I can remember the first few weeks of my semester abroad as having a particular feeling. I think September is the best time to be on an American campus. It’s a dreamy, hopeful kind of place. There’s a palpable excitement that you can almost hear, a nearness of laughter and footsteps and backpack zippers. It was sunny all the time, and my host family told me that this was called an Indian Summer. I shared upper campus with thousands of American freshmen, and it seemed that all of them had no desire other than to make friends. Anything seemed possible. Everything I saw and heard seemed to encourage me.
People left their doors open and music filled the dorms. I distinctly remember that the radio always played a song called Blow Me One Last Kiss by Pink, and I could hear it every time I went to the showers. The song Call Me Maybe, which had dominated the summer of that year, still lingered in everyone’s favor, but in a few weeks it vanished with the sunshine.
During this hot September the volleyball courts were always full. It seemed like a way to meet people. I went down a couple times with Jimmy and Zeke.
“You mean, we’re just gonna walk right up to them?” I said, lingering behind. My particular brand of British anxiety meant that I saw myself as a burden to others. The whole idea seemed crazy to me, even rude. I had never asked anyone to include me in something ever. It just wasn’t in my programming.
Jimmy turned back to me and smiled.
“Yeah, we’ll just ask them,” he said. In his mind, it was a simple as that.
We joined a game and I had a lot of fun. Sports was a good way for me to integrate myself in a social group, because when you’re playing a game you’ve always got something to do. And if you like sports, as I do, you end up forgetting you’re in a social situation at all. Adrenaline and competitive instincts kick in.
As we left the court, Jimmy said “Did you see me chatting to that blonde? She was pretty hot.”
I was happy. It seemed that there were opportunities around every corner. Each new face was a box of secrets waiting to be opened. If I could go back to any one part of my exchange, it would surely be those opening weeks. It was all noise and color and action. At that point, my plan for my student exchange to completely transform me into this super-confident Byronic rogue looked feasible. But I was still afraid. I didn’t trust the tools I had at my disposal. I wanted it to be a passive process, where America would act as this big wave that would sweep me up and carry me to the shore.
Of course, I learned that no such change is possible. I could only change as much as I let myself. If I truly wanted it, I had to face my fears and be proactive. I think that is the biggest lesson I learned from those months I spent in Eau Claire, WI. That is the one defining takeaway from my student exchange. It just wasn’t enough to have the opportunities and the encouragement there on the outside- I had to transform myself from within.
It was during that Indian Summer that I was introduced to Macklemore by my new best friend Aaron. We listened endlessly to his album The Heist. I remember Aaron sitting cross-legged on the rug, wearing a high school soccer t-shirt that he had cut the sleeves off of, dancing to the song Thrift Shop. It was very popular at that time. I sat watching him sing along and folding laundry from my usual spot- a detached computer chair propped up against the wall. It was at that moment our friend Akbar entered the room and threw a condom at my face. The corner of the wrapper scratched my forehead above the eye and I picked it up and stared at it. It took me a while to realize what it was. I looked back up at the Malaysian’s toothy grin.
“You’ve got until Christmas to use it. That’s plenty of time, bro-la,” he said, winking at me.
Blushing, I put the condom in the front pocket of the Green Bay Packers coat my host family had given to me.
My plane left the Minneapolis airport on December 22nd. As I waited in the departure lounge, messing around on one of the free iPads, I got a call from Akbar. I was sad and emotional, but the fact that he was both the first and last person I spoke to during my exchange pleased me. I like things to be neat and cyclical. Most of the time he’s teasing me, but on this occasion he spoke softly. He wanted to make sure I was alright at the airport and he wanted to say goodbye.
I reached down into my coat pocket and laughed.
“You know, I still have that condom you gave me at the start of the semester,” I said, putting it away quickly in case anyone around me caught sight of it.
“Well, you’ve still got twenty-five minutes to use it. Any hotties around?”
“Oh, um, I’ll have to check,” I said.
“There’s still time, la. You’ll only need fifteen seconds!”
I tend to celebrate my 2012 student exchange as being this wonderful thing that happened that changed my life forever. And that’s true. It did. But it wasn’t perfect. And my naïve idea that it would be this golden experience from which I would emerge a new man did not come to fruition. There were highs and lows from my time in Eau Claire. And it was during that semester that I realized for the first time that when it comes to me, the highs are very high and the lows are very low.