Friday, March 26, 2010

Education - and Perspective - Abroad

Not so long ago, I was home in Wilton and someone asked me, “Why say you’re abroad? You’re practically still in the US?” Canada may be in close physical proximity, but it is a different country and I am an immigrant here. In moving to Canada, the point wasn’t really about immersing myself in a radically different culture – I came for an education. But as I reflect back on my four years here, I realize that there is a point to being abroad beyond my B.A. – gaining perspective on the familiar.

I’ll admit that there was a novelty about moving to Canada for university. Like most high school seniors, I was excited to embark on a new chapter of my life and it was amplified by the fact that it would be happening in a different country. I had only visited Vancouver once before I decided to attend the University of British Columbia. As you might have seen in the recent Olympic broadcasts, it is an enchanting landscape of buildings and nature. My decision was also swayed by the fact that the day I visited was one of the handful of sunny days in Vancouver. Regardless, I feel extremely lucky to live in such an incredible place and to be able to attend a university that is ranked among the top 35 in the world.

When I initially moved here, culture shock and transitioning to university life were indistinguishable and very exciting. Having spent most of my life in Wilton, the most overwhelming part was living in such a big city. There are endless bus routes and ferries, sidewalks and any kind of ethnic food you can imagine. The university itself is like a small city, with over 40,000 students buzzing around the streets, rushing in and out of buildings. But if I had to describe my initial impressions of “Canadian-ness” in Vancouver, I would say it’s like living in a place where a yoga studio has taken over. People wear black, stretchy pants and brightly colored hoodies all day and for any occasion. Instead of carrying backpacks and purses, women carry extremely oversized yoga bags. Even those who don’t actually practice yoga practice this lifestyle. The only alternative is to wear flannel shirts and listen to Indie music. The dichotomy of Vancouver sub-culture puzzles me. Where is the individuality, the quintessential West Coast independence? If this is it, I’m disappointed.

Towards the end of my first year, I realized that this experience was about more than getting an academic education or even adapting to a new place. Oddly enough, I suffered culture shock upon moving back to the US for the summer – this was truly the most unexpected experience of them all! It was the transition back that gave me insight to the cultural forces that shaped me, and having that awareness is the greatest tool I have ever been given. In understanding how you have arrived at the person you’ve become, you get to know yourself better. Being immersed in any environment for some length of time makes it very easy to mindlessly go about your day and not think twice about what you do or what you observe. By not questioning or being critical of life, we surrender a certain amount of independence. Although my observations about conformity on the streets in Vancouver are interesting, their real use value lies in thinking about the ways I conform to American culture. Moreover, considering why many of the attributes resonated with me even after I left. In four years, I still have not been able to locate precisely what ‘it’ is that gave rise to my new perspective and even now I still have difficultly articulating the idea. That is because it is an experience. It leaves you with a feeling of empowerment and a sense of self that cannot be described. Taking a risk and venturing outside of your comfort zone can be an unnerving thought, but it does not have to be a big movement. It can be a series of little things over many years, or taking a step back to gaze on the bigger picture. In either instance we first face something uncertain, but upon moving back we can truly know what home is like.

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And on a small aside, today is the last day of the BonBon Rose Spring Fling giveaway. Make sure you check it out!

1 comment:

robyn michelle-lee said...

i LOVED the paragraph about vancouver being a giant yoga studio... i sent it to andrew and he commented: wow what a writer I feel her words and her sentences draw vivid pictures in my mind that are almost more clear than the real ones :)
you are a gifted writer!