[Guest post]: Feeling Foreign

Cat’s asking me if I want to drive her car.  I’m so busy thinking about how numbered my days are with her and the family that I don’t hear her at first.

“Shelby, come up here. Have a go,” she says again, opening the driver’s side door and climbing out. I look at Clare, who’s grinning like a fool. She urges me with her eyes to follow our host-mother’s orders.

I climb out of the back seat and go around the vehicle to the front door on the right, which Cat’s left open for me. I crawl in and strap myself into the driver’s seat, my breath quickening from excitement and nervous fear.

“You can drive a manual, yeah?” Cat asks.  I grin.

“I’m a farm-girl, Cat. Everybody drives a stick where I’m from.”

Driving Cat’s car isn’t as easy as I’d expected it to be. Everyone had been telling me, the British don’t drive on the wrong side of the road, just the other side. This kind of rhetoric led me to believe that learning to drive in a foreign country was cake, like I was already an expert and only needed to position myself about six feet to the left—like I would be fine behind the wheel of a British coupe, driving my host mom and best friend to Sir Isaac Newton’s home.

In the driver’s seat, all I feel is wrong, wrong, wrong.

* * *

I’d been trying so hard since Day One to be anything but what I was—American. All of us—every student at Harlaxton—shook off our USA garb the second we touched down at Heathrow. We shopped at Primark and Boots hoping it would make us British. We drew out our “a’s” when we spoke and spelled color with a “u,” hoping we could pass as citizens. We fought about which football team was better and we loved the queen. We ate biscuits, not cookies. We said “cheers” instead of “thank you.” We used the metric system.

Day after day, our British professors would stress that there was no such thing as a “British identity.” We were listening, but we knew they were lying.

Everyone but us was, oh, so British, and we were

Just. So. Foreign.

Not just foreign. We were American. They could pick us out in a crowd at a glance. We started to pick out the Americans too, hoping that it would gain us some credibility, but in the end, it didn’t change who we were, and we were never able to mask it.

Why we wanted to, I’m not sure, but it seemed as though all of us were struggling with knowing we somehow didn’t fit in. It was more than culture shock or homesickness; it was feeling misplaced. We’d expected things to be different, and we took to those differences so readily, but we hadn’t expected to never really belong. We hadn’t expected to try so hard to overcome adversity just to fail.

I was coming to terms with this in the driver’s seat of Cat’s car. I was realizing that four months wasn’t enough time to become British. I was facing the reality that I might never be British. I’d come here an American with the intention of changing herself, becoming more culturally aware through immersion, and emerging from her experience as a bright, British butterfly.

I was going to fail.

* * *

I wake up from a hard slumber aboard Flight 86 to Chicago. I’ve missed the safety demonstration. I look out the window on my right.

I’m somewhere over the Atlantic.

I feel the tear streak down my cheek when I realize I’ve missed my chance to say goodbye to England. The woman next to me shifts in her seat to comfort me.

“Oh dear,” she says in an English accent. “Are you leaving home?”

I laugh as I wipe my eyes and say, “No, I’m going home.”

“Oh, you’re American!” She laughs at her mistake and pats my hand.

At 30,000 feet above sea-level, I start to understand what re-entry shock is. They’d warned us about it back at the Manor, but what they didn’t explain to us is that going back where you came from after you’ve been away, after you’ve changed, after you’ve spent four months trying to fit in elsewhere would make you feel like a foreigner in your own home.

Maybe I failed at becoming British, but I became a different American than I was before. I know how it feels to be foreign. I know how scary it is to feel misplaced. I know how depressing it can get to not know where home is. I know that being stuck between coming and going is unnerving.

But I’ve learned that the time you spend in the interim is the time you spend really living.

Shelby Koehne is an English major who studied abroad at Harlaxton College in Spring 2011.

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England: One Year Later

This is Kristina’s last post for our office, as she is off to student teach in the Spring. We will miss her dearly & are grateful for her work as a Peer Advisor these past two semesters!

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We tend to look back on our favorite memories with a certain nostalgia…and it’s true, I am probably guiltier than most.  Every moment lodged in my mind is played back on a reel in slow motion, bathed in a radiant, warm glow.  We remember our excursions with more adventures, our misfortunes with more laughs and our regular days with more discoveries and revelations than ever occurred in reality.

It is sometimes hard to remind myself that not every day was so easy,
not every journey so magical. 

But it was in those authentic slumps that I was truly stripped to the core, ready to reflect and willing to learn.

It is difficult for me to look back on my time abroad and pinpoint the perfect story that illustrates this notion.  But it was some time in the middle of the semester, late October,  classwork piling up, the manor seeming smaller than ever and the sky bleak as usual, threatening rain, that I decided to take a trip to town: alone.

The whole alone part was a pretty big step.  Yeah, I was one of “those” girls that didn’t even go to the bathroom alone.  But that’s another story.  So what was so special about this moment?  It was the fact that I felt so comfortable driving on the left side of the road, didn’t blink in wonder as I paid with pounds and no giggle escaped in response to that oh-so-enchanting British accent.  All of those things felt normal.  England felt like home.

It was in that exact moment, I think, that my experience abroad found roots, it became real.  I was no longer visiting a foreign country; I was not a tourist exploring a new land.  I was living, learning and growing in a place that, even if for the briefest of moments, I called home.

It is because of this memory, along with a few others, that I refuse to romanticize my past.  I believe that when I sensationalize my memories, I lose the one thing that ever made them so great in the first place: authenticity.

Creating an International Education Experience

As a future teacher I have always understood the importance of travel, in learning as much about the world and its inhabitants as possible, so that I am better equipped to educate my future students. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to get the chance to study abroad last fall in a small town right outside of London, England. As I prepared for my departure, anticipation mounted.  I couldn’t wait to make new friends, travel to new cities and discover new perspectives.

My semester in England was amazing. I enjoyed a new culture, met fascinating new people,  and learned more than I ever imagined I could have. But what made my trip extraordinary was something else entirely. Interestingly, I didn’t  realize the lasting impacts of my experience abroad until after I returned home. While reflecting upon my trip, I realized that to really learn in life, you must be more than a participant, you must be a creator.

So what truly made my experience one of a kind? What helped me really grow as an individual? It was taking the initiative. Instead of lamenting about my classroom-less semester, I got active, getting together a group of several other future teachers and talking with some of our professors about possibly teaching at a local school.  After countless emails, phone calls we got the approval to teach in a local primary school. We were ecstatic!

We put together creative lesson plans about Thanksgiving and chatted excitedly about what this foreign classroom might be like. It was amazing! Leading that British classroom is an experience that I can’t even put into words. I learned more working with those students than I ever could have from reading a book or sitting behind a desk. At the time, I merely chalked it up as another part of the study abroad experience. But, today, I carry with me more from that British classroom than any other experience I participated in while abroad. We get out of life what we put in to it, and studying abroad afforded me opportunity to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience.