“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
This quote is the most accurate way I can think of to describe my feelings for this country. During my first few weeks, I was happy to be in a new country discovering another culture, but I was by no means head over heels in love with life here. A week or so ago, as I sat with some of my American and Kyrgyz friends on top of a hill overlooking Bishkek and watched the sun go down over the city, I realized something had changed. Somehow I had fallen in love with this country without noticing it, and I had fallen hard.
During my orientation at school before departing for Bishkek, we were shown a graph of the stages that people go through when they study abroad. I’m not going to lie, the graph made me pretty nervous. Although I had never traveled abroad before, I had traveled throughout the US and I go to school pretty far from home, so I’ve experienced being separated from my family and friends for long periods of time. The thing is, home-sickness was something that had never been a problem for me, so I really had no experience dealing with it. Looking at this graph and listening to a presenter tell us that we would all at some point feel depressed and helpless was definitely intimidating. It also just didn’t sound like me. I think the presenter could see the doubt on my face, because she was quick to assure me that she hadn’t thought she would feel those things either, but she had experienced every single stage on the graph.
During those first few weeks in Bishkek, that graph was always in the back of my mind. I kept wondering when the frustration with the culture, the homesickness, and the helplessness would hit. Then, as I sat on that hill and looked out over the city I had come to love, I realized something. This graph wasn’t written in stone, I wasn’t obligated to feel things the same way someone else did. I’m not saying that there haven’t been times when I felt out-of-place or when I missed my friends, but, for me, these feelings never resulted in me wanting to leave or feeling extremely sad. I don’t think there is any model that can accurately predict how every single person will react to a situation and I think people experience different stages of this graph at different intensities and some may skip certain stages entirely. It doesn’t mean that some people are stronger or weaker than others; it just means we’ve all led different lives and react differently to situations. For me, I think I skipped the first stage, or “honeymoon stage” as its sometimes called, and just grew steadily more comfortable in this country until I realized that it was starting to feel like home. Perhaps, the fact that I didn’t have this period of overwhelming infatuation with Kyrgyzstan when I first got here helped me to not have a lot of negative or frustrated feelings down the road. I think what all of this comes down to, is that how we react to situations is completely up to us. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m pretty sure that every single student in the history of students who have studied abroad has had some sort of inconvenient, frustrating, or scary thing happen to them on their trip. Of course, some things have more of an effect on us than others and are harder to get over, but for the most part, how you choose to react to these things will define how you feel about your experience and determine how much you learn and get out of your trip when it’s over. It’s an empowering, but also slightly scary feeling to realize that we have so much power over our lives. I’ve gained so much from my experience in Kyrgyzstan, but I think the biggest thing so far would be this realization that I define my life and that I don’t have to fit it into anyone else’s mold, no matter how tried and true this mold is said to be.