The identity incubator: Desires for self-metamorphosis abroad
Study Abroad Columnist
When I was little, I asked my father where our family came from, before we came to the U.S. All he knew to say was “Europe.” I really didn’t know anything about Europe: all that came to mind were a piece of china we owned with “Holland” written on it in blue letters and fleeting visions of pilgrims on a rickety wooden boat.
I realized later that this was a makeshift answer, meant to pacify a young child’s curiosity in the lack of information. Nevertheless, I was enthralled by a vague sense of belonging in the unknown, and thus started my obsession with finding my unique identity.
When I was growing up, my parents were both in the military. Unlike many military families, we were never asked to move to a new base. As much as this was a blessing, I found myself jealous of my friends, several of whom would inevitably leave each year for some foreign country I could only dream of visiting.
While we both had to bear the burden of parting ways, I imagined them being consoled by the excitement of discovery. Their new homes were places with fascinatingly unfamiliar names like Okinawa and Ramstein, distant dots on a map that filled me with wonder and desire, and I resented being stuck within the same dreary three-mile radius I had always known.
When I got older, I started to drift from the conservative, nationalistic environment I had been raised in as a military child: I came out, I stopped believing in God, I shifted radically from the conservative politics I had always been taught. As my sense of identity became even more unsure, my desire to construct my unique sense of self against a conservative environment intensified.
I was frustrated with the propaganda of the military-industrial complex, with the America First rhetoric I heard at school and at home, with the exaggerated religious doctrine I could only rationalize as fearful aversion to logic. These changes only served to deepen my understanding of what really bothered me about being stuck in my hometown.
When I was 8, I wanted to leave because it was boring. When I was 18, I wanted to leave because staying would be personal stagnation. So, when I got offered the opportunity to join the World Scholars program at UD, to leave the U.S. for the first time and flee to Madrid as a college freshman, I saw an opportunity for reinvention.
What would I discover in an environment completely free of the biases of my childhood? How would my identity change, using a totally different culture as my new identity reference point?
This strained sense of identity led me to vow to rid myself of any American ties. I envisioned any experience abroad as a sort of identity incubator. I imagined a total metamorphosis: the changes had to be stark, the comforts and staleness of my pedestrian life totally replaced. Foreign words would come from my mouth, new friends would expose my mind to alien perspectives, every last shred of myself firmly replaced.
I cherish every opportunity to distance myself from my loving yet overbearing mother tongue, to escape an Anglo cultural vacuum. Little by little, I’m beginning to construct the me I didn’t know I was.
However, I’ve realized through my different study-abroad programs — Madrid and Granada, in Spain; Chengdu, in China — that I can’t truly undergo such a process: as much as I’ve loved my American classmates and my “host universities” (inherently American experiences with a scenic backdrop), I haven’t been able to fully tear myself away. English dominates, program bubbles isolate, experiences disappoint.
I don’t want to study abroad.
I want to take on a new identity.
I want to experience the duality of alienness and acceptance, gossiping in the language of Cervantes over tapas.
I want to reflect on my connection with the peripheral, the non-familiar, savoring Sichuan spice with Chinese friends.
I want to feel myself adapting to the nuances of German, letting centuries of linguistic wisdom from farmers, merchants and bakers take control of my neural pathways while strolling around the Marktplatz with a German companion.
I value my experiences abroad for lighting this fire within me. I’m grateful to my family, to the town that raised me, for preparing me for these experiences.
But today is mine and self-reinvention is imminent.