On the soggy humid PE field in fifth grade, I lagged behind on my first lap as a group of boys passed me again, breathing casually in conversation. I struggled to keep pace, not to win first place, but because I wanted to join their conversation. Though I knew that even if I could have kept up, I wouldn’t have understood them.
In my elementary school in Miami, Florida, I was one of only three “Spanish as a second language” students in my Spanish class because my family was from Asheville, North Carolina. And although my parents spent a lot of time as missionaries in Colombia and Ecuador raising my four older siblings, I was too young to have been cultured in a Spanish-speaking environment.
I felt strangely unaccustomed to both Asheville’s American culture and Miami’s Spanish-speaking culture and found myself in a lukewarm middle. I had become a third other thing.
I couldn’t fit in during recess nor could I fit in that classroom. I needed a third option because I didn’t want to live half-connecting to my peers for the rest of my school life.
It wasn’t until I fell in love with reading that I realized that sometimes it takes a little bit of self-reliance and inventive creativity to find that third option. Reading was something that I could take with me everywhere and something that helped me feel connected to the characters in the stories. I could be okay on my own.
For me, feeling a safe sense of cultural identity wasn’t a matter of choosing one versus another, but instead inventing my own by blending two. And as soon as I found other students who shared my blended sense of culture and my love for reading, I was able to connect with others in ways I hadn’t been able to before. And that’s when I realized that rewriting my isolation story meant first looking inward for validation before seeking it in other people.
I tell this story about my elementary school years because there are three huge lessons from this time period that I intend to carry into my study abroad experience:
1) As someone who defines his sexual orientation as queer, I find it very important to remind myself and others that the binaries of gay/straight or male/female or school/PE are only a few options that people can choose when it comes to how they live their lives in connection with others. I firmly believe that people should have the right to opt out of these two-part systems free from coersion or intimidation.
2) Learning to love reading has taught me the amazing power of being radically self-reliant. With a book, I am never alone. The time I’ve spent contemplating words and their stories has taught me how important it is to be whole and complete separate from other people.
3) On the flip side of that, another essential element of my life is how important other people are to me. I am constantly looking for ways to connect, seeking things shared, and discovering myself in others. It’s one of the things that fulfills me most. I hope to use this study abroad opporunity to connect with as many new people as possible (including you!).
When I think about leaving tomorrow, I feel extremely excited. Though I have never been to a foreign country, I feel prepared, eager, and ready for the experience of emersing myself in new culture after new culture.
It is through our differences that we feel empowered.
And it is because of our differences that we can see we are the same.
Thank you to everyone who has made this trip possible and I wish all of my fellow voyagers an amazing journey.