I went abroad last spring – largely on a whim – and it was incredible. I lived in Marseille, France, at the summit of a mountain randomly bulging out of the middle of the city. Cultural mélange was everywhere: My host-father was half-Vietnamese, the grocer down the street was Iraqi, and my professor of Islam was Tunisian. Kebabs were plentiful, as were sandy beaches and trendy cafes. My host mother made me omelets for dinner, and my room quite literally had a shower in it. There were no problem sets or six-page papers. Life was really, really good.
Whenever I could, I left the paradisiacal south of France. Not because I didn’t like it – I wouldn’t mind spending my summers in the Provencal region every year until I unceremoniously keel over and die – but because I felt I had a responsibility to leave and see the world. We don’t often realize it, but we’re tragically isolated here in the U.S. It takes six godforsaken hours to drive from Williamstown to Toronto. And even then, Toronto may as well be a city in America. I wanted to experience culture shock in its purest form, over and over again. So I took that classic American proverb “you only live once” to heart, and I lived.
There are many ways to feel alive, and one of them is to let yourself be paralyzed with fear. I went places and did things that I knew would, in some way, make me uncomfortable. I introduced myself to random people in cafés. I walked for four hours across Istanbul, from my hostel to Ataturk Airport (which was, admittedly, largely because I refused to pay for a heinously overpriced taxi). I crossed the Israeli-Palestinian border. I ate foie gras. I was a kid again, impressing my parents by trying new things – except, in this case, the only person I was trying to impress was myself.
I can think of several moments that particularly shocked me. The moment I set foot on Palestinian soil comes to mind. The air in Ramallah was hot and thick, the bustle of the city almost a tangible thing. I was momentarily reduced to the hollow, racist shell that I always feared would be left when you stripped away everything but fear from my person. Their faces were a honeyed brown and mine was white – all I could see was color and difference. I needed to get right back on the bus and leave. I felt white-hot, and I could not breathe. Then I breathed and again a second time, and everything was fine. Never had I been so ashamed of myself.
I experienced visceral emotions like this one in Turkey, in Morocco, in Belgium and even in England. Moments of unsuppressed xenophobia, released from my brain when I was too scared to think logically. I couldn’t tell you where those feelings originated. Maybe patriotism breeds prejudice, or maybe I’m just a bad guy. But I’m trying to get those feelings out in the open so I can fling them as far away from me as I can. I think it’s working, slowly but surely.
A lot of pieces like this one conclude in the same fashion. The author sappily tells you how fortunate he is to have had the opportunity to study outside the U.S. and how glad he is that he made the decision to leave. Maybe he ends with a passing shot at Americans and how uncouth and barbaric they are compared to the rest of the world. He might even confide in you his plans to go right back to wherever he studied the moment he graduates.
I won’t do that. Anyone who implies that studying abroad is both a necessary part of college as well as a prerequisite for moral and cultural broadmindedness is a fool. Each person is different, and studying abroad may not be the right thing for you. Maybe you can’t fathom missing out on an entire semester of math at Williams. Maybe you’re the guy inside the purple cow suit, and you don’t feel that anyone can do the job quite like you can. I urge you to probe your brain, heart and any other relevant organs as you decide whether to spend your junior year at Williams or abroad, but ultimately the choice is yours. Whatever you do, do it for the right reason.
Taylor Halperin ’14 is a political science and history double major from Seattle, Wash. He lives in Chadbourne.