The TSA Agent asked me all sorts of questions. Where I was going. What I was doing. Who I was. Where my dorm was. When I told him that I was the only person from my country coming to Carleton this year, he said something I’ve thought about quite often:
“You really do carry the weight of your nation on your shoulders.”
And I guess I do, in many ways. As I stepped out onto the streets of Minneapolis, scruffy, overwhelmed and drained, I had finally made it. What I had made it to, I couldn’t be sure, but I had made it. I vividly remember the first hour I was on campus, as I frantically rushed around campus trying to find Goodhue and not realizing that Res Life was a thing. I called my roommate to let me in and shoved everything into my room to be dealt with later, taking a few moments to just lie down and stare at the ceiling of my new home. The bare walls and shelves stared at me questioningly, asking me what I wanted to make of them and this place.
Go to Res Life. Get a OneCard. Set up a bank account. I shambled forth, pulled forward by the innate desire to cling to some idea of consistency and order. But I was not alone in this Sisyphean process of forms and paperwork. There were 56 other international students, all strangers and friends at once, with whom I shared nothing but the experience of slogging through the obtuse legal and social processes of this strange place. I found solace in fleeting moments of total freedom amidst long walks and mandatory meetings.
They taught me the different swear words in their native tongues, shared stories of the winding roads it took to get here and their hopes and dreams for the future. Less pretentiously, we all found a lot of the stuff we did was quite funny, both because it was and because we just had no idea what else to do given the circumstances. Two truths and a lie? Icebreakers? Walkable streets and so little noise pollution I can actually hear myself think? Skies clear enough to see the glinting stars? Where was I?
One of the high points was the night before the sixth, before the rest of the campus would become inundated with those much more familiar with this place than we were. A few others and I got together, paid way too much for cooking materials and had our own little spaghetti night —since that was all we could make. We congregated from our various dorms, invited those who helped us make sense of everything and enjoyed some good(ish) food and good company. In the maelstrom that was International Student Orientation, through the bombardment of information and rules and norms and expectations and homesickness, we huddled together for a moment of calm within the storm’s eye in our little lounge.
When all the international students were split from our main body and into our respective New Student Week groups, I felt this odd sense of loss. I had barely known them for five days, but I had been through such a formative experience with them that I felt as though I was saying goodbye to childhood friends, even to the ones whose names eluded my memory. Maybe that was also because I was the only international student within my group, where everyone else seemed so much more at ease than I was when I couldn’t tell Cincinnati from Connecticut.
Somehow, it worked out in the end. My ignorance of their land and theirs of mine was an opportunity for learning, not mockery, and fortunately my international peers did not just disappear after orientation was over. Seeing them out and about, trying to hurriedly catch up with them between classes,continues to make the days a lot better.
Did New Student Week and International Student Orientation drag on, painfully so (looking at you, CarlTalks) at times? Absolutely. A lot of the time for me, in fact. Was it awkward, also painfully so? Again, absolutely. Did I come out of it with a bunch of new relationships and a better sense of what I’m even doing here? Eh, kind of.
These past few weeks, from my arrival to typing this article up, have not been the most coherent series of events to ever be written down, but that’s just how it is. It’s surfing a tsunami right after you’ve been given your first surfing lesson. I’ve been exhausted, confused, frustrated but also happy, free and content with how I’m dealing with everything. Home is halfway across the world, and it feels like I’ve arrived off a spaceship, but maybe this place can be home too.
I don’t know or even have a plan in terms of how everything will fit together, how I can better adjust while keeping my distinct identity and what makes me, well, me. Nor do I have one about how all the seemingly endless socials and academic workshops and extracurriculars fit into all of this. I don’t know a lot of things, but I’m sure as hell going to find out.
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