An American abroad

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London, city of a thousand parks and a thousand more pints. It was my home from last September to June. And even with all the memories I’ve accumulated in the city, it will always remind me first of a dorm by the river and a group of friends within its halls. Friends, I might add, that were indispensable to my time abroad.  

When I first arrived in September, I sat at a bench outside my dorm. It was about an hour before check-in and the weather was unusually hot for the city. I sat behind a hollowed-out and renovated brick power station, which now functioned as London’s modern art museum. It stood across the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral. A line of trees encircled the building. The leaves were green and puffed like cotton balls. I had a book of John Keats’ poetry in my bag, but I didn’t have the attention span for poetry that runs over a page long. So I sat, idle and nervous.

The first month in London felt like an experiment full of errors and false positives. I planned a meticulous schedule of arriving early to campus and staying until dinnertime. That fell apart in under a week. I thought I’d cook lunch, then I found out how inexpensive Tesco sandwiches are. I thought I’d go jogging in Regent’s Park on Sundays. As it turns out, I didn’t even go jogging on treadmills.

The stores and cafés in my neighborhood promised regularity, an escape from the unfamiliarity of a big city. The people I sat with at dinner promised the same. A month later and I had the feeling that apart from the other UC Berkeley students and a few people I had met around campus, I hadn’t found a friend group, a routine or a regular café to work in. My experiment was inconclusive at best, or at worst a failure.

Then, a series of fortunate and seemingly mundane events later, I had a friend group in my dorm. It was mostly Americans, but of this I have no regrets.   

The month was October, a dreamy month before the realities of our home reasserted itself in November. The days revolved around dinnertime in the hall, when we were all together to decompress over sticky rice. It’s funny that for the first few months abroad, I had the feeling not that I was living in London, but that I was waking up there every morning. Every day was a day abroad. Abroad felt not like a place one could go to, but a form of life, where each day felt like an experiment in living.

Gradually as the months wore by and the surprise of November was followed by the unchanging December, London became a city full of memories and not the absence of them. Forming memories is the first step towards love, I sometimes think. With the Christmas season rolling along, I was developing warm fuzzy thoughts about the capital. And the eggnog certainly helped.

Part of studying abroad is spending a great deal of effort on everything you once took for granted. It is the struggle to remake an old lifestyle in a new place. There is, however, another aspect of it I found equally significant. And that is the reimagining of where you came from and what that means

I doubt, in fact, whether I would have ever truly understand what it means to live abroad if it wasn’t for my American friends. Spending time between them and my European peers revealed the different manners and tone I used — where I was goofy and presuming with my friends, I was deferential and reserved to others. I was hesitant in speaking too favorably of the United States, lest it come off as chauvinism. On the other hand, I felt circumscribed in offering opinions about anywhere elsewhere.

I assumed more than a change in manners, though. I often felt like I was entering an elaborate dance every time someone said, “Oh you’re an American!” This was a delicate posturing between acceptance that I represented America for them and my own desire to meet each person at their culture. In some ways, I would always be an outsider to London no matter how long I stayed. This was but another experiment on my trip, this time in being a stranger.

When I returned to the States, I thought about the memories, which seemed to overflow from my time abroad. Still, I was nostalgic for home. I was no longer a stranger. I was back to the old me. And yet I felt I had lost as much as I had gained back. In America, we scratch away our differences. We don’t realize as we do it. We speak of melting pots instead. In Britain, I couldn’t scratch or melt away my difference. I would never be British. But this freed me to express all my differences, to reconstitute myself with everything I was hiding. I was largely unbothered by my place in their society.

Growing up in America, you can only ever wish to be an American, an identity which extracts as much as it promises. You have no choice in the matter, even if you will always come up short. I returned to this ceaseless current aware that I can not fight its course. But I’m all the better for knowing.

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