Monday, 12 August 2013

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

What did I do THIS time?
I left you with a kind of cliffhanger in my last entry.

You may be wondering what is going on with my patched up feet. Well, I'll get to that. It's part of my story of the first ten days of living in Oxford. I'm writing this in part to remember it and tell a good yarn, but also as a comfort to anyone who has just started out abroad and is having a tough time.

My first few days were exactly as you would expect. I moved into my apartment, bought items at the local Walmart, collected a package of tea and goodies I had sent myself, and attended several orientations. And I do mean several.

The first was a day-long international student orientation, in which I met students from many countries including Canada, China, Ethiopia and Mexico. The orientation leaders went through the alphabet and had people shout out their countries as we got to each letter. There was some confusion about how to represent us. United Kingdom, Britain, Great Britain, England? I grew up thinking of myself as English and being from England, but American vernacular has seeped in and now I refer to myself as British and from the UK. Whatever. We talked about classes, culture, healthcare, food, politics and, rather importantly, immigration matters. This is why I don't get the movie Like Crazy. Did her school not provide her with an orientation? Why would she just overstay her visa like that?! Everybody knows you don't overstay your visa!

I expected better from you, Ethel Hallow.

The next day we had a very long Graduate School orientation, which unfortunately covered a lot of the same matters... On the one hand, I applaud US universities for making such an effort to inform students right away. On the other hand, I kind of like the British approach which is to mumble awkwardly for 30 minutes then hand you a bunch of paperwork that you will inevitably stash away and forget about. Anyway, we were let out of the auditorium for the glorious sunshine, plus free lunch and a T-shirt. Here I met a few people from my program, who I would see again the next day at the Southern Studies orientation. We sat in the conference room of Barnard Observatory, where I would have many classes, and shared our interests and where we were from. We were introduced to members of the department, including a few second years. Then we had a picture of the 13 of us outside on the steps of Barnard to mark the occasion. "Dear God," I thought, getting in to the spirit of Mississippi life, "Please let me graduate." Then one last orientation for those of us with assistantships.

I'll talk more about my assistantship and classes in another entry, but for now I'll give you the basic details. In the Fall semester, my assistantship consisted of a Teaching Assistant position for a Southern Studies 101 class, and a Research Assistant position for a professor in the department. In the Spring semester, I continued to be a TA while assisting with research for the Mississippi Encyclopedia. As for classes, in the Fall I took a compulsory Southern Studies graduate seminar, a Southern Foodways class affiliated with the Southern Foodways Alliance, and Documentary Studies. In the Spring, I continued with the graduate seminar, plus a class on Faulkner and an internship with Living Blues magazine. I spent most of my undergraduate years attempting to give all my projects a southern leaning, and now I don't even have to try! It's such a great program and I feel very lucky to be part of it.

My new home, Barnard Observatory.

On top of the orientations, there were several social events organized by the department. As you can imagine, the summer evenings in Mississippi are very nice; once the sun goes down it is less unforgivably stifling and a much more pleasant temperature. So many events are held in the garden/yard. Now, given my disaster with mosquito bites during my first week at Chapel Hill, I came to Oxford with many insect repellant supplies: cream, spray, and even a special type of sunscreen with some mixed in. I say that it my own defense, because every time I am bitten someone scolds me for not putting any bug spray on. I DO use it, it just isn't 100% effective and those damn things seem to just LOVE my blood. Actually, I believe they love pasty white English skin, as other internationals have been bitten badly too. Anyway, can you guess what I'm leading up to? I was bitten all over my feet and legs.

It was worse than the time in Chapel Hill. I repeat, IT WAS WORSE THAN THE TIME IN CHAPEL HILL.

Always the overachiever, when I visited the doctor he pronounced my hivey feet as, "the worst case of insect bites he had ever seen." I was then prescribed antibiotics, a large dose of steroids, and rest. So I sat in my new apartment with my boyfriend, who had now missed his planned departure date in order to wait on me, change my dressings, and carry me from the couch to the bed. Here's another important detail to this story: I was already considering moving out. I can't go into the full details, but suffice to say, there was a safety issue with the apartment that I considered to be a dealbreaker. As I was trying to get my head around moving somewhere else already and thinking of all the legal/logistical things I had to do before the semester got underway, I got much sicker.

There is some debate as to what actually happened, as different doctors suggested the following: a) They were not actually mosquito bites, b) They were mosquito bites, and were also carrying West Nile disease, c) I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics, steroids, or both, d) I was prescribed too high a dosage of steroids. Personally, I think I am just more allergic to bites than anyone most doctors come across (I get hives and dizziness), and the enormous amount of steroids didn't help. Anyway, I ended up in the emergency room, crying about my new ridiculous life in Mississippi and the fact that no one understood my accent, requesting to see my parents, and having to email my department at 4am to say I would be missing the first day. Not a good omen for the rest of the semester.

In the end, it all turned out okay. I moved out of my apartment and into a house with two North Carolinians (plus a cat and a dog), gathered furniture for my new room, said goodbye to my boyfriend, and hung my ER bracelet up on my bulletin board. I kept it as a reminder that, no matter what happens here, it could not be worse than the first week.

But that was before I had experienced finals week.

I'm kidding. I know how much it sucks to have your very first week in a new place be filled with uncertainty, sadness and sickness. In Chapel Hill, I missed a few of the early social events and felt like I was late to the game with making friends. Being sick for my first weekend brought on an unexpected wave of homesickness. I let that homesickness define me. I let it pull me right down into a depression that took months to get out of. In Oxford, I am proud to say that I did not repeat those mistakes. I did experience homesickness again, and I did have some stressful days that made me cry and wish I'd stayed home. But for the most part, I got on with my life. I reached out to people, made new friends, worked hard for my classes and job, and before I knew it the end of the semester was near and Oxford was my new home.

It's hard to have stability in a new place, especially if you've only got a few months or a year to experience it. I remember that before I left the UK, I was told about the stages of culture shock. Theoretically, I was supposed to looove the new place in the beginning and feel some culture shock a few months in. Maybe this is dependent on personality, as some people don't seem to experience culture shock at all. For me, every time I have moved, whether to Norwich, Chapel Hill, Oxford or home at any time, the first month was the hardest. I guess what I want to say is, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of reactions to moving abroad, remember to reach out to other people. Reach out if you need help, but also if you're doing great and could cheer someone else up. (This applies to those at home as well as abroad.) I'm also happy to help anyone who wants some TLC via email or Skype. Really, no one needs to go through what I did the first time around. This is what I realized in Oxford, and I'm much happier for it.

For anyone who's struggling, remember that those of us with the scary experiences have the best stories to tell! Not convinced? When I got back to UEA, I mostly had classes with others who had returned from a year abroad. Sometimes I would start telling a story to the person next to me, and it was often so outrageous it would make everyone turn around to listen. I can promise you that was not the case before.

So how about y'all? If you've lived abroad before, how was the first week? If you're going abroad soon, what are you excited and/or nervous about?