From Amherst, with Mixed Feelings

I took my first step out of Logan airport, looked around me and sighed deeply.

I was surrounded by mountains of snow.

There was black ice everywhere. Temperatures were sub-zero. The wind was frigid. My nostrils soon went numb…even breathing hurt.

It was at that moment that I began asking myself precisely why I had come back.

The next week, I was greeted by something called a “bomb cyclone.” This was indeed as fearsome as the name suggests, and I was welcomed to Amherst by over a foot of snow and the coldest temperature I have ever experienced (-15°F).

These experiences informed my traumatic first few weeks back in the US. But even the climate wasn’t enough to really jolt me back to life in America. I refused to accept that I was no longer at Aix, the town of hidden fountains, surrounded by wine-guzzling baguette-sporting cheese-munching chic Frenchies. And why should I have? What was so great about having to wake up at 7am every morning to trudge through mounds of early January snow with barely any energy to play squash for 2 hours? What was so enjoyable about slipping on Memorial Hill or falling sick or walking through the depressing interior of Merrill? Had I come back to Val, where the steak is hard as rock and the milk always either low-fat or 0.1% fat – never whole fat?

So I rejected Amherst and recreated France around me. I listened to the French radio every morning. I substituted Drake with Stromae, Netflix with French films, downloaded French podcasts and surrounded myself with postcards of different French cities. It was within this bubble that I protected myself, sheltered myself from the realization that I was no longer in France.

Until one day this bubble was abruptly popped.

The gym. A Tuesday afternoon. I was walking past the weight room lugging two laundry bins behind me during my job shift when I caught sight of Christopher Boyko during bicep curls.

Here was a man who has made my life at Amherst miserable; whose sole occupation is to design the hardest possible workouts for me among others; who challenges others to have as rock-solid a body as his. And yet, I had never seen him work out. I had never seen the devil rehearse his act. I was rooted, stunned, watching him pump dumbbells up and down as if they were mere pennies. He re-racked the dumbbells and turned around. Now, he was winking at me.

The shock of this entire situation was enough to tear me back to the present. My reverie was over. I woke to Amherst College, to the weight room and to unrelenting workouts. I was back in the hands of Boyko.

For a while, I didn’t respond. I stood there, dumbly staring at him. With a deep sigh, I went inside and said hi to the devil.

***

Returning to Amherst is complicated.

To begin with, you don’t know when to and when not to say hi to someone. During my first week back at Val, I made eye contact with acquaintances all the time; then I wondered if I knew them well enough to say hi. By the time I approached them, it would already be too awkward to converse normally. Soon, tentative smiles, uncertain hellos and forced (sometimes even faked) enthusiasm became classic interactions.

Moreover, all the servers at Val thought I had graduated. I learnt this when one of them asked why I was visiting Amherst during a snowstorm. I replied by insisting that it was actually a bomb cyclone, and that as a Junior, I would have to suffer another year’s worth of them.

The most jolting experience is meeting friends after 8 months and realizing they have changed. Some have stopped going out while others can’t stop going out. Others have new hairstyles and majors, girlfriends and boyfriends, even names and genders. Several are no longer at Amherst. Many changed so profoundly that soon, I began to wonder whether I had known them at all in the first place – until one day, I had the frightening epiphany that maybe it was I who had changed; that maybe I was the one who had adopted new values, and was judging everyone differently.

It also hurt when people dissed my experience. Many thought all I had gained in France was a penchant for wines and the ability to pronounce “Bonjour” like a Frenchman. Many others contented themselves with silent judgements about my “time off from Amherst to party.” Undisclosed derision became the norm. But how could I explain the effects of cultural immersion to those who hadn’t undertaken it? How could I describe that submerging myself under different values and a different language, for the second time in my life, had changed me on an even deeper level? That staying with a host family had taught me the intimacy of French family life; studying at a French university, the communal values of the French education system; and French friends, the value of meaningful conversations sprinkled with banter. How could I describe my strange attachment to a town where life is centered around a single boulevard, where the nucleus is a roundabout with a pompous fountain installed atop, where motorists have no qualms stopping in the middle of busy roads during rush hour to say hi to friends, where the last supermarket shuts at 6pm but even grownups party until 6am, where there are more cigarette butts than pennies in fountains, where people roll tobacco joints while briskly walking to work and where the morning sunlight lights up the days-old dog-poop littered quaint alleys; how can a sentiment so absurd, yet so central be vocalized and then understood by others?

Immersing yourself in a different culture changes you, but how are you supposed to explain to others the person you have become?

View of street with cafe and outdoor seating in Aix-en-Provence, France

***

Not everything about returning has been depressing though.

It feels unfamiliar but welcome to understand signboards and announcements in train stations. I have missed a stable internet connection, American films and American sayings, especially swear words. Nothing is more fulfilling than letting loose a good f*ck – French swear words don’t cut it! Going abroad has also made me appreciate close friends more. It has reaffirmed the value of people who think I am interesting because of more than the color of my skin. And it has taught me one more very important lesson: to valorize places for what they are and not for what I wish they would be. Living in Aix-en-Provence empowered me to appreciate Amherst’s overlooked wonders, like the sunrise over Memorial Hill and the post-bomb cyclone sparkling deciduous trees that welcomed me on my return.

Landscape in Amherst with sunset and snow covered field

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