When I made the decision to study college abroad, people said it was bold. It is strange because at the time, I had never reflected upon my decision and patted myself on the back for the courage it all heralded. I focused my energy into getting into a good school and then thinking about some imminent, foreign reality: what major I would do, what club I would join, and how living in a big city and learning among great minds would be rewarding as I had imagined and dreamed of. Maybe I need not have granted myself a medal of recognition for how “brave” I supposedly was, but in retrospect, I should have been more aware of what I was losing and for the sake of which I was sacrificing it. I packed my life in two 50-pound suitcases to situate myself in a new culture, a new environment, and a new home.
Expectedly, many people ask me if I experienced any kind of culture shock when they learn that I’m an international student. Most of the time I choose a detour and tell them that the answer is complicated, entailing a long discussion rather than a two-minute conversation designated to fill in an awkward silence. It truly is and it varies by so many points of the spectrum. Personally, culture shock has not been the main issue for me, since I did not choose to study here with no knowledge of the culture and people nor envisioning and reconciliation plans. That being said, there are still subtle differences in the way we interact and expect of each other which I learn to adapt as I settle in more and more.
In the first few months, I missed home terribly—my family back in Hanoi and my high school friend now scattered across different meridians of the globe. It is not because Americans, in agonizing generalization, spend less time preparing meals throughout the day, or children are expected to be independent of their parents from an earlier age. It is not because they are more straightforward instead of communicating through contexts and insinuations. I just felt horrible for abandoning my home with the people who understand and love me unconditionally and doing so without foreseeing how painful it could be. I would ask myself why I had made the choice from the very beginning to be reminded of how worthwhile my college experience was. Still, I would repeat doing so again and again until I had grown tired of the answer to even bother questioning. Cultural differences are not the tough challenge—finding my home is.
The other evening I was walking back to my dorm room and I started to notice how familiar the cement ground was. It may seem an inane thing to remark, but for a moment the path across my campus quad looked exactly like the alleyway that leads to my permanent home, where my dad used to teach me how to bike with three 5-year-old kids riding their tricycles along. I remembered that some nights, as I lay awake in my bed, I assured myself that I could make a home out of those four walls, by a thread of light cast by the light posts located far away in the college park. I was tired, but I knew the experience was worth it. I was hopeful nonetheless.
Truth is, THIS is my new home. I don’t know how much THIS encloses, but I’m willing to accommodate it and make it my own. I guess the deal about growing up is choosing to accept that home is not a fixed edifice—you carry it with you. And even though I traveled the distance of 8,000 miles to a new environment that promises to take much time and effort for me to assimilate, I have my home within me already. It starts with the understanding that my loved ones are always watching me, and that I have a calming station to rest at whenever I’m exhausted by the relentless waves of life. It starts with the belief in myself—in my ability to live to my passions and make the most of whatever adventure that comes my way. It starts with the acceptance that time moves forward—there’s no stopping it—and the best thing anyone can do is to turn its flow into a personal timeline of magically lived experiences.
And so I look up and instead of counting the differences, I marvel at the sparkles of greatness.