Coming (back) to America

Before going abroad, so many of my reflections centered around my personal opinions about the world. I viewed the world only insofar as it was relevant to me. I attempted to extrapolate my experiences to a greater struggle (the black struggle, the black WOMAN struggle), but ultimately this blog is called “one black experience” because I was only consciously aware of one perspective: my own.

And then I went to Sweden.

I haven’t reflected on my time abroad with many people. This is not because my experience wasn’t impactful. On the contrary, my semester abroad changed me fundamentally, and completely altered the way I view the world. But there is a point at which recounting joyous experiences, particularly experiences that others have not or cannot have, becomes insensitive. I would talk about Sweden, about my friends and the snow and how much I laughed and loved and had fun, and I felt as if I were bragging. Whilst I was off gallivanting across Scandinavia, my friends were still here in the states, dealing with police brutality, dealing with Donald Trump, dealing with being underrepresented minorities at a PWI. And there was a level of guilt as well. When I decided to go to Sweden, I did so with the intention of leaving everything behind. The world was heavy and I was tired: tired of mourning black children with hashtags, tired of feeling both invisible in my major and yet still somehow like the spokesperson for every black woman in STEM, tired of justifying my anger, and then my sadness, to strangers.  I had purposefully shunned the struggle, and by extension their struggle. I made the decision to apply for a semester abroad weeks before the deadline, and left in a flurry of pain and exhaustion. I wasn’t so much excited to go as I was excited to leave.

So I left. And upon returning home I was surprised, and to some extent hurt (completely unjustifiably btw), to find that the world had continued without me. Friends had gotten engaged, had had children, had graduated from university. And meanwhile I had missed it all, so intent on leaving my worries behind that I had missed their milestones. I didn’t feel qualified to express opinions on events that I had purposely ignored and thus not experienced. I had deleted my twitter, stopped checking facebook, rarely peeped the pre-election coverage. I had missed both the highs and lows of early 2016 in America, and I had to catch up. My life in Sweden was so incredibly different than my life here in the states. And with real life looming, with friends to mend relationships with, and classes to take, and jobs and internships to secure, there wasn’t time to reflect on a place that seemed utopic in its unattainability and distance from my current reality.

There was also a significant shift in my perspective upon leaving the states and arriving in Sweden. To be successful in Sweden I had to unlearn a lot of behaviors I have picked up in the states. Here we are taught to be opinionated, and to some extent judgmental, about everything. To observe, pass judgement, and formulate my own opinions, is crucial if I want to ensure that I am not steamrolled by people with less informed ideas and louder voices. But in Sweden there was so much to learn, and so little to be critical of. The people of Sweden are quite ethnically and ideologically homogenous, which makes compromise easy. They are leaders in affordable health care, gender equality, welfare, public transportation, sustainability, and other social and political concepts I tend to agree with. There was no debating affirmative action in the library, or the efficacy of the affordable care act at dinner. Instead we talked about how Swedes put banana slices on pizza, and how pancakes in the rest of the world are not thick and fluffy and served with syrup and butter. There were cultural differences to contend with. And these I did not want or need to be judgmental about.

So for nearly 6 months I adopted an observer’s philosophy: I watched, I listened, I learned, and I didn’t judge. And I learned to look at the world from my friends’ perspectives. This allowed me to embrace my semester abroad fully, to make friends from countries all over the world, to be open to singing on the bus at 4pm, and dancing to music I had never listened to, and eating foods I had never tried, and trying things I would have never dreamed of. However in simply embracing the world, I forgot how to question the world; and upon getting home I realized that I no longer knew how to respond to controversy or questionable opinions. When the young conservatives of Texas held an affirmative action bake sale, I shrugged. They were entitled to their opinions, what good was my righteous indignation if their demonstration had nothing to do with me? I got so good at empathizing, at seeing other people’s point of view, that I stopped wondering if the points of view could be wrong.

It has thus been a bit hard to write. Every time I felt a wave of anger, or the need to vent through the keys, I found myself rationalizing, justifying, and then suppressing my dissent. I no longer felt comfortable or qualified passing judgement over other people, and thus felt no need to voice my own opinions. I am realizing however, that it is possible to be both empathetic and opinionated.

I am going to keep writing. And I hope that what I learned in Sweden, to see from other’s perspectives, helps guide my thoughts and opinions to be more fair, nuanced, and true.

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