Extreme Makeover SYA Edition

(My final SYA Campus Reporter Post, cross-posted from the SYA Admissions Website)

At the risk of over exaggerating, I’d say that spending a year abroad in a country where the primary language is not one’s native tongue (especially in high school) is a bit like trying to survive in the wilderness. Armed with only the bare minimum in supplies (also known as everything you can cram into two suitcases), and a basic understanding of the language, the key lies in adapting to the new surroundings as quickly and seamlessly as possible. In reality, the transition is often slow at the beginning, consisting of mainly a few wardrobe tweaks here and there (e.g., shoving anything with a hue brighter than a dull red into the corner to wait for spring). The full change happens when you least expect it, long after you’ve stopped actively trying to fit in; suddenly, one day you’ll be walking, along streets that just months ago you’d never known, and realize that this has felt like home for a while.

Like a survival course, studying abroad in a foreign country changes you; acclimating to a new environment requires shedding some old skin and emerging from the once-secretive and unknown depths altered by the experience.  As a result of this year, I’ve become more open to stepping outside of my comfort zone and saying yes to new opportunities I would not have seized in the past. Especially when traveling independently, I’ve learned to go with the flow, and not get caught up in pre-planned schedules or little hiccups, because it’ll all work out in the end. Living in France has helped me let go a bit and get back some of my childhood carefree-ness while retaining certain elements of my super planified, strict rule follower self. It’s like a chemical equation: the essential elements of Tara throughout the ages, catalyzed by time to explore who she really is away from all things familiar, and resulting in a new combination of old elements with a few remainders that didn’t stick after the test of time.

Ironically, this new explorative-ness made me more comfortable wandering by myself. In Paris, my friends and I split up for a morning that we had free in order to get purposefully lost in the city. Ducking in and out of metros, map blowing hazardously in the wind, I further untapped my introverted side that enjoys time alone, and before only manifested itself when I was burrowed within a good book. This alone time has also led me to become much more reflective. Stemming from a desire to really explore and get to know the city early on, I started observing little details like the brightly colored doors all over France and the really ornate window scrolls, a habit which has stuck with me and strengthened as a result of the amount I walk around Rennes. There’s nothing like walking around a city, turning down random streets and familiarizing yourself with the bustling squares, to make you feel like it belongs to you. As a result of my yearlong observations, I feel like I truly know the city of Rennes, to the point that I notice when new graffiti goes up and when each tree starts to bloom. This broader sense of awareness is fueled not only by sharpened powers of observation but a willingness to stop and look around. Being thrown into a new city forces you to truly see.

My rekindled appreciation for the hidden details and the little things in life creates a neat parallel with my perception of our place in this world, compounded by my time abroad. Being in-tune with my surroundings highlighted for me the fact that, in the big scheme of things, we are all small especially when compared to the large world around us; spending time in another country that is not “your own” forces you to leave behind extreme patriotism and accept that the U.S is not the end all be all. I am no longer just an American. There’s a Passenger song that has ingrained itself deeply in my memories of this year that I feel nicely captures my feelings. It’s a song I first heard in France, that the hilarious lunch men at the French cafeteria play every now and again and that is on loop as I run around the park that was the first place in the city I visited on my very first day (fresh off the plane, looking less than fresh). Like the song says, I’ve got to “let her go.” In this case, the ‘her’ is not the ex-lover of a British pop star but who I was before I left my home (and everyone I knew) to spend a school year studying abroad. That girl is gone. In her place stands a short vision in shades of black, a vegetarian who tried foie gras, the practical girl who now takes a purse to school instead of the backpack that screams American.  American by birth, French at heart, Indian by blood, and a citizen of the world.

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