One thing I wish I had done during my student exchange 5 years ago is maintain a blog, or at least a journal of some kind. I guess I was too busy living life to report on it- which is better than vice versa- but I have always been interested in doing both. My friends know me as someone that loves perusing old photos or discussing old memories, and I often find myself possessed with a fervent zeal to immortalize even the smallest memory, to lock it down and carve it into a mosaic.
The reason I wish I had kept a better record of my 5-month stay in the United States is because it was such a pivotal period of my life. Everything seemed to change then from thereafter; not in a dramatic way- but when I follow the proverbial threads of my life, I often find that the biggest and messiest knot is situated in that time period: early-August to December 23rd of 2012. The whole concept of The Butterfly Effect (the notion that a single butterfly beating its wings can cause a tsunami halfway across the world) freaks me out. I don’t like thinking about it, because I have fallen in love so many times at the behest of something far-off and paper-thin. Without that one decision to aggressively pursue my application to study abroad, things could have been a lot different. I’m not just talking about the fact that I’ve got to try some cultural things- eating s’mores and shooting guns- but the big stuff. The friends I am living with right now, whom I have visited for the last four years in a row, were made on the UW-Eau Claire campus. We have become family. You’ll see my goofy mug in family photo albums depicting weddings, high school graduations, vacations. All that opened up to me because of a damned butterfly.
I’ll cut the sappy shit before it starts to test your barf-reflex. What I’m introducing, in this post, is a series of retrospective personal essays that will be detailing my time spent at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire during the fall semester of 2012. I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, and I feel like I’m making up for not blogging about it at the time. The intent of this series is to detail as much as I can in the way of sights, sounds, smells, so as to provide a veritable window through which the reader may gaze into my past. I will make sure to keep everything relevant and interesting to what might be called “overarching themes” like culture shock, the contrast between an American campus and a British one, an examination of the local region of Eau Claire versus an interpretation of the city as a microcosm of the United States as a whole, and also- for those readers interested in things like mental health- a log of how my stay on an American campus affected things like my social anxiety and tested my interpersonal skills yadda yadda. Ok? Ok. Let’s do this.
Close your eyes. You’re a tall (6”4), skinny, uncoordinated- but if I may say strikingly handsome- British male of 19 years. Hear the sound of the car door shutting. My host mom has dropped me off outside of a huge dormitory building, “Towers North”. You’re standing with all your luggage- hauled all the way across the ocean to Atlanta, Georgia and driven via Elvis Week to Eau Claire, WI.
At this stage of the journey, I was alone for the first time. Now I had to make good on my ability to survive on my own. It was this moment- the first instance of “fish out of water”- that I had long thought about since my application had been accepted. So we have to go back further into the memory. I applied for the exchange program in the fall of 2011, having only been at the University of Winchester a few weeks. I didn’t think I would be accepted. I knew that as many as 70 people were applying, of which about 15 or so would be successful. It seems strange now to think that I applied to study abroad so soon in my academic career- when just the concept of university and living away from home was new in and of itself. But the rules were plain. The exchange had to be for the first half of your second year only, and in the UK an arts degree is strictly 3-years. We don’t have situations, like in the US, where you might stay for 4 or even 5 years, and things are measured in numbers of classes or credits. But that’s a post for another time.
I made the interview stage and the guy asked me why I ought to be given this opportunity. I straight-up told him that I didn’t have any travel experience, or any kind of independent experiences to speak of. I said I hoped that the exchange was a chance to force me out of my comfort zone and to transform me into a different person- a more resourceful person- by the end of it. “Ah,” the interviewer said, with a trace of a Welsh accent, “so you want to become more worldly?”
He seemed to dig it. I didn’t think I had done very well, and I even- in my panic- ended up using a pretentious word like “deontological” for how I hoped the exchange would go. Surely no one who talked like that ought to be representing the university? Well, a month later an email told me I got it. I had applied to study at the University of Southern Maine, on the basis that they had the most comprehensible website, I wanted to be near big cities and action, and I figured they had the best opportunities for creative writing. It’s information in my memory like that that freaks me out when thinking about the butterfly effect. Somewhere down the line, at the right time, in the right space, a butterfly beat its wings, and the resulting soundwave pushed me in the direction of Wisconsin rather than the state I asked for. I’m glad it did.
I remember the morning I found out- I had poetry class. I was walking down the hill from where I was living, St Elizabeth’s, to the poetry building, which I believe was called Medecroft Annex or something like that. I suddenly blurted out that I had gotten the place in the program to the guys either side of me. One of them, a fellow poet who lived on my floor in the dorms, reassured me that I would be ok. I remember little details like that, because at the time I was shitting myself.
Fast forward 7 months and I’m standing in the shadow of Towers North with all my bags and reminding myself “you’ll be ok”. The first person I spoke to- the first person I even saw- turned out to be my peer guide for International Orientation. We’ll call him Andrew. At the time I remember thinking that Andrew looked stereotypically American; he greeted me with a huge grin and large hands. I figured him for the jock type, as they call it in the movies. It turns out he was into sports, and as he helped me get my bags inside the lobby he took note of my Chelsea t-shirt and asked what I thought about the Blues signing Eden Hazard that summer. I decided then that I liked this guy. I appreciated the way he seemed to sense my shyness and offer reassurance throughout that first week.
The second person I met turned out to be one of the best friends I’d make that semester. He was the R.A (Resident Assistant) and he was an exchange student himself, from Ipoh, Malaysia. I’m committed to using pseudonyms for this blog, and given that my friend was a fluent speaker of Tamil, we’ll just go ahead and call him Akbar- after the most badass Mughal Emperor. I remember being very keen to make friends with Akbar from the outset. At the time I saw him as an authority figure rather than a fellow student, and I zoned in on him as someone who could redress all my grievances. He commented in the elevator that he was a Liverpool fan, and had just got back from visiting the UK, where he had taken a tour of Anfield. I remember telling him that I could have easily mistaken him for being British- his English was as good as mine, and he even used what I considered to be British slang terms that I didn’t think existed outside of the Isle. I made sure to let him know that I would be seeing him around, before rejoining Andrew outside, whose booming voice was gathering the rest of the exchange students.
We were a helluva melting pot. I knew I had been joined by about 6 other British students from Winchester, but they were literally nowhere to be seen. I was the only European, as far as I could tell, around. I remember being extremely anxious that day because I discovered (too late) that the cargo shorts I was wearing really needed a belt to stay up. They took us all over lower campus, where the administrative buildings were located. That week it reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I was sweating my balls off as we were shepherded from place to place, all the while with my hands in my pockets to support my loose shorts. It was a long week and I didn’t really care for the activities, but I knew that (mostly) they were necessary. I’ve always had a very short attention span. I get impatient easily when it comes to bureaucratic stuff. I get bored and I moan. I remember Andrew coming over as I rushed to set up my BluGold (college email) account, and he said “Don’t worry Mike, we’re gonna get you out of here”. God bless that chap, I thought. Some empathy.
The university gave us long talks in which they informed us of what to expect from American culture. They told us that we weren’t to fire any guns or have any pictures of us holding guns, or we would get in trouble. I did both anyway. They told us what to do if we saw a bear or a moose wandering around campus. The most I ever saw was a deer, and nowhere near the centralized areas. And then they told us about Wisconsinites themselves, and what to expect in a social situation. One thing that always stuck in my memory was their warning that Wisconsinites often remarked “How’s it going?” as an alternative to saying “Hello” and that they were never actually interested in how one was doing. I decided to put this into practice throughout the semester, and every damn time I said “How’s it going”- even when I walked briskly past someone- the person would always stop and tell me how they were doing, before asking me the same question.
The week ended with a scavenger hunt, which was okay except it was swelteringly hot outside and after walking several blocks I found that I just couldn’t be arsed anymore. We ate at a place called the Smiling Moose Deli. There were four of us- a Ukrainian girl, a Mexican guy, a Chinese guy, and me- that were being shown around by this girl that was a real sweetheart. It was a long-ass day; Friday 31st August, 2012, and I was distinctly aware that whilst I was “fannying about” as we say back home, all day Towers North was filling up with freshmen. These were the Americans, the folks I would be living with. I reminded myself that as much of a fish out of water as I was, I still had a year of student living under my belt, whereas these rowdy lads and lasses were experiencing college for the first time. They didn’t seem nervous though- Americans never do.
I’ve had long discussions with my now-roommate on how shyness exists in the U.S, and apparently it does, but it’s subtle. The Midwesterners have a culture that is friendly and- by British standards at least- very straightforward. They are well accustomed to social situations and know how to hide shyness when the time comes. At some point or another, all Americans have been on stage, so to speak. Their unique brand of humor so often lends itself to theatrics.
I was more nervous than anyone else there- or so I told myself. What I should have told myself is that people are icebergs- most of who they are remains underwater, unseen. You reveal to people only what you want, and it’s not so easy to separate an introvert from an extrovert as you might think. I am quite sure now that I did not appear as nervous as I thought I was. The fact that I was British gave me a social edge, as Akbar pointed out encouragingly. I was a novelty. Every word I said was given special attention. I got back to Towers just in time for Akbar to tell me I was late and that the rest of the floor, including my roommate, had already met each other. The entire building, joined by the residents of Towers south, which may have been a thousand people, were all sat outside on the grass waiting for the R.As to do a little presentation. On the way there Akbar told me how everyone on the floor- including the females- were obsessed with meeting me, and had apparently gone on a hunt to look for me. Now I was worried about being a massive disappointment. They were probably hoping for a Charlie Hunnam or an Andrew Lincoln type- someone with a voice as rich as a cheesecake and who possessed a roguish, Byronic charm that was at once debonair and yet free-spirited and with a thirst for wild adventures. Little did they know they were getting an accident-prone goofball with skinny thighs and a large Adam’s Apple. Yep, I was the living manifestation of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, right down to my vulnerability for jump-scares at the slightest oriole-fart. Only my time was spent less on smoking weed and making a citizen’s arrest than it was writing self-insert Star Wars fan-fiction.
Things went well though. Akbar led me over to where the boys of our floor were sitting at the edge of the grass. Much as I had when I met Andrew, I ended up categorizing everyone into stereotypes at the first instant. I think that it is a natural process however. You can’t know someone in any great detail at first sight, so the brain is tempted to turn to the stereotypes of our culture, which are always based in some truth- even if only superficially. All them turned around at once, and seemed to say in unison “Hi!”. Hardly able to deal with so many faces, I remember my mind’s eye reducing them to a single archetype- all of them, in that very moment, were pale-skinned, athletically-built, with close-cropped, sandy hair and pale-colored eyes. Akbar warned us that we had to clap and hoot for him when it was his turn on stage. Everyone seemed to like Akbar, and the lads were pleased they had an R.A that they could joke around with, and perhaps not be punished by with too much sadism.
After the show was over, we discovered that the cafeteria was closed, so Akbar led me and most of the guys of fourth floor over to the local Wendy’s for dinner. To those of my readers based in the UK, Wendy’s is a fast food chain that is basically identical to McDonalds, the creepy clown replaced with an even creepier design of a ginger, freckle-faced girl straight out of a 19th century Bavarian wood carving. There are a million fast food chains, from Krystal’s to Whataburger, to Church’s, that never made it to the UK. I got a shake, fries and we sat around the small restaurant sparsely. We shared our last names, the ethnicities behind them, and then started talking about slang. I remember the guys being in fits of laughter as I told them that “spunk” in the UK was slang for semen. At one point, without saying anything, one of the guys stood up and left. The would-be ringleader of our floor told me “He just dipped”.
“Beg your pardon?” I said.
The guy informed me that “dipped” was slang for leaving the area. I have always remembered that with fondness, though I have yet to incorporate it into my evolving lexicon. Things got better once the Americans arrived. These were the people I would attempt to be friends with. After living throughout International Orientation week with scarcely a soul in the building save for me and Akbar, suddenly the place was alive with howls of laughter down the corridor, the sound of rap music reverberating through the walls, and the freshmen girls, playing volleyball below, waiting we hoped, for some guys to join them.
I hope you enjoyed reading! I will be continuing this series with more accounts of my student exchange.