I am a terrible human being. This poor blog has sat at the back of my mind, gathering a thick layer of dust over the past three months, as I have putzed about my life and attempted to re-carve the niche I thought I had left for myself in America.
But, hello. I'm back! Your not-so-local (but still your favorite) exchange student bringing you details about going home and why it might actually be harder than packing up your life and shipping it to the Middle East.
I have been home now for almost three months (and as I type that I can feel my head spinning because honestly that's an unbelievably long time) and I've started my senior year of high school. My classes are stressful, my friends are lovely, and my cats are fluffy. And I am still emotionally on exchange.
In the last few months since coming home, I have read blog posts from several of the girls who were in Oman with me (Kenzie's made me cry the hardest) and struggled to express my own emotions in a manner that would somehow refrain from mocking their pieces with redundancy. As you might have guessed by my absence from the interweb, I failed.
But at some point in the last week or so I decided that regardless of how poorly I might end up writing it (and so, dear readers, I'd like to apologize in advance), it is worth sharing my experience with you all even now that I am home so that any of you who are curious about exchange will get to be in on a big secret. Ready? Exchange doesn't end when you come home.
Exchange to me is how I would define this feeling of loss in your gut, that pull that makes you feel like you're meant to be somewhere else, and that somewhere is far away. It is the way that I have walked the streets of my hometown in the last months and felt, day by day, as though I were living out some bizarrely realistic version of the Sims. In the last few months, I have come to realize that exchange never truly ends. That the mark I let Oman leave on me will be here forever. That the sun may rise in the East and set in the West, but just because it's going down here doesn't mean it won't come back to greet me in another place halfway around the world.
I miss it. I spent 10 months wishing I were home and now I spend every night crossing my fingers and hoping that some day, Insha'allah, I will be able to return to Oman. It is beautiful there. My life was beautiful there. 5 times a day I would hear the call to prayer, the athan, and when I looked out of my window all I could see were more houses and streets cloaked in dust. The sun rose and set in hues that dazzled me twice a day, and as much as my host siblings and I may have disagreed, I miss them with all my heart.
It breaks my heart that my time abroad had to end. It gave me a purpose, instilled in me the will to push for the things I dreamed of, and promptly gave me a push and sent me off reeling into the abyss of college applications and AP work that waited to catch me when I landed home in New York.
I don't know if I can blog again after this. I don't even know if this piece is interesting or if it's just a piece of fluff I typed up because I was emotional and homesick. Either way, I'm going to post it, because this is how I feel, and if you were with me on my journey then you deserve to know that much.
So here goes. This is me accepting my exchange. Breathing in. Breathing out. Looking ahead to the new things to come. And taking a running jump and then a leap of faith out into the unknown, where I will find my next journey.
Shukran (thank you) to all of my readers and those of you who have just dropped in out of arbitrary curiosity. Thank you for reading this blog and validating my journey, and for letting me share it with you. Thank you for making me feel as though there was at least one other person out there whom I might have helped by going to Oman - by expressing that although these things are hard, they are so, so worth it.
A special thank you to the four girls who stole my heart and left me with a gaping hole in my chest that misses them every day - Linden, Ginya, Braden and Kenzie... You are my sisters and my best friends and my worst nightmares and I love you with all of my heart. You have meant the world to me, and I wouldn't have spent the last year with anyone else.
The last 10 months of my life have been unlike anything I could have expected. They have been hot and dusty and exciting and spontaneous and hectic and stressful and beautiful. They have been an exchange.
But now it is June, and I am going home.
I am going home on Saturday night, connecting through Germany and into Washington, D.C. for re-entry orientation. I am going home to the life I left behind, the house I have lived in for years, the parents who raised me and the friends who have supported me into and through this year of my life.
I am going home to my cats.
I am going home to grass, and to rain, and to winter snows and changing seasons.
I am going home to mild summers and the birds that chirp in our garden.
And I am leaving Oman.
I am leaving behind the sands and the hot sun, the camels and the dunes.
I am leaving behind the friends I have made and the family who took me in.
I am leaving behind the mountains and the clear blue skies, the wadis and the desert breeze.
I am leaving behind the smell of bukhur and the lights of Muscat.
I am leaving behind the person I am in this moment, because I will never be the same again.
I am scared, but I know I am ready. I know I will be okay as I take another step forward into the uncertainty that follows this exchange, because in the last 10 months I have come to know myself.
At this point, at t-minus two days until departure, my bags are packed and sitting by the door to my room. My plane outfit is picked out. I have dotted my "i"s and crossed my "t"s, and all that remains is the physical act of getting on that plane to finalize an ending to this year.
One week ago the other exchange students and I gave our capstone presentations at the U.S. Embassy here in Muscat. I stood in front of the other girls, members of our host families, and officials from the embassy and talked about the recent history of Oman. I was able to do this because in the last 10 months I have learned enough about this country to be genuinely curious. I was interested in this history because the past is what inspires the present and drives the future, and I care about the future of this country.
And looking back on it now, that is only one of many things I have done this year that I could not have imagined even 18 months ago. 18 months ago I was just applying for the YES Abroad program, sending in my application and praying it would be accepted. And here I am today, more than 7000 miles from America but still, somehow, at home.
The last song I'll share before I leave is one that I've been listening to a lot lately - to me, this song is a perfect echo of my emotions at this moment.
🎶I Was Here - Beyoncé🎶
I feel like this is the point in my exchange where I'm supposed to start reflecting, and I'm honestly not sure how to begin. My internal monologue lately looks a lot like "Study for exams! But don't forget to do your capstone! Oh also remember that you need to be handling your life back home - lots of things are waiting for you! DO NOT PANIC", and I don't think it's been exactly conducive to a stress free environment for beginning to wrap up my year of exchange. And to clarify, by "wrap up" I don't mean like a present, all pretty with a bow on top, because that isn't what exchange looks like. My exchange looks more like a pair of pants from the Souq - the hemline is pretty wonky and there is no label to tell you how to put them on, the fabric is a little off and the cut is weird on just about anyone... But they're comfortable and even if they don't fit perfectly you love them.
Thinking back, nothing this year has happened the way I expected it to - and I'm sure that in the next two months I'll be facing a lot more surprises. And I won't say it's all been good, because nothing ever is, and for me to lie like that would be dishonest and feel like I'm devaluing this year. Because it hasn't been easy. It hasn't all been buttercups and rainbows and frolics in a meadow. But the beauty of exchange is that all through the roughest moments I am able to tell myself that I can get through it, because I've made it this far, and I know I have the momentum to keep going. And eventually, whether it's days or weeks after I have triumphed over anything - whether it's a test, or a personal issue, or a fear - I get to discover within myself what I have gained from the experience.
But this year has also been completely downright beautiful. There have been moments where I have had epiphanies about myself - my goals and dreams revealed to me in the sifting sands of the desert, or experienced the mental "click" that makes actions and words suddenly slip into logical place. The memories I have made this year will last me a lifetime, and the growth I have sustained will forever be a part of me. YES Abroad is about gaining a cultural understanding - but in order to understand a culture you must first understand yourself. And that, I believe, is something I have begun to do.
So this post, this reflection if you will, is not only for me. It is for the people wondering what it is like to live abroad. It is for the family and friends and teachers who supported and helped me to get here, so that you can see that I have truly appreciated this experience. It is for the other girls who are here with me, and for the girls who will be here next year.
I have no idea what I'm doing. I plunged headfirst into this exchange about 8 months ago with not a single clue of what I would actually be experiencing, and I've continued to do just that for my entire time in Oman. The only thing that has changed is my newfound ability to make educated guesses at a situation's outcome - allowing me to make better choices for myself as I go.
But I guess what I am really trying to say is this:
I left the United States as a girl who thought she was brave and special because she was going away. I arrived in Oman so excited to be immersed in foreign culture that I didn't know which way I ought to look first, and I invariably tripped over myself in the process of trying to assimilate. I made lifelong friends in the girls who came here with me, and in them I found traces of the people we would all shape ourselves to be - the person I wanted to be. I turned 16 in Oman surrounded by people I love and memories I will keep forever, and I am not the same.
Exchange changes you. It is not good, it is not bad, it is just different. You live a different life, with different people, in a different place for one year, and you become a different person. The process of accepting that new version of yourself is the most rewarding and challenging aspect of it, as far as I can tell, and I am hopeful that in the months to come I will be able to fully understand all of the wonderful things that Oman has done for me.
With much love and more thoughts to come, I leave you with a song.
🎶Here Comes The Sun - The Beatles🎶
When I got off the plane in Muscat almost 6 months ago, probably one of the most prominent thoughts I had was "the next time I'm on a plane, I will be going home". Turns out I was way off base. This weekend is my long awaited trip to Sri Lanka, and I'm both excited and very nervous for this incredible opportunity to travel in a unique setting (as a participant in a school trip). I'm saving details about that for the next post - when I get back, I'll be writing about everything that happened and uploading lots of visuals. But for now, more about this week.
Nothing particularly exciting had happened for a while (barring our trip to the Muscat festival together last week), and so tonight was completely perfect. The five of us YES girls were invited to a "jazz" concert at the house of the American ambassador to Oman (we have now met her several times; she's really nice), and so we went straight from AMIDEAST after class (we watched a video during Arabic today called Amreeka). It turned out the "jazz" was more of a country-rock mashup, and we wound up dancing on the lawn with each other and ambassadors from various other countries in a crazy jumble of tangled hair and swaying limbs as the Mary McBride Band played in front of us (photos coming soon).
This is, in a way, a pretty perfect analogy for my life in Oman. Nothing is ever really how I expect it to be, but it almost always turns out well and into a meaningful experience - this one was perhaps some of the most fun I've had in a very long time. I still can't believe that this is my life - hobnobbing (this is probably one of my favorite pieces of British terminology) with ambassadors and attending VIP concerts with four other girls I love dearly, but I can honestly say that even though it can be tricky to be an exchange student, it is completely worth it for the moments like these.
As my dad is so fond of saying, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going". That's what exchange is about. It's about keeping yourself going to enjoy the beautiful little moments when everything pays off and you capture for yourself a memory to keep with you for the rest of your life. But I don't want to get sentimental, so I'll sign of with the promise of more news to come next week when I return from Sri Lanka; in the mean time, here's a song to tide you (and me) and over until then.
🎶Carry On - Fun.🎶
The sand will stay forever in my hair, my pores, the lining of my shoes. The desert is like nothing I have ever seen before. To someone from the Northeast of America, famous for snowy winters and chilly summers, it's one of the strangest feelings in the world to be standing in the middle of February with your feet firmly planted in vast amounts of hot sand. It's incredible.
I don't think anything about it was how I imagined - the sand was finer, the sky was clearer, the dunes were taller, the night was freezing cold - but it was absolutely perfect. There's something really special about sitting down in the sand, watching handfuls of it fall through your fingers as you reconcile yourself with the fact that this sand has been around forever. This sand has been around for thousands of years, and will continue to exist for thousands more - watching the Earth change and morph and capturing within itself the memories of ancient pasts.
The desert never looks the same twice. The breeze shifts the dunes around, the goats crop up the scraggly shrubbery, and every so often a group of excited girls comes along and takes a bottle or two of sand home with them to keep forever. It's magical to know that in that moment, the moment you are there are looking around, you are seeing your surroundings in a unique way, and that no one will ever see it exactly the same way ever again.
But I digress. This past weekend we went as a group to Wahiba sands to explore the desert. We visited the home of a nice Bedouin woman, rode camels up and down the dunes, did some dune-bashing, and on the trip home made some stops to swim. Our first stop was at a wadi - essentially a valley that floods with water. It's very similar to an oasis, except it's far more beautiful than anything elicited by the pop-culture references to such a landmark as a perfectly circular blob of water with a neat cluster of trees in the corner.
Following the wadi we drove to a sinkhole - otherwise referred to as the "House of the Devil". Here we all went swimming and spent some time admiring the incredible rock formations rising from the water up to the rim.
Overall it was an incredible trip that I can't possibly accurately describe in this post - but since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'm uploading lots of photos to my gallery in the hopes of expressing better how amazing the desert truly is.
🎶100 Years - Five for Fighting🎶
The Green Book. I read it first in third grade, and promptly let it float away into the crevasses of memories past. That is, until I arrived in Oman. And suddenly, several months ago, I began to feel a gnawing urge to reread it - although at the time it was less a concrete book that I longed for so much as it was the idea I knew was contained within.
And so I reached out to one of the teachers I had in elementary school, someone who was with me during one of my most trying transitional periods of mental and emotional growth (skipping a grade and assimilating with my new environment proved to be a challenge), and within a few days received an email response with the name of the book. The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh.
Admittedly, it is very short. In many ways, it is childishly simple - designed more for my third grade mind than that of the high school junior I have now become. But it is also so much more. I have always had a love for books, for immersing myself into other realities and the distant lands they contain, but until recently I don't think I had a true appreciation for the pure value of literature.
That is what this story is about. To summarize, the plot follows a young girl and her family as they and a group of total strangers are evacuated from a collapsing Earth to a unknown planet. As part of their minimalist packing process, each person is allowed to bring one book. For her father, it is a large text detailing the craft of simple machinery. For her brother, it is Robinson Crusoe. And for Pattie, the youngest of them all, it is a small green journal.
Over the course of its 70 or so pages, The Green Book tells the story of a fledgling civilization struggling to survive in a harsh new environment. But it also tells, more subtly perhaps, the story of each person's longing for the simple beauty of the written word; a whole world wrapped up in each bundle of fragile pages. Because reading is an escape. Books are islands of calm in the oceans of discord and seas of confusion we surround ourselves with. Each story can last forever if we let it, living on in our minds and subconsciously opening them to new ideas - expanding our own worlds to meet those that we read about.
It was shocking to me to realize that this one book had stayed with me for so long (over half of my life, to put in into perspective). And admittedly, my recollection was not the best. I believe my thought process went something along the lines of "that book about the glass hexagons being made into flour". So no, I didn't even remember the most essential plot of the story. But when I went back and reread it, saw it through the eyes of a very different person than I was years ago, I picked up on much more than the plight of Pattie and her family that had so enthralled me before, and saw the deeper message about the the true value of literature and its importance in our culture.
🎶Eternal Flame - The Bangles🎶
I kept putting off writing this - or any, for that matter - blog post because for the last few weeks I've haven't been doing anything terribly interesting. Sure, for some of that time I've been studying, or researching (college, if you're curious), but most of it has just been spent in self-reflection and time with my host siblings.
Not to say that I'm not having a good time; it's just that there's not a whole lot for me to do. I had my mock exams (I'm assuming these are the equivalent to midterms) in school about a month ago, and now I'm just waiting to finish up with AS testing.
AS is the British system, into which I have transplanted myself for a year in the hopes of learning new material and not falling behind my American counterparts - although how I'm doing on that last one I'm not so sure. The exams for AS are in January and June, and currently I'm taking the Chemistry and the Mechanics (math) tests. During the whole testing period (about a month, as far as I can tell) I am off of school, which means that although I've had plenty of time to write a blog post, I haven't actually had much to write it about.
The biggest few pieces of news I can share are these:
1. We are officially halfway through the year! It's shocking and scary to realize that now instead of counting up, the days I have here are counting down - it adds a sort of urgency to everything I do, because even though I have months left, there is so much I want to do that I worry this time is not enough.
2. My Sri Lanka trip is moving ahead nicely. I'm very excited to spend a week in this beautiful country - in a way that I will never be able to experience it again (on a trip with my Omani school!)
3. I go back to school on Wednesday
4. It rained tonight!!! For the second time since I have been in Oman, there was rain. Heavy rain. Lightning-and-thunder rain, the kind that seeps through the windows and fills up the streets while children cross their fingers and hope for a rain day from school (currently precisely what I am doing as I write).
So anyway... Halfway. A little over 140 days in Oman. Lots of sleepless nights, sunny days, indomie (a ramen-like noodle), school, break, summer, winter, and everything else that managed to wedge itself in between into the cracks of my memory.
Without further ado, I present the most classic halfway song in the world:
🎶Livin' On a Prayer - Bon Jovi🎶
Holidays are harsh when you're not at home. You've got a lot of fond memories and suddenly you're not allowed to live out your family traditions anymore. I spent a lot of this winter so far wondering whether lack of snow was going to be better or worse with regard to nostalgia, and now I think I have come to a conclusion.
If it had snowed, I would have been able to look outside my window and pretend I was in America. I would have been tempted to go running outside through the slush and smash it into walls and build little frozen people. I would have bundled up and layered on clothes before venturing out the door. But these are all things I do at home.
Instead, the heat and the sun and the lack of (much) visible change to the weather or landscape allowed me to fool myself a little, to make spending Christmas abroad that much more bearable.
And then, of course, I was also with the other girls, which made everything so much nicer and meant that we got to have a mass sleepover which concluded in everyone getting around three hours of sleep in a sort of pile on top of a mattress. It was, as Linden has trained me to say, "solid".
Overall I think spending the holidays abroad is a good thing, if you only do it a few times. It brings you to appreciate everything you have waiting for you even more, and steadies you with the knowledge that, if you made it through the holidays, you're going to be just fine.
And now, the weather:
It's been sunny and bright and beautiful and hot since I arrived, with the exception of the one day where it rained as well as the slowly (and slightly) decreasing temperatures the winter seems to have provoked.
There is no snow, but there is still lots of sand, which is useful for blowing in your eyes when you are trying to see things, as well as getting all over your shoes so they begin to camouflage with the environment.
All in all, it's a very unusual winter.
🎶San Francisco - The Mowgli's🎶
First off, I'm so sorry for how late this post is; I dropped the ball a bit but now I'm back.
So I am officially on vacation from school, and will continue to be off for an undetermined amount of time (I really need to check in with the school about that). Naturally, as a high school junior, my first priority was college (actually, maybe that's not natural. But it's how my brain functions). In the last few days I've gone through the 2,200 American colleges listed in the College Board's 2015 guide, and selected 92 for further review. I read a book regarding criteria one should use for selecting schools as well as strategies for admission, and, of course, spent lots of time wasting away in front of my computer screen as I procrastinated everything productive for just a few more minutes.
But the holidays are rapidly approaching, and lately I've been swept up in a small storm of homesickness as I Skype and Snapchat and text almost everyone on my contacts list back home in the hopes of letting some of that residual sadness go.
Luckily, at least recently, we've had some scheduled activities to make it easier for us to let off some steam and do things together. Last week we went to a center for children with disabilities, and each of us was placed in a classroom to help out. My classroom was one of two "academic" ones, and I spent the morning helping children solve puzzles, draw using stencils, and reviewing how to write the alphabet. It was a truly incredible experience, especially given that this is the only such center in the area, maybe even in Oman.
And last night we went to help out at a bookstore - this has been a sort of ongoing project for us... We went two weeks ago as well. We've been sorting and stacking and stamping books for the shelves in order to help get the business up and running quickly.
It's all been lots of fun, and a nice distraction from the fact that Christmas is soon, and I am far from home.
🎶White Christmas - Bing Crosby🎶
This past week was exam week at school. Now, because that's not particularly interesting or fun, I'm going to share instead about something that happened recently within my host family, that made a huge impact on me.
Because my roommate (and host sister) is several years younger than me, lights normally go out at around 8 or 9, and I settle in for a few rounds of solitaire on my AMIDEAST issue Nokia followed by a game or two of Subway Surfer on my iPhone before I go to bed myself.
Sometimes, however, one or both of her parents will call us and something will happen. Sometimes it's the arrival of a late dinner, or new clothes for the family, and sometimes it's a little more sentimental. And last week, it was about my host uncle's suitcase.
I was midway through telling a story when we were called across the hall into my other host sister's room, where the family all sat around a smallish, old-style suitcase. My host uncle sat cross-legged before it, and with the reverence of old memories he removed each item carefully for inspection as it made its way down the line before returning to him.
It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on, but once I did I was extremely excited - this was an opportunity to understand someone else's exchange experience. We passed around pictures and papers, listening to my host uncle tell us the background behind each - this one was a picture of his host family, that one a letter from the embassy.
For me though, easily the most interesting part was the essays. There were two of them, and my host uncle told me he had written them in his first year or two of studying English in the US. One was about Islam, and the other one about his experience with America up to that point. Reading these, the latter in particular, gave me new perspectives on my exchange. Understanding the views and impact of an Omani in America, when I am currently experiencing the reverse, allows me to consider my experience in a different light - and to truly understand how far down the road this will stay with me.
And if months, or even years from now, I can pass around pictures of my time in Oman, and share the stories of things that have happened, then this year will have been a success.
🎶Beggin For Thread - Banks🎶
Hi! My name is Karla Cox. This blog is a compilation of notes, thoughts, and photos from my travels around the world.