You may remember from my first post in this series that in American colleges, the dorms are monitored by R.A’s. I decided to give my R.A the pseudonym Akbar, because he spoke Tamil and the Mughals once ruled India. I figured that was more badass than just giving him a replacement Indian name like Sanjay or something. Anyway, I remember that throughout International Orientation Week I consciously tried to get on his good side. I hinted that I had no friends and no one to eat with, and Akbar, whether he detected my overtures of friendship or not, invited me to play a few soccer games with him and his mates, who were from all corners of the planet. Akbar knew I was shy, and one time he asked me to come eat with him and a few of his friends. I said very little, but I remember him introducing me to two Americans, who were the only other white people at the table along with myself. They had these very sarcastic expressions on their faces and I got the impression they were constantly making fun of the others. They reminded me of New York comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. There was the cool, confident air about them and they sat back very relaxed (in contrast to the highly animated Malaysians), very much waiting for some poor soul to test their wit. One of them lived on lower campus, and for the sake of this blog we shall name him Bart. The other was Akbar’s roommate (I didn’t even know R.A’s had a roommates!), and he was a sophomore that we shall call Aaron (due to his striking resemblance to Aaron Rodgers). The first thing Aaron told me about himself was that he was an “asshole” and that I should be fully prepared for him to make fun of me and any point moving forward.
I believe this encounter took place on September 4th, a Tuesday, and at the time it did not seem too significant. It is however important for this story going forward. Despite joining them for dinner that time, I resumed my routine for the rest of the week of grabbing takeaway boxes and rushing back to my dorm. You might wonder why I didn’t pursue Akbar’s friendship further, but his inviting me to dinner was just one incident in a whirlwind of experiences that week. This was the first week of classes, and I was like a little puppy exposed to a sudden influx of stimuli from every direction. It took all my energy just to keep up with everything.
The UW-Eau Claire campus is huge. At the time I was in awe of the giant dormitory buildings and the wide open spaces. It was in stark contrast to the University of Winchester, which seems almost entirely localized in the parking lot of a hospital. The UWEC campus is often praised for its greenery, its woodland aesthetics, and the clean, open areas. However by American standards it is considered a small college, with a student body of no more than 12,000. It was still a massive change for me however; as the number of students enrolled at the University of Winchester at the time was about 6,000. There seemed to be no end of things going on at the campus. There were the damn religious zealots, running around campus shouting about Jesus, there were the political factions who decided to spray-paint the sidewalks with partisan propaganda like they were playing real-life Overwatch, and every now and then you would see a phalanx of white girls in flannel shirts and beanies chanting “No ifs, no buts!” remonstrating with placards in front of Schofield. I quickly became used to the idea that every time I stepped outside I might get approached by someone for one reason or another.
One night I walked with my roommate- let’s call him Brad- down to lower campus to meet up with a friend of his from high school. The night was full of activity, but it was a completely different atmosphere to Winchester. Every night in Winchester you would hear the drunken singing of three lads with their arms around each other or some basic bitch puking in a bush somewhere, but in the U.S there is strictly no alcohol permitted on campus. Suddenly, I was underage again. It didn’t seem to bother me as much as it did the other British students in Eau Claire, since even when I was of age back home I didn’t seek out the party scene. Instead, there were more wholesome forms of entertainment; on the big grassy area behind Putnam on lower campus a huge cinema screen had been erected and was playing the first Hunger Games movie. Brad had disappeared to Skype his brother from North Dakota, and I spent the evening with his friend Kathy and her friend Bridgett. We sat down for about 5 minutes on the edge of the crowd before wandering off to this photo booth. A bunch of students were there taking pictures with their new friends, and as we waited in line, we ended up talking to this group of girls. I remember thinking I was doing well, and I really didn’t have to offer much for these girls to seem impressed.
“Start talking,” they demanded.
“I don’t know what to say,” I flat out told them.
“It doesn’t matter. We just want to hear your accent,” they said.
The first week was full of random social events like that. I remember early in the week I had to get up one morning to partake in this icebreaker exercise with a classroom of people that neither included those on my floor nor those in my classes. It was completely random. The teacher gave someone in the first row a clean roll of toilet paper, and told them to take as many or as few squares as they wanted before passing it on. Soon everyone had differing lengths of bogroll in their hands and we were informed that we had to tell the room a fact about ourselves for every square we had. I think I took a medium amount- perhaps 5 or 6 squares. I was the only foreigner in the room. I did not feel confident whatsoever, as my stomach had been rumbling loudly this whole time and I was super paranoid that everybody knew.
I remember being amused that the guy before me- a skinny, pasty looking chap with rectangular spectacles and an N7 hoodie- stood up with about 15 squares and absolutely no trace of shyness and declared “I love video games, mostly recently the Mass Effect Trilogy”. I respected him for it but watched eagerly the faces of everyone else in the room, as back then I didn’t game too much- it was more something of a casual, infrequent indulgence that I hid shamefully. But this guy didn’t give a flying fuck. He just straight up broadcasted his love for Commander Shepherd and didn’t give a second thought to the pretty, German-looking ladies of the American Midwest. The whole experience of being around different kinds of people and watching them interact was very interesting to me, and contributed in no small part to my growth as a person.
However I was still missing what I had craved, what eluded me at Winchester and in Bristol, which was a friendship group to belong to, that would take me in wherever they went. I was having a lot of positive interactions but they were isolated incidents. I had no hope of attaining this dream, and at the end of that first week I consciously told myself to be prepared to be a lone wolf once more. The sights and sounds of the New World would make it an improvement over another year in Winchester. I tried to tempt people to befriend me by leaving my door open and playing my iPod through Brad’s stereo, which consisted at that time almost exclusively of Elvis Presley songs. I sat at my desk, doing homework or creative writing exercises and listening to “Don’t Be Cruel” and “His Latest Flame”. People would smile at me, say hi, but they walked on past my open door. No one took the open invitation.
It was Friday, September 7th and about 12pm noon. It was a clear day and summer had carried over from August. I removed my iPod from the stereo and sat in silence for a while. Then, all of a sudden, there was a knock at my door. I looked up. It was Aaron- Akbar’s roommate, the Aaron Rodgers lookalike. Out of all the people I had met and spoke to, he was one of the last I expected to show up here. I had barely spoken to him that time at dinner, and he seemed like someone who had it all together. I remember him being the laidback comedian of the group; he was entirely unlike the other Wisconsinite guys I met who were more enthusiastic and forward in their pursuit of friends. They were all like “I’m so happy to meet you! I love England! What’s it like?” whereas this guy didn’t seem to be impressed so easily. However, as I looked up and saw him leaning coolly in my doorway, I saw for the first time that this guy had a friendly side to him and now I wasn’t threatened by his unforgiving humor. He asked in casual way, as though he expected me or whoever else he chose to be fully expectant for this kind of interaction, if I wanted to “grab some lunch”. I jumped at the opportunity, since I thrive best in one-to-one scenarios, and we walked over to Hilltop and sat down. It wasn’t too busy. We got to talking, and pretty soon I was convinced that Aaron was my best friend.
That might sound strange, but hear me out. Sometimes friendship is more of a gradual progression, but at other times it’s like lightning- it’s perfect and it happens all at once. There was no sense of awkwardness or contrived conversational tactics. We clicked instantly, and I was as comfortable talking to him as I was my closest friends back home, or my family. We ended up talking for 5 hours, just sitting in the cafeteria like two brothers who had known each other their whole lives. I already knew that I would never have to eat alone again. We exchanged numbers and he told me he expected me to come along to a screening of the Packers season opener against the 49ers that Sunday, and that he would teach me the rules of American football. Eventually we got up as he had to go to class or something like that, but he told me he would be in touch about hanging out later that evening.
Finally, I thought, I had somewhere to belong. I was already getting on well with Akbar, his roommate, and I knew they had a group that played soccer regularly, and would be sure to welcome me again.
Want to know what happens next? I’ll release the next episode in this series by the weekend!