Goodbye, London

My year in London is coming to a close, and I’m overwhelmed at the idea of leaving. I  am sitting here on my bed, surrounded by stacks of loose-leaf paper, dog-eared books, cups of water and tea, blankets bunched up around my feet, trying to think of how to describe what it has meant to me. Sonia, I ask myself, what did you learn??

Here’s a few things:

  • Through living alone: what it means to deliberately choose to spend your time with the people that matter
  • Through reading challenging books from around the globe: my worldview is limited and I should eternally seek to unravel my assumptions and confront my ideas of “the way things are” at every opportunity
  • Through traveling: to see communities and individuals in shades of grey and always approach with kindness and empathy
  • Through attending pub trivia: I am really bad at it and should probably stop but won’t until I get to go to Harry Potter trivia and prove my worth
  • Through forcing myself out of my comfort zone, making a short film, and likely embarrassing myself for the ages: supportive friends, encouraging teachers, and a drive to keep trying can bring something out of you that seemed impossible
  • Through quiet days in grassy parks ruminating on gratefulness: true confidence means seeing the endless potential in yourself and the people around you, perceiving the beauty in your friends and family, and learning to be a better person from those you admire
  • Through working with actors that I could only dream of meeting: fame is probably not all it’s cracked up to be and maintaining intention, appreciation, and grounding in such a world is a feat worthy of high praise
  • Through discussions on political philosophy, filmic integrity, and artistic intention in class: subjectivity is not frivolous, but paramount
  • Through befriending folks from far-flung pockets of the world: kindness, passion, loneliness, love, and fussy mothers are universal

Our lives are bundles of moments that go as quickly as they came. I used to be the kind of person that perennially looks to the future, on to the next thing, and the next thing after that. I think part of that was because I was afraid of how much it would hurt losing something if I didn’t have something else to look forward to. I really suck at goodbyes and so I told my mind to say goodbye early, to ease the transition. This is not a fear that has left my system, but at the same time I’ve realized that the rust-red of the brick building across the street, or the smell of the London breeze coming in from the open window, or the quiet buzzing of the radiator, those aren’t things I will be able to experience when I think back. There is a value to being a part of the moment rather than always seeking to preserve it (which I recognize is a bit sanctimonious of me to be saying as a film student and someone that is writing a blog post about her experiences).

I guess it gets back to this question of what’s the point of all of this? Here’s what I think the point is – these people, this place, these moments, they gave my life fullness. It felt like I could do something really important to make the world a little bit better. This experience opened my eyes, in school and out, to the ways in which upbringing and culture can shape the way we see the world, the ways in which we understand danger and safety, necessity and luxury, happiness and worth. It gave me much needed perspective on who I am and what I would like to do in my time on earth.

I am now going to pass on this torch to the future fellows, who I know will have the same transformative experience I did. It seems like just yesterday, I was sitting around a panel of interviewers at the University of Michigan, explaining why I wanted to go to London to learn about film and media. It also seems like years and years ago. To the future fellows – recognize how special these moments are, even those that are especially difficult or uncomfortable or even lonely. Take full advantage of your new life to push the bounds of what you thought you could and could not do. And most of all, meet new people that challenge you – this is unavoidable and of utmost importance. I am so excited for you.

This year, I got to write a paper about politically revolutionary media in the digital age, direct and produce my own short documentary, write a short screenplay, produce a short film, work as a personal assistant on a Bollywood premiere, attend lectures at the most renowned universities in the world, work on a dissertation to investigate global oversight of digital platforms, meet people from around the globe who challenged my notions of nationhood, identity, political ideology, success, diversity, and what it means to feel fulfilled and valued. My scribbled list of goals for the year includes this one: “create something of value”. Through all of this, I did – these friendships. I am ever so grateful.

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Reflections on London and being alone, as first term lies behind me

There’s something I wrote, on September 24th, 2018, as I was, for the first time, completely alone in my new city.

Today as I rode the Piccadilly line from South Kensington to Kings Cross, away from my parents and my last connection to my old home, I sat in a kind of terrified, numb stupor. Looking around the train car at the girl with houndstooth gray jeans and green hair (even on her eyebrows), the businessman in the neat black coat with hands folded politely in his lap, the young man not much older than myself standing by the door and nervously biting his nails, I came to realize something – not the universality of human beings, or the common ground of these everyday occurrences, or anything significantly positive or inspirational. Instead, I felt palpably in every bone, that this was not my city (at least yet). I felt like a stranger implanted into a new world, not so different on the surface but dizzyingly alien to me. The city hadn’t let me into its arms yet (but then again, how could it?). It was keeping me at an arms length, testing me and trying to discern whether I should be embraced or swallowed whole.

I knew it was only a year that I would be here, yet I felt like I was starting a new life. This terrified me. So, how does one transition from apprehensive, uncertain newcomer to self-assured, rooted local? How does one finally feel a sense of belonging?

For me, it came in various streams, not one by one, but intermingling with each other. When I felt that I could get from school to home without my Google Maps, I felt a glow in my chest the rest of the day. When I began to understand what in the world British folks were saying when they said “chockablock”, “cheesed off”, or “quid”, I felt like less of an outsider. When I found my favorite pasta place in London…well, that speaks for itself. But apart from small innocuous victories, what finally made me feel like I belonged was the communities I built and became a part of during my time here. People need people, and being alone was something I was scared of and completely unfamiliar with before September. Yet, in living alone in London and spending time with myself, I began to realize the value of time that you choose to spend with others. I have made friends that are Greek, British, Indian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Welsh (and American) who think about the world in such a different way than I do. I have become part of communities of people that I really love, so much that I choose to spend time with them when convenience speaks to me being alone. Being surrounded by people all the time in college, at home and outside, did not provide me the time to reflect on how much I value those around me and how my time was deliberately spent. Paradoxically, the discomfort of being alone has given way to the appreciation of self-reflection and the heightened gratitude and appreciation for the people I choose to surround myself with.

I’ve learned so much about myself here, and not in a cheesy, “I’ve completely changed who I am and become a 100% awesome person” way. I’m much of the same worrywart meticulous overthinker that I have always been. However, there are indelible understandings about the world and myself that this experience has facilitated and I am forever indebted to those who made this possible. I am quite certain that it has changed the trajectory of my life, for the better. I hope my next post to be about some of these learnings, but for now, I leave you here.

Thanks for reading!

– Sonia