To the American Studying Abroad

Olivia Gaughran
4 min readOct 4, 2019


Photo Credit: Pixabay

The sky today is a wet, lazy gray — dramatic and playful, the huge raindrops separate the crowds into umbrellas and rain-jackets. I jump over puddles that the Sydney spring collects in the dips of the brick sidewalk and get where I’m going by pushing through the ache in my muscles — a late night playing soccer on my co-ed team called “The Foreign Dozen” left me sore this morning.

The past week was a tightly woven balancing act. I am amplified and subdued by the overwhelming newness of this place, but this is the game that I’ve chosen to play — I put myself here. I falter and shine, at different times and all at once. On the soccer field last night and in the pub afterwards, I found the closest thing to friendship that I’ve felt here so far.

The intricate dance of friendship is one that I’m not as willing to perform this week — the back and forth of wanting connection, cautiously interacting with people who also want the comfort of a familiar face, but no one wants to seem too desperate — desperation is a one-way ticket out of a budding new friendship. What I’ve noticed is that most of this anxious social behavior radiates from the Americans here — young people who travel in packs, who feel incredibly insecure without a group around them, and tend to stick to the people who sound like them. I’m not as interested in putting friendship feelers out towards other American students like this because it’s just too much emotional labor, and way too familiar. Seattle is full of these kinds of people.


So, I put myself in new spaces, willing the universe to place me around the people who vibrate on the same wavelength as me. Thusly, I have grown comfortable with self-soothing out of necessity. I’m terribly nervous but it doesn’t render me completely incapable, so I sign myself up for salsa classes & a co-ed soccer team, try my hand at surfing, and resolve myself to befriend the people in my classes when I walk in on Thursday and Friday.

I have to trust that while I may enter many doors alone, I probably won’t leave that way. The incredible amount of faith that I place in my sense of self is daunting. I have to believe that I am wonderful, and that people will want to be around me or I’d do nothing, all day, sad and lonely. I am constantly reminding myself that I am capable and worthy of belonging. This can be difficult as an American international student — I frequently find myself caught between using my “American”ness as a tool for connection, or a tool for disassociation .

Americans carry with them a negative association in many of the minds of the people here — our voices are sharp and angular compared to the smooth rise and fall of Australian, Irish, English, Dutch, and Spanish inflection. I stick out from the moment I open my mouth. Being from the United States means I have something to prove. Everyone wants to see what it is that makes me different than the stereotypical rich, arrogant, loud American, if anything at all. Every joke sent my way is a test that evaluates where I bend, yield, laugh, and respond. I am a flurry of relaxation and anxiety, wanting to feel like myself but wishing that I didn’t feel like this was an audition, an on-the-spot character assessment. I am constantly performing, hearing myself code-switch here and there — selecting different words that distance myself from the country I come from, smoothing out the way I speak. These words are vocabulary that I’ve picked up through my Dublin-bred father, English soccer coaches, and Chicana heritage. I stay far away from referencing American culture and carry a schooner of cider in my hand, figuring out how to blend in. Somehow, through this method and the blind luck of finding sweet, funny international soccer players, I found myself laughing in a pub with my French, English, and Dutch teammates. This is a space that I can stretch into, but dear God it is harder than it looks.

I am soothed by the abundance of time and space that is available to me here. The buses and trains take us anywhere, at any time. Australia in the middle of spring, dancing between days of scorching hot sun and weeks of wind that knocks branches of the trees. Sydney storms are something to behold — boisterous and intense. The birds singing in the morning are loud and aggressive — more like shouting than singing, but it feels humorous and lighthearted. But through all of the sweet, warm moments, I miss my family. I don’t want to wish the time away, but as the torrential rain pours down my bedroom window, a large part of me is weary from all of the unfamiliarity. I am constantly pushing myself to bump into where I’m uncomfortable.

However, there is such a beautiful a grace in feeling so much discomfort. It shows me where I have to grow; it actually shines a flashlight on my weak spots, and I am reminded of my roots that need watering. I wish I could say that I am blossoming and flowering into my most authentic, adventurous, joyful, Australian self. But in this moment, I am chopped down to the root, forced to figure out where to start from the beginning.




Olivia Gaughran

Medical anthropologist, editor, and creator of The Olly Project @! Probably reading bell hooks or taking a long walk.