Today, I want to add a personal text to this blog that has so far been rather analytical. It’s about the fresh taste of new circumstances and the smell of the unknown.
There are situations in life that feel like a new beginning. In tough or depressing phases, we might crave these situations very strongly. But also when life is great, we may want to use our energy to go on an adventure.
Despite every day having the potential to be a new beginning, such moments are very rare. They can be perceived as a blessing, as a burden, as a chance or as a disaster. Mostly, I guess, they are all at the same time. I want to shed light on these different aspects, linking them to stories from my time here in the United States.
Coming to a new place opens many doors: To people, learnings and opportunities. Despite the intimidating vastness of possibilities I am personally very excited about these situations. There is so much to learn, to see, to experience. No day passes without surprises, without a wide-awake curiosity that soaks in all the impressions. It does not even take any effort to expand one’s brain and horizon as all the new information flows in constantly. Back home, one might need colorful, loud, extraordinary events or parties to satisfy the brain’s craving for stimulation. In a new place, details are sufficient. The way people smile at you on the streets is so different that I could spend the whole day just walking around, grinning back. What usually seems tiring and boring becomes a source of excitement. New beginnings awaken the child within us that runs in the meadows, chasing a butterfly.
If you have wondered whether you are the only person being overwhelmed by new surroundings, don’t worry, you are not alone. There’s a reason why kids sleep longer than adults: I believe it’s because they are more constantly exposed to new impressions. Thinking back to my first days on student exchange in France when I was 15, I slept and slept for days. Breakfast – meeting people in the city – sleeping for two hours. Our bodies know quite well how to deal with being overwhelmed and take their time to process.
One exhausting activity that I have underestimated as an extrovert, is the tough work of getting to know new people. Talking to many introverted people that are new to Northwestern University, I have realized that it can be a huge challenge to constantly socialize. Not only remembering names and engaging in conversations but also overcoming one’s inner barriers permanently adds up to the exhaustion.
Like babies, restarters need a lot of rest. Is it then paradoxical to deprive newcomers of sleep by hosting tons of welcome parties?
A comfortable kind of new beginning is when you’re not the only one. Several newcomers make it easier to build a network as everyone’s open to bond and make friends. As we’ve seen, this process can be tough, but it can work out quite fast and quite successfully. No one has to be alone anymore. New groups, new friends, not enemies yet – great, right?
However, even in such an advantageous situation, I guess loneliness is a predominant feeling for many people. The surroundings are unfamiliar, the new friends cannot read your emotions yet, differences in culture might prevent you from getting the help you need. During my first week at this new university, I got to know at least 20 new people every day. Still, I spent a lot of my free time in my room, feeling lonely. The hunt for a huge network in a new place lets you forget what makes you feel comfortable: People surrounding you that you’ve experienced adventures with, that you’ve spent many hours in class with or that you’ve talked to for ages. I believe that humans are conservative animals that need some constant factors in their life in order not to feel lonely. It doesn’t take forever to find the right group of people in a new place. But our mind is confused by the absence of ever-present social support around us.
None of the points I have mentioned so far is either fully good or bad. There is no black or white. Excitement can be overwhelming, exhaustion can make you grow. Loneliness develops into social comfort. Similarly, unexpected challenges are often surprising learning opportunities.
My initial plan was to spend my semester abroad in Montreal, Canada. Studying in French (with a special accent) seemed a doable, exciting challenge to me. Getting the spot in the US instead was something I definitely appreciated. However, I felt like the language challenge had died with that opportunity.
As I’m here, reading books about Statistics and Differential Equations, I’ve realized that nothing has died at all. Never have I used my dictionary that often. I’m grateful to understand my professors, but it happens every day that people use words I don’t know. Studying math requires you to understand all the details though.
Only now I’ve become aware of the unique chance to improve my English, my accent, my vocabulary, and my ability to understand. It’s tough on some days, but mostly it’s a gift that has come as a surprise.
To conclude this post, I want to talk about a minor difference in culture that is bothering me every day now. It’s also an unexpected challenge: The number 1.
We Europeans write 1, just like my keyboard just did. Americans write I. Or sometimes they write 1, but with a funny bar underneath it. So what’s the big deal? First, I still don’t manage to stick with one “1” when writing down math homework. The much bigger deal has to do with vectors. I’ll add a picture to illustrate this: Kommas, ones and i’s can be very confusing…