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Getting Out of Your Shell While Out of Your Country

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While it’s very easy to go abroad and just focus on the views and hikes you can get to, I also think that’s the biggest trap. You could get to some, if not all, of them in just a few days if you went abroad for a week. However, you cannot become immersed in a town’s or university’s culture in just a couple days. For me, that’s what justified going abroad.

With this in mind, I should note I am not the world’s most outgoing person. In fact, I’m quite the opposite – I spend most of my time indoors gaming, and so do most of the people that have things in common with me. Getting out and about while I was abroad was sometimes was an active effort due to both my own habits and the fear I would not find anyone to spend time with. However, worry not, reader! In this tale everyone lives happily ever after.

Communities with your interests already exist – go find them!

The bulk of my free time throughout the semester was spent in one of three clubs: Go, fire spinning, and laser tag. Laser tag and Go are the clubs I signed up for at the University of Otago’s Clubs Day. While laser tag is fairly common, Go is not. The game of Go is a 2500-year-old, two-player board game from China where the players’ objective is to capture as much space on the board as possible by surrounding it with your pieces. To anyone going abroad: go to your school’s Clubs Day and sign up for things!It may not be called Clubs Day, but every school should have a similar event where all the school-sponsored groups show up to recruit new members. Even if something doesn’t look thatexciting, give it a try!

Don’t forget to try new things, especially ones that are harder to pursue at home.

I got into fire spinning courtesy of the other means of getting out and about that I would recommend: my flatmate was a kiwi with friends all around town. While parties are not at all my idea of a good time, he was fun enough to be around that about once a week I would go be a wallflower at some shindig or other. One night, the members of fire spinning club showed up with a pole and kerosene. My flatmate’s friend was a member of the club, so I eventually got drawn over to the circle of onlookers watching these daredevils play with fire just like their mothers told them not to.
Then they asked if anyone in the audience wanted to give it a go.
I’ll give you three guesses what I did. Then I signed up for the club.
Meetings were once a week on Wednesdays, on the top floor of the school’s club building. When we were indoors, the poles weren’t lit – despite the apparent insanity of the club’s activities, we kept things practical. About once a month, the club would go out after practice and do a ‘burn’ on the front lawn of the local museum, often attracting a large crowd and many oohs and ahhs. I never made it to one of the burns, but the practices were good fun – each member of the club had a preferred item to spin, ranging from the standard pole to poles with windmill-like items on the end to kerosene-soaked poi (poi is really just a fancy name for tying a ball to a string), and they would go off to some part of the room and practice. I stuck with the basic pole and got reasonably good! I can spin flaming items behind my back, around my neck, and under my legs now.

Sometimes all you need to do is show up.

Go was the second of the clubs I attended, and an interesting one at that. While I played chess in high school, board games are not my strong suit, and my interest in this particular game was due to the recent triumph of AlphaGo over Lee Sedol (I am a computer science major). The quirky nature of the club president and his enthusiasm for the game were quite infectious and made joining all the more appealing. The club met Mondays immediately after my computer science class, so it was a nice break from homework and not at all out of my way to be on campus. The club itself was… awkward, admittedly, filled with many quiet people like me who were looking for something new to try. The games themselves, once we got rolling, were heated and enjoyable. There were nights we would stay almost three hours without realizing it, since we had only played two games! Going to the local fish-and-chips shop afterward became something of a tradition as well, a place I wouldn’t have known about if not for the locals I’d been hanging out with.

If you find the perfect group, they can be the highlight of your experience abroad.

Laser tag was far and away the best experience I had in any of the three clubs. While the events at the fire spinning and Go clubs were enjoyable, it was with the laser tag club that I really found a community. Aside from the biweekly laser tag nights at the arcade, we also spent a good deal of time hanging out outside the club hours, including a release party for a video game. We got food together, sent messages constantly, and even had a tournament with an unexpectedly high turnout – seven teams of five, when the club regulars were about fifteen in total. The end of the semester was hardest when saying goodbye to my friends from laser tag club, but I’m still in contact with a few.
While I’ll avoid going into the heavy-duty details of the most memorable events, on the whole these were the most important experiences I had in New Zealand. Like I said at the start, anyone can go wander around a strange country alone; it’s who you share those moments with that makes all the difference.

Jake Redmond is a student at the University of Puget Sound and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in 2017.