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Going on exchange: Time to pack!

two people in a car

Hey all, yes, it’s me, talking about going on exchange… again! I feel I don’t have any more wisdom to impart to all of you on this topic, however, I always seem to come back to it.

Probably because my exchange semester in Beijing (Autumn 2017) was – no doubt – the absolute best experience of my life so far. And, as I have already talked out with my family, partner and friends… you are the victims now. This time, I will focus on what to pack in your suitcase – besides a raincoat and an open non-judgmental mind, these two are a must.

You can read more about being open-minded and adapting to the culture in my posts Tips for an exchange semester in Thailand and Tips for an exchange in Argentina.

It is time to reinvent yourself – nobody knows you over there

Have you ever stopped for a minute and asked yourself whether you are wearing certain clothes out of personal taste or whether you are just following the monthly fashion trend? I hadn’t. In fact, ignoring that punk attempt when I was 12 after visiting Camden Town in London, I have always followed in whatever way I could what fashion magazines said. Considering I had no salary, the trends I could follow were limited, but I tried to keep my style up to date.

Then I moved to Denmark and started imitating Danish style without noticing. Suddenly, most of my clothes were black. And then it was time to attend CBS.

We grow up in a society that has very well-defined roles – and not only gender roles. We grow up, we go to school and, if we are lucky, we go to university. Once at university, there are rules on how to behave, what to wear, almost what type of coffee to drink. My dad bought me a Macbook because how was I gonna go to CBS without one?

At least it was a second-hand one and it was well received by an excited teenage me… However, why on earth do we need an overpriced laptop to just use One Note. Years later – actually during exchange – a classmate from CBS who was also in China once asked “Wait, do you wear sport leggings to… CBS?!?”.

But when the time to pack for exchange comes, take a moment to think what clothes best define you, all the pieces you bought because they spoke to your personality and not to fashion (like the black Day bag we all got back in 2015/16 and, sincerely, it looks like a trash bag).

I don’t mean you can’t be proud of your home country – on the contrary, exchange is also the time to export some of the best cultural traits to others. Some are well received – punctuality is appreciated everywhere – some will not – all of our Chinese classmates spat out the salty licorice we brought. Just keep in mind that nobody knows you where you’re going, and nobody knows what trends prevail in your home country – thus, nobody cares.

It is your opportunity to create your style, embrace it.

Now, open your suitcase and let’s start packing.

munks in a temple

First impressions count worldwide: don’t overdo it

Start with light layers for special occasions. A simple “What brought you here?” can be an amazing conversation starter, just as wearing a nice, flowered blouse to the welcome party. After moving around several times and starting fresh in new countries, I came to realize that, during first impressions – welcome party, first-day drinks, spontaneous exploration trips around the new city – wearing something casual was better received. And it worked both ways.

When I went on exchange, I felt intimidated by the different people who would come extremely well-dressed on the first day. As if they were too cool for me. Personally, I did not see the point, as we all just want to make friends as soon as possible to tackle the loneliness of a new country.

people sleeping in a train station
You never know whether you'll end up sleeping in a train station. (Private photo)

Clothes for all seasons & all occasions

A friend of mine went on exchange to Hong Kong. So, he decided to pack only summer clothes. After all, he was going to spend five months in tropical weather. That’s fair.

However, his group of friends decided to visit Beijing in December – where it easily reaches minus degrees during winter. The story applies to me as well. I fell into the trap of packing nice clothes for the first month of heat and then, when the time came to travel to Southeast Asia after the semester ended, I had no warm and comfy clothes for the long hikes that awaited me.

Consequently, I had to do a shopping spree in a cheap flea market in Vietnam with money I could have spent much better on phò and beers. What’s the lesson here? Bring a couple of outfits for every season.

fem photos of happy people
From the horrible heat of August until a freezing cold December in Beijing. (Private photo)

Bring sport clothes: a truly global activity.

An activity that’s truly global is playing sports. In any country you go to, you will find people playing sports. Yes, I know, different sports, but the concept remains the same: exercise, have fun, meet others. Hence, yes! Pack those leggings that are too trashy for CBS, that old Distortion T-shirt if, like me, you have no sports T-shirts, and any pair of sneakers. Mine were from H&M, that’s how not-at-all sporty I am.

In your host country, you will meet people from all around the world, and activities that you thought were shared by all young people worldwide are not.

As I wrote in a previous post, most of our Chinese classmates were not into Friday bars where all we did was drink beers and play loud background music.

Luckily, I had one whole year to find new hobbies, but you won’t. You have five months and let me tell you something… time flies during exchange. You travel there in late August, blink and it is suddenly mid-November, you have gained a couple of pounds and are behind in all your lectures.

pictures of students trekking
Hiking was the sporty activity I chose, but I briefly tried swimming too. (Private photo)

Consequently, there is limited time to think of new activities to bring you closer to your peers from other continents. I found the key was to play sports. Any sport will do, and it’s better if you’re in a team. Find one that is somehow familiar to you and don’t think about it twice.

Now, if you are really not into sports, find a group of really not sporty people and go as the cheerleader team, since sitting on benches, eating snacks and watching people pretending to play football is as much of a bonding activity as playing.

tents in the mountain
Camping in the Inner Mongolia Volcanoes, bonding and comfy. (Private photo)

Do you even need high heels in your home country? Focus on having fun.

If you ask me what the best fashion trend in Denmark is, I’d answer: undoubtedly sneakers! Danes wear sneakers for everything: work, university, graduation ceremony, even nightclubs. Maybe because of the biking culture or maybe because they have discovered that when shoes are uncomfortable, your whole body is uncomfortable.

The point is that I absolutely love being able to wear sneakers to pretty much any event and not feeling out of place.

However, this is not a characteristic of every country. While I am now seeing more of my friends around the world catching up on this trend, the truth is that when I was a teenager, I felt the pressure to wear high heels to party as part of the social code of conduct. It was hell.

You forget to have fun because you are too preoccupied with not falling and spilling your drink, twisting your ankle or just looking stupid as there is no graceful way to walk in high heels when you are eighteen.

people partying
A normal lecture turned into a visit to DiDi headquarters, and a welcome party turned into a weekend away sleeping in trains. (Private photo)

So, my last tip for packing is: do not bring high heels. And I will extend the advice to: do not bring anything that’s uncomfortable.

First, so you can divert all your energy into enjoying the moment.

Second, because more than once you will find that one plan will suddenly turn into something completely different, and a day that starts with a short trip to a temple can continue as a coffee tasting session, ending in a very fancy nightclub and later turn into eating baozi at 8 am at your local food stand.

My welcome party turned into a whole weekend away, sleeping in night trains and washing ourselves at KFC. I will forever be grateful to my H&M sneakers. Ah! Don’t bring a purse, invest in a good-quality backpack. That was the best financial decision I have made in my life.

7 pictures from travelling
My best friend during exchange: my backpack. (Private photo)

I hope you enjoyed the post, and that you learnt some valuable tips for your exchange semester. This is my last post on this topic, however I have become the master of packing by now, so if you have any other questions or suggestions, don’t hesitate to drop me a message or post a comment below!

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