The Things You Learn Along the Way

4:38 AM

When people ask me how was study abroad, what did I learn, what was my favorite part, I often find myself at a loss of words. I learned so much, so much more than I ever expected to. But before I get to that, I need to start at everything that happened before.
~
When I started college over three years ago now, I went in pretty confidently. I had lived away from home before, I was in a relationship with someone I really cared about, and my parents had made me start doing my own laundry years ago. What else did I need? Armed with cute dorm decor, friends I already made at an Open House, and a great roommate, I was positive that college was going to be the best four years of my life.
It's never so simple, is it? In the first semester alone, I missed my family and house a ton, I was on and off medication for anxiety, I ended a long term relationship, and I went through a lot of different friend groups before finding people that I could be my true self around. I think it's pretty normal for people to hear about how college is not always an easy transition, but no one never expect that they will be part of those who struggle.
I felt lost in a lot of ways, particularly no longer being in a relationship. When you're with someone for a long time you get used to having someone around who knows you almost well as you know yourself. Being alone feels uncomfortable, and scary, and hard. So I dove headfirst into finding a college companion. There were some nice people, and some not-so-nice, but all of them seemed to flee around the "DTR" stage (define the relationship). In one particularly heart-wrenching "what are we" conversation, it was suggested that I needed to find myself. That because I hadn't find myself, I was not someone that boy wanted to date.
Hearing that you have to find yourself is an unsettling thing. Why did I have to find myself when I already knew who I was? Wasn't the year I spent in Malaysia supposed to be the transformative experience that led me to develop a definitive sense of self? Where do you start looking for something when you don't know what you're trying to find?
The next weekend, after a trip to Annapolis to eat too much pasta and attempt to steal a giant spoon, I ended up at my college's boathouse late at night with the very first friend I made at Washington College. While watching the stars, I recounted to my friend the boy's comment about finding myself. My friend turned to me, and said, "You know, he has a point." Hearing this sentiment echoed by someone I care a lot about felt different than hearing it from someone who likely said it as a means of not wanting to enter a relationship. The same night, after the magical experience of seeing my first shooting star, I conceded to the idea, that yeah, maybe I need to figure this whole "finding yourself" thing out.
I bought a tiny blue notebook and inscribed on the first page "How to Find Yourself." I filled the first few pages with small souvenirs of happy times, like the receipt from the aforementioned pasta dinner and a poorly drawn recreation of what the sky looked like the night of the shooting star.  I thought that finding myself would be a simple process of realizing what made me happy, analyzing my flaws, and drawing some conclusions. At the end I'd be able to take this newly discovered self and present it to the world, tied neatly with a bow. Here I am, I'd say. Now will you date me? Is this what you were looking for?

But of course, life doesn't work that way.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving break, the Washington College campus awoke on a Monday morning to an emergency alert on our phone that there was a potential shooter on campus and that we were to stay inside. As the morning stretched on, people started to fill in the gaps. The potential shooter was Jacob, his parents had awoken to something last night and realized that he had come and taken a gun with him, and they had called the school. Police escorted us to the dining hall to get lunch around noon, but mostly we sat in our dorms waiting and wondering. The lockdown was lifted the next morning, only to be reinstated soon after when new evidence about the threat was revealed. At the end of the day, the college made the decision to evacuate the campus. I went home with my roommate, surreally watching interviews given by our classmates on the tv, our tiny school on the Eastern Shore making statewide news. Eventually the college made the decision to close campus until the end of Thanksgiving break, adding a week to our time off. I went back to New York, unsure of what was going to happen next.
Two days later, I received a text from a friend that Jacob's body had been recovered. Suicide, death by gunshot wound to the head. It was hard to find things to be thankful for that Thanksgiving.
Jacob was one of the first upperclassmen I met at Washington College. He took me and my roommate under his wing at our first frat party. We ended up going on one of my favorite dates I've ever had, driving into the cornfields of Chestertown and sat by the side of the road, watching the stars.
So when the news of his death broke, I broke too. I called the boy who told me to find myself and cried to him, I cried to my waterfront friend, I cried to my roommate, I cried to the WAC staff member who called to check in on me, I cried to everyone. One night while out for a drive, I parked my car in a parking lot to have some time to think. When I went to leave, I couldn't get my car to start. I called the find yourself boy again, panicking about having broken my car and being stuck in a random parking lot. It was only after I had hung up and stopped crying that I realized I had left the car in drive when I turned it off and simply needed to put it in park before I could start it back up.
There's a metaphor there I think. You need to have the car in park before it can be started again. You need to take time to stop, to think, to heal, before you can resume your life as it was. The experience of losing a good friend, of returning to a campus in mourning, of having my entire first year of college changed because of an event led me to realize that maybe there was maybe some value to the whole "finding yourself" thing after all. But I didn't give it a lot of serious thought.

In January of 2017, in the spring semester of my sophomore year, I set off to study abroad for a semester in Leiden, the Netherlands.
And it was beautiful. I've written entire blogs (https://wp.me/s20XbB-17150 if you want to read more!) on how gorgeous the semester was-- how much I learned, how much I grew, the people I met, the places I went. It was so amazing in all the ways I needed it to be; so much so that I ended up deciding to stay for a second semester. It was the Netherlands that taught me how to live a life full of joy. Life there was not without its challenges of course, but mostly consisted of being with fun people in fun places doing fun things. There's a word in Dutch that's received some media attention for its meaning: gezellig. If you pop it into google translate, the English translation you'll get is cozy, but it's more than that. Gezellig is the feeling of sitting with your friends on a Friday night, watching the sunset, drinking some lekker biertjes en wijntjes (delicious little beers & wine), laughing and talking about life. Gezellig is being with your best friend and seeing the Eiffel tower light up at night for the first time. Gezellig is walking down an unfamiliar street in an unfamiliar city, yet feeling like you're right at home. If I had to sum up my semester in a word, I'd use gezellig-- the feeling when your heart is so full of joy and companionship and warmth that it might burst. Leaving the Netherlands was hard in a lot of ways, but mostly because really felt at home there. However, when I left I knew a few things. One, I would be back some day. Two, the Netherlands will always be a very special place for me. Three, the lessons I learned there will continue to impact my life for a very long time.
~
Less than a month after I returned to the US, I left for another semester abroad, this time in Beijing, China. China was also a beautiful experience, but in an entirely different way. It was really, really hard a lot of the time. Chinese culture is vastly different from American, let alone Dutch culture, and so sometimes it felt like I was experiencing two levels of culture shock. The first two weeks in China were very challenging. I celebrated my 21st birthday two days in with strangers (that would soon become friends), and then was more or less flung into a country, communicating in a language I hadn't studied in over a year. Did I mention that Beijing has a population bigger than the entirety of the Netherlands?
But when the culture shock wore off, when I took the time to explore my new home, I fell in love there as well. Every single day in China was unpredictable, and I began to enjoy the sheer weirdness of living as a foreigner in a foreign land. I learned how to speak Chinese because I had to. Ordering dumplings, selecting the right bubble tea, riding the subway-- all of the important things really depended on it. In China, I felt very accomplished, and very gritty. Beijing can wear down on the most seasoned of travelers. It is a city where, despite smoggy skies, everyone is trying to climb upward, and that can be a hard environment sometimes. I won't lie to you about that. But I will tell you that China is an incredible place. It has a rich culture with a deep history, some of the best food I've ever eaten, and offers a chance to experience something completely new.  The Chinese are a truly kind people when you need help, for me it was especially the Chinese teachers and other Americans in my study abroad program made the semester truly unforgettable. What I learned from China is how to be tough, and that people will like you when you are yourself.

And now I'm back.

There are gaps I'm leaving out in between Beijing and here, I spent a fantastic summer studying Mandarin in Taiwan, and in May I backpacked around Southeast Asia with my best friend. Those were important parts of my journey too. Because what I finally, finally, figured out is that finding yourself is not something linear. It's not a conclusion that you reach, it's not a finality, it's an ongoing process that is pretty amazing. 52 cities across 27 countries later, I think I'm starting to get it. If you travel far enough I guess you really do find yourself.
That's not to say that you need to embark on a crazy around the globe journey to figure yourself out. My year and a half of self-exploration and discovery just happened to coincide with my year and a half of world-exploration. What travel forced me to realize, along with the two lessons I mentioned above about joy, toughness, and confidence, was how to be alone. The people I met were undoubtedly the most special part of my experience, but at the end of the day I always had myself. I found a piece of myself at the end of grocery store aisles filled with products and people all in a different language. I found a piece of myself in solo coffee and dinner dates, confidently saying in a new language that I'd like a table for one, please. I found a piece of myself when I got lost on public transportation going in the wrong direction, and I found another piece when I got off at a random stop on the tram to discover a new part of the city. I found myself in laughter and tears, gezelligheid and hardships.
And what did I find? Who, actually, am I?
This is what I've pieced together so far.
My name is Hannah, but if we're speaking Chinese you can just call me 娜娜 (Nana). I love dogs,  egg salad sandwiches, sunshine, and shopping. I hate hiking but love the views at the top, particularly sunsets. I love and care for people a little more deeply than a lot of other people do, and sometimes that ends up with me getting hurt. But that's okay. Because I am really tough, and resilient, and I will get through whatever life throws at me. Also, if someone rejects me, they're missing out.
My favorite part of the beach is the feeling when the sand is sucked out from under your feet when you're standing in the waves. I have really, truly, the best friends anyone could ask for. Seriously. They're amazing.
I love to travel, to fly to a new country on a map and have it come alive before my eyes. Meeting the people, trying the food, discovering what makes a place unique and special. I have homes around the world, with special soft spots for Malaysia, the Netherlands, China, and Taiwan. I know that wherever I end up I'll be able to find happiness and create a life there.
I am so so grateful. That's the big one. I don't know how I got lucky enough to have these people in my life, visit the places I've been, and live this life that I love. My gratitude for it all stretches to the heavens and across the seas. I don't even know what to say.
If you're reading this, thank you for being part of my life, in whatever way you may be. Thank you thank you thank you, terima kasih, dankje wel, 謝謝你。

So when people ask "what did you learn while abroad?" and I answer "too much to even describe," this is what I mean; these are a few of the things I learned along the way.


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1 comments

  1. its been so long since that day i read your blog, when you in malaysia. Wish you

    have a bless and wonderful life always hannah

    ReplyDelete

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