Tag Archives: Anxiety

Making Friends in the USA Part 2

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!

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Making Friends in the USA Part 1

With this post I would like to continue my account of my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in the USA. In the inaugural episode of this series, I wrote about my first impressions of American college life and my experiences during International Orientation Week. The whole post covered the events between the dates: 27th August 2012 to 31st August, Monday to Friday. For this episode, I would like to explore what happened next; how I navigated my first week of classes and how by the end of that first week I had somehow, against all odds, secured a solid social foundation- and a friendship that would come to define my life for the next 5 years.

Everything changed during those few months I spent studying in the USA. My life developed a new pattern thereafter. My writing changed. I was exposed to new places, thoughts and experiences. It’s quite incredible when you look at how it all started. A big part of my motivation for studying in the USA was that I was failing socially in the UK. Things weren’t turning out the way I wanted them, and after chasing the dream of going to university to study creative writing since I was 12, I was finally there, and I needed a new dream. In the UK school technically ends during the year one turns 16, and you are presented with several options. A bunch of people went to colleges to pursue more focused, singular studies or training, others opted for apprenticeships in their chosen trade, and some jumped straight into the world of work without a second thought. A good number stayed at school to complete a two year academic program that would prepare them for university. I did this- but I switched schools. I chose to study at a place called City of Bristol College for two years where I pursued qualifications in English, Film Studies, Philosophy and Politics. From an academic viewpoint, it was a resounding success. It was the first time in my life I actually felt smart and passionate. Socially however, it was a disaster. I didn’t know how to make new friends, and for those two years I spent every break I had hiding in the library. Talking to people gave me serious anxiety. I remember once, I was in English class and we were studying Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The prettiest girl in the class asked me what the word “malice” meant, and even though I knew, I blushed as red as a plum tomato and with a trembling voice apologized for not knowing. Yikes. I figured university was the answer to my problems. But if anything things got even worse. I was told to expect the time of my life, and was assured by many that I would flourish in such a setting. What actually happened was that I became aware for the first time that I was suffering from clinical depression. It offended my sense of masculine pride that I could be so weak. I struggled to make friends with the people in my classes and the folks on my floor. Even when others tried to include me, I didn’t know how to include myself. It’s hard to explain, but for whatever reason things weren’t clicking. I spent the entire first year hiding in my room. I didn’t go out drinking or partying once. I tried to during my first week, but given that I had no kind of photo ID, I was asked by the bouncer to kindly piss off. The more time I spent in my room, the more paranoid I became that people must resent me for it. The incident that stands out to me most was my first night back after Christmas break. I was watching a film on my laptop when I heard voices outside my door. I heard a girl say “Is HE back yet?”

I knew she meant me. A few seconds later, a daring hand pushed open my door. My door was unlocked. It flung open and I heard the group shrieking with laughter and running down the hall, as though they expected a ghoul to come out and gobble them up. At the time this gave me very serious anxiety- the kind of rising heat that one feels in their chest, taking hold of one’s breathing. You can feel every breath and every heartbeat. According to science, my body was entering fight or flight mode. Later I calmed down, and decided the time had come for me to give in and get my ass over to student counselling. In many ways it was a defeat. But I would lie awake at night, having internalized everything for 3 years, having never told a soul, and my heart would feel so strained and tight. I swear I was scared to look down for fear of seeing it beating through my chest. My counselor was called Katie and I saw her once or twice a week for the duration of my 3 years in Winchester. I told her that I had gone weeks without uttering a word, and fearing that I would suffer some kind of permanent damage to my speech, I said that I just needed to come in and practice physically speaking for an hour. So that’s what I did. I was terrified of eating alone in the cafeteria, so every day I requested a takeaway box and hurried home to my apartment, where I enjoyed my food with an episode of The Sopranos.

It’s at this point that I feel the necessary context has been laid down for the events of my second week in Eau Claire. We’re going to start on Saturday, September 1st 2012. I was fully prepared to spend another year hiding in my room, or the library, or somewhere I could get away with eating alone. I should also point out that these were the days when my eating problems were at their absolute worst. Back then I struggled to eat in public whether I was with friends or not. I often left meals unfinished unless I was completely alone, and my biggest fear of the cafeteria was that I would puke and all the friendship groups would turn around and stare at me. It sort of happened once- I got so anxious I coughed up my food back onto my plate, but no one really noticed. So when I reached Eau Claire, I started taking my food back to my room in Towers North where I would eat at my desk. One time during International Orientation the cafeteria was closed and I walked to Shopko and bought a rotisserie chicken. It was the weekend after International Orientation, either the Saturday or the Sunday that ushered in the month of September, that for some goddam crazy reason I decided I would try to eat alone at the Hilltop Café- the big cafeteria of upper campus. It was a lot different to the cafeteria back in Winchester. Back there you had 3 or 4 choices of British cuisine, and though the standard of the food was actually pretty good, the prices were near extortionate. We had a set budget of 50 quid a week for food that was deliberately too little for what we needed. In the US however- the land of plenty- not only was the selection of food much wider but we could eat all that we wanted for free. We could eat there 25 times a day if we pleased. They even had sections devoted to exotic cuisines, like that Wok place. Anyway, I braved the cafeteria alone and instantly regretted it. It was prime eating time in the evening and the place was absolutely packed. All the American freshmen and sophomores were here now, and their loud voices and broad shoulders left little room. I eventually got a plate of food, and stared at the sea of tables with their wild and hooting patrons and felt a kind of nausea. Somehow I discovered a free table in the corner of the room, and ate facing the wall, with my back to the noise.

But that behavior just ain’t gonna fly in the Midwest. Before I knew it, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a massive American was standing behind me. Despite being shaped like an NFL linebacker, the guy spoke gently. He asked if I wanted to sit with him and his friends. I obliged. I quickly discovered that I was quite fascinating to the natives. My accent alone commanded interest. I could have talked for an hour about oven mitts and they would have listened. They seemed like a typical group of lads, with interests in sports and chasing skirts and good ol’ fashioned bro’s bro’s banter. I didn’t speak too much. I was shy but they seemed to accept that. They just talked as they usually would, including me here and there. Afterwards they invited me to go bowling with them downstairs. I discovered then that it was an American custom to give a high five or to bump fists after every bowl, even if it was a gutter-ball (which in my case, it often was). On the lane next to us were three Swedish exchange students that I recognized from International Orientation. One of them was perhaps the most blonde and beautiful girl I have ever seen. The guys started to admire her from afar, and I informed them she was Swedish. She was, however, guarded by two guys the size of refrigerators. They honestly made the Americans I was with look small. The guys struck up a conversation with these Swedes, each of them doing their best to court the girl, even though she was spoken for by a guy who looked like he might well have been the actor behind Colossus from Deadpool. I remember with amusement how, after they left, one of guys confided to us “O man, I just wanna undo that zip…” referring to the girl’s blouse, which had a zip right at the cleavage. It seemed like there would be no end to the adventures an American campus would provide, and we were just guys being guys. I was very much taken in by their wild enthusiasm. I felt like I was part of one of the typical groups of bro’s you might see in the American movies. After bowling we went back to their floor in Towers South where we watched an episode of a show they called How I Met Your Mother with some of their female friends. When I decided to go, everyone said goodbye and smiled, and as I waited in the elevator, I heard one of them say “He was a really nice guy”.

It was a very positive experience for me, but I still didn’t have a social foundation. I didn’t possess the know-how to go about finding that group again, or indeed an idea of what I would say if I did. Despite their affability, my mind seemed programmed to interpret it as a one-time thing. I expected nothing more. I just didn’t have the confidence or the skills necessary to seek them out and reacquaint myself with them. But don’t worry; this story has a happy ending…