Letters to Home: Twice I Tried to Write About Studying Abroad and One Time I Did
Roland Barthes is writing about music and grains and fully body experiences. It’s a Tuesday morning and the Spanish boy in my class is wearing a floral bomber jacket and Doc Martens. He’s more stylish than the rest of the class combined, and as per usual, I’m impressed. The grain of the voice, my Czech professor is explaining, is about music that transcends what is pleasant or unpleasant to the ear. It’s an experience. A shiver down the spine, a punch to the gut, a head-bang delivered from the artist to that nameless face in the crowd otherwise known as you. I can see Prague Castle out the window and I’m wondering whether or not Beyoncé has got the grain. Barthes said this: It’s easy to condemn ourselves to the adjective, to describe things in terms of likes and dislikes. Admittedly, I disliked the last Beyoncé album. I’m worried now. Perhaps, I missed the memo on that one.
Studying abroad—and travel in general—is easily trivialized. It’s simplified in the snapshots of plates laden with guláš, the steins teeming with pivo, or the Gothic cathedrals towering overhead. Hackneyed phrases enter my everyday vernacular to placate inquiring parents or friends. “It’s so beautiful,” I might write. On the phone, I could gush, “I’m having a great time.” Or maybe, “Yes, the food is delicious." More often than not, I find myself following the path of the adjective—the beautiful, the great, and the delicious. The experience itself is lost in an inexplicable need to label it.
Barthes wanted to redefine how we appreciated and understood music. Me? I’m less ambitious (and less eloquent). Instead, I’m grasping at the words to describe a physical experience, a sense of being. There’s a tension that exists once you open an experience up for consumption. The point where a moment is no longer yours, but something to be shared, is a tipping point into the absurdity of translating an experience. At that point, there are filters (mental and Instagram in nature) that strip a second, a minute, an hour of its singularity.
Is it possible to translate the feeling of an agnostic muted by the grandeur of a Gothic cathedral? Perhaps there are words for it. Maybe those words can offer a picture, perfect dissection of that instance in time: a stillness only broken by the rustling of clothing, an organ’s tune that reverberated throughout, a nameless body made motionless except for a racing heart otherwise known as me.
Or maybe you just had to be there.
Sometimes, I forget I’m Asian. This happens somewhere along the same neural connection that knows I can’t write or speak Mandarin, have only been to China once, and always forget the names of dishes when ordering dim sum. Growing up in Redmond, Washington, which, due to Microsoft, is a veritable melting pot, I never felt out of place.
My America is a story of immigration. Of my closest friends, all are first-generation children of immigrant parents or immigrants themselves. (Two Chinese, two Russians, one Taiwanese and one Canadian. If you’re in the hunt for an affirmative action friend, ring us up.) Despite this, our sense of being American was rarely challenged. We shared the collective experience of a generation that grew up watching Lizzie McGuire, playing Halo (poorly), and rooting for the Huskies in the Apple Cup. In other words, I was a cliché—a near perfect story of assimilation.
In Europe, it’s impossible to forget that I’m Asian. This is primarily due to one four-word question: where are you from? Because, inevitably, that leads to: no, where are you really from?
Where am I really from? Well, I really thought that I was from Washington State, but now that you ask let me go double check. At first, I found myself annoyed. (Europe doesn’t magically cure a case of sass.) But, upon consideration, I found the root of my annoyance was that my American-ness is, at times, so difficult to articulate.
A Czech buddy once asked if life in America was like the Mormon vlog he consistently watches on YouTube. I scoffed. Another time, I was asked if I was a cheerleader. I snorted. In Croatia, a Slovenian asked if I was a Republican and loved guns. If I recall correctly, I didn’t even bother to reply. Though these European stereotypes of America were (and still are) humorous, each of my denials ultimately led to a greater dilemma. How am I supposed to describe America? How can I even generalize characteristics between the East Coast and West Coast? Is it even possible for me to identify with a Midwestern culture that willingly consumes the monstrosity that is Jell-O salad?
Certainly, of everything I expected in Europe, defining the qualities of "an American" was far from the top of that list. It’s December now and I still don’t have a neat, pithy answer for what it means to be American. I’m sure that if I was in a more tolerant mood for the typical, idiotic propaganda, I could wax poetic about freedom and liberty and AMURICA. Or maybe I could put together some articulate argument that might sound like a bastardized Paul Krugman op-ed (words words income inequality words words liberals). Instead, what I have is a map.
In Seattle, CenturyLink Field, the stadium that the Seahawks and Sounders share, is situated directly next to Safeco Field, where the Mariners play. The stadiums are on the western edge of Seattle, bordering the Puget Sound rather than Lake Washington. Go north from CenturyLink and you’ll eventually hit Pioneer Square and the famed Pike Place Market. However, nestled in the shadow of Seattle’s NFL behemoth, is Seattle’s International District. On a (potentially rainy) Sunday morning in the fall, you can find business booming in Jade Garden, one of the better dim sum restaurants in the city. Amidst authentically mediocre décor, small Cantonese women push their dim sum carts, teaming with steamed buns and fried goods, amongst a sea of Lynch and Wilson jerseys. There, is a tale of perfect assimilation. There, is America.
III. A Letter to Home
This is a letter to home. After months of starting, stopping, deleting, and stalling, I offer:
Sometime in January of my sophomore year, I had a crisis. For too many weeks I’d followed a schedule that included: 1) attend economics class 2) complain about economics class 3) try to go to TNC 4) give up and eat at Hub. During this crisis, I promptly began spending my nights playing Civilization V and watching Wreck-It-Ralph. I then tacked on an art major, committing myself to semesters overloaded with drawing classes. And, finally, somehow, I found myself registered to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic.
I didn’t choose Prague because I love Kafka or beer or the Czech language. Rather, I was searching for purpose and adventure. In other words, somewhere that was not Claremont, California. (Because, of the things that Claremont succeeds at providing, neither purpose nor adventure is one of them.)
In high school I assumed that college would be the hallowed ground where “my purpose in life” would be revealed. If anything, Claremont has just muddled the waters. My wide-eyed idealism was dampened by a frenzied impulse to ensure my future financial security. Discovering purpose was supplanted by editing my resume or half-assing my LinkedIn profile.
Prague has been far from what I expected. In fact, it has failed to meet many of my expectations. Yes, I’ve had the opportunity to navigate idyllic cobble-stone streets, meet a bevy of unique characters, and amass enough strange experiences to write a novella (or at least to warrant a reality TV show). Except, what about that whirlwind European romance? Nope. And that waiter at my favorite café that I’m on a first-name basis with? Didn’t happen. Or what about all those art galleries I’d frequent? That was a stretch from the get-go. But most importantly, that purpose? Nowhere to be seen.
Where purpose was absent, instead there was solitude. Solitude, I learned, is not loneliness or isolation. Solitude is freedom from obligation and expectation. It means calculated risk when following new acquaintances into bars, woods, or the ocean (seriously, calculate the risk). Solitude sheds the complacency that often befalls us in the company of the familiar. Instead, it holds us accountable to only ourselves.
In solitude, without the barriers fashioned from ever-mounting expectations, choice exists in its purest form. Social convention is reconstructed, routine is shattered, and expectation is irrelevant. There, pettiness and value reveal themselves. And there, perhaps, lies that ever elusive purpose that we all seek.