Before I begin, I’m writing this about a month removed since I’ve hopped on a plane and moved to Sharjah, and I LOVE IT HERE. So don’t let these mental breakdowns discourage you. They’re natural. They’re going to happen. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t make the right choice.

So these are excerpts from my personal journal. They are edited for clarity, anonymity, brevity, and profanity (hey–it’s my personal journal!)

08/22/2019 (The Night I Arrived)

A picture of Safia's dorm room at the American University of Sharjah. There are clothes are various suitcase contents acorss the bed and on the desk in mid-unpacking. A suitcase lies on the floor mostly empty.
This is a picture taken when I got on campus for the first time. It’s about 1am in the United Arab Emirates when I get here, and I’m midway through unpacking when my mental breakdown starts.

“What did I just get myself into?”

I knew that this never felt real, but now I’m here, sitting in my room and I’m terrified. I know my overreacting is probably because I haven’t slept in days, but I know if I don’t write this down and let it out, I won’t be able to process this.

This never felt real. It never felt like I was actually going. Even in the airport and meeting [CIEE exchange student on this program], it didn’t feel real. I thought I’d have a meltdown at the terminal, but Idk if it’s because I met [other CIEE exchange student on this program] at the airport, but my brain just didn’t process it.

But I’m here. In my room. By myself. I know I should put my clothes away before I sleep because I probs won’t do it tomorrow, and I will because it’ll bother me like that always does. I won’t do it if I don’t do it right now.

But I can’t. I’m 13 hrs away from home. I just got on a plane and went THIRTEEN HOURS away from home. I don’t know a single person. My body is a piece of [trash], and everyone I know and care about is in the USA.

This isn’t America. This isn’t anything I know. These aren’t my covers. This isn’t my desk. This school isn’t Hope. I’m not in Holland. What did I just DO.

A lizard just skirted across the floor. A LIZARD. Not an ant or even a cockroach. A LIZARD.

I’m here. In Sharjah. I’ve never even heard of this place before I came here. How are the people? Do I need to reconstruct the person I was back in the states?

Why did I pick a place I barely knew?

Will people like me? I like to think I’m a tolerable person, mostly. What if they hate me?

What if classes are too hard? I’d like to think Hope prepared me for a challenging academic workload, but they probably do academics different here. The last thing I need is to pull all-nighters every night.

Can I manage the heat? I mean, I hate the heat in the Midwest, and this place is even hotter. It’s been well into the hundreds last I checked, and I don’t know how I’m going to handle this.

I know I did this to get out of my comfort zone. I knew culture shock was going to happen. I know this wasn’t going to be easy. But, why did I think that GOING OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE meant HOPPING ON A PLANE AND GOING THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY!?

I already miss [friend]. I miss [other friend]. I miss [another friend]. I miss my sorority. I miss [yet another friend]. I miss all my friends so much it hurts.

I don’t think I can do this. I’m in way too deep. Is it too late to hop back on a plane?

No, Safia. This is culture shock (probably–can you experience culture shock without experiencing the culture? Welp). You know that’s what this is. You’ll be fine (probably).

Go fold your clothes.

9/6/2019 (After the First Week or Two of Classes-ish)

A picture of Safia standing outside the main quad at The American University of Sharjah. She is wearing a green, black, and white striped jumpsuit with a black cardigan. She is smiling, and the student center and date trees in the background.
This is me on the first day of school, so this breakdown happened at some point this week. As you can see, I’m obviously so excited to be here!

Nothing is normal.

I know I’m super type-A. I know that I need to know everything all the time in terms of daily events. I need a schedule. I need an understanding. But I don’t have one.

It’s been the first two weeks of classes, and nothing has settled down. I’m not used to my class schedule. I’m not used to having classes on Sundays. I’m not used to having musical rehearsal from 4-7pm, three times a week. I’m not used to having to schedule meals to order food.

And the thing is, it’s not like it’s completely different. Most of what I’m dealing with is almost the same abroad as it is in the states. People are people. Classes are classes. Life with chronic illness is life with chronic illness.

But, it feels like nothing is going to get settled. I’m running around having meetings with professors or dealing with my body or what-have-you, and as soon as I think those things are done and I’m settling down, something else drops on my gigantic to-do list. The ulcers underneath my arm. Checking that my courses meet credits. Switching my courses when I randomly find out that a course won’t transfer.

And this lack of normalcy and routine is setting off all of my memory issues. Suddenly, things are falling off my radar that wouldn’t normally be. I’m forgetting things among the gigantic pile of things I need to get done. I need normal. I need normal to process everything. I need normal–something I understand and don’t have to think about–so I can settle down and breathe and find that safe space.

But as of right now, there isn’t that safe space. Things are too different. I don’t have a coffee shop or favourite restaurant or corner on campus to get away from everything and process. I don’t have a close friend that I can go to, yet. I don’t have a moment that I understand in which I can collect myself and be everything that I am without being terrified of something else falling through the cracks.

I can feel my internal Wednesday Addams belting “One Normal Night” [Author’s Note: at the time of this entry I found out I was cast as Wednesday Addams in the musical here on campus. That’s what this is referring to]

And, I think the fact that everything is so close to normal is what’s so trippy. Everything feels so […] close. I’ll start to feel comfortable and fall into that routine, luring me into a false sense of security, and then the unpredictability that is studying abroad or [my life with] chronic illness will jar me out of that routine, and it makes me feel like a cat being taunted with food.

I want the routine of home. I want to walk into my computer science classes and joke around with Dr. Cusack. I want to give Dr. McFall a hard time about the sheer amount of tennis balls he owns. I want to be at my job in the writing center. I want to have impulsive donut runs and random outings with my Alpha Gams. I want to find myself spending way too much time in [Dr. Burton’s] office. I want all the things–the routine–that I know and understand.

I don’t know what my computer science classes look like yet. I don’t really know what my English classes look like yet. And I know that once I get into the swing of things a lot of this will dissipate.

I know what this is. I know I wanted to be here. I love the [United Arab Emirates]. I love Sharjah. I love the American University of Sharjah. They’re not the problem. It’s culture shock. It’s my type-A personality. It’s a natural part of this process.

I just have to remember that “this too, shall pass”. [Author’s Note: Yes, I make such references to myself in my journal. I am an English major after all ]


A selfie with five women (Alex, Tara, Taru, Alex, and Safia) is shown. They are standing outside some well-lit building in Dubai. They are all wearing makeup and are smiling.
This picture was taken the next day. Some of my fellow exchange students and I decided to go to Dubai and explore the city. Just because you may be struggling a lot doesn’t mean you’re struggling alone! Also, there’s still so much fun to be had, so know that culture shock does not ruin your study abroad experience–it’s all just a part of the process!

I just want to reiterate that these feelings happen. They’re temporary. They’re part of studying abroad. Some of these feelings are even the reason you’re studying abroad. After all, you grow through what you go through.

And you’re never alone. You have fellow study-abroad friends. You have your study abroad staff (here at the American University of Sharjah, you have your IXO office and since I went through CIEE, I also had the CIEE staff. My second mental breakdown actually happened in my CIEE director’s lap, and she was phenomenal in helping me through this).

Now that I’ve been here for a month, I’ve found my normalcy. I’ve found my people. The theatre people took me under their wing now that I am in the musical, and our “green room community” has been so amazing. I’ve made so many friends in many of my classes. I’ve gotten so close to fellow exchange students. I’ve finally settled in. It took time, but it happened.

And if it happened to me, it will happen to you. I promise.

Published by Safia Hattab

Class of 2021 CIEE Sharjah, United Arab Emirates Computer Science, English (Creative Writing Emphasis)

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