“When you get there, be sure to put yourself out there and get the full experience”.
“Don’t forget who you are”.
“Skype me at least once every fortnight”.
“Take great selfies”.
“Go to New York”.
“Eat pizza and nothing else for like five weeks straight”.
“Don’t choose a weird major”.
These are some of the things I was told by my family, friends and peers as I was getting ready to leave for college in the United States.
“Beware of the culture shock”, they said. Indeed, they were right! Crossing the Atlantic Ocean into another hemisphere is no joke.
I came to this country with a rough idea of what to expect (thanks to Breaking Bad and YouTube, lol). Big cities, bright lights, cat videos, coffee (lots of it) and a very diverse population with equally diverse personalities, just to name a few.
“Get the full experience but don’t forget who you are”. I struggled with this balancing act in my head as I sat seemingly calmly in an airport in Washington. For a moment I felt regret tardily creeping up my spine. “You don’t belong here. Go back home. What have you done?”, it whispered to me in a cold unnerving voice. It was confusing for me, because up until now I was so excited to be moving to the Land of Opportunity.
For a moment, my guard dropped and all my feelings rushed to my face, turning it into a museum of emotions. An American elderly lady who sat near me with her husband noticed me and said, “Hi there young man”, which in this case, was code for “Is everything okay?”.
“I’m Alvin,” I responded, “this is my first time in this country and I’m a long way from home.”
After briefly explaining to her where I’m from and why I’m here, she said to me, “I take it not many of your friends chose the same route as you did, if any at all. You’re feeling this way because you have no friends in this land, you left all of them behind. You will make new ones where you are going. You were brave enough to decide to move to a foreign land even when your closest friends did not. I don’t know you well but I’m sure you are brave enough to handle the things you will find here”.
She might have been wrong about me being brave, but what matters is that I believed her. Her seemingly mundane words were the first positive words I heard whilst in America and therefore they are hard to forget.
Coming out of that airport, I hoped that I would meet more people like Mrs. Gray, people who are nice and able to understand my ‘homesickness’ and why I may sometimes feel out of place. It makes me so happy that here in America, I did find people who don’t find it weird that I don’t drink coffee at all or that I’ve never had Turkey (expired on 26 Nov). They don’t ask me why I don’t roll my R’s and why I pronounce ‘Zee’ as ‘Zet’. Instead, people are more interested in the way I do things and why I do them.
One awesome friend of mine once said to me, “You are lucky. You have experienced so many different cultures, places and people. Your grandchildren will not be bored!” These unexpected words put a positive spin on my experience here in America. Until then I had never thought being an International Student had such an advantage. As I look back at the warnings and pieces of advice I got back home, I realize that although their purpose was to prepare me for my next step in life, they made me forget that even though people in America are different, they are still people!
I left home to come here, left my family and my friends – basically my entire comfort zone. But then again, my connection to home was never broken, home is always a 23-hour flight away. I did, however, rediscover myself here. The ‘bravery’ that landed me here in the first place demands to be fed, with adventure, with curiosity and with exploration. That ‘bravery’ demands that I go as far as I can stretch myself and stretch myself as far as I want to go. I now have a new perspective of life and I have to say it really looks great from here.