At Harvard you are, in many ways, at home. You form routines: waking up at the same time, eating in the dining hall, and studying for classes in particular spots. You begin to recognize the same people walking to classes on the same pathways. You become comfortable with friends, and even with people you don’t particularly like but who have become woven into the fabric of your time here. You begin to be comforted by simple things—red bricks with white trimmings, bells ringing on the hour, strange radiator noises, that section kid’s questions—so subtly you don’t even realize you’re being comforted until they’re gone.
Studying abroad changes that.
“I got really homesick,” said Aubrey Stoddard ’17. “I was in India, I dealt with some sickness, and I was lying in bed, and my host brother didn’t speak English. I just wanted to call my mom and [have her] make me soup, and food, and make me feel better. But the next day my host mom made me tomato soup and mac and cheese because she knew they were American comfort foods.” Abroad, you are in a place completely different from your home, until it slowly becomes part of your heart. As you begin to settle down into routines and become as comfortable in a strange place as you are in Cambridge, you begin to wonder what “home” is.
Besides the questions of comfort and homesickness, there are those of belonging, engagement, and privilege. It is an incredible privilege to be able to even go to another country that is different from yours for a little while. Is it possible to claim any sort of belonging when you were not raised with the history of a place; when your family at home makes more in a month than your host family makes in a year, as I felt in Morocco? How do you engage with difficult cultural issues in this place where you just arrived a few months ago, where blackface is still an acceptable form of humor, as Austin Mueller ’17 found in Cuba? Or a place where women are routinely harassed on the street (something that has come up in multiple conversations with students who have gone abroad)?
I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I do believe that some degree of space is necessary: you never will belong, and you should be aware of your levels of privilege as a foreign student studying there. But at the same time, cultures are not monolithic, and as an outsider embedded in the culture, it is possible, and sometimes even necessary, to engage in conversations and debates about cultural differences. I was frustrated in Morocco when other American students would say “you can’t criticize the culture” on sexual harassment, in part because a discussion on the universality of some values was necessary, and in part because I felt an unwillingness to engage or criticize this status quo devalued the perspectives of the many, many Moroccan women who hated street harassment and wanted it to end.
Studying abroad forces you to turn a critical lens on your own culture and history. When I returned from Morocco, I thought I would be grateful to never be harassed on the street—instead, I saw more clearly how the same insidious ideas about women exist in both subtle and unsubtle ways in the United States. I was both angry at, and proud of, the United States in a way that I never had been before, because I realized how expansive (literally and figuratively) it was. Studying abroad spurred me to take courses on African-American literature and Native American history this semester, in which I’ve had to engage with the pre-European and racial aspects of our society and realized how little I truly know about the country I have called home for 15 years.
Study abroad creates homes without ownership, and comfort without belonging. Many of us at Harvard were raised in different places and across cultures, but at least here, we have some modicum of ownership, belonging, understanding, and being at peace. Study abroad is more bittersweet; it creates another place your heart longs for, but whose culture you will never really understand and to which you will never belong. The place will go on, changing, becoming more luminous, just as it had changed in the years before you ever lived there, and in ways more complex than you could ever understand.
Being abroad and returning, one must adopt a moveable definition of home, different from the definition with which one began. Feeling at home at Harvard might consist of routines, or belonging, or being able to completely understand the culture, or being comfortable. Feeling at home abroad might consist of only a few of these things, and also in being comfortable with always being a bit on the outside. You cannot engage with all of your homes in the same way, but the way you engage with all of them informs the way you engage with the rest. The one constant is that home, wherever it is, is love.
“Home can mean so many things,” Stoddard said. “Anyone who cares about you and loves you can be your home.”
Siobhan S. McDonough ’17 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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