Why is the idea of a year studying or working abroad so appealing to a 20 year old? It isn’t just because we want to immerse ourselves in our chosen language of study, although of course, this is the primary goal. It is quite simply an opportunity to experience new things: being away from home, from family and from friends, dealing with all the independence that this entails, and experimenting with the different aspects of the place in which you find yourself.
These are the same expectations that most students have before starting university, especially in England, where our freshers are basically boozing hedonists making the most of the freedom, the parties and all that Student Finance money pouring in. Not everyone is the same but that’s mostly what happens! However, for people coming from a religious and cultural background like mine, all the same constraints continue to exist. It’s inevitably a struggle to fit into university life when there are such glaring differences between the experiences available to you, and the ones available to your friends.
Everyone is different, and everyone will deal with the situation differently. Some will stick with people who share their background, their opinions or their outlook. I can understand why because this makes things much easier, but this option has never appealed to me. Life is just more interesting when you are meeting people who open your eyes to new ways of life and new perspectives. And just because you share the same country of origin as someone else, or the same way of dressing, it doesn’t mean you will have everything in common.
Another way of dealing with the situation is just keeping to yourself, accepting that there is an unbridgeable gap between your lifestyle and the lifestyle of the ‘other’, and so not making the effort to create real, personal relationships with your classmates or your colleagues. It’s a bleak prospect but then, for the truly religious, this isolation is just one of the sacrifices to be made along the spiritual pathway that brings us closer to God.
I’ve been thinking about all this because I’m here on this stunning island, having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with this niggling feeling that I am not completely making the most of it, struggling with the same confusion that I experienced when I started university. As the only Indian Muslim in my Erasmus class, everything that I can not do is particularly apparent to me. I think I have managed to find a middle path, as I have made some wonderful and generous friends, with a kind of unspoken acceptance of the fact that I can’t socialise with them very often outside of our lessons.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been having new experiences. I have done so much here that I wouldn’t have done at home: paragliding, going to the beach, random things like playing laser tag, things that I mention on this blog and things that I don’t because I’m not quite sure if I’m comfortable about having done them. What I have come to realise is that the concept of ‘new experiences’ is different for everyone. While my classmates are going scuba diving and snorkeling, I’ve only just started to learn how to swim (yes, I know, I know, it’s crazy that I can’t swim at my age). But that’s okay. Instead of continuously torturing myself thinking about everything that I can’t have, I should focus on what I do have, which is alot.
Finding a middle path between two cultures is always difficult, and being plonked into a new culture in Réunion has made things even more confusing. Most of the time, I feel like I have a jumble of conflicting thoughts in my head! I have done things here that I might not have done at home, but this didn’t necessarily make me feel better about myself. I will always be trying to decide which part of each culture I can adopt as my own, and be okay with. I don’t think I will ever completely fit in anywhere, but it doesn’t matter – the most important thing is that I myself feel content with the decisions that I make.