Monaklen Chea
Dec 15, 2022

Will I miss this city - Exchange program in Saint-Etienne

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9 min read

A Brief Background about Me and My Journey

“This is a new beginning” That was my thought when I decided to apply for this exchange program in Em-lyon Business School in France for their fall semester for 2022. Little did I know that it instead is the “Beginning of an ending”.

Hi? Thank you for being here reading this. My name is Monaklen (I became Mona living in France), I am from Cambodia. I am a one-semester exchange student, from National University of Management, Cambodia. Now, studying at Em-lyon business school in Saint-Etienne. My journey started not long ago, however in 18 days, Saint-Etienne will be just a place I’ve been to for an Exchange, not anymore a place to call home (since our leasing contract will be coming to an end as well).

To lots of people, France is a dreamy country and it was no different for me. Even so, my first days in France were rather gloomy. But, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of my one of the kind experiences.

Lost Luggage

It all started when we (me and my schoolmates from Cambodia, who are also my roommates) landed in Nantes Airport in France. That’s where I have to accept the fact that my luggage is not in the place it should be, I had these bad feelings when I was packing at home and not seeing my luggage in the claiming area did a great confirming my bad feelings. I felt so light, emptied and hopeless. I rushed to an uncle who was at the lost luggage claim area and told him about my circumstance. It was in the afternoon, the airport became so quiet and he was kind enough to make a request to find my luggage for me. The next morning, we were roaming the airport again since our final destination was Lyon (we weren’t supposed to be landed in Nantes, however because of canceled flights, we had to go to Nantes Airport first and then continue with another flight to Lyon). When we landed in Lyon, I too along with my roommates went to luggage claiming area, in hope that my luggage miraculously suddenly appear here, even though it weren’t in Nantes to be transferred. Miracle didn't happen that easily and I rushed to the lost luggage service area with a heavy heart. Later that night, I received an email that they found my luggage. I was suddenly on cloud nine. But my luggage didn’t come to me easily, I missed my first delivery, we made an appointment for delivery for the next day, it never came, we called the delivery person for lots and lots of time until finally, he blocked our phone call, the next day and another after, we tried and tried to contact luggage delivery service and finally about 3 days later, my luggage arrived.

The Pharmacy

We live in an eight floor flat, 25 mins away by foot from Emlyon Business School. Me and my Cambodian roommates adapted well to France. There are marts and pharmacies in the area very close to our flat. It’s very convenient since there are quite a lot of pharmacies and marts from our house to the university and almost everywhere else. I recognized the convenience it brought because one day, within the first two weeks  in France, I was chopping my carrot. I chopped and chopped and chopped and I almost chopped off the tip of my index finger on the left side. It happened so quickly, my blood dropped to the floor, the pain became more and more painful, everyone had class that afternoon. I tried to use the tissue and bandages to stop the bleeding, but I injured myself quite deeply that my bandage was soaking in blood. It was so scary, I didn't know what to do other than going to the pharmacy asking for help. So, I took some money and walked quickly to the pharmacy, enduring the pain. I told a pharmacist there that I injured myself when chopping the carrot using a translator app and let her see my finger. After that, she went and called another pharmacist- a lady in her 40s, she looked at my sympathy in her eyes and gently helped me clean my wound and bandage it. She refused to get the payment even after treating that wound so warmly, it made me feel fortunate despite the fact that I almost accidentally chopped my finger tip off. I was sort of glad this accident happened, maybe it was meant for leading me to this warm and generous side of the world.

Self- Discovery

The sense of Belonging

First time that I traveled almost half a world away from my home country, away from my family. I was quite chill even with the fact that I didn’t make a plan for this journey which was not like me at all. I always find myself  panicking when I don’t plan for anything or when things are not working according to my plan. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t traveling with her alone but with my other four schoolmates who are quite familiar and knowledgeable with this traveling thing.

I couldn’t say I belong here even though I adapted to the lifestyle here instantly. I didn’t quite fit in, however I also didn’t feel that left out like I did from where I’m from.  I learnt that belonging might just be a feeling connected to your sense of security and self-esteem. Some people are lucky enough to find and connect with people who make them feel safe to open up and build their confidence. Make them feel the sense of belonging. It wasn’t only pure luck though, the price for those luck is the efforts.


I wished and prayed that one day, some really, really great people would come to my life and we’ll be friends like truly real friends. People won’t just walk into my life, even if they did, my detachment attitude and anxiety would just push people away, even though this case won’t happen, if I didn’t make an effort to speak, to make friends then most likely no friends. Thanks to the opportunity as an exchange student, I am well aware of how bad my communication is. It's not how you convey words, it’s also about the courage inside of you at that exact moment of conveying a message. To put it simply, I need to improve my communication skills and inner self healing come in handy. This issue also defined my academic performance, for instance, when I know what we’re doing in the group project isn’t that great or perhaps wrong, rather than communicate to my team members, because I think that my words won’t matter much anyway so I chose to stay silent and just agreed to them, surrendering to group think, aware with the fact that it won’t end up well. Worst decision ever - but it taught me that not trying my best will bring me regrets - so I made a promise to myself, I won’t run away and turn down people who could actually become a significant person in my life, I won’t be this person, the one I have turned out to be in this exchange program, it’ll take time but it's worth being patient with yourself.

Side note 1: Don’t be so brutally honest when giving feedback to your teammates when the course is coming to an end because it already ended and with little or lots of effort we all tried somehow. I found myself to be harsh from time to time because I’d like to be straightforward and truthful, I’d never see that as my kind of negative trait even though my dad told my from time to time not to be so direct with word, I embraced this side of me when giving feedback to my teammate in one course, I realized how I could have done more better with polite.

Side note 2:  Please learn languages, imagine the fun and insights you can get talking to the people around the world, this is one of the things I regretted the most - not learning French before coming to France, even though for only four months.

The learning environment

Learning here is so different from Cambodia, the schedule and amount of courses we can choose (we don't choose courses in Cambodia since we have only five). Here, we get the chance to meet new faces from one course to another and that makes communication skills even extra important. And as a semester exchange student, I learnt how limited time is, whether you choose to give your all living in the moment or just let time pass, it is all your choice.

Side note: a plan is going to come in handy if you’re an exchange student in Europe, especially for one semester like me. Because you can get to travel to your dream places, but you have to make time for it. So, choose your courses according to your plan. My number one priority is to study, so I chose everything and in addition to having no plan, I was constantly being hard on myself and I studied hard, definitely not smart: don’t be like me. It was not unexpected at all that I  found myself burnt out when the semester came to an end.

Listen to your Heart, Use your Brain, Follow your Intuition

You will never know when, which direction and in which way will danger come into your life. So, when something feels so wrong, let yourself question the situation, the person, everything. It doesn't matter if someone calls you pessimistic. Your safety matters more than their opinion of you. 3 months in, endless unpredictable experiences, one night, after going out to see the light events in the city center with my 2 other roommates. At about 8pm, I came home alone early and I almost got into a kidnapping trap on my way home on the bus, this is just my assumption but the possibility of this being the case is huge. So that night, there was this kid who came out of the blue and asked me if she could sit in the seat next to me. She then asked me if I’m a fan of BTS or Blackpink (probably because i’m an Asian with monolid) and what is my career and where I live (it’s okay I lied), she then asked about my Facebook messenger, if she can borrow my phone to contact her friend because her mom doesn’t let her go out alone. It was quite confusing because we talked using both English (her english was really good even though she said she only know little) and a translation app, and at the end of conversation, she said she wanted to be friend on Facebook because she had no friend and wanted to be friend with me, luckily I deleted my Facebook long ago because it was so overwhelm, she insisted and was ready to send a message (Hi) to an account on my messenger when I got into messenger app but I took my phone away from here and start questioning that facebook account, she said it is her mom and she already asked her permission (that lady sat on the seat in the row before me, she had no reaction when that 11 years old girl came and interact with me), that kid seems to be panic when she approach the bus stop she need to get off, so I told her that “I’ll add you when I got home”, I never did, obviously, it’s too creepy and risky (a kid came out of the blue, tell you beautiful and want to befriend you too desperately), I was super shocked and frightened, so I text a few close friends of mine and also my brother, because I needed to talk to someone about this and immediately I received a call from my brother and I told him everything and he told me to rest well, everything is going to be alright, that I did great. I am determined not to talk to an innocent looking, talkative, smiley kid who asks suspicious questions like that ever again. (me let her lead me until we got to the messenger even with a heart full of doubt was a very not smart thing to do)

Even though I experienced lots of bad days, there are also some beautiful days such as the ones where I interacted with the 4 female classmates I met who are Chinese. Thanks to them, some days  among those bad days, I was able to feel like having friends.

My existence from this city will vanish just like how all the snow melted away overnight. But the experiences it gave me is shaping me.

I learnt too many things including my own definition of happiness, freedom, friend and if I really want to be such a detached person. And also totally understood what people really mean when they say that it will only be meaningful if you have people who you can have joyful moments with.

I couldn’t express everything I learnt, my whole experience in this. I can just tell you, that there’s no loss in this experience, everything is a gain but make sure to stay safe and sane.  

Thank you for coming all the way through here! Hope it can help you in some ways:)

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