As the end of the school year approaches (give or take a dissertation for some of us), a certain demand for summaries and conclusions is in the air. The sun is out, the birds are chirping, and with the finest Hollywood internalization I feel like any minute now a pop-rock song will start playing, just in time for my final monologue. Luckily none of this is actually happening in reality; my end credits might prove embarrassingly short. But as one of many international students in St Andrews, I do feel that my soon-to-be-over studying abroad experience is worth looking into broodingly. Moving to another country for an extended (but not permanent) period of time creates a strange paradox: on one hand, I'm somewhere new and enjoy feeling that difference in everything from local traditions to the design of the grocery brands. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to feel like a visitor for months on end. What is needed, then, is the golden path.
The notion of the exotic itself, Alain de Botton explains in The Art of Travel, is often what drives us away to foreign realms to begin with. "Countries are diverse and practices variable across borders. Yet difference alone would not have been enough to elicit pleasure, or not for long. Difference had to seem like an improvement on what [one's] own country was capable of" (70). What's more, we choose destinations not only for being different but for being more us: "because they seem to accord more faithfully with out identity and commitments than anything our homeland could provide" (78). I couldn't agree more. My being here in St Andrews is a realization of a lifelong dream to be part of the famous British education system and thus be immersed, in my own way, in British culture. Native UK friends here seem surprised by this; apparently my admiration is based on a stereotype that often fails to deliver. But my friends from back home can vouch for the second part of that premise, I've always aspired to be British in my interests and taste in popular culture. Unfortunately, living in Scotland does not equal being Scottish – and not only in the legal sense. In other words: well, I'm here. Now what?
A good start might be to get acquainted with my new home. Alas, not all can be taken in at once. "A danger of travel is that we see things at the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity", writes de Botton. Luckily, I'm here for more than a summer getaway, so theoretically I should have enough time to build that receptivity for everything and anything the place has to offer. Except that the time spent building receptivity is the same as that spent getting used to a place, and things become obvious very quickly. The fascination I had with the picturesque streets and the coastline panorama have long ago been replaced with daily calculations of effort and of how to get from class to home the fastest. I was so quick to feel at home that I had forgotten that the whole reason for coming here was to experience something drastically different from home.
As a solution, de Botton cites Xavier De Maistre's idea of 'traveling in one's own bedroom' as means to reacquaint ourselves with the familiar. "The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to," notes de Botton. The two writers jointly advise to strip our perception of our surroundings of their utilitarian functionality and to see the hidden beauty. "I forced myself to obey a peculiar kind of mental command” recounts de Botton, “to look around me as though I had never been in this place before" (251). For my own case, and that of my fellow international students, I would add also to use the tool of comparison that came in so handy in those first few weeks – constantly putting side by side the local customs and the habits of home. Knowing that I'm here to stay and will not be flying back to real life in a few days forced me to really observe and learn the local nuances. This type of outlook, which admittedly brought about over-familiarity, was also the one to create the initial excitement I now miss. Maybe it's time to pretend I'm a new arrival once more. Or maybe just time to scratch that boredom itch again and move somewhere even more exotic. I hear that Bora Bora has a lovely campus.
Photos by Ruoting Tao. Edited by Ruoting Tao.