When I was preparing to leave for a semester abroad in London this past winter, I heard the same joke a thousand times: “Are you going to come back with a husband?”
The question doesn’t pack the right punch unless you know my family. In a string of fateful coincidences, meeting your soulmate while abroad has become something of a family tradition for us: My mother and father, who met during their semester abroad in Nanjing, China, will celebrate their 27th year of marriage this May. My older brother, who got the travel bug early on and went to London for his freshman year, met a girl on the first day of his program. He graduated college last year — alongside that same girlfriend, who has since moved in with him.
In high school, these events seemed like fairytales to me, and I began to picture a vague “abroad” as some kind of promised land, in which waited a Prince Charming, a wealth of knowledge about the “real world,” and a lifetime of stories I could eventually pass on to my own children. I couldn’t wait to go abroad; in fact, I only looked for colleges that encouraged students to partake in study abroad programs. It seemed like a semester of magic, and while the rest of college was life-changing, it paled in comparison to the sparkling mirage of a junior spring spent in Europe.
As I sent in my applications to study in London, however, my expectations started to bear down on me. My parents kept saying things like, “You’re gonna love it, you’re gonna have so much fun.” It was easy to turn to their past experiences for proof: my father had a party for his 21st birthday while in China that was so wild, his friends immortalized a picture of him from the party (think pink bedsheet toga and aviator sunglasses) in the form of a bobblehead that now sits proudly on the mantelpiece in our family home. (I wish I was kidding.)
You’re gonna love it, they said. When I was at my most anxious on day two in London, jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I sensed an or else at the end of those words.
Because the truth is, studying abroad is … fine. I have not, for the record, met a soulmate, or even any worthy contenders. Both myself and my figurative parade have been rained on, multiple times — canceled trips due to mounting coronavirus panic have left me stuck in London’s dreary weather. I have, shockingly, tragically, had to spend a significant chunk of my free time actually studying (if anyone tells you they’re going abroad solely for academics, they’re a liar).
I spent a little time at the very beginning pouting about how this entire thing was not turning out as advertised (my mom was the recipient of a very long, very dramatic text message). I was sure that I was somehow the black sheep of the family, or doing everything wrong, or that I had been ripped off. Where was my fairytale? Where was my soulmate?
But this is the thing about fairytales: you can fawn over them all you want, but you can’t expect them to apply to your own life and then be heartbroken when they don’t. And in the meantime, your real life is happening. So make the most of that instead.
London is like if you took New York and put it through a kaleidoscope: fragments are the same yet the whole is something entirely different. It’s a place I am learning in steps walked, in awnings ducked under, in anecdotes that are not my parents’, or my brother’s, but my own.
The lapping of the Thames, the pulsing crowds that rush in and out of Tube stations. The cozy corners in bookshop cafes, the sweat-soaked epicenters of nightclub dance floors. The wind that moves through the people on the streets like it’s beckoning you forward, look here, go there.
I am taking all these pieces and making a mosaic, one whose full picture only I can see for now. It belongs to no one but me. It is uniquely, imperfectly mine.