Realizations on a budget: Getting ready to go abroad

Chelsea Johnson

Like many students, I’ve gathered my suitcases and courage to study abroad, immersing myself in a new culture to foster personal and academic growth. It was hard, but I made it — all the way to Avon, Indiana!

I am doing a homestay with a local family. It’s very authentic. In fact, it’s my house.

My one class is “Making Enough Money This Month to Pay for Plane Tickets for My Real Study Abroad Program.” Luckily, I’ve been hired at a local dollar store to fulfill my requirements. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’m asked how much something costs. My main duties are to manhandle the merchandise and dodge questions about where things are. Retail skill sets, it turns out, are transboundary.

The primary language is the same here, but there is plenty of new vocabulary and, even more interesting, new ways of using words I already knew. Guess what item can be described with all of these adjectives at once: hot, super action, rainbow, sport and giant. I know, it’s obvious — a paddleball.

The main population I interact with are the customers, and in most ways they are very similar to me. That humans are humans wherever you go is an oft-cited lesson of studying abroad, but — sometimes thankfully — we are also very different. The customers dress differently than me, speak with different accents and are of different ages. They sometimes have different political priorities than I do and often have different religions. They always have different opinions about where items they decided not to buy should go; in this and only this I am sure I am correct.

Unfortunately, I lose some study abroad points when it comes to having meaningful social relationships with locals. I am only here for one month, so I’ve stuck with observation and small talk. I have, however, made friends with a neighbor’s mentally handicapped cat who hangs out in my driveway. His educational value is debatable but he is dang soft.

Even if I keep my socializing professional, studying abroad has affected me more than I expected. Having lived in one place for several years, I’d forgotten how much a place and its people shape what goes on in your head. Even the way I value my skills has changed since leaving Lawrence. What good is capturing the meta nature of a novel in a thesis if it won’t get me on the manager’s wall of praise? I jealously eye those compliment notes. If only they see how earnestly I vacuum!

Sometimes I have struggled to assimilate my values. For example, I try to eat real food at Lawrence, but it turns out that those foods cost more than a dollar. Much of the food we sell here are packaged remixes of sugar and corn, and sometimes my belly scoffs at pork rinds and weird blue punch. Then I realize how many customers rely on food stamps and consider the Dollar Tree a blessing because it helps them feed more family on their budgets. And until we address how people get into corners — and whether they want to be in those corners — my eyebrows need to stay put. People are kind and good, and they’re all just trying to make the best choices they can. Except I still have some questions for that guy buying his dogs hotdogs with food stamps.

When my month here is done, I’ll be glad to move on to a different place. But as I keep my eyes open, traveling and exploring the world, learning every day how unemployable I really am, I will never forget that for $7.25 an hour I will always be welcomed back to this culture: the Indiana dollar store.

And maybe next time they’d even let me use the intercom.