My experiences as a class of 2014 transfer student at Swarthmore College and 3rd year study abroad student at Oxford University.
Being this far from all the people I love and all the places that are familiar is at once the worst and most beautiful thing to have happened to me. For a long time, the distance was damning. It was palpable and I felt it and I saw it every time I had a meal alone and when no one on the east coast had woken up yet and when it seemed like it could never be even partly cloudy. The distance had form and scent. It was quietly aggressive. It was manipulative and merciless and it made me motion-sick. Every time I called home I lifted myself from my body and put all my emotional stock in the static-y conversation. I’d hang up and ride high on the simple connection of it all, until I’d come crashing down, the concrete of my displaced reality waiting. But in the intermittent months that I’ve been away and have cultivated relationships, routines, intellect, the distance became less pronounced. Some old friendships withered and died when the emptiness became more marked over a wireless connection. That wasn’t because the distance made it hard to stay friends, but because it gave me the clarity to question why we were. I came to carve out a space in my mind where I could scribble the things I wanted to tell my mom, my dad, the few people closest to me. And then we’d talk, and I’d forget them all. I found I could articulate my thoughts with relative ease because the sudden difference of it all pressed me into saying what I meant, and meaning what I said. What I mean is, the distance became palatable. I accepted it, at least. It — along with time —didn’t crush me the way they used to when they were the only social organs i used to gauge my existence.
The third week of an eight week term ends tomorrow and the only way I can imagine the span of that time is because my hair is getting longer. My hair. I cut it extremely short the day before I flew back to England and each day its clearer that it doesn’t look the same as yesterday. And so something so external and so physical is how I’ve come to measure my growth as a person on the inside, and understand regeneration in all its forms, and grasp fully just how inadequate clocks and calendars and maps express change and the impact of distance. But maybe that’s all less important than just appreciating that I am growing in all of these different ways and I needed to be in the total midst of unfamiliarity to see it.
I needed the distance to figure out who I am when I am with myself and there are no psychological fences in the sheep’s clothing of familiarity.
Alright, it may be a bit too early but I’ve already starting making a mental bucket list of all of the things I still want to do before graduating from Swarthmore. Things like dancing with Rhythmn ‘N’ Motion (the tri-co dance troup) and sleeping in a hammock and going to Midnight Breakfast. It all came to me in a dream.
Just one year at Swat wasn’t enough, I realize. Good thing I still got a year left.
8 weeks. That’s all that’s left now.
I want to say that I have lots of expectations for what I want to do, what I want to learn, where I want to travel, who I want to meet, who I want to get to know … but, wonderfully, I’m grateful that I can write that I have no idea what to expect. And that I have no real desire to try to and map out the course of the fraction of this whole experience that’s left.
This term — this last term — I’m taking a primary tutorial in Human Rights & Humanitarian Aid and a secondary tut in International Law. Looks like I got really lucky aligning my coursework with my current state of mind.
Still, I’m trying to take each day at a time. Each reading, each walk to college, each conversation with a friend … I’m trying to temper all of my moments so that they are more full, more encompassing. So that each meeting with a professor is the most engaging hour I can possibly spend.
And I guess this is the term I do all of the things I didn’t get to the first couple times around. Punting (or, boating), croquet, Italy, museums, and unplanned adventures that are even more exciting once they’re said and done and you look back on them with all the accumulated satisfaction of your life.
8 weeks is a really short time. But each day is as long as I make it.
The papers, the readings, the lectures — it’s finally all over for Hilary term!
It seems trite to say that I didn’t have enough time to write for myself, or read for leisure, or explore Oxford the way I wanted to, but this was just a really tough term for me: half of it I spent ill, and the other half was spent playing catch up.
Maybe I need a few more days to let it all simmer. To get some real perspective. In any case, I’ll spend some of this break in Amsterdam with great friends and then Paris (this is a big deal for me, even if it’s really easy to type out … coming to Oxford was my first time out of the States). I love to travel even if I haven’t done very much of it, and I feel more than grateful that I have this opportunity to do it.
I’ll even spend some time back at Swarthmore. It’s snowing there again today and I always wish I could see the campus when it looks as perfect as I imagine it. There have been some really beautiful, really sunny days in Oxford lately though — March has been a hopeful month so far.
And I worked a lot this term. I learned a lot.
I think it was sitting in my final philosophy tutorial yesterday afternoon, listening to my tutor talk about Kant’s metaphysics when it hit me how open my mind was, how well and how simply I was processing ideas, feelings, words. Maybe that’s exactly always how it works and this was just a moment where I was aware of it, where I was conscious of my own consciousness. Lucidity is extremely important to me and I feel like the difference between last term and this one is that I’m just really sentient, in a way that makes Oxford natural and makes me feel the cold and the sun and how tired I am and how happy I am.
But I’m also aware of how quickly time is going by.
My sister said “I have this theory: time is actually speeding up as the years go by. It has to be, there’s no other explanation … I don’t know how else to tell you … time is speeding up … My reasoning is just, like, time feels shorter … The particles of the universe are expanding!”
I have no idea what she’s saying, but I understand completely what she means. The older I get, the more urgent everything seems and the more merciless the hours are. I remember how I realised this when I was about 11 and my dad saying I could ice-skate for just another hour more felt like I had no time and so much time to skate at the very same time. My anxiety grew when I spent a few minutes staring at the watch he gave me just months earlier and calculating just how many precious seconds I was wasting.
Of course, now that my papers are all handed in, it feels like I have all the time in the world.
More than anything, though, this term was about falling down and getting back up again (literally, I tripped and face-planted right at the foot of my tutor …). Figuring out what makes me feel good and what I can do without. How to plow through impossible deadlines and still make time to enjoy conversation with people and walk with purpose and stop for a minute and let the sun settle on my face.
I’m trying very hard not to look back and see anything as a mistake. Not because I’m abroad or because it upsets me or because I should always look forward or it’s better to forget anything awful ever happened, but because I don’t want to regret anything, ever. Which doesn’t mean I’ll idealize myself into perfection, it just means everything and anything is an experience (as per the philosopher David Hume, I guess…) and whatever someone calls a mistake, I should think of as a way to learn and keep moving. Not because “I only live once,” either, but because me thinking, is me living, and me living isn’t about the limitations of my life.
But being here … this year, this past term, the next few months … these are all defining experiences. I want to make sure not to see them in terms of time … not to measure them as beginning or end points … but to take everything as it comes. To make decisions as I go along and to reflect and imagine on the strands of my existence. Spatiality, temporality … these concepts can’t even begin to organise the way my mind has begun to actually function or make sense of the way I want to see myself in the world. So I shouldn’t force it then. I shouldn’t waste precious seconds thinking about how precious those seconds are.
This doesn’t mean I want to float through my life. I just want to take all my experiences, all my hopes and dreams and fears, and carry them always so I can do the things that that make a difference. If I’m honest with myself and doing the things that I think are good and right and impactful, then that load will always be light.
It’s the middle of the 4th week of an 8-week second term. Which means that I’m at the official halfway point of my time here. Being jet-lagged for half a week, sick with the flu for a full week, and then bedridden with food poisoning for another half a week meant that 2 weeks of that time was already spent in the worst state imaginable.
But now, I’m relatively healthy again, and so ready to read Spinoza, help organize events for Oxford Women in Politics, and meet all of the new visiting students at Mansfield!
Sometimes, I take a step back and realize that I’m living a life so different than the one I imagined a year and a half ago — before I even transferred to Swarthmore. When the route I take to grab groceries seems familiar and the wake up/get ready performance feels like routine and I can make mental maps of all the Oxford neighborhoods that I think I’d like to spend the day in … that’s when I realize I’ve begun to build a life, build memories, build an experience. However transient, however strange, interesting, and new, experiences like this one become etched in our mind and fool us into thinking that we were so silly not to have seen it all coming. That the girl I was five minutes ago was so naive. That all of this is going to seem like a blurry photograph in four weeks.
But I’m doing it again — rushing the moment and turning the present into a hasty mess that I’m only meant to be living through, waiting until the moment I’ve been meaning to wait until. Waiting until things seem tremendous, or ideal, or right.
No more waiting.
I’m back in Oxford, settled in and carting around a purse full of twenty-pence coins that my dad insisted would be absolutely vital when it was all said and done.
In many ways, I wish I were back at Swarthmore — it’s snowed and if you’ve never seen an arboretum coated in white frost, put it on your to-do. But I’m here now, and I’m anxious and excited and I feel seasoned but scared. This second term feels somewhat peculiar. Like I almost have just an idea about an idea of how it’s all going to go.
I’m working with a tutor that I worked with last term, so I’m relieved for the continuity, and the chance to really do philosophy. Reading Descartes’ Second Meditations for our first meeting felt like Iooking into a foggy mirror. And also like looking out of my window on the flight over here. I’m questioning everything about everything and if all of this reads really vaguely and confusing, that’s exactly how I feel.
“And what more am I? I look for aid to the imagination. [But how mistakenly!] I am not that assemblage of limbs we call the human body; I am not a subtle penetrating air distributed throughout all these members; I am not a wind, a fire, a vapor, a breath or anything at all that I can image. I am supposing all these things to be nothing. Yet I find, while so doing, that I am still assured that I am a something.”
― René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: In Which the Existence of God and the Distinction of the Soul from the Body Are Demonstrated
The term ended a week ago and I’m still recuperating.
Home is wonderful — it makes me want to bury my Macbook and ship it back to China so I can just talk on the phone with my friends and go grocery shopping with my Mom and Dad and help my sister edit her Common App essay and read all the books I said I’d read by “18 years old, at the latest.”
Still, I wouldn’t trade the past 2 months for the world. I might’ve already written this, but I learned more and grew more as a person in this fraction of a year than I have through the course of my life. I was on my own, really, for the first time. With a 5-hour time difference between home and school (‘Skype Dates’ are a very real thing, actually) and an accent that up until that point I had thought was a non-accent, I was a legitimate International student.
And even though I thought it would never happen — or rather, that I’d have to work really, really hard at it — I made great friends, met an infinite number of new people, and did things that were far outside the confines of my pre-determined comfort zone .. like book a cheap flight to Spain to visit another Swattie studying abroad … and schedule dinners with total strangers at other colleges (re: ‘Hallsurfing’) … and engage in genuine, gritty debate with academics who had quadruple my knowledge and credentials.
I did well academically this first term, but that’s less important to me than how much I really learned. And in every way. Two months in England crafted for me skills that I didn’t even know I was lacking:
I had severe bouts of homesickness, of course (for my family and Swarthmore), but I got through them. And each time, I became more resilient and more independent as a student and as an individual.
I couldn’t honestly say that I ended the term a completely different person, but I will say that I sometimes ask “where the loo is, please”.
I was elected to be Junior Year Abroad/Visiting & International Students Representative and I’m beyond thrilled.
If I was only marginally comfortable calling Mansfield College, Oxford my home, then I’m extraordinary contented about doing so now. Third Week comes to a close today and in the last several weeks I’ve managed to carve out a comfy niche for myself where I recognize more faces and remember more names and begin to take on the responsibilities that make me feel like I’m a full-fledged student here.
Being visiting students representative was something that I really and truly wanted because I knew it would give me the greatest opportunity to be directly involved in making this a phenomenal year for both myself and everyone else studying abroad at Mansfield. I’m so excited that so many people would trust enough in that sentiment to elect me. I’m also so excited that I’ve found a way to connect with all of the people that I otherwise wouldn’t come into too much contact with. It’s far too easy to go about my day without really interacting. Unlike Swarthmore, where you’re constantly exposed to people (unless you become a library/dorm hermit — but even then, you run the risk of human contact), Oxford’s city life can highlight even the most minimal isolation. Still, familiar faces made familiar by taking familiar routes around town, helps combat that beautifully. And now that I’ve also been given the chance to be “Perspectives”/Opinions Editor for The Oxonion Globalist (insert a bout of nostalgia for my position as Opinions Editor at The Swarthmore Phoenix), I feel like I’ve figured out a nice work-school-life balance. But with only 5 weeks left in this term, I’ve got my plate plenty full (lectures, tutorial paper writing and reading still take up the bulk of my time, and not including all the events/projects I’m sitting on as the newly-elected Rep). And I haven’t even begun to (insert phrase about the tip of the iceberg that I can’t remember because it’s far too American for my current reigning British sensibilities) of life here.
I miss my family and friends every day, but I’m also finding that I’m growing up a little more each day without them around as a sort of safety net.
But still, thank goodness for Skype.
The other day, though, it hit me really hard how far I away I was. It was noon and I wanted to call my mom while I grabbed a quick lunch. Except it wasn’t noon, and she was probably still soundly asleep while my day was approaching that climactic point when I realize that I have to grocery shop, begin writing my paper, and meet a new friend for dinner. That’s the thing about time zones: they don’t care. Time in general is merciless, and nostalgia is even more cruel. What’s also the thing about numbering the weeks in a term: it feels like time is flying. And it’s not, but it is.
But I also had those feelings at Swarthmore. And this past summer. And the days leading up to my flight to the UK.
But nothing really compares to the feeling of being an ocean away from everything and everyone you’ve ever known. Cyberspace can help mend the gap, but it doesn’t come close to mending the heart. Then again, if I remind myself enough times that I really am having the time of my life and that I’m so lucky to be having it, everything seems a little more than all right.
So it’s the Sunday of Week 3 and I can proudly say that I’ve gotten through Fresher’s Week (0th Week) and the first 2 weeks of the term alive and intact.
I’ve written three papers so far (~1500-2000 words each), had dinner (including a Formal Hall) at three different colleges (mine included), and met way more than three people (don’t ask me names. PLEASE don’t ask me names).
Where do I even start? Because I want to do justice to this blog. I want to write about all of the mini-moments of self-discovery where I slip and say ”pardon, are you queueing for pudding?” instead of ”excuse me, is this the line for dessert?” and “I’m having a whale of a time!” instead of “this is so much fun!”
I’d like to write about how I’m really very intimidated by all of the libraries because they — oh, no big deal — are some of the oldest in Europe … and the world. And how I had to climb on a step ladder in front of a few dozen people writing essays and theses and novels so I can sheepishly pull down “Foucalt: A Critical Introduction.” And how I don’t get cell service in the Social Sciences Library but that it’s probably a blessing in disguise.
I should also write about how I feel both extraordinarily inadequate and reasonably capable in my tutorials (“tuts”) when it’s just a professor (tutor) and me (tutee) in a closet of a room and he asks me “how does Marxism explain Obama?” and “What is religion?” And how I wish more of my American education was spent teaching me how to make a clear, concise argument and defending it without the need to inject eloquent prose as if it were L.A.-level collagen.
I’d like to write about how it’s so easy to spend a lot of money here and how it’s really very necessary that I come up with a budget and stick to it so I don’t have another night where I go out with a bunch of friends and wake up the next day with nary a 5 pound note (a “fiver”) to be found. Also, how spending money on things like Almond Butter and Aztec Spice tea from the hidden health store (Holland & Barrett) and University Ball tickets (70 bucks — “quid” — a pop!) are worth every pence.
Then I’d like to write about the adventures: strolling into another college’s bar for fizzy drinks, and dancing the night away in a multi-room club with students who’ve just been through a tougher week than I have, and walking home with new friends in the rain because it’s always raining. Sometimes it;s sunny though, and I spend a few estranged minutes basking in it. But mosttimes its cloudy or drizzling or pouring and I become so grateful that someone had the clarity of mind to invent hooded jackets.
I’d also like to write about the people. And how I’ve been (and plan on) going “Hallsurfing” (exchanging dinners in hall with students at different colleges) where I’ve already met some of the most interesting people. And how on one particular Hallsurf I found myself the only ethnic female American at a table of English lads who spent half of dinner defending the British Empire and arguing that London was — unconditionally — the best city on Earth. They clearly haven’t met a New Yorker.
But the people. The people are great. No one’s not interesting. And smart and talented and creative and passionate. That’s what it is — passion. Passivity doesn’t exist simply because you’d be a fool (a nutter!) not to be deeply enmeshed in something at Oxford.
And I’ve thrown myself into it all. I’ve got lectures scheduled galore for this term — everything from Politics of Sub-Saharan Africa to Post-Kantian Philosophy to International Trade (with a slew of pretty grand guest lectures). I’ve got dinner dates to tide me over for the rest of this month. And, excitingly enough, I’m running for Visiting Students Representative of Mansfield College! But let’s not leave out that I’m in the process of writing for the Oxonion Globalist, and a few other student publications. It’d also be a shame not to blog about how keen I am on getting involved in some really worthy causes by volunteering in all kinds of capacities (more to come … !).
But it would be just so hard to write all of that out. I want to, but I’ve got to critically introduce myself to Foucalt first, and I just don’t have the time.
Just take my word for it.
Also, here’s a photo of the pudding I had at Formal Hall in Corpus Christi:
It’s “Banoffie Pie.”
Banana + Toffee, guys.
BANANA. PLUS. TOFFEE.