Romanians make up over 25% of the city’s increasing population of “rough sleepers”, UKIP’s spokeswoman simply replied that:

“This is surely proof that unrestricted immigration is forcing upon Britain migrants we would be much better without. It makes absolutely no sense for people from countries with some of the cheapest housing in Europe to come to a country with some of the most expensive and end up living on the streets as a result. It is clear that we need a comprehensive points-based immigration system that allows into Britain only those who make a net contribution to our society and who have the skills required for a job.”

In other words, rather than help our fellow Europeans and their countries let’s just shut and their problems out of the country so we don’t suffer with them. What’s even more upsetting about this quote is the hypocrisy is that despite wanting to keep ‘those who make a net contribution,’ they won’t even help the international students who have invested in British education enter the workforce. The proof is in the pudding that [not-so]Great Britain is a racist @$$ country - the very same party that claims European workers are the problem has paid foreign workers to distribute their party’s leaflets as they claim “[their labour is] the cheapest.

While there are loopholes for non-EEA and non-EU citizens, such as the Tier 2 work sponsored visa or even the Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneurial Visa (for those of your who have been itching to start up a business), the hidden fine print makes these visas both expensive and extremely difficult to get. To sum things up, job-hunting for foreign nationals (and even for EU citizens) in the U.K. is very much like finding a needle in a haystack. Only the haystack is made systemically impenetrable for those who are not British, and those who are are given protection while they search.

Goodbye, Grandma: A blog on grieving a loss while studying abroad

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In my last blog, I promised bloggers some  more candid posts on the ups and downs of studying abroad. At the risk of sounding redundant, I really believe it’s important for students considering to live and study abroad to be given the full picture of what they’re getting into. From here on out, I’m gonna start to tailoring my forthcoming blogs to offer a more balanced landscape of what it’s like to be thousands of miles from home… Starting with this post.

This past week, I lost my grandma. The cons of study abroad don’t get more real than this, folks. Losing a family member when you’re thousands of miles away from your family is one of the most difficult experiences you can have when studying abroad. Depending on the circumstances, it might not always be the loss itself that hurts so much as the fact that you are not able to grieve with loved ones.

Grieving means something different to everyone- some grieve with anger, some with silence and solitude, some with symbolic actions, some with art, some with the company of their loved ones. These differences even vary culturally, which can make it really difficult for the usually fabulous new friends you’ve made living abroad to understand what’s happening. We often take for granted how much of an impact it has being around (or near to) the people who understand your grief and understand whom and what you’ve lost. When you’re a country apart from your loved ones, it’s much harder feeling connected to their grief, and this can make you feel isolated, alone, and can sometimes deepen the pain of that loss.

Over the course of the last year, there have been three significant losses in my family. Through all of them, the two most difficult emotions I’ve struggled with were guilt and sadness for being so far away. The occasional bout of homesickness makes it hard enough to rationalise and negotiate your reasons for living abroad (whether it’s to study, work, experience new cultures or to be with your partner) against how much you miss home. When a traumatic or painful event happens in your family or circle of friends, though, this negotiation tends to resurface in a very intense way and can even bring you question your decision to stay.

The bottom line here is that if you carefully consider and weigh the pros and cons before making the decision to leave, it can keep you steadier when $h1t hits the fan. If you are a careful enough planner and you have the resources to manage it, there are things you can do to soften the blow; e.g., keeping an emergency sta$h for last-minute plane tickets home, or keeping a friend (abroad) whom you trust in the loop if/when someone gets sick in case you need a sudden shoulder, or locating your nearest M&S for a last minute stop for proper chocolate, ice cream, DVDs and PJs.

Excuses, excuses: Where I’ve been, why I haven’t blogged and what’s to come!

My dear bloggers, I’m so sorry for my brief and unplanned hiatus. Between an 80 page dissertation, 3 moves and 4 jobs in the past 2 months, I’ve had my hands tied and my time accounted for. Needless to say, I haven’t devoted the time to educating the masses on life across the pond that I would have liked to.

With that said, I do have some exciting news. As I may have mentioned in older blogs, much of my blogging over the past year has been done as a student ambassador with LUIP whilst acting as a representative of Brunel University. This meant I had opportunities to attend events organised exclusively for ambassadors, including a trip to the top of the Shard, a tour through Parliament, a trip to Cambridge, and an entrepreneurial workshop (to name a few). This also meant, however, that I was bound by my scholarship and given incentives to highlight the more “positive” experiences of studying abroad and save the “negative” experiences for quiet [unpublicised] office chats. While there are plenty of perks studying abroad, it’s equally important to highlight the rougher experiences, and even the regrets, of doing so in order to give a balanced picture and allow potential international students to make an informed decision.

And thus, my goal in the forthcoming weeks will be to give you as much of that less-talked-about information as I can. Without the chains of presenting a perfect student life or-I’ll-lose-my-scholarship around to my feet, I’m going to go deeper into the real pros and the many cons of what living and studying abroad looks like. I’d like to emphasise that this is from the perspective of a white cis-female from the States, so please be mindful to keep what I say here in context. While I’ll go a bit into some of the more general struggles foreigners may face when choosing to study abroad, I’ll go much deeper into the specifics of the issues that I’ve faced during my time in London. Namely, some of the things I plan to go into are:

1. Life as an International Postgraduate student at Brunel University

2. Life as a feminist living abroad

3. What it’s like job-hunting in a foreign country

4. The ups and downs of being so far from home

5. Dealing with landlords in a foreign country

6. “American-ness” abroad – the stereotypes, the privileges

I’ll probably go into some more detail, too, about the struggles of being a foreigner, though this will be paraphrased from dear friends’ experiences and not so much from my own (you’ll read more about why in “American-ness” abroad).

So there are things to look forward to here, and I haven’t abandoned you yet, blogosphere. Sit tight and more of these blogs will be rolling out over the next several weeks. You can’t get rid of me that easy!

A Sunny Sunday in Londontown.

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George the Greek and I took an early Sunday trip into Central which was was intended to be for the Karl Marx walking tour, but – thanks to slow trains and broken signals on the tracks – we were 20 minutes later than expected. (Note to future Londoners: always check tfl.gov.uk!) So, instead of heading home we made the best of our trip into Central and walked through some side streets in Piccadilly we hadn’t yet seen.

Just around the corner we found “Summer Streets” – a month-long festival taking place on Regent Street all through July 2014. Here we found blocked streets full of pedestrians enjoying a string quartet nailing the James Bond theme, an old-time folk band decked out in striped suits and straw hats, and some unbelievably tempting Godiva ice cream.

So if you find yourself in Central on a lazy Sunday and looking for some free entertainment, “Summer Streets” is a great option with loads to do, free and safe curbside to soak in the sun on,  and all kinds of amusing people-watching to be had! Plus, if you find this ain’t your thing, you’ve got St. James Park, Big Ben, Buckingham, Piccadilly, Leicester Square and tons more within walking distance to retreat to.

Happy summer!

Experiencing the Shard and “The View”

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The Shard is one of London’s newest, tallest, and most admired architectural structures. Towering over London’s iconic landscape at 306 metres, this modern marvel stands at three times the height of the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and twice the height of the London Eye. And from the top, tourists and locals alike can experience the up-and-coming “View”.

After shooting up 72 floors in 60 seconds flat (a very smooth ride but a bit of a terrifying and claustrophobic experience for those of us less keen on elevators) you will witness beautiful, full panoramic views and windows. While there are no tour guide, there are electronic interactive telescopes throughout the building and staff ready and available to answer your many burning questions. And fear not! – For the faint of heart with a fear of heights but an unusual desire to hang several hundred metres above the cosmopolitan capital, there is a bar!!!

As classy as the atmosphere above the world’s most international city may be, the price is not worth it. Nearing a staggering £30 per person (with no student concession), the fee is not worth standing on a freshly varnished hardwood floor, drinking a £10 cocktail and looking down on one of the worlds most diverse, expansive, and expensive cities. Not when that £40 can be used to  experience it.

Save or Spend: A Week’s Worth of Living in London

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Friends, as the city that kicked off the New Year as the most expensive in the world, London is not a cheap place to live in. Or more accurately, survive in.  With the pound growing stronger and the dollar collapsing before our NASDAQ-negligent eyes, it would be naive of you to move here without first doing your research in terms of spending and saving. So as I was walking home from the local grocer a few days ago, I decided it would be worth it for you prospective ex-patriate students to go through my daily diary whilst including each intricate pence I spent filling the pages.

Like a randomly selected rat for a double-blind, I chose to start with this week to give you a seven-day snapshot of my spendings. (See how well my studying/revisions have paid off this week?) Without further ado, My Week In Excessive, Unnecessary Detail:

05/05/2014- Manic Monday

Today was beyond boring. With loads of exam preparation to complete and zero motivation to do so, I opted for staying in my flat (£130 p/w), minimally glancing at my impending articles, nearly completing Season 1 of House of Cards Netflix (£5.99 p/m) and then realizing I had little to no food left to scarf on. At some point, went for a 45 minute run. Went to Lidl (£17) to stock up on groceries. Came home, made lunch, at in bed, watch 2 (…or 3) more episodes of HOC and finally got around to the work I’d been avoiding. Around 2am, fell alseep in my bed.

06/05/2014-Typical Tuesday

A tad bit more productivity today. Ate breakfast (from Lidl) before heading off to meet with my Supervisor (£12,000 annual tuition). Went to the university’s farmer’s market (£9) to get some extra groceries. Head home, pulled out my brand new colorful highlighters (£5) and got to studying. Texted my British buddy Emma begging for some social life. Met up at Costa for some “gentle studying” and a coffee (£2.20). Realized I needed some lady goods, stopped at the pharmacy (£10) to stock up, and walked up. More studying. Way too much more HOC. Slept around 2am again.

07/05/2014 – Wallowing Wednesday

Woke up motivated to not sit in my bed and watch HOC for the ridiculous amounts of time I had the days before. Had a 30 minute run. Went to go get some productive and slightly social studying at Costa (£2.20). Met up with my flatmate to go to an informational meeting about Visas (see above for [astronomical] tuition fees). Got excited about some potential prospects. Came home, ate lunch, studied some more. Got bored, still trying to avoid too much HOC, made cookies (using ingredients contributed by my lovely flatmates!)

08/05/2014 – Thirsty Thursday

Got a wild hair up my butt and decided to dye my hair (£5) and paint my nails. Walked into Uxbridge to meet my Bulgarian bestie and her visiting sis for dinner at Bella Italia (£8.95) and ordered a fish bowl full of wine (£4.95) to calm my studying nerves. Walked home, cooked myself some spaghetti before diving back into my studies. Called it a night. …Okay, a few episodes of HOC, and then called it a night. Dangit.

09/05/2014 – I’m-Getting-Freakin-Old Friday

Sigh. Supposed to do a 3 hour run, settled for 1. Got excited today chopping my own carrot sticks, eating frozen grapes and sipping tea while I worked on my exam revisions. Studying on a Friday night is become routine. Sadly enough, one I’ve begun to thoroughly enjoy. After my last class, I had ordered myself an earring holder (£9.99) as a congratulations-you-made-it-to-the-end-of-the-term-now-please-clean-up-your-room surprise; picked this up at the post, and set it up. Vacuumed. Did laundry. Jammed out to some music (free thanks to Youtube!) and crammed in some studying. Fell asleep. After reaching Season 2.

10/05/2014 – Unsatisfactory Saturday

Studying. House of Cards. Studying. Study breakin’ with my flatmates. House of Cards. House of Cards. Lunch, I think? Studying. Library, checked out books, back home and studying. Sleep. ..Okay, House of Cards, then Sleep.

11/05/2014- Super Lazy Sunday

Decided I couldn’t take it anymore. Made plans to hit Central and go get drinks. 20 minute run. Broke plans. Fixed plans. Decided to do some hardxcore studying (3 hour super cram) to justify plans. Plans broke again. Half-assed another couple hours of studying. House of Cards until the end of time. Somewhere halfway into Season 2, fell asleep.

All in all, the week cost me something around £79. (Doesn’t include tuition/accom.) Bear in mind, this is above average in that my coffee stops, Bella Italia outing and earring holder were all completely unnecessary and frankly were a-typical spending (While I am a severe caffeine addict, I prefer not to eat out, and I usually to impulse-purchase on Amazon.) However, this also does NOT include a Friday-Saturday-Sunday night social life, which I’ve heard some people have. So there you have it! One week’s worth of surviving on a grad school budget.