Credit: Shutterstock / Andrew Linscott.

Here and/or there

Written by Jorge Lopez Llorente, an undergraduate at Mansfield College.

When I was planning to study abroad, I never truly considered what that would mean. It just seemed an opportunity, a thrill, a flash of novelty. After all, people move from place to place and life means constant changes. Home can become routine. Remaining in your comfort zone forever equals boredom. Also, for my past self, as an English Literature applicant, I was already half-living in a sort of English-y world when I read my favourite British authors at home, in Madrid, and attended a British school with British and Irish teachers. I refused all Spanish universities, looking for the quality and history of Oxford, not only as a university but as a beautiful city to live in. My parents chose a British school partly so that I’d have this chance to study abroad. Language was no problem, so it could not be a shock. I still have those thoughts in mind, and from Madrid to Oxford, or Spain to the UK, there is no great abyss — adaptation was relatively smooth, although I’m still baffled about how a bleak 12ºC day can be “nice” or crazy meal schedules, compared to how much later I eat in Spain. However, I have now realised that life abroad means life divided, life entangled in new ways that only international students fully experience. It brings a different set of dull customs, inevitable little confusions, ambiguities. Even where you don’t expect them.

If studying at university already means the awakening of independence and more real-life awareness, studying abroad shakes you into alertness. Let’s acknowledge it does have some quite daunting realities: lacking a safety net of family and maybe not even home friends, Brexit looming in the horizon, extra costs like flights and currency exchanges… It comes with struggles and excitement, of course. I would say the actual process of travelling alone was what forced me to bring it into focus. I associated flights with holidays, relaxation… Now the blank no-man’s-land of an airport has become tiresome — this ‘escape’ has its own routine. When you must fight against sleep to pack while you tape and fill in boxes for internationals’ storage and then strongly caffeinate yourself to drag yourself onto a plane on those final days of term, nothing beats arriving back home, not even a beachy getaway!

Many people in Spain don’t understand that I’m doing a proper degree, not a language centre course

Other small but peculiar facts of life emerge when you’re the half emigrant, living here and there — not only abroad, but also at home, against my expectations. Firstly, my life has become a kind of stateless limbo at times. At Oxford, my Madrilenian accent fades a bit while I’m told my accentless English becomes more British-sounding. I surprised myself unconsciously. Also, I’m obviously “the Spanish guy” in Oxford; jokingly but frequently, I’m “the English guy” at home too. I find it funny (and I care little for nationalism of any type), but it sounds a bit odd. What seemed ‘between here and there’ can soon turn into ‘neither here nor there’. For better or worse, you even feel slightly more distant from news at home or at university when you are somewhere else, although I try to follow the Catalonian crisis here and Brexit issues at home. Nationality should never define anybody, but this is a unique situation: its freedom is welcome while you must accept the instability behind it. When it is the first time, especially as a young student, life half abroad and half at home is not just another year — you are thrown into a double life, a double identity even, much sharper than for national students.

Home also changes. To my own surprise, it’s equally awkward to introduce myself as an English Literature student in Madrid or as a Spaniard among English students in Oxford. Oxford anecdotes are plenty, although fortunately I avoided xenophobia. Yes, after fellow colleagues ask me my name or where I come from, I tend to see puzzled faces, hear my name mangled for months (or, worse, turned into ‘George’ once or twice…) or answer questions along the lines of “So… Your parents must be English/American?” and, even when I say that my parents are 100% Spanish, “But you speak English at home anyway?” Who even speaks Spanish in Spain, right? A Spanish friend who studies another subject told me that for many tutorials his teacher now and then called him by the wrong name… It’s great absurd humour and not a big deal. It’s not unexpected. But, hey, the third or fourth time, it can irk you. At home, I naïvely thought my university choice would not seem too strange, despite Oxford’s mythical status. In fact, it almost always makes small talk uncomfortable. The dentist asked me what I study and where. When I tell her, she assumes I’m learning how to speak English, like a beginner, as if on a gap year. I explain that I study literature… To no avail. This must be a random misunderstanding, I thought. Not really. Strangers, neighbours, acquaintances… Many people in Spain don’t understand that I’m doing a proper degree, not a language centre course, and my clarifications often don’t sink in (even though there’s an equivalent degree, ‘English Philology’, in Spanish universities). British schools like mine are still rare in Spain and I always had to answer doubts about how they work, but their popularity is growing and many of my classmates went to national universities anyway, so foreign universities remain a greater mystery. Other Spaniards, exactly like some Brits, will assume I’m part of some Visiting Student Programme, not an actual undergraduate. Ah, and Brexit, that nice small talk topic, you know? People at home ask awkward questions, like whether my Oxonian friends are Brexit-extremist empire-yearning chauvinists at heart (although I’ve seen EU flags in my accommodation block). That’s the irony: familiar home also becomes a place for stereotyping and unnecessary confusions.

For internationals, the blur of Oxford life has another blurrier dimension. It must be said that international students’ experience can be far more complex than mine: some come from radically different cultures, don’t know the language well, suffer racism or simply face 10-hour flights. I realise it’s never so straightforward and difficulties always lurk beneath the surface, even for someone like me, who has had it easier and was confident in adapting faster. Getting caught in homesickness isn’t the answer though. When you study abroad, ‘home’ is redefined anyway. There’s a price to pay, in every sense, but it’s worth it for a place like Oxford and for that special freedom of life on the edge of here and/or there.

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