"I could follow a lecture, read a book, write a paper, all of that in French, but I hadn’t been me before in French."
By Charles Lee (CIEE Study Abroad, Brussels, Belgium, 2013)
*This essay was a winner in CIEE's 70th Anniversary Alumni Storytelling Contest.
One night in the library, early in my junior year, everyone at my table was working on applications to consulting firms. Recruitment for summer internships was coming up. Deloitte, PWC, Accenture, all these firms and the wild questions they’d ask in the interview. I still wasn’t sure what a consultant was, but apparently it is what you do after college. I opened the website for one of them and closed it immediately. I knew it wasn’t for me, but I still didn’t know how you do find out what is for you.
A few weeks after that night in the library, I got an email from my university saying that I had passed the French test and was approved for a semester in Belgium. It was exciting, adventure and all that, but it was mostly a relief. Not sure of what I should do, it was comforting to have something to do. You can always do something until you get to the “should” part of that verb phrase.
Settling into Belgium came with ups and downs, but it was easier than I expected. Some very typical challenges faced me that, had I been older and wiser I would have seen how typical they were, but each minor hurdle turned into either a minor accomplishment or a valuable failure. I made friends. I went to class. I slowly built a new life for myself.
I came to Belgium already speaking pretty advanced French, a language I had studied and spoken since I was 13 or so. French, though, had never carried a deep emotional weight for me. It was a subject I was good at in school. It was my minor at university. It was this separate, abstract thing that existed outside of me. I could follow a lecture, read a book, write a paper, all of that in French, but I hadn’t been me before in French.
In Belgium, the language took on a new form. I cried in French; I talked about being afraid and uncertain in French. I made jokes in French. I plumbed the depths of friendship in French. I admitted to embarrassing crushes in French. I got angry in French. I navigated a new and complex social world in French. People I knew in French became important to me. And French became important to me. It seems cliché, but at that moment in my life, when a logical path seemed to already lie before me, it was really astounding to see this extension of myself – an extension that needed this otherness for it to exist. It was as if this parallel world was suddenly opened up to me. It took this new feeling of otherness to upend the assumptions I’d made about the future.
As I relearned how to exist in my parallel self, I was able to see things from a bigger perspective. There is nothing that I just had to do. There isn’t such a thing as should. People just do and they do all kinds of things.
I was so taken with the feeling I felt when French became an important part of my life, a central element of my existence, that I wanted to do it again. I had always been interested in German, but had set it aside since starting college. I signed up for a German course, got a German language partner, hung out with the German exchange students and went to readings and events in German. Now that French had become an almost automatic language for me, tumbling from my mouth with unthinking ease, it felt right to start anew.
When my CIEE exchange was coming to an end, I went to dinner with one of the student mentors. I told her that I was going to Vienna that summer to take summer courses at the university. She was half German and had been instrumental in feeding my interest. As a joke, or maybe not, I said I wish I could just stay. I said aloud that I had thought about coming back for grad school, but that was a lie. I had only just thought it as I said it. Saying it made it real. She said, “You know you could, right? You could do that.” I don’t think I did know that.
After my summer in Vienna, I got on a plane to DC. It was hard getting on that plane. I had experienced the whole emotional arc of the study abroad experience, feeling almost bitter that I was such a cliché. Unease in the new, total ease in the new, unease in the old, acceptance of both. But just because something is typical does not make it unreal.
I came back to DC, though, with a clearer sense of what I could do. I came back understanding that what I should do and could do were up to me to be discovered. I came back with a goal.
Every Saturday morning I went to an exam prep course, and on Thursdays I had a German course and made French my major. I got a side job to pay for these prep classes and in January I sat the first exam. I passed. In April I submitted my application and waited. In March I was invited to Paris for the interview.
Last fall, I graduated with honors from the Sorbonne with a master’s in German studies and translation. As I write this, the other document open on my computer is my second thesis, this one in comparative literature and next year I’ll apply to doctoral programs here in France. In another year, I’ll be allowed to submit an application for French citizenship.
In the journey I found a new way of being, but one that had always been parallel to myself. In coming home, I found that home is a choice you make yourself.