Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reorientation and Context

Realization comes in waves- such has been one of the themes of the past year. Discovery, research, experience, understanding, comprehension; these things we dip our toes into, expecting a refreshing chill, and soon the swells will engulf us in what seems like frozen lava. It doesn't matter how you mentally and physically prepare yourself for the ocean, she will overwhelm you with the pushes and pulls. There's no use fighting it; the harder you try to swim to shore, the more the under toe pulls you in. But isn't that what you always secretly wanted? That opportunity to surrender yourself to the tide has always held a certain appeal. Those moments of elusive clarity must be worth the thrashing of the sea foam, we tell ourselves, it simply must be. Well, I've inhabited that limbo between drowning and swimming for a year now, and I can tell you with a generous amount of certainty that it is.
Let me give you some context as to this entry: I've been back at home for about two weeks, I've done the reorientation-thing and talked to my senators in our nation's capitol, I've thrown a party, and I'm all settled with the time difference. I've been listening to Cat Stevens and reading the blogs of other students. I've been washing dishes in the kitchen sink, and I've been swimming in the Atlantic. I've taken a poll, and I figure that I'll continue with this blog- maybe it'll help in the project. Remember that briefing at the beginning of the year, how mostly this blog was kept to document my adventures so I could double-dip into a project I needed to complete in order to graduate? You don't? Ah, well, I'm sure you'll figure it out. I realize that I'm getting a little off-topic, but the latter half of this entry's title should give you a hint about the nature of this post. Context, or "with the words", is what so much of the reorientation process is about.
I was almost afraid  of the questions I'd have to answer when I got back, and this blog was supposed to be a companion to my "elevator speech" (the what-I-did-this-year sh'peal, compressed into the time it takes to go from the first to the fifth floor in your average hotel elevator). Should you (Oh Senator, Oh Teacher, Oh Stranger) desire more context as to this story, I direct you to a medium I've found to be both personal and professional. The dualistic characteristic comes from my almost schizophrenic jumping from foreign poetic wisdoms to individual feelings and observations. I hope this medium lends itself to your eyes as it has to my brain, comfortably suiting my desire to write to express myself and challenging my growth as an emerging writer. Unfortunately, there can only be so much context expressed in these entries- I can only foster the tone in which your mind-voice reads this post. There were places where I had to go back and delete the phrases that just didn't translate, and there are times, now, where I have to admit that not everything can be communicated in these words. Pretty things though they are, even they sometimes fail us (a wise friend of mine said something like that).
I was taught to understand history in context, and in that understanding to realize it could never be completely comprehended. There were too many undocumented facts and opinions, history was written by the victors, every record is biased. Until recently, I thought this was a flaw in mortal understanding. I was convinced that the completely objective book was perfect in its retelling, that a transcendence of position was the answer to the question of accountability in recounting. It took a dedication to writing a record for myself, collecting papers and keeping a steady journal, as well as reading the accounts of students in parallel experiences, to begin to shift my perspective. A diversity in stories does not inhibit the understanding of the individual stories or the stories as a group- it simply reminds us that nothing is as black-and-white as we'd like it to be. As one of my favorite authors said, "The truth resists simplicity". You can superimpose laws and regulations on it all you'd like, and they will always fail to really clarify what matters, and just as soon as you think you've got a blanket observation or a correct stereotype, an exception will make itself known to you. That's my theory, at least. There is no true generalization about things or people, and this is a fact that can only be understood in the kind of context I'm talking about.
The kind of background that comes with the words I give you (and Future Peggy) here, on this blog, is the kind you have to see between the lines. Pre-departure, that context was the anxiety and pride and excitedness of a girl, and everything written on that American keyboard should be taken with a grain of heavy salt. What that writer was trying to express more than anything she actually wrote was that she knew she couldn't write it all down- it would be an insult to the experience and the words to think otherwise. But she sure as heck wasn't going to let an unattainable goal get in her way, those are her favorite kind of goal. One works towards them, inches in the direction of perfection and balance and health and beauty, and the light at the end of the tunnel will never be reached, but one aspires to it, and that's what's important. Then again, "Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land. It's just New Jersey" and we recognize that we have changed and need to reorient ourselves with those beautiful unattainable goals. I found this our about two months in when I realized how I was trying to be this perfect exchange student with this perfect experience, so I wasn't letting things get to me and I was shutting myself off from the part of the experience that solves relationship problems. I was running away from the responsibility of making a deeper connection to my host family and schoolmates at first because I only knew how to do two things; how to be The Perfect Exchange Student and how to be Myself. The idea that the exchange student personality relies entirely on the self escaped me until I had a dramatic change in setting. These ideas, although not expressed in the words, should have come with the words, and this growth was contextualized. I understand that this may make it incomprehensible to readers who don't know me personally, but with any hope this can provide not simplicity, but clarity.
Our reorientation to the country, the government, the american-portion meals, and the language was a success in that it recontextualized us students. I hope I can speak for everyone when I say that we were brought back into what was once our element (so to speak, we're mostly dorks with good social skills) and we were told and asked what we were going to DO with this year. We were encouraged to volunteer with AFS and YES (of course I will, you'd have to beat me back with a stick!) and present our cultural learning to a set of appropriate audiences. I've already got the tools with which to do that, so I'll be taking advantage of the system next school year. Where the group leaders and alumni couldn't teach us, like how to get back into the swing of our natural families and friends, they taught us how to teach ourselves. We will have different, changed relationships with these people, we and they have changed in this year, and you-may-need-to-get-some-new-friends-that's-why-you-should-volunteer-with-other-alumni. We will have to pick up on their contexts, just like we've been doing for the last year intensely and for all our lives not-as-intensely. To know what we should DO with that year, we need to find the contexts in the same searchy, stumbly way we always have, looking for answers with a stubborn purpose. Fortunately, we've stumbled into much more dangerous places than the American Education System and Job Market and Real Life, so we're prepared for what might be thrown at us, provided it isn't rice or religion.
Here's hoping that the understanding of context will lead us to understand things in context, because words aren't everything- it's what comes with the words that matters (even in text-based blogs).
Best Wishes,