text by Dominic Stephen / image by Casey Fyfe via unsplash.com
I distinctly remember how I felt during the journey to university. Behind me my familiar English home slowly diminished. From the familiar leafy East London suburbs, my thoughts now turned to the overnight ferry. It was headed for Hoek van Holland, to me an oddly spelled, foreign place. Fear and excitement had merged into a single blurry sensation; greater independence and responsibility shimmered just over the horizon; expectations of the much-celebrated ‘freedom of the undergraduate student’ were creeping in, along with the clammy palms of anxiety. Anyone already having traversed the strange world of university and student life would probably have said that all these feelings – these worries and romantic projections of the future – were completely expected and understandable. Indeed, just as they arose expectedly, largely grounded in naivety and inexperience, they soon subsided. Independence is something we learn to grow into; it is a blank canvas, an empty space of freedom that we gradually colour. We fill it with hobbies, travel, books, new relationships, new commitments… They pose challenges to us, but none particularly insurmountable or disarming.
Now, having spent a year living mostly away from home, concerns less simple to answer have been brought to awareness – problems unrelated to academic work, a hyper-social campus or the time-consuming toils of administration. Rather, these problems relate to the peculiar sense of living out two separate lives spread across two entirely distinct spheres. They are questions of home, of belonging, and of building a new life on unfamiliar ground. They are from the realization that, in response to the different people and routines that comprise a life, who we become is both a reaction to what our environment expects of us and what we give in return. These expectations change and, through adaptation, so do we. I inhabit a younger, London-based self for certain months of the year, and what I hope is a more mature, considerate and educated individual when living in The Netherlands. Although over time I have identified more strongly with the latter, there remains undeniably a tension between the two. A sense of disorientation can arise – ‘where is ‘home’, and to whom do I belong?’ – and a clear identity increasingly slippery and difficult to define.
On returning to an environment, it is easy to slot back into the roles we have spent our whole lives carving for ourselves. Our peers give us a well-lubricated mould into which it is so tempting to slide back into. We are reminded of the old habits and affectations that used to define us and contributed to our previous sense of meaning. Although these have changed whilst living abroad, establishing a new identity amongst a drowning myriad of well-grounded traditions at home can be difficult. Defying the outdated expectations offered to us by our family and friends – in other words simply choosing to live, behave and express ourselves as we now ideally wish to – can often feel like too much of an emotional challenge. Particular behaviours, opinions and habits developed in one sphere can seem out of place if applied within the other – ‘What’s wrong Dom? You’ve changed’. Not having followed the new paths taken in our parallel life abroad – and us equally unfamiliar with the changes in our peers – we may find it surprising to come to terms with fresh attitudes and approaches to life adopted over the past year. It takes time for the deeply rooted understandings we have of our closest friends to adapt – to reflect more accurately the person they have now grown into. It may be easier to make the excuse that the gained authenticity between friends is not worth the emotional trouble attached to its eventual achievement.
Arguably international students generally feel this ‘crisis of identity’ more acutely than those with parents already living in Holland. Through regularly returning home, the Dutch student can provide their family and friends with a consistent update of changed beliefs, maturing experiences and new routines. In this way, the slightly more independent (hopefully) and responsible (hopefully) individual can quickly re-integrate back into familiar family life. Roles and expectations do not freeze but steadily roll forward. Meanwhile, for the international student, who goes home sometimes only once a year, conversations over Skype, made however regularly, can only ever convey a limited summary of the individual. My parents know that I went on a bicycle ride early the other morning, that I had a difficult philosophy essay to write, that I discovered a new type of stroopwafel at Albert Heijn, and that the weather in Utrecht is not so different to London. But these snapshots of a life are merely that – they are superficial fragments plucked from a continuous reel of changing reflections and considerations on life, love, friendships and future. They reveal only two black-and-white dimensions of a multi-coloured, three-dimensional life. More shared time is needed for reflections of greater significance (on sexuality, politics, drugs and the environment for example) to be comfortably communicated.
The ties binding one to home have been loosened, and the roots of a new life in Utrecht lack true depth. In this way, a veil of unfamiliarity and disconnection hangs over both lives across the waters separating England and The Netherlands, the very waters crossed by my overnight ferry in August last year. An awkward game of tug-o’-war ensues, with each country competing to be the exclusive receiver of emotional commitment. Friendships are built on shared memories, and emigration temporarily fractures this common narrative and stable reference point. The confidence with which one is able to define their Home perhaps now requires reconsideration, doubt, even a rejection of the concept altogether. In spreading out a life between two mutually foreign places, perhaps the international student is temporarily exiled, without identity and homeless.