Time is a weird concept, especially when studying abroad. On my computer screen, I keep track of three different time zones: One for my parents (-8hr), for my friends back in the States (-5hr), and of course, one for London (0hr). Meetings and phone calls are usually scheduled at extremes – early in the morning or late at night. When I call my parents, I am often a day ahead, well into my daily activities. Groggily, they’ll tell me that they just woke up.
In addition to the thousands of miles of ocean that separates the United States from the United Kingdom, the time differences seem to enhance the obvious distance between the two. While I sleep, things are happening in America. They always are. Yet, rather than being exposed to a constant stream of updates and fragmented soundbites, I hear about things long after they have already happened. The information I receive is more complete and the time that I spend taking everything else in is neatly condensed into one or two articles or a podcast recapping everything that has happened.
Although it is difficult to keep track of everything while abroad, the delay that these time differences have created are also a welcomed breath of fresh air. In a way, it has given me the opportunity to escape the narrow fixation that, as Americans, we often have on local news. Instead, what is happening in the United States only encompasses a fraction of what I pay attention to. Globally, the world is changing, things are happening, and time is passing. Yet, I find that being in London – a few hours ahead of the place that used to make up my world, has allowed me to take in the present while simultaneously broadening the way in which I think about international affairs. Although my semester is coming to an end, I find myself thankful for Big Ben and the time that I’ve spent learning about the world based on a different clock.
My parents were immigrants. Although they seemed to thrive in ambiguous situations, I knew how hard they worked. From them, I learned how to ride a bike, how to hold my little brother when he first came home from the hospital, and how to live between the fringes of two worlds. My parents never pretended to have all of the answers. However, they knew that if they couldn’t teach me, there was always a library, a teacher, or an English-Spanish dictionary that could. Tirelessly, they made sure that my brother and I could call America home.
In the midst of the internet boom, my dad lugged a bulky computer and eagerly, to my mother’s dismay, set it up on the kitchen table. Although my parents had shown me what determination looked like, they had the foresight to invest in a boxy piece of technology that would give us access to a world that they did not fully understand.
After school, I would spend hours on this computer. Initially, I would tinker with games like Solitaire and Pinball, beloved classics to anyone born in the mid ’90s. However, it wasn’t long before it became the tool my parents intended it to be. In a way that I hadn’t been able to before, I was able to learn about the culture that my parents had left behind, translate my homework and essays into a language that they could understand, and I began to teach myself things beyond what I was able to learn in the classroom.
However, when immigration laws eventually forced my parents to return to Mexico, I found myself in a situation that challenged everything that I had known to be true. At fifteen, I lost the guidance that my family had provided me and felt defeated by what I had always known to be the land of opportunity. Yet, it was my family’s sacrifices that inspired me to stay in the U.S. without them and it was their confidence in my ability to continue finding opportunities that helped me believe that it was possible.
It has been more than 7 years since I last lived with my parents. Since then, I have constantly searched for ways to repay everything that my family and the community that helped raised me has done for me. In high school, I read forums online – researching the best universities and what it would take for me to be able to fund them. I read blogs and looked at how others pursued their ambitions, often lingering on our shared experiences. For me, the biggest risk had been living in the U.S. without stable housing or a family to come home to. After that, it seemed logical to take every opportunity that I crossed paths with. In my mind, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
It would be naïve to credit grit as the sole factor for many of the opportunities that I have been able to take advantage of. Statistically speaking, students in situations like mine rarely complete high school and in some of the darkest moments, college seemed unattainable. However, it was thanks to the adversity of these experiences that I had the confidence to take on risks even when I felt unsure or unqualified. Time and time again, I found myself able to dismiss rejections and pursue alternatives. In many ways, keeping an open mind helped me apply to schools like the University of Pennsylvania and apply to programs like the Gilman Scholarship.
Today, I take for granted how easy it is to look up directions on my phone and explore a place like London, one of the most global cities in the world. Yet, I can’t help but think of a younger version of myself sitting wide eyed in front of an old computer. Captivated by that clunky monitor, I was unaware that I would one day get to explore the world that my parents had been so eager for me to see.
Two days into 2017 and I found myself on a long journey to the United Kingdom. After spending the holidays at home with my family in Mexico, I packed my suitcase and drove north for four hours, just me and my mom. We crossed the border and arrived in Tucson, Arizona – spending a brief night in a place that I had also once called home. Ever since my parents relocated to Mexico, I rarely have the opportunity to visit. Perhaps it was just the nostalgia, but it felt right to be in the place where it all started before flying to my college home again.
The next morning, I took in the lingering smell of the desert rain and kissed my anxious mother goodbye. Seven hours later, I found myself lugging my heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs to a mostly empty college apartment in Philadelphia. After two years studying at the University of Pennsylvania, it also felt like home to walk around my college campus and have late night conversations over noodles at the local Ramen Bar. Less than 24 hours later, I packed up my second suitcase and stumbled back down the stairs before heading back to the airport for another day of traveling.
By the time I arrived in London, I had passed through 3 different countries over 3 days of travel. Disoriented and exhausted, it was difficult to find the charm in London when I first arrived. My heater didn’t work, my phone service went out, and there was no logic in the placement of crosswalks. During orientation, I sat in the back with one of my best friends from Penn and we rolled our eyes at every cheesy presentation while introducing ourselves to an overwhelming group of new people.
What school do you go to? What are you studying? Where are you from?
Though the entire situation surrounding “Abroad Orientation” called for small talk and awkward introductions, my inconsistent response to every “Where are you from?” question made me uneasy. As I stumbled to simplify my complicated background and the different layers that compose my identity, I realized that home could take on different meanings. To other American students, I was mostly from Arizona, the place where I grew up. In awkward and somewhat incoherent sentences, I would also mention Philadelphia before quickly moving on. On the other hand, to my British classmates, I was clearly American. Yet, I would often find myself clarifying that I was Mexican too.
It has been a month since I first arrived in London and as the days pass, introductions and “where are you from?” questions have become less frequent. Still, these past few weeks have encouraged me to look back and pinpoint the places that I call home and people that have inadvertently impacted and influenced who I am. At a time when the value of diversity has been questioned and undermined, I find myself embracing my background and the framework that it has provided as I find my place in this expansive and multifaceted city. Sure there is no place like home and there is no place like London but I have a feeling that the two aren’t altogether mutually exclusive.