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Carving Out A Space to Be Yourself

Everybody searches for a center. People naturally seek out places to plant their roots; they instinctively look for spaces they can return “home” to. Studying (and being) abroad is inevitably hard because it necessitates that one severs oneself from the familiar. And this is a good thing—it really is. But it’s also a hard thing. Everyone says it is, but hardly anyone expects it to hit as hard as it does.

Today is May 16, and this is my fifth month abroad. I spent my first two months doing an internship in Korea, and the next three weeks in the United Kingdom visiting friends. And like all people who are estranged from the old and offered the opportunity to remake themselves in a new place, I challenged myself and tried things that my past self would have never touched. In a new place, I didn’t have to be the “Kelly” people remembered. I could be the “Kelly” I always (thought) I wanted to be. But really, it’s a hard thing.

Even if you’re having fun, it’s a hard thing. Even if you’re exceedingly successful, it’s a hard thing. Because really, there’s a sense of shattering. An un-centering. All the components you thought of as quintessentially “you” disintegrate. One’s identity becomes an even bigger question mark, and that’s a lonely thing. When you can’t recognize yourself, you begin to doubt whether or not you’ve actually “become” someone at all. Fun suddenly isn’t enough, because you worry about the price you paid and the person you’ve become. And this feeling is human, and it isn’t exclusive to being abroad (though being abroad often compounds it). It took five months, and I’ve finally begun to feel it.

It is in this moment that I turn to the small things. Everyone has their own way of coping with the world, but sometimes even the very reminder that I'm in Japan is enough to snap me out of my funk. I take long walks along idyllic rivers and crowded parks. I allow myself to become immersed in the commotion of a language I vaguely understand. I daydream in hopefully un-crowded trains and let myself just “be” without thinking too much about its implications. I spoil myself with overpriced sweets shaped like cute characters, and entertain the idea of staying in Japan forever. I find a routine (in school, in waking up, in early dinners and even earlier breakfasts), and subsequently find ways to disrupt it (with impromptu plans and questionable decisions). I, beyond anything else, remind myself to forgive myself for my perceived failings. I forgive myself for not being myself.

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So take at least this much from me: Japan is a different place, and in difference we (meaning “I”) look for change. We run towards it blindly, trying to drown ourselves in the surface (superficial?) aspects of difference. We marvel at cherry blossoms, admire kimonos, and vaguely express the desire to do the tea ceremony. We imagine and try to realize our fantasies of huge groups of friends, our wistful hopes for a close-knit community. We’ve been told that we will evolve and become a new person when we’re abroad—someone with a broad worldview and a completely renewed perspective of the world. We rush, trying to take in all the big things at once, swallowing them up desperately as if it will make a difference.

And of course, not everyone who is abroad feels the same way I do. And not everyone will be as phased. But for those who are and/or will be struggling, know you are not alone. Know that it is okay to take a moment and breathe. To find your space. Japan is a different place, but there’s no rush to figure out whether you’ve become a different person just yet.


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