When a Piece Reads You

It has now officially been over a year since I graduated. May 26, 2011 seems like a lifetime ago on some days, and on other days I can remember distinctly the way the sun felt on me as I posed for millions of photos as if it were yesterday. For the majority of the past year my life has been shaped, often erratically and forcefully, by my time abroad. Perhaps it is better to say that so much of my daily thoughts and actions have been sprinkled with the magic of times spent on distant shore. As I type these words with a blanket wrapped around me on one of the couches in the living room of my parents’ house, I can’t help but think of how different my life is now. Not different in a bad way, but rather just another type of exploration and a calmer source of adventure. But everything I experienced I carried back with me. I would never stay within the baggage allowances of my flights if they had to measure my heart, heavy with the mixed feelings of departures, or my brain, bursting through my head with new ideas and pictures and ways of living. I have been sorting through them since I returned to America.

About a week ago I read an article online entitled “What Happens When You Live Abroad.” There were so many parts of the article that I found myself nodding along to that I felt as though the article was, in fact, reading me instead of the other way around. I wanted to pull out some of the passages I especially felt connected to:

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

I remember before I left for Ghana, I had a conversation with my friend Roxanne, who is often on the move, about how she coped with the feeling that even though she was having her own adventures, that the lives of those she is not with are going and moving forward without her. I did not live abroad for several years, but still there was the feeling of missed connections and missed events. For me, four of my five college roommates moved to New York City and the other moved to a city where we had other friends moving there as well. They often run into other friends we made in university, and through photos and anecdotes, this fact is chronicled for me. And a small part of me worries that I will become the stranger at group gatherings. You know—the one that everyone vaguely knows what is happening to or where he or she is in the world. But I keep in touch and get better with each month at ‘being there’ even when I can’t be there.

Still, the last line of the paragraph rings truest. The greatest change that happened during my fellowship year was the changes that happened to me and not just the world around me. On a smaller scale, I recall having these thoughts when I came back from my semester in Madrid. I was back at Harvard for the spring semester of my junior year. The parties were the same, the workload was the same, and almost everything was as if I had left it in a time capsule. I had changed, but I had come back to a place that was vastly unchanged. The new and challenging environment had forced me into a new stage of my life. Those new stages can happen anywhere, but for me, it was stretching the very core of my being. I have probably only spoken to three close friends in depth about the type of living that requires you to spend hours contemplating thoughts and getting to know yourself in new ways. I have discovered much of what postgraduate me is capable of doing and being. This passage speaks to how I feel:

Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.

It is time for a new phase of my life to begin. On Friday I leave for Miami. Another move to another new place where I will know less than a handful of people. There will be more meals alone and more building new relationships and meanings to the word ‘home.’ These two sentences in the article are probably the ones that struck a sharp chord in my heart when I read it. I cannot think of truer words to share to summarize what my mind has processed during my time in the town where time does not reside. They are the words that remind me how much potential Miami has for more journeys, more loves, and more events that remind me just how durable faith is.

It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.


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