October 26, 2018

LEUNG | Abroad Changes You, They Said

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Since recess time and cafeteria lunches, studying abroad had always been the dream. It was something of the future. It was living in a new city and traveling on weekends. It wasn’t school, it was abroad.

When it was actually time for me to apply, I petitioned the College of Arts & Sciences to allow me to go to Thailand (my three semesters of Italian would be useless in Chiang Mai). By the end of fall semester, I panicked. I wasn’t ready; I couldn’t leave these people or this small town I had grown to love — now, all of a sudden I was deeply appreciative of ice fests. Ice fests. And cold weather. Of course I was excited, but I felt like a baby bird who wasn’t ready to leave its nest. It surprised me: I’ve always been the type of person who feels confined and restless in institutions when I’m in them for too long. But here I was, not being able to leave.

Abroad changes you, that’s what they all say. When I studied in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I remember asking my friend early on whether or not she thought she would have a moment when something clicked; when her ideas on life would be clearer, or she knew they had changed. Living in a Buddhist country for almost 5 months would bring some type of enlightenment — even on the most personal level. Living in Southeast Asia itself allowed me to understand the differences in culture; how individualized, and even selfish we are in the United States. While it was different, I appreciated the communal aspect of Thai culture, how everybody seemed to be living with the thought that everything they said and did impacted others. And their sense of humor — it was on a different level.

Abroad changes you, they said. But behind the situational remarks of, “Oh, but it’s nothing like the tagliatelle ai funghi porcini that I ate in Firenze” or “You should’ve seen the sunsets in Barcelona — unreal,” what is it that we really bring back from abroad?

When I came back to work in New York City for the summer, only two weeks had passed since I returned from Southeast Asia. The strange part was, although I had felt so hesitant about coming back to the United States, as soon as I got back, I felt myself fit smoothly into the mold of society. I felt heavier, though, in that I had a weight of experiences that the people in my life didn’t know or couldn’t understand. Like many experiences, but especially stories from abroad that cover so many months, there is only so much that can be answered with, “So how was it?”

It was happiness: it was sunrise hikes to temples, village homestays and spring break trips to the islands. It was $1 pad thai, night markets, school uniforms and Chang beer.

It was confusion: it was not being able to communicate with locals, not understanding my place within the country, wondering if I was being treated differently because I was a foreigner.

It was sadness: it was knowing where my roots came from and wishing the important people in my life were here to experience the warmth of Thailand with me.

I came back with a tan, blonder hair and an obsession with mango sticky rice. But where was the girl who said “yes” to everything? Who learned to walk slower, listen deeper and engage more? What about the unselfishness I had experienced that made me believe humanity was capable of something greater and made me think vulnerability and openness was viable again? Where did it all go?

I didn’t go into study abroad thinking in any way that I would be “changed.” Maybe it came from my past travel experiences and skepticism with people who thought that buying 1 Euro wine was a transformative experience. Abroad doesn’t change you; it can broaden your perspectives, challenge beliefs and make you more curious or appreciative of the differences in culture. While going to Southeast Asia might have been a more cultural challenge than if I had gone to Europe, I still felt as if coming back to the United States after a semester abroad didn’t mean coming back as a new person. Even incorporating what I learned and experienced abroad proved difficult when I found myself back in the bustling streets of New York City and felt the need to be going somewhere — to always have a destination in mind.

I missed aimlessness. The feeling that I didn’t owe anything to anyone; that I could exist on my own and interact with the world on my own terms. I missed friendships from hostels, midnight rides in tuk tuks and the familiar tune every AirAsia plane would play.

These memories don’t die. They were real at a point; you were in the presence of these people, you made every one of these decisions. Remembering that this point in your life wasn’t some surreal, detached dream holds you responsible for the type of person you were. And if I can see my time abroad as one in which I lived day by day, hour to hour, in a country where seeing monks walking on sidewalks and listening to the birds sing in the evening was real and true, I can believe that the person I was is the person I can still be.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.