On Studying Abroad, Traveling, and Acting on Wanderlust
04 April 2014
I'll be honest. There was a part of me that didn't want to write this post. Traveling. Traveling is one of the most written about, romanticized, overdone topics out there. Thought Catalog's easily got probably 50+ articles about it, Buzzfeed... let's not even go there, they have so many lists of 'places to see' and 'breathtaking views' and whatnot.
But I couldn't not write this post - I had to articulate my thoughts on my last three months somehow, and like all the things I've experienced and loved and photographed endlessly and enjoyed, the blog was the only fitting place to document it.
When choosing a university, a quality study abroad program was one of my "musts." I knew it was an experience I wanted in my undergraduate career, no negotiations please. At Stanford, most people choose to study abroad for at least one quarter, and it's really no surprise - our study abroad program is heavy with grants and donations from one family, which made it a lot nicer than I expected. I chose Oxford because it's Oxford, but also because I'm a sucker for all things British and because no other country called to my heart like England did. There was no language requirement, but in every other aspect, it is known to be the most academically rigorous program we offered. Oh boy, was it rigorous.
We had one ~10 page essay due per week on top of readings that grew at an exponential rate (I went from needing 6 sources in the first week to 50 in the last), a weekly meeting with a tutor in which I had to defend my arguments, explain foggy points, and elaborate on themes. Additionally, I had a seminar about women writers, in which I had to read a novel per week. Essentially, unlike most other abroad programs that I'm aware of, Oxford made it a point for us to actually study abroad.
It was frustrating and it was mentally exhausting, but I came out of it with a renewed interest and deep understanding of my topic. I was challenged and critiqued in a way that I have never been before, but was rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and improved skills in writing, speaking, time management, and research. In that sense, the tutorial system proved invaluable.
The tutorial system was perhaps my first foray into realizing that some things are done differently elsewhere. Granted, the tutorial system exists only at Oxford and Cambridge, but it was mindblowing to understand that not all students in the world go through the same lectures, sections, majors, minors, midterms, finals cycle like I do.
And therein lies the most important lesson I took out of my study abroad experience - we are so small. And yet, we are so big. What on Earth do I mean by that?
We are so small. I mean, think of how many countries have sent planes and ships and submarines to go find that Malaysia Airlines plane. Think of how massive a Boeing 777 plane seems relative to a person. And yet, it's nothing but a grain of sand in comparison to the ocean. As humans, we're prone to be self-reflective and a little selfish, and so in our mental map, we don't seem all that miniscule. But we are. We're so tiny.
In Europe, I rode many a train, plane, coach, and taxi, and I always claimed the window seat. I always liked gazing at the countryside or at the hustle and bustle of the sidewalks or at the cows grazing grass, and I always thought - you never existed to me before now. It was mind-boggling to grasp that I am literally one in seven billion people, that I'm essentially replaceable and insignificant. Moreover, the issues and the matters important to me... really aren't so important in the grand scheme of things. Issues important to my culture and my country... fade, really.
Diversity, a matter of utmost importance in the USA, so much so that there are numerous lawsuits and pamphlets depicting a rainbow of faces at every college you'll visit, is not given two hoots about at Oxford. Sure, there are people of color. But Oxford doesn't make nearly as much of an effort to emphasize it. Racism is a pervasive problem in the US; classism is more prominent in the UK (they don't have doggy bags, and that made me sad).
You begin to realize that we've all given in to stereotypes and generalizations. Every American accent I overheard in the UK went on and on about Harry Potter (me included). And if you bring up California to any foreigner, it's all "wow! palm trees! sunshine! blondes!" Bring up Texas and, "do you have a gun? do you have a horse? do you have cowboy boots?" We see what movies and books and pop culture tell us to see.
We, to the world, are tiny. But the world and what the world can show us, to us, is huge. Upon first sight of La Sagrada Familia, I let out a huge gasp and an "oh wow." As I looked around me, I witnessed the same wonder and awe in the eyes and faces of countless others. So many people, so many people that I do not know, who are irrelevant to me forever and always, and who are only in my life for this given second - all sharing this same moment of having their breaths taken away. It's a powerful feeling, getting to watch this happen.
Each time I left a city, I tried to sum it up in a phrase or two. Obviously, it was always impossible. There's no possible way to capture any city - not by photographs or words or any sentiment, really. You don't get it until you see it; any other explanation simply does not do any justice, not at all. But I tried to describe each city - Rome was like a vintage movie set, Paris a watercolor painting from the Musee d'Orsay. London, charming London, is a tiny toy village. But it started getting more difficult as Edinburgh and Dublin and Barcelona were too similar to the others to give different explanations, and yet too different to give the same ones.
Sometimes, I forgot I was in Europe. Or, I didn't so much as forget as I didn't make an effort to process the fact that I was in Europe. Because like Barcelona is similar to Rome but different, they were all similar to the USA... but different. When this happened, I intentionally tried to jog my brain a bit. Give it some exercise. I would imagine a map of the world, place a mental pin at Stanford or in Houston where my parents were, and then I would place another mental pin wherever I was. Then, slowly, I'd zoom into my pin little by little - first, you'd see the European continent, then the country, then the city, then the building tops, then the little cars and people, until finally, I found myself a dot in the midst of the other dots next to me. It was a mental trick that always gave me a little kick, a little reminder to enjoy it while I could.
Traveling. If cliche, there's a reason for it. If overdone and overwritten about, then good. Because it means that people have had a similar story as I have, and that I've shared in a universal human experience. Sure, we probably didn't see the same sights or meet the same people (or maybe we did, who knows). But it means that people have had a similarly mindboggling, difficult-to-grasp, puzzling, challenging, rewarding, insane, beautiful, unfathomable, spiritual, incomprehensible time. And because of that, we're not so little after all. The world and everything it has to give to us, as long as we try to see it and make sense of it, makes us all so, so big.
PS. Traveling has also taught me that I like a good gin & tonic, a beautifully made mocha, accents, cheap flights but fancy hotels, window seats (except on long flights, because then I have to pee), and obviously, photography. Photography, maybe a little too much. Sorry, friends.
PPS. Comments are turned off, because this was quite the ramble, and mostly written for me. But as always, if you'd like to discuss - hit me up via e-mail!