Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Living is (not so) Easy

It may surprise you to know that, rather than just having forgotten about this blog due to having Super Happy Fun times at UNC, this is the fourth time that I've started an entry since I last posted. There are many topics I want to post about, but getting started has been an issue. I like to write entries that are at least somewhat cohesive and have a clear line of thought. In fact, that's how I like my life to be too. But America has been nothing if not baffling, so I suppose that's why whenever I sat down to write I ended up with a jumble of emotion and poor syntax.

I had a wonderful Winter Break, beginning in Washington DC in which I visited museums, procured new clothes and caught up with old friends. Then I went to Charlotte, NC to spend Christmas with a friend's family, then back to Chapel Hill for the remaining time with a stint in the mountains too. It was relaxing. Several moments brought me back to who I used to be, whether that was in a hostel in the capital, during long conversations about politics or whilst drinking cup after cup of tea. It's strange how I feel so far apart from who I was back in England. It's strange how it all happened. I have a stronger belief in the human capacity for change than most people – that is, I don't think our personalities are as static as most people seem to – and yet I was unprepared for the course my life took out here. I expected America to be fun, and any potential difficulties I simply glossed over in my mind as being things that would “make me stronger”, whatever that means.

It says a lot about our perception of America, I think. If I was going to study abroad somewhere that isn't a Western country, say Japan, or Kenya, everyone would be in agreement that there would be a big culture shock and that it would take some getting used to. Even in the case of another European country, especially if there was a language barrier it would seem like a tough move. America doesn't have those connotations. For all the criticisms Europeans seem to have of the states, we also take it for granted that it would be easy to fit in here, that cultural adjustment would be minor, and that every day would be filled with something outrageously fun. At least, that's what I picked up from my own expectations, and the expectations others have had of me.

I've been in contact with a lot of people from home whilst out here. What's struck me as interesting is that people are surprised when I say I've found it difficult. Logically, it makes sense. I came to a foreign country by myself, with absolutely no one I'd ever met previously in the near vicinity. The majority of people I come into contact with are already established here, not necessarily looking to make new friends. There are similarities in our cultures, of course, but to say it's not different would be just plain wrong. I have interests which can transcend whatever country I happen to be in – books, music, etc – but I have no idea about TV shows we don't get in England, the local sports teams, or anyone they went to high school with. America is so much about what is current, whereas – let's be honest – I am usually a step behind.

I have a theory that if we were to draw up a list of year abroad placements, America would be considered the “easiest” option. (Maybe Australia, too, but it is further away!) In some ways, that makes it much harder. If I was crying over culture shock/homesickness whilst on placement in Jordan, I doubt anyone would question my feelings. That's not to say that America is a more difficult option, because having only lived abroad here, I have no point of comparison. It is to say that it's hard to answer, “What's so hard about it?”

There is such a huge pressure to be loving the lifestyle abroad, but, like a year at home, unhappy times are inevitable. Some weeks I did nothing but study, only instead of feeling satisfied as I do at UEA, I would wish I could have spent the time travelling. I was also easily frustrated with the work I was doing, which doesn't count towards my degree and is completely different to everything I've learnt all my life. Having such a limited amount of time here played right into my tendency to consider (okay, obsess over) “the road not taken”. I thought a lot about what I should have done last semester to make more friends, exactly when and how I should have asked for more help, even right down to whether I should never have tried to do this in the first place. America was supposed to be the time and place in which I made a million new friends, went to a million great parties, aced all of my assignments to reaffirm my own cleverness, worked out all the time because the gyms are free, travelled to all these wonderful places, and in between all that developed the Zen that was lacking from my life at home.

Well... No. But, I will say this: the positive elements appeared much later, and in unexpected forms. I have some excruciating memories from being out here, unhappy and alone and feeling like a social leper. I've definitely had some of the worst experiences of my life. I mentioned earlier the idea that all of this would “make me stronger”; I certainly didn't believe it at first. I went from being someone who was motivated, friendly, creative and positive to the complete opposite: withdrawn, sad and socially uneasy. It wasn't that I thought I would never recover, but I was incredibly ashamed of how, in my eyes, I had failed to achieve anything out here. I couldn't even pat myself on the back that it would all make me a better person some day, because it didn't feel like that at all. It felt like I was ten times weaker.

Now, I wish I could “do a 180” and tell you that it's all changed dramatically since last semester, that I suddenly fit in here, love every day, never feel homesick. This isn't the case. But, it certainly isn't torture to be here any more, and the mystical “make me stronger” idea is actually true. It didn't happen in the way I expected, and it probably isn't outwardly obvious. Being here, against so many things I didn't enjoy, gave me many things in return. It gave me greater compassion towards others; after so much indifference, I know how important kindness is. It gave me the ability to laugh at things I would normally have worried about, because they're inconsequential now. It gave me perspective on my home country and my regular life. It gave me an appreciation for comfort and familiarity. It gave me patience. There are things that it took away from me, too – I definitely am more cautious about doing new things than I ever was before – but I feel sure I will get these back in time, too.

I don't believe bad things automatically make us stronger, but I do believe they change us. We can choose how, though, and I think when the experience has been difficult it can often shape us in a more lasting way. I guess it's the difference between improving your appearance by getting a haircut vs. having a nose job... Okay, bad analogy. But you see what I mean. It's taken me six months to get to this point, but no part of me worries that I shouldn't have done it. I'm more addicted than ever to Southern culture, and I'm sure I will return here again and again. I've had so many experiences I would never have had otherwise, and, whether bad or good at the time, they all make excellent stories. The story of my year abroad as a whole is far from over, so check back soon for the next chapter.

One very beautiful reason to be grateful for this experience. Also surreal, since I spent my youth imagining these mountains in 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Rip Van Winkle'.