Fun fact: every time a stranger lets the door slam in my face, I’m reminded of my college years. This may sound strange, but hear me out.
As a Malaysian, studying abroad in the United States introduced me to many things: the culture of American football, the madness of Black Friday shopping, and the ever-polite students of a small Christian college, who insist on holding the door open for you no matter how far away you are from the building.
When I was in high school, I thought I would magically figure life out during my college years—I assumed that experience, combined with age, would have me emerging with a scroll in hand, knowing exactly what I wanted to pursue career-wise, and ready to take on the world.
Then the time came and all I knew for sure was that I was ready for a change. I boarded a plane and flew halfway across the world to further my studies. The excitement and anticipation were just strong enough to override the horror I felt when I landed sans luggage.
The initial sensory overload was unlike anything I had experienced before. Everything in my vicinity was unfamiliar to me—the cornfields I passed on my way to campus, the opposite side of the road we were driving on, and the accent I was used to hearing through the television but not in person.
My first few weeks in the States felt like an enrollment in America 101. I learned that “How are you?” was not typically an invitation to actually talk about how I was doing. I deciphered the practice of tipping at restaurants and survived my first hailstorm. I said goodbye to the metric system and began to play the daily weather forecast conversion game. You can probably picture the rest—my preoccupation with everything I was discovering and the unexpected fascination expressed by the people who were amazed I’d never tried certain brands of American candy or snack food.
Gradually, the commotion of discovery faded to soft background noise, making way for the reality of life. The honeymoon period came to a close and left me to accept and make sense of this new normal.
There were changes I had anticipated and tried to prepare myself for, from reminding myself to be punctual for every appointment (coming from a culture where we are notoriously late for everything!) to simpler adaptations, such as changing my keyboard language from British English to American English. These adjustments could be easily made. I wasn’t quite as prepared for the obstacles that would challenge me personally.
With the community-oriented nature of my culture, I was accustomed to being constantly surrounded by company, whether family or friends. I have to admit this was comforting, as it allowed no room for loneliness. In Malaysia, everything is done with the mindset of a collective “we,” rather than the individual “me.” It’s rare for anyone to willingly venture out on their own, myself included, and doing so would incite feelings of unease.
It took me by surprise to see people in America eating alone, and the realization that they actually wanted to be alone was even more bewildering. I struggled with the idea and the practice; the silence of my own company was an ear-piercing reminder of my solitude, both in the moment and in general.
I knew many people who had taken the study-abroad leap of faith before me. I realized that I had subconsciously used them and my perception of their experiences as my own measuring stick of expectations. I saw their social media posts about the high points of their times abroad, and—forgetting that social media is a showcase, and not an accurate depiction of the scope of a person’s life—I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong in comparison. Why was I having such a hard time adjusting? Why was it hard to make friends and find common ground with the people I spoke to? Why wasn’t everyone I met as friendly or as welcoming as I thought they would be?
At the same time, when friends from back home asked how I was doing, they were waiting to hear the wonderful tales of my new adventures. I struggled to tell them that the new chapter of my life wasn’t quite the exciting page-turner I thought it would be.
I was so consumed by the idea that I had to have the perfect transition to life abroad that I considered anything less than smooth sailing to be a failure on my part. I hadn’t realized one important fact that remains relevant in my life now—it’s okay to not be okay all the time.
In finally admitting my struggles to others who were on similar paths, I realized how alike our experiences really were and I made a conscious effort to not criticize my own. I learned to let go of the perfect scenarios I had constructed in my head, and in doing so, realized how fragile their foundations were to begin with. For every bad day or unpleasant person I encountered, there were so many more genuinely kind people and memorable lessons, and I just needed to be fully in the moment to acknowledge and appreciate what was happening around me.
Of course, a shift of perspective doesn’t mean change happens overnight. I can’t recall the exact moment I became comfortable doing things on my own, but I committed to trying repeatedly despite my initial dread and hesitance. As uncomfortable, awkward, and self-conscious as I was at the beginning, somewhere along the line, I got used to my own company, and eventually even learned to enjoy it.
Contrary to my high school self’s expectations, I may not have graduated knowing exactly what to do after college. But if anything, my college experience taught me to not fear uncertainty, and to continue to do my best in spite of it—a lesson more valuable than my diploma.
Just don’t expect most Malaysians to hold the door open for you here. It’s not exactly in our custom.
Khristy has been previously featured in Redefining Magazine and has recently moved to New Zealand. She has an ongoing fascination with Tudor history and is an enthusiastic fan of Game of Thrones.