As someone who’s lived in a few countries at various points, and quite often felt like an outsider, I’m fascinated by Ta-Nehsi Coates’ recent journey to Europe (France and Switzerland).
At 8:45 I will board a ship. It will punch through the sky. At some point, God willing, that ship will emerge over airspace far from the beloved West Baltimore of my youth.
From an earlier piece:
I am feeling the need to, again, express to you how precisely afraid I am. My passport arrived last Friday and I was — all at once — excited and horrified…I don’t know. I don’t know anything. This is truly frightening — and exhilarating — part of language study. It’s total submission. All around you will be people who know much more than you about everything. And the only way to learn is to accept this. You can’t know what’s coming next. You can’t think about false goals like fluency. You just have to accept your own horribleness, your own ignorance and believe–almost on faith–that someday you will be less horrible and less ignorant.
I think when I arrived in Mongolia, earlier in the year, I went through many of the same reactions. It’s strange to see them and recognise them in someone who’s so honest and open about them (mine are buried away in a journal on a different computer that I can’t access at this very moment). And to remember them, too – even in being here for only nine months I’ve found a strange new kind of normal. The kind where you don’t belong (because you never will), but you understand a little about some of the rules that apply to you, the foreigner, in a strange place. And it’s easy to forget that strangeness, and the good things that come with it .
Because as TNC goes on to say in a later piece:
The loneliness was intense. I knew at a least few people in Paris. But this train winding through high and gorgeous country, leaving behind small Hallmark towns, was truly taking me into foreign depths… I have spent almost as much time away from my family in the past year as I’ve spent with them. Is this how it’s supposed to be? Is learning forever winding through these strange and foreign places? Is study the opposite of home?
I think going to strange places is learning – in a way. Part of it is how you carry yourself, how you walk through a new setting. TNC, undoubtedly, will reflect and process and learn and grow. I try to do the same things, to make the things that I am experiencing food for my thinking, to reflect and use things as an opportunity to grow. It’s easy to do the reverse – to cling to what you know all the tighter, and it’s a habit I fall into often enough.
But at the moment (sometimes my opinions change) I think that part of learning is coming back into the comfort zone, to places you have been before, and seeing how you interact differently. Having been overseas for a while I’m ready to be back. I think I’ll see old places differently, old situations in a new way, and … that’ll be a good thing.
Perhaps it’s that overused word, liminality. Being in a strange place we see new things, but we also see simple things with fresh eyes. And coming back, too, we see the old with new eyes, and that changes things for us.