When I studied abroad, I was looking for love in the wrong place. Not in the wrong country or city or Starbucks branch (yep, I spent a decent chunk of time at Starbucks. Hey, I love coffee and wifi!). Rather, I was searching for romance – some kind of a whirlwind, storybook adventure – when I was surrounded by authentic love all along.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t – in any way, shape or form – go abroad to find a boyfriend. I also can’t deny that the idea of dating abroad crossed my mind. When I was younger, I think I read one too many young adult novels about meeting some charming, interesting guy abroad or watched the Lizzie McGuire movie too many times (you’d think I would’ve given up on the fantasy after Paolo turned out to be a liar but here we are).
In my six months abroad, as I was traveling to new places and learning a new language, I thought I could surely have some kind of adventurous, cross-cultural romance.
Dating abroad seemed exciting somehow, like it would add to the experience and help me learn more about the local language and culture.
I didn’t find romance. But I did find the kind of love that makes you cry into cups of milk tea and wipe tears away from your eyes at various subway stations and airports when you have to say goodbye.
I formed some of the strongest friendships that I’ve ever had, with people who I could talk about anything with, whether it was bad dates, dreams and goals, politics, culture or everyday life. They taught me about their cultures and lives and I taught them about mine. They invited me to their houses to celebrate holidays with their families. They made sure I tried as many local foods as possible. They took me to eat desserts during times of stress. They supported me and inspired me, yet there I was still worrying about if some Paolo-like guy would text me back or not.
Sometimes it’s difficult for me to admit that my independent self thought a boyfriend could add something valuable to my study abroad experience. And sure, a boyfriend could add something valuable to my experience – but a romantic relationship certainly isn’t necessary, and isn’t necessarily the most valuable or meaningful relationship that could be formed. Why did I grow up daydreaming about romantic dates instead of strong female friendships?
From a young age, these are the kinds of messages girls and women receive all the time – that romantic relationships are the ultimate goal to aspire to, that a relationship would fill some kind of void, that we are missing out on something if we don’t have a romantic partner.
As I got older, I believed it all less and less, but it’s hard to completely ignore the messages and attitudes that surround you. I knew I didn’t need my own Paolo, but my mind still convinced me that I wanted him.
But as I cried walking home after my last dinner with great friends who were always there for me then cried again when I got home and listened to a super sweet voice message from another friend, I realized that this love from the friends I met was stronger than the love I had daydreamed about.
My study abroad friendships were so meaningful – just as valuable to me as the kind of romantic relationships I’ve seen in movies over and over again.
The movies and books will continue to encourage me to look for love in the form of romantic relationships, but I know that’s not the only place to find it. I went on several bad dates but I certainly didn’t fail at finding love abroad. I found love abroad and it was so much better than riding on the back of a guy’s motorcycle (then later finding out that he is a jerk and can’t actually sing. Yes, I’m still talking about the Lizzie McGuire movie).