Living abroad for the past month and a half has made me think a lot about what it means to be home.
When I started college two and a half years ago I had to learn to live without my parents, the two most important people in the world to me. I had to learn to live somewhere besides a house with my brother and sister and our dog. As an 18-year-old that meant adjusting to sharing a room with a stranger and having to make all new friends for the first time in at least four years.
I think it’s easy to romanticize some of those times now, and I think everyone does it. All of the adults in my life who went to college told me that college would comprise the best years of my life.
But at first, it was really, really hard. Nobody prepares you for the loneliness you feel the first week, lying in a twin bed for the first time since childhood, not being able to sleep because you just wish you could be home with your mom and dad. I remember vividly that on one of my first nights in the College Avenue residence hall, staring out the window from my bed, the fixture outside the window the only light in the dark room, wondering what I was doing there. Being so excited and terrified and hit for the first time by the realization that I was going to have to make my own decisions if I wanted to be happy with what I was studying—if I wanted a chance at being satisfied with my future career.
After several months and finding my niche at Mizzou, and later feeling at home in Columbia, I remember being happier than I’ve ever been. I felt like I’d grown into myself, knew what kind of person I wanted to be and was figuring out how to be her. Most importantly, I was happy so much more often than I wasn’t. And this feeling of home, of taking care of an apartment and being surrounded by friends and a community, only intensified a year ago after I met Husain.
And then, seven weeks ago, I left all that.
I’d been planning big-picture aspects of this trip for over a year and I’d been preparing myself to leave for just as long. On our first date I remember telling Husain that I had both an internship lined up for the summer and that I’d be studying abroad this year, wanting to make it perfectly clear where my priorities lay. Hannah Haynes counted down the days for us, and even as it got closer, it didn’t seem real.
But, just like leaving for college, no one tells you the realities of studying abroad. In previous posts I wrote about how exhausting it was just to leave the apartment at first and interact with people who aren’t native English speakers and how exhausting it is to get lost a lot. I guess nobody wants to spoil the excitement students feel as they’re getting ready to leave the country, some for the very first time, for a whole semester.
Here’s the thing: I wish they’d told us. I wish they told us how exhausting and frustrating everything is, at least at first. I wish they’d also told us that, just like college, we’d adjust. It wouldn’t be easy, and for every high there would be some really sucky lows, but we’d adjust, and then we’d be pretty happy.
Something I felt really guilty about at the beginning of the trip was wishing so badly to see Husain. The guilt was both for a perceived betrayal of my own priorities (a career) and also because I thought wishing to go home made me ungrateful.
I’ve talked to Hannah about both of these things. Not only is she my best friend, but she’s also the only other person on this trip in a serious relationship with someone back home. Turns out we both feel a little guilty sometimes. But I wonder, as Hannah does, if anyone who studies abroad, even without the challenge of having a significant other across the ocean and a seven-hour time difference, really ever feels truly at home, like something resembling a Columbia-shaped hole isn’t missing from them.
I’ll be honest—when I daydream about where I’ll live after I graduate college, I’m always with Husain. I never thought the beginning of my post-grad life would include a guy until recently, but after a year of being together, I really can relate to that silly Edward Sharpe song he’s always whistling.
I don’t know where I’m going to end up a little over a year from now after I finish school. It’s quite possible I’ll end up following a job somewhere where Husain isn’t, where my friends aren’t, where my parents and extended family aren’t, and we’ll all just have to make the long distance work once again. But I know that if that’s the case it’s going to be very similar to now, when I wish I could just enjoy my lovely life in Brussels without missing everyone.
I don’t know how you strike that balance. I do know how grateful I am to get to have these adventures and then have so much to go home to. Maybe, more or less, that is the balance.