Was My Study Abroad Experience ‘Authentic’ Enough?

On any given morning, I’m on my bike: zipping around tight corners and down cobblestone alleyways, dodging tourists while simultaneously trying to not fall into canals on my way to school in Amsterdam’s city center. Like any good Amsterdammer, I’m a pro at swerving and dodging, racing a tram and cursing out the pedicabs that take up the entire bike lane. I like to think that I fit into the cityscape — that at a glance, I could pass for a local, instead of a student studying abroad. I can ride with no hands, after all.

For increasing numbers of American students, studying abroad is a standard part of the college experience. Whenever I open up Instagram, I see snapshots of friends posing in front of famous landmarks with witty captions about how they’re not in Kansas anymore. But with it comes a certain set of baggage: the expectation that one’s time abroad should be “authentic.”

This has come up over and over again during the course of my semester here. When friends or relatives ask me how I’m doing, they often want to know: Am I having an authentic Dutch experience? But to be honest, I don’t know what it means to authentically experience a country or culture. At what point do you stop being a tourist and start experiencing things authentically?

These questions weighed heavily on my mind as I began to acclimate to living in a new city on a new continent, where I knew basically no one and barely spoke the language. I found myself existing in a strange kind of limbo between tourist and local. I was expected to be integrated to a certain extent, but reminded of my position as an interloper at every turn: in every misunderstanding that came out of my terrible comprehension of the Dutch language, every time I accidentally stood in the bike lane, not to mention that time I drove a boat the wrong way down a one-way canal.

I found these questions thrown into relief when my program took a two-week trip to Morocco. While the primary purpose of our visit was to research topics related to migration and identity, we still clearly occupied the role of tourists as we rode camels into the Sahara, wandered around the medina in Marrakesh, and learned how to bargain. But even when we got away from the tourist traps, we couldn’t escape who we were. On one tour of a city, we entered a market that, unlike the tourist friendly medina, was clearly a functional market for everyday people. There in our large group, we were out of place and disruptive. Not exactly authentic.

The trip to Morocco made me think that striving for authenticity is a failed pursuit. By searching for a specific vision of the places we went, we missed the point of traveling, which is just being there and taking it in. Once I gave up on trying, once I realized that I’d never blend in, I felt myself opening up to new experiences back in Amsterdam.

Some of my most vivid memories from the last few months are ones in which I felt vaguely uncomfortable or out of place — and a lot of them were funny. Like when I’d slip up and say that I’d like to meet at a coffee shop (in Amsterdam, a place where weed is sold), when I actually meant cafe. Or when in my rush to use what little Dutch I’d learned, I’d accidentally tell the cashier that no, I did not want a bag in response to them asking to see my ID.

In moments of belonging and not belonging, I’ve found that it’s better to just take things as they come, rather than trying to curate the perfect moment (or the perfect photo, for that matter). Maybe authenticity is just about being real.

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Claire Haug is a contributor to The Edit and a student at Smith College.

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