Wast Al-balad; what a wondrous place. I strolled through the narrow, overstuffed streets and alleyways, keeping an eye out for pickpockets, and soaking in the sights, smells, and sounds of my new home for the next four months. It was my first week in Jordan. Any confidence I once had in my ability to speak and understand Arabic had already been shattered by the Jordanian who stamped my passport in the airport. Now I just resigned myself to the fact that I had no idea what was going on and attempted to act as if I knew exactly what was going on. “Just be cool and act like you belong” I thought to myself, “just blend in; you got this.” This calm assurance did not really help my nerves, but it seemed like right thing to do was convince myself that I had everything under control.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”—Cesare Pavese
In my last blog post, I discussed the terror I felt at the beginning of each of my study abroad experiences. I said that I feared that which I did not know. Indeed, I think that is the only truly frightening thing about traveling—we do not know what to expect. Guide books and online blogs (much like this one) only provide so much comfort. Before the experience itself, there is no way to know whether you will like the food or the people or the unique quirks and oddities of whichever culture you are about to enter.
Before I came to Lithuania, for example, I knew almost nothing, repeat: nothing, about this country. Okay, so I had the good sense to look it up on a map, locate its presence (and it is a minute geographical one, let me tell you) in Eastern Europe. I had discovered that the language the locals speak is Lithuanian, and that it is the oldest, most well-preserved Indo-European language still in usage today. I read a bit about its history, that it was once a part of Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The information I have stated here, though, is quite literally everything I knew about Lithuania when I arrived in mid-September.
To be entirely truthful, I think I came with a slight degree of arrogance. After all, I had already lived and studied abroad, as required by my school, in Latin America, India and in Asia. In all of those places, my physical appearance (blond hair and blue eyes) clearly indicated that I did not belong. I knew it, and so did every person with whom I came into contact. They knew it before I even opened my mouth. So Lithuania, I naturally assumed, would be an easier transition. I mean, I look more traditionally Lithuanian than many of the Lithuanians themselves.
What I have found, though, is that my resemblance here is actually to my detriment. The Lithuanians expect me to speak Lithuanian. They expect me to abide by their cultural norms, and because I appear to be one of them, they are less forgiving when I ignorantly fail to comply. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the act of smiling. I am an American, and smiling is therefore a natural reaction for me to almost anything. Accidental eye contact? Smile to prove you are not rude. Find yourself in an embarrassing situation? Smile to demonstrate that yes, you know it is embarrassing, and you would be laughing too if you were not the one in it. But Lithuanians, as is the custom in most of Eastern Europe, DO NOT SMILE. Now, do not misunderstand me. They are a wonderfully kind people. A smile, however, is not a demonstration of amiability here. In fact, I think it is rather interpreted as a sign of mental instability.
Unfortunately, I’ have still not managed to adapt appropriately to the whole ‘no smiling’ rule. It is something far too ingrained in me to rid myself of in just three months. However, it is not the only adjustment I have made. Eating, too, has become something strange for me. Now I am sure you are wondering: how can eating be weird? Pick up a knife, fork, or spoon and put the food in your mouth, right? Well, it sounds easy enough, but remember, for the last two years, I have lived in India and China. In India, I ate with my hands (you may insert your sigh of disgust here) and in China, I used chop sticks. Now, though, I must to return to “normality” and re-learn how to eat with Western utensils. Side note: it is more awkward than you think.
You can imagine me now, I am sure—blond haired, blue-eyed college student, shyly making attempts to speak (but, in reality, butchering) the beautifully historic Lithuanian language, smiling abashed while mishandling a simple knife and fork. It is a sight that would make even Charlie Chaplin cringe. Now imagine this person working at a U.S. embassy overseas! Yes, that is me, fumbling to appear “normal”, while surrounded by a group of Lithuanian businessmen and women (with their impressive resumes and titles and elegant mannerisms). If you fear the notion of studying abroad because you might look foolish, then look no further than me. I am a veritable testament to the fact that it can happen, but even if it does, you will survive.
Now, do I think that traveling is a brutality, as Mr. Pavese states in the quotation above? Perhaps a bit, but that is not quite the word I would use to describe it. Rather, for me, traveling is Alice in Wonderland meets The Wizard of Oz. I never quite know where I am or what I am supposed to be doing. I do not know if I am speaking correctly or eating properly. I always have this strange sensation of not knowing what to do with my hands, and I develop this irritatingly keen sense of self-awareness, in which I am overly attuned to my gait and posture. In other words, I often feel upside down in a world that is downside up. Meanwhile, along my dizzying journey, I meet my fair share of Scarecrows and Tin Men and Lions, who help make the Yellow Brick Road a bit more manageable.
So traveling is not a brutality for me; it is an opportunity. Every month, every day, every hour, every minute, and every second is an adventure. Sure, I spend most of my time in varying states of disarray; I think that is half the fun of the adventure, though! I never quite know what I should be doing, and there is therefore no right way of doing things. I mispronounce words; I struggle to cut my meat; I am the lone smiling person in a sea of stone-faced Eastern Europeans. Nothing makes sense, nothing is my own, and yet at the same time, everything is mine—it is my experience.
Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Sean Deegan. Sean is a current Gilman Global Experience Correspondent for the Fall 2013 semester in Moscow, Russia. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” –Cesare Pavese
This quote is a very interesting one, indeed. Although some of it I can understand completely perfectly, other parts are not quite so correct in my eyes. Traveling abroad definitely forces one to rely on strangers, but this is not always, or even usually, a bad thing. Relying on the help or the directions of another person is a very humbling experience and it reminds us all that we are not alone, but part of a larger world-community. I always find that it feels really good to receive directions or help from a stranger, but it really feels fantastic passing that helpful hand on to someone else. That need for help is something that unites us all as humans; none of us could make it day in and day out without others, but sometimes we lose track of that need because we do not realize we are relying on others. It is often easy to forget that you are relying on your parents, your friends or your family because it is so normal.
As for the second part, it can be true that nothing is yours if you let it be. On some of my more hopelessly homesick days, it definitely felt as if nothing was mine, nothing was normal or familiar. It was all too easy to become preoccupied with everything strange and unfamiliar. I have learned best on those days, that it is so important to keep a sense of what IS yours and what you CAN control. Yes, the air, sleep, dreams, etc. that Pavese mentions are yours, but also your memories of friends and family are. Your experiences and opportunities while traveling are most surely yours and if you are so worried about what does not fall under your control you may miss the chance to really experience the smallest moments of your days or miss the opportunities you are offered.
Really what this quote comes down to is one’s perspective. If you spend each day seizing the opportunities and living the moments given to you, you will find new things that will become yours. The commute to class, friends, new food or whatever else you encounter will soon make the shift from being strange to being yours. They will not replace the things that were yours before, but they are still a valuable part of being abroad. You may have to put your faith in people you have never met, but as long as you do it the smart way you will definitely see that these experiences can often be very positive. These experiences have brought me to a place where I can say that Germany feels much more like home than I ever imagined it would.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
- Cesare Pavese
In China, I have found it fascinating to witness how I can be a foreigner, a 外国人wàiguó rén, yet still feel often enough like I have not tread so far as I actually have. Every day, I have class where the teachers speak exclusively in Chinese, but the moment a break occurs, my cohorts and I revert to English. I have come to feel the trap of being a foreigner, being set in one’s ways. It is a struggle to keep myself from speaking English all the time, and I often fail. I spend much of my time speaking with other Americans in my program for hours in English. Call it a defense against homesickness, a flirtation with familiarity, but the blunt fact is that it is hard to make the most of this short experience as an expatriate.
Out of the people I know who study abroad, not many people go to a country as foreign as China. Many go to Australia, Great Britain, Spain, or maybe Ireland. Often, many of these students do not have to deal with what I have to: they can go out into the streets of Brisbane and talk to anyone they want, or go to a play or the movies in London without any language barrier. Though I am here in Beijing to study Chinese, there is a problem with the fact that I had not studied Chinese much before coming. Therefore, I cannot just go and make Chinese friends because the conversation would be over very soon!
Though, this is good because I am learning a lot about the language, it has made my experience far different, than if I had decided to study abroad somewhere in Europe. It is very easy to get around and do things in Beijing, and my Chinese is good enough for most common situations that arise, but I often feel separated from the city. I know I am an American, the Beijingers know I am, and that is something so evident here in China, whereas if I were in Europe, I would not look so foreign. It is a struggle sometimes because the environment is so foreign, and I am so foreign from the environment. Here in Beijing, it is tough reminding myself that I need to be studying Chinese. I tend to withdraw into myself and the small American corners of the city, as a natural way of trying to make myself feel comfortable. It is like I need to try tricking myself into being lost in Beijing sometimes, because only when I stop watching American shows and start listening to Chinese music, do I really take advantage of my experience here.
The brutality of travel can be mitigated and overcame, as long as I make the most of everything. Becoming a foreign recluse, hiding from Beijing is not a way to experience the city at all. Exploration, living with an adventurous mindset – that is where growth is sowed. To trust strangers and live with only the bare essentials has long-term benefits, that one cannot gain from trying to remain cozy at home. You learn the most from falling down. Staying off-balance in a foreign land will teach me so much about who I am, who other people are, and the relationship between me and them.
My biggest hope is that my Chinese language will grow, so that I can make more use of the study abroad experience and maximize everything about spending a semester in Beijing. I have had a great time here already – I can only imagine how great it can be if I can communicate better! As my Chinese teacher would say, “好好学习!” (Study well!)
According to poet Cesare Pavese, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.” As an American student in a studying in Barbados, I would have to disagree with Pavese’s assessment of travel.
Of course the actual travel can be extremely brutal. Between layovers, cramped seats, bad service, struggling with luggage, going through security, and having to deal with rude people, it is a wonder people go anywhere at all, but I don’t think that traveling makes one constantly unbalanced or that is something that make you lose sight of the familiar. If anything travel can make you more balanced, put the familiar in perspective, and help you to appreciate what is yours. In my time abroad, my experience on the grub line is my best counter to Pavese’s quote.
At the University of the West Indies, when you move into the hall for the first time your first week is an initiation. It is tradition for the first year/new residents ‘freshers’ of each hall to stay up all night for the whole week while the older residents on the hall ‘super seniors’ teach them the mottos, songs, and chants for their respective halls. It all leads up to a battle at the end of week to see which hall has the most spirit. This process is called grubbing or being on the grub line. It is seen as a way to immediately integrate new students into their new environment and jump-start friendships among new residents.
I was not looking forward to grubbing. I figured that it would be a bunch of cheesy activities similar to my orientation during my freshman year of college back in the States. Participation is not mandatory; however most people do participate and as the only American/foreign student in my hall I thought it would look bad if I did not. I did not want to be known as the ‘stuck up American girl’ or disrespect a tradition, so in spite of my reservations, I decided to participate.
On the first night, at about 3am, I was rudely awakened by the super seniors who were running up and down the hallways yelling and banging on pots and pans. The freshers were summoned to the TV room where we were given names that we were to be referred to for the rest of the week. It was more or less the same for the rest of the week. The super seniors would wake us up at odd hours with pots and pans and we would sound off with the motto, the song, and the chants.
As the American girl; however, my accent interfered with my learning the songs and the chants, though most of the verses would be in standard English, some verses would be in a dialect. Most of the time, I would just move my mouth and imitate the sounds other people were making. It was like singing along to a song where you know everything but that one line and you ad lib as you go. It was funny, but I felt so foolish. I felt even more foolish when I asked someone how to pronounce the words and what they meant and could not understand what they were saying because of their accent.
By the time we had to battle the other hall, I knew some of the words better and in other places I had perfected the ad libs. For example, in one of our chants there was a line that said “wi nuh tek chat watch di words weh yuh fling” (we don’t take chat, watch the words where you fling) I kept saying what I was hearing which was, “we no ton chant watch the worth when yuh fling.” Luckily, I have adjusted to the various Caribbean accents that I am exposed to on a daily basis and I now know how to properly pronounce our chants, but I still have many moments where I mouth the words.
To date, grubbing has been my most unique experience in Barbados. Though it was something that was completely out of my comfort zone and completely different from anything I had experienced at home, I never felt as if I were off-balance. Even in the moments when I missed home the most, I still felt as if the experience was giving me a new perspective. The grubbing process also did not make me lose sight of what was familiar. It made the familiar more endearing. I have a greater appreciation of home and have a better concept of what home means to me now that it is so far away.
Pavese was almost right when he said that nothing is ours when we travel except for the essential things that tend toward the eternal. Except for what I brought with me, and the room I am paying to keep it in, nothing in Barbados is mine. Even though ownership of these things is far from eternal or essential, being able to claim them as mine gave me a small place and space in a country where I can claim nothing.
Studying abroad terrifies me, perhaps even more so than it does the average person, and perhaps even more than it really should. I’m naturally a quiet person, an introvert. For every hour I spend in the “real world,” I like to spend two hours in my own. So, many would be surprised to learn, I think, that I have studied abroad.
First, I traveled to Costa Rica, the land of coffees and Ticos and the “pura vida” mentality. You cannot imagine the anxiety I felt before boarding the plane to San José. Such was the fear, in fact, that I refused to leave my family’s hotel room the evening before my flight. Second thoughts clouded my thinking. “I am not the type of person who can do this,” I told myself. I have never flown. I have never spent more than a week away from my parents and the Midwestern life of an Ohioan was the only one I knew.
Ironically, it was my parents, the same people who begged me not to travel abroad, who convinced me that I had to do this. I wanted to travel for so long. I wanted to experience the world, to become cultured, to have adventures. For about two years (my junior and senior years of high school), traveling and languages and geography made up the bulk of my conversations. It was what I wanted, even if my emotions disagreed that night in my parents’ hotel room.
And so the next morning, I joined my twenty new classmates (the people with whom I was to travel the world for the next four years), and journeyed to my ultimate destination, the place that was to be my home for one year—Heredia, Costa Rica.
At this point, you probably expect me to say that suddenly everything changed, that suddenly I no longer had that same feeling of temerity. But the truth is that I was still scared, even as I climbed into my new bed that first night. Everything was new and exciting and wonderful and, yes, scary, but the year passed and with it my anxiety passed too. Heredia, Costa Rica became as familiar to me as Columbus, Ohio. By the time I returned home the next summer, I actually felt a sort of reverse-anxiety. After all, this place had become my home.
That journey is one that I have experienced again. This year, I moved in September of 2013, to Vilnius, Lithuania. Like clockwork, the night before my international flight, I curled up in my bed, trembled, and asked myself if I can handle it. You would think that I had become immune to such thoughts of insecurity, but I would be lying if I said I did. Traveling terrifies me. But it is the adventure, the voyage into the unknown, that gives me the greatest joy, for when the adventure is done, and I board the plane to go home, that unknown is now familiar. With each of my travels came a significant discovery, both a geographical one, and a personal.
This blog is going to tell the story of my study abroad experience in Lithuania. Unlike my last experience, I am not here with my classmates. I do not have a Center where I take classes. I do not have a host family through whom I may immerse myself in the culture. Here, I am an intern in the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius. You can follow my intern-y escapades here and at my State Department blog: http://vilnius-diaries.blogspot.com/.