After fighting with my mom for the entire day, I was begging to get on my plane just to stop the stress. Yet as I got on the escalator and looked back, I saw my Dad’s tear-stained face waving goodbye. Then my brother ran up next to him, waving furiously. My chest started to get tight, and I realized it would be four months before I was in any of their presences again.
Their faces disappeared a moment later, and I was alone – the most alone I had ever been in my whole life, going on a path that would only lead to more uncertainty and unfamiliarity.
All study abroad advisors will tell you and warn you about culture shock. It is supposed to explain the out-of-place feeling that accompanies being in a foreign country and out of your own element. Some people get depressed from it, and others just have a long adjustment period. Now, after having been in Bath, England for a month, I am experiencing a culture shock they did not warn us about: the shock from other Americans.
After arriving in this foreign city, exhilarated from having just completed a cross-Atlantic journey all on my own, I was excited to begin making my new life for the next four months. I did not expect to feel isolated, however, from my own peers in the Advanced Studies in England program.
It became quickly apparent that I was not similar to any of the people around me, our ideas and experiences vastly different. No better, no worse. Just different.
For instance, when we visited the palace of the Duke, we were standing in overly extravagant room after room, with ceilings made of 24-karot gold and tapestries that took 200 men to make, filled with scenes of battles won by England. Though the splendor of the place was beautiful and overwhelming, I found the cruelty to be more so. Who built these over-indulgent rooms, and how were they treated? I mentioned my thoughts to the girl next to me. She just squinted a little in confusion, and then walked on.
Later, I asked the tour guide about the people who built the palace, and she told me the queen did not even pay them afterwards because she was mad at a lover of hers residing in the place. So as we stood in this palace, everyone around me oohing and awing, there was an untold sadness of those who actually made it possible for us and the bloodline of the Duke to enjoy this grandeur.
Then, in class, we were discussing Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” one day, and everyone was to tell their opinion. The class generally loved it, thought it was a quaint children’s story that they cherished. I hated it. I found it offensive and highly problematic, yet the issues of race were not validated or expanded upon other than my own grievance. The tutor even brushed over it and focused on the reoccurring symbol of talking animals in children’s literature.
Dinnertime conversations usually surrounded the Greek life at my colleagues’ respective schools, all the plans they are making for when their parents come to visit them, and the ever-interesting topic of boys. I found myself trying to add in some sort of contribution, but my views on Greek life are not favorable, my parents are not coming to visit me and I find the rehashing of who is the hottest guy around and what he said to who on the dance floor extremely tiresome.
At home, and even in the sacred place of a classroom, where I have always felt most comfortable, most galvanized, I was becoming an outsider.
I looked to my friends and loved ones back home to try and help ease the strangeness of feeling totally unrelatable to the people around me, but the distance between computer screens is just too strong. Hearing about their stories back at my most beloved town and university, them being surrounded by each other, was fun to hear about, but the second the close button is pressed on the computer I find myself utterly unfulfilled and uncomfortable. No amount of communication could ever make my family be here or replace their presence entirely.
I craved peace, so I went out on my own to find it. It turns out, that is exactly where it was: being out on my own. The greatest moments of this journey so far are when I step outside of my apartment, put my ear buds in and know that everything I see and do that day is entirely up to me, that I will be with myself the entire day.
Each day is different in that way. I could walk through the city center, my eyes focused on the tops of the Georgian buildings because they look like nothing one could see in America. Or I go the riverside walkway, find my bench under the now browning tree, and let my music take me to reflection. I can go to the middle of the square and listen to one of the many street performers while eating my mature cheddar pastry. It could be the young saxophone player or the opera singer in the red coat or the old guitar player in the black suit, either way I can sit and listen to the soundtrack of the day these people provide for me.
The most peace and content I have experienced in the last month was on a study trip I greatly resented the night before. We went to Dartmoor to see the Tor, a large rock structure that Emily Bronte and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about. The land was totally vast, with nothing but rolling hills, wild ponies and the three ancient stones jutted upward. We climbed to the very top of the highest rock. The crisp wind whipped around my face, all was quiet and the view never ended. Striking green land and hilly topography took over my sight. I felt no obligation to anyone or anything in that moment but for myself to stop and feel that moment in all its essence.
Many talk about the thrill of independence, and I felt that when I got on the plane to board an unfamiliar adventure. Yet, what no one talks about is the serene peace that follows with living an independent lifestyle. By being alone, but not lonely, in a beautiful and strange city, surrounded by people who do not understand the experiences I have had, has given me a great sense of clarity surrounding my own life and my own person. If I am alone, I am alone with myself, and that is quite enough to feel peace, even in a foreign country.