Going Abroad, and the You that Comes Home

This summer, while my friends worked internships and went on family vacations, I decided to spend more time doing one my favorite things: more school! I spent 6 weeks studying German in Berlin, on a program called Rice-in-Germany, which is one of many Rice-in-Country programs that send Rice students to the country of their target language for the sake of learning the language in the best possible way. Not only did I spend a lot of time in German classes, but I also lived with a host family, engaged in community service trips, explored Berlin, and, oh yeah, signed a pledge that I would only speak, read, write, and listen to German for 6 weeks. [protip: German Spotify is kind of limited, but German Harry Potter is every bit as magical.] The trip for me meant that I could go straight to third-year German in the fall, which means I’m that much closer to analyzing literature and looking at historical events in German. It also meant stepping into the location of some of the most thought-provoking events of the 20th century, turning my back on my native language and customs for six weeks, and humbling myself in a way that only study abroad can do. Seriously – when you need to activate your phone’s new SIM-card and the instructions are in a language you only sort of understand, that’s when you really learn to ask for help.

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The Brandenburg Gate, every bit as hopeful and grand as it has been for so many people before me.

The first conversation I had in German with a German person in Germany happened when I stepped off an 8-hour flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt, and a man in a Lufthansa uniform was waiting with a sign advertising the gate numbers for transfer flights.

Me: Uh, hallo. Erika Schumacher? 11:45, Berlin?

Lufthansa Man: Ok, Erika Schumacher – 11:45, Berlin, super.

Then he told me my gate number, and I went on my way, but I was left with a lingering existential question: have I been saying my name wrong all my life?

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Inside the Reichstag Building, where Germany’s Parliament meets.

Who has ownership of a name is a question we can debate all night, but the point to be made is that the Erika Schumacher that will fight you on designations of sovereignty and Shakespeare, who still gets emotional thinking about the ending of Kung Fu Panda 3, who is still hanging onto that childhood dream of being a novelist – that person was sort of displaced in Berlin. I learned so many things: from the difference between hängen and hängen (this is very important), to the best strategy for making it to the S-Bahn on time, to the surreal feeling of stepping over a brick stripe on the ground reading Berliner Mauer 1961-1989. Maybe it was sacrificing my language, but I was forced to plan out my days in a whole new way, have interactions in a whole new way, use language in a whole new way. I became more cheerful, more forgiving of myself and others, more cognizant of my place in the world around me. That’s what studying abroad is for – not for visiting new places, but for making yourself a part of new places and for making those new places a part of you.

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The self I am in Berlin, just as much “tourist with camera” as “language student.”

It was incredible how quickly I replaced my dictionary app with Pinterest and how determinedly I closed the Excel spreadsheet I had spent six weeks filling with verb tenses. Did I go back to my routine once I stepped back into the States? Absolutely. Coming back from study abroad is almost as strange as getting there; no one was expecting you to become a new person, and the self you gained overseas is, once again, slightly displaced.

But displacement doesn’t necessarily mean everything is lost. The self I am in completion is made of many displaced selves. Part of the so-called “rigor” of a place like Rice is that if you take advantage of what’s there, you can find yourself displaced over and over again, and you come back a little bit more patchwork – a little more adaptable, a little readier for whatever comes at you. The self I am writing a 15-page trajectory of neoliberal ideology in Interstellar is not necessarily the self that I bust out when I’m going out with my friends to a late-night grocery run because we really just want soda floats. And maybe I’m not running around as the cheerful, okay-with-being-an-Idiot-American I was in Berlin, but I remember so clearly what that was like, and I can use that experience and the skillset and happiness I developed out of my comfort zone, for next time. That’s education, and that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?

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