It’s early morning, and I have just gotten off of a six-hour flight from the US to the UK. After all the prep work that it took to get here, here I am at the final step – Heathrow Airport Customs. I am tired and groggy and have a strong desire to take a long shower. Miraculously, I make it to the front of the line, even though my flight had over 100 students on board, and I managed to sit in the middle of all of them. I’m feeling pretty nervous, not just for this last step of acceptance into London, but because I don’t know what to expect once I crossover. My close friends are all back at Syracuse, putting up with the recent dump of snow, and here I am feeling more alone than ever. However, don’t get me wrong! I am beyond excited, but at this point, the anticipation is driving me insane. I weave in and out of the maze of rope barriers. Customs is pretty deserted this morning and because I am the first person in line, I quickly make my way to the front.
When I finally manage to get to the first desk. I hand over my documents, and a woman takes my paperwork. “How long will you be in the UK?”, she asks. I tell her I am studying abroad, and will be here between January 19th and May 8th, slightly stumbling over my words. I then quickly correct myself, realizing she was probably just looking for a simple “four months”. To be honest, I am not exactly quite sure what she said after that, but it was something along the lines of “you’ve got to be shitting me.” (Actually, I think those were her exact words, no joke.) She looks behind me with a look of dread at all the other students. “Are all of you studying abroad?” At this moment, I literally have no words to respond. I can’t tell if she’s being serious or sarcastic. I just want to make it into London. I just want my semester to start. Her next response is something along the lines of, “Who would ever want to study here?” What? Now, I am beyond confused. Is this really happening?
Thankfully, she explains that this process used to be a lot quicker, but with new regulations she has to go through all this annoying paperwork. It takes longer, and makes her life harder. She just wants to go home, and now she has to go through the motions for each and every one of us. Luckily, she’s sitting next to another customs officer, who has a friendlier personality. He seems to calm her down, calm me down, and make me smile. He cracks a joke about the whole situation, and the tension is defused. I start to relax realizing that this isn’t really my problem, It’s hers. I answer the rest of her questions. She fills out the paperwork. I make my way through, and she “smiles” and says something like “have a nice semester.” However, at this point all I can think about is that I finally made it in. Thank God!
It’s taken me a long time to think about what to write for my first “Critical Incident Essay.” (Okay, to be really honest, I’ve been slightly procrastinating. However, in my defense, I couldn’t really think of a moment that I deemed significant enough to write about.) Recently, I have been thinking a lot about my role as student here, and how I feel about being labeled a “foreigner.” The scene I have just described was my first realization of my place here in the UK. Looking back at this moment, I realize what was really happening. One, this moment was a reflection of my anxiety about coming to London. Everything in this moment magnified itself in my head because I was tired, nervous, and anxious to start my semester. Two, this situation reminded me that everyone isn’t as excited as me about my semester here abroad.
Since this experience, I have learned that the UK government is nervous about students studying abroad because many of them try to stay here afterwards as permanent residents. The customs officer was upset about all the paperwork, but she could very well have been upset about all these people, all these American students coming to live in her country for four months. Or, maybe she simply wanted to go home after an exhausting night’s work. Thinking about this a little further, I also wonder if the change in border regulations reflects this fear of students studying abroad. Could the extra paperwork customs now has to deal with be a way to regulate and keep closer watch over the students studying abroad here? I’m not sure, but this is an interesting thought.
Feeling more settled in now, I am more reflective of this moment. Moments like these have made me realize my own desire to feel a sense of belonging and purpose. Coming to London is my first time being so far from what barriers of comfort I have created for myself. At home, I have learned methods of succeeding in my own environment. I have found a sense of belonging in the opportunities and communities I have formed and followed. Starting over in a place where no one really knows who I am has liberated me from myself. I am whoever I say I am. I am whatever I do. By realizing and accepting the idea that I am indeed a foreigner, I have a better understanding of what starting over and being an outsider feels like. I’ll admit I am more self-conscious about it than I realized.
To compare my customs border event to other experiences I have had here is pretty easy. Many of my professors are fond of fieldtrips, and we often go out as a class to explore and learn from the city itself. I love these opportunities, but they also make me more cognizant of my “American” label. Large group of students walking busy streets will always annoy people trying to get past them. (I admit to this sense of self-absorption from time to time.) However, I have realized that most people don’t associate large groups of students to students taking class fieldtrips, but instead to a large group of tourists. A tourist after all is a less permanent label for a foreigner. The label of “tourist” comes with it the baggage of being more ignorant to the culture and history of the people they are visiting. During these fieldtrips, I remember specifically people, “Oh, they are American,” or “They are tourists.” It’s moments like these that make me want to shout, “No, I am a student here! I live here! I promise!” Thankfully, I realize that this is a silly thing to do, so I take a deep breath, accept the situation, and move on. I know my purpose here, and I have come to accept that sometimes others won't.
I would like to think that I am pretty confident and accepting of who I am. However, I have learned that these feelings about myself will be tested whenever I enter a new environment, let alone a foreign country. In fact, these tests of character become the factors that strengthen my own identity. I realize I took for granted how similar I thought the UK was to America. At one point, I remember ignorantly telling my mom, “Everyone looks like the could be American, just with different accents.” I realize now that I was wrong. People might look familiar, but their behaviors and cultural identity are unique and different.
I have also realized how much of an impact not coming to London with close friends and family has made in my interactions and reactions to the environment I am in. I have a stronger desire to make connections with people. I have a stronger desire not to stick out as a “foreigner”. Coming to London is like freshman year, first semester. I am new, and I barely know anyone. I am learning more about my weaknesses, as well as my strengths. While I feel like I am employing these insights currently in small ways, just based on my behaviors and interactions with people. I think the majority of these lessons will occur and be implemented when I return home. I don’t think I will realize how much I have grown until I interact with an environment I am familiar with again. Right now, I know I will be more aware of the people who feel like how I am currently feeling, and try harder to interact with them. In fact, in small ways, I think already am. I find myself engaging more with the “foreign” students from my program who have come here to London, as well. I am making an effort to move past and push my labels, and while I can’t change all of them, the process to try has already opened my eyes to all that I am.
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I have been falling in love with London slowly. Yes, slowly, and yes… in love. I’m actually really surprised by this statement, for normally I fall hard and fast for big cities. However, as with most long-term relationships, maybe falling slowly is a good thing. It has given me a chance to digest all that I have observed this past week. Oh, yeah sorry. I realize I am a horrible blogger, and it indeed has been a week since I have moved to London to study abroad for the semester. Call it procrastination if you will, but I would like to call it my time off from constantly connecting with the interwebs. It’s been a time to actually slow down for once. A time to really get to know where I will be living for the next three and half months.
The other day, I was really inspired by our Academic Program Director who spoke during one of our many orientation meetings the past week. He was talking about the reasons to study abroad and the major takeaways from the experience. He was also talking to us about how connected our generation is to our smart phones and social media outlets. Of course, we have all heard the shpiel about the risks that come with being addicted to our phones, but this time I think I actually listened.
Studying abroad can teach you how to miss people. However, if you are always connected to what’s happening back home, you aren’t giving yourself the ability to live in the moment, the here and now. In fact, our director said you aren’t even in London when you are on Facebook, Twitter, browsing Reddit, etc. You are somewhere else completely, out of tune and out of touch with the environment you are in. Granted it’s important to stay in touch with loved ones, but learning to miss them can be a healthy and important skill to acquire. Our director finished his point by saying that learning to know you’re going to be okay away from loved ones now will better prepare you for the inevitable heartbreaks and pain of life later on. I wasn’t expecting him to say this at all. This was not the welcome to London orientation speech I had come ready to sit through. This was something else. It made me stop. It made me think. It made me listen.
So, yes, I have been falling in love with London slowly. To be honest, adjusting to London has been a bit more challenging than I thought. I would like to think I am good at adjusting to new experiences, but maybe knowing the length of my stay has made me a little more reflective, and a little more homesick than normal. Don’t get me wrong! I am having a beautiful time so far! I’ve already made new friends, gone to see amazing things, and learned to ride the tube all by myself (anyone who knows me well enough knows how horrible I am with directions). However, moving to London has already taught me to slow down a little. It’s not giving me what I came here for all at once. After all, falling in love can happen fast and slowly all at once. I guess as I get better at this blogging thing, the loving London thing will get even better too.
One of the primary purposes of this blog is to document my life. I got to thinking a few days ago that I really want to make a written record of some of the proudest and most memorable moments in my existence on this earth thus far. So, I've decided to start an ongoing series of instalments entitled "Gordon's Milestones". These entries will document the most significant moments that have made me who I am today and who I will continue to become. I now present to you the first instalment:
You down with SEP? Yeah, you know me!!! You down with SEP? Every Last homie!!! Okay, so, you must be wondering, what, for the sake of Anne of Green Gables, is the "SEP"? Well, I'll reveal this later. I really should backtrack a little to the point at which this adventure first started. Back in American Samoa--the tiny Pacific island I grew up on--, I went to a private Catholic Highschool for boys called Marist Brothers Highschool in a little village on the west side of the island called Malaeloa. Most of my family and friends would agree at the time that I was very studious. My nose was always firmly implanted in several books, and I was fully entrenched in the pursuit of academic excellence. On the first semester of my freshman year, I had achieved a straight A+ average in all of my classes. I had kept this a secret from all of my classmates, but luckily for me, the entire school faculty was very aware of my private relentlessness. [caption id="attachment_232" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Marist Bros. High--Home of the Crusaders!!"][/caption] One day, early on in the second semester, my science teacher asked me to stay after class to discuss something with me. She casually handed to me what looked like some sort of application. She said it was in fact an application tailored specifically for "minority freshmen students who showed outstanding academic ability". (These were her words, not mine.) Only students who fell under this humbling description needed to apply, and those accepted would be carried away later that year in July on an all-expenses-paid trip to study all the major branches of science at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. Okay, so, drum roll please . . . the name of the program was the National Cancer Institute's Science Enrichment Program, otherwise known as the SEP. (Yeah you know me!!) This was a federally funded, nationwide program. Honestly, when she casually suggested that I apply, I thought there was no chance in hell that I'd get in. I knew that there would be several very exceptional and talented applicants. It was also not known how many applicants from my island would be accepted because they were taking applications from ALL OVER THE UNITED STATES!!!! So, I put the paperwork away. I had a month before the postmark deadline to send it off. Initially, out of fear of being disappointed and rejected, I was not going to pursue this, but over the next few days, I had one teacher after another casually asking about the application and encouraging me to go for it. So, finally, on the week it needed to be sent off, I went for it. I needed to fill out the darn thing, get a couple of teacher recommendations, include transcripts from my elementary school and for my freshman year thus far, and write an essay explaining why I deserved to go. My Mom drove me to the post office on the very day of the postmark deadline. I remember saying a little prayer before I dropped the envelope into the mail slot. As I turned around to get back to the truck where my mom was waiting, I vividly remember thinking that it's probably too late and that I missed my chance. Imagine my shock and surprise when the principle of my school came up to me one month later with a big fat grin on his face. He told me that my application was accepted and that I was one of only three students who got in out of all the applicants from the island. I could not believe it. Something like this had NEVER happened to me before. I didn't know that I would be on the brink of something that would change my life. A couple of months later, I was whisked away to Frederick, Maryland where I took up residence in the dorms of Hood College for an entire month of jam-packed activities. During the week, we took classes in biology, chemistry, and physics. The primary purpose of the program was to provide a science-oriented environment that encouraged minority students to eventually pursue a math/science field as a future career. The entire program was incredibly well-organized. It wasn't just about science. I had experienced many "firsts" on this trip. Here is a list of as many "firsts" as I can remember . . . 1. It was my first trip to the east coast of the US. 2. I had my first Subway sandwich. 3. It was my first time staying in a dorm (with a really cool roomate from Hawaii). 4. I rode on my first roller coaster ride. 5. My first visit to Washington DC--we went to the Capitol building, Lincoln and Vietnam Memorial, and all of the Smithsonian museums. There was probably one HUGELY siginificant thing that happened on this trip. It was the first time I can remember ever making real friends. Back in Samoa, I think I used books and studying as a shield. It was a safe pursuit that I was confident in. My classmates only ever related to me in an academic sense. I was the one to approach about homework or problem-solving, never the one to just hang out with. It kept me from really getting to know people and kept me very sheltered. Well, at the SEP, I had somehow befriended some of the most amazing people. We were all awkward teenagers who, strangely enough, all seemed like outcasts. We represented every extreme body shape imaginable, along with pimples, warts, and other lovely eccentricities. It was the first time I can remember being accepted as both a real person and a friend by my peers. This gang included Eddie and Teri from Texas, Becky from Virginia, Lori and Tulaga from Samoa, Jose, and a few other folks who I'm having trouble remembering. Of all the little groups of friends that formed, we were the most obnoxiously loud and carefree. I learned the true value of friendship at the SEP, and this changed me forever. It is a lesson I hold dear to this day. I look back on the SEP with the deepest fondness. Not only did I discover friendship in its truest sense, but it was one of the first times that I really started to believe in myself and to not doubt my own abilities. There is evidence that this actually happened. Click HERE to get a full official description. So, am I down with SEP? Yes. Always. -g