Thursday, June 5, 2014

Coming Out Clean

"Dress Like an Emirati" Night.
From left: Argentina, USA, Bangladesh, Venezuela, Egypt, Palestine
All values in this world are more or less questionable, but the most important thing in life is human kindness.”— Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I shouldn't have waited until the end to write this one.
I had so much more to say this semester, believe me. I wanted to talk about the purpose of education and the future of the Emirates from a business perspective. I wanted to describe the rapid-fire changes that are suddenly so normal, and perhaps even vital, to the life I've grown accustomed to. Here are some selections from different points – fragments of bigger ideas I never disciplined myself to develop.

Musandam, Oman.
April 20:It turns out that heat arrives at the American University of Sharjah not only suddenly but in a factor of two. While my family experienced mid-April snow, I brave my first week of triple digit heat, mercifully dipping to a breathable 80-odd degrees once the sun falls behind the desert's horizon each day. And amidst the hopeful social media posts of my American friends celebrating the end of the spring semester, I am faced with one of the busiest six-week periods of my young life, as our semester still has until the first week of June before completion...

The Bosphorus | Istanbul, Turkey
May 3: I'm leaving. So soon. The date has crept up on me quickly, as it tends to do. I feel caught in the middle of several forces pulling in opposite directions – the desire to finish my academic courses with excellence, to capture the moments that are slipping away from me through my writing and my photography, to preserve the friendships with the precious little time I have left, and the pressure to focus attention on my affairs in the United States, neglected for more than four months. This is not the easy part of studying abroad. This is the hard part.

It wouldn't be this way if this place had not become such an authentic and meaningful home to me. This effect first became real upon my return from my spring break in Istanbul (which, unfortunately, you may never hear about, due entirely to my own blogging delinquency). I was fresh off of a magical experience and was finally feeling refreshed after a hectic round of midterms. And I was so happy to come home. Home: it's the place where your heart lies...

The view from the world's tallest building.
May 15:
Taking a semester abroad (or any sort of international assignment, really) is, in one way, the creation of a new life. You put your old one on hold – suspend your cell phone service, your auto insurance, and you leave your car, apartment, friends, and family behind. In this old life's place, you build a new network predominantly from scratch. You reform habits according to the particular environment. The opportunities and conversations you encounter have a profound influence on your thoughts and even upon the impressionable portion of your personality. Free from the rigidity of your previous reputation, you have the ability to step outside your previous bounds to experience things you've never tried or had access to before. And this is liberating, because for a preordained amount of time, you can try out a new existence, risk-free.
So now that we are just over two weeks out from the end of it all, from the day I scrabble my possessions back into their suitcases and return to natural soil, the question comes from all directions: are you happy to be going home? There is no "yes" answer to this question without a healthy dose of "no" as well. I cannot wait to return to the dear friends and family with whom I've only been able to maintain a wispy correspondence from abroad. But simultaneously, I cannot bear to leave behind the beauty I have cultivated in this space...

No longer simply the USA.
Two days ago – June 2: I'm finished. Khallas. Packed and ready to depart. Classes and finals are concluded. I did well academically, but it's not my main consideration. All day I walked about in a functional daze, because it wasn't really hitting home yet that this was it, that these were the goodbyes, the last glimpses, the handshakes and hugs and words of affirmation. 

As I sit here tonight, snatching a few precious moments to write, I am moved by the grandeur that my experience has filled me with. The truly intoxicating part, the reward beyond a course's final grade or a single highlight of any trip to any location, is the person I got to become when I stepped away from most of the institutions and functions that my life has previously been defined by. I started totally afresh. Friendships came easier here than ever before, and even today – my last day – I met ever the more persons whom I hope to see again. That's the biggest victory of all.

In the end, my experience was not about traveling to new countries, sampling local cuisine, or snapping photographs on location at the the sights that friends will envy me for having visited. (However, I totally did all of those things and it's okay if you're a little bit jealous.) Rather, it was about forging human trust with the Other, who in their alterity is not like you. It's about welcoming another person and lifting them to a position of importance that is on equal footing with your own self-consideration. After all, business is built on a market structure, and despite a myriad of regulatory frameworks currently in place, this entire system of commerce in which we engage is still dependent on the individual actions and responsibilities of ordinary people like me and you. Trust, then, is rendered essentially vital for our own preservation and improvement as a species. We can cultivate it with our travel and with our investment into relationships, and I urge you to take part in this rich tradition.

I entitled this post "Coming Out Clean." To borrow a baking analogy, a project isn't finished until a toothpick can be inserted without any accompanying residue upon its extraction. This is not a possibility with study abroad; you cannot come out clean. You build a life that is new and amazing, and with it, you build friendships that transcend geographical proximity. You shouldn't be fully at peace with leaving, and I certainly am not. I am not pretending that I did not face obstacles. My time at AUS was not easy; anyone who describes an exchange semester as such perhaps didn't do it properly. But the challenges have shaped the contours of who I've become, and as I return home to the United States, I can look at myself and say with no difficulty that I am delighted with the person I'm becoming through my experiences. The task now is to take it to the streets – to introduce the new me to my older, more established existence.

On paper, it's back to "real life" and the prospects of an internship that starts in four days. Internally, though, I know now that I occupy two worlds – here and there – and I'm not fully me without them both. I'm happy with change, but this part of coming home isn't totally cheery. At least I know that soon enough, my heart will call me back to the rest of the world. So maybe we'll call this a love letter addressed to study abroad, rather than a eulogy. I like that thought, and it's where we'll finish for now.

Until we meet again, dear world. I love you.

Frankfurt, Germany: looking ahead to what dreams may come.

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