“Did you like abroad better than Duke?”
The question caught me off guard.
Although many people have told me that their favorite times at Duke were spent away from Duke, I never really thought about it that way. People go abroad for all kinds of reasons: Some say that studying abroad, like tenting in Krzyzewskiville, is an essential Duke experience. Some just want to travel around with friends and enjoy that last bit of adolescent, carefree playfulness before moving onto some standardized, potentially soul-selling post-Duke professional activities where mistakes would start to count and we all have to (finally) think about the consequences of life.
For me, I knew that I wanted to study abroad in France since freshman year. At first, it was because I had fallen in love with the language the moment I tried to properly pronounce “bonjour” for the first time in my eighth grade French class. Later, it was also because a little part of me had hoped that the boy I had a crush on in my college French class would also study abroad in France, so that I could maybe get to know him better during the program (which he didn’t). (Of course, I chose to leave out the second reason in my interview for the study abroad application.)
The funny thing is: I spent my entire freshman year reveling in the freedom of being away from parental control and able to do whatever, however, whenever. I dreamed about a perfect semester in Paris that would only enhance my overall Duke experience. But then I spent my entire sophomore year mourning that supposed freedom, disillusioned by the realization that it was still limited by Duke’s strict social norms — that other people on campus, who may be completely irrelevant in my everyday life, somehow dictate what I should do for every weekend and what I should be sorry that I didn’t do. Eventually, all the stress, disappointment and confusion fused into one idea: I needed to get away from Duke. I needed to escape.
Paris, as it turned out, gave me (for the most part) the unadulterated freedom I longed for (minus the last two weeks of my stay, when I’d have to walk at least an hour to get to anywhere due to a nation-wide transport strike). Schools there are the total opposite of Duke: Once out of the academic building, you are immediately released into the City of Lights, which always boasts at least a hundred things for an idle adolescent to explore and discover. I was so comforted by the anonymity — nobody cared if I kicked a can all the way down a street like a child, spent a whole day by myself in a café reading or daydreaming, started tearing up in front of a painting in a museum or walked back home at 1 a.m. from a night of “Midnight in Paris”-like encounters with young movie directors, beautiful cigarette-rolling girls, rebellious intellectuals debating philosophy and cinema and sweet boys who asked you if you are just “catching flights, not feelings.” Yes, 80 percent of those French stereotypes are true.
There was nobody to impress. No social molds to struggle to fit into. No need to be aimlessly busy all the time — though my peers and I would sometimes (strangely) miss the fulfillment of seeing a packed weekly schedule, because, after all, we were still Duke students.
At the peak of all this fun and freedom, perhaps that was what I found most surprising: I started to miss Duke. I even missed the food back on campus, even though I was quickly reminded upon my return that it is still as gross as it used to be. But they were thoughts that would come out of nowhere. When surrounded by historic Parisian buildings, I would suddenly miss the feeling of pride while walking on Duke’s campus. Amid a hot conversation about French cinema, I would suddenly miss all the late-night life talks at Duke that were so powerfully personal, which may be the one thing that the French aren’t particularly good at. And while sitting in an international relations class taught in French, I would deeply miss the Duke public policy classes where I could effortlessly understand every word being said and contribute to the discussion based on common sense, without having to know what operations have been carried out in Mali in the past decade.
Overall, I think abroad did change me. I came back more mature and independent. My mind is cleared up, and I am more certain about whom to just let go in my life and whom I regret having left behind. I now crave more to be known deeply and dearly rather than widely. I am more acutely aware than ever that there is a whole world out there, so much bigger than this campus that it’s not worthwhile to get caught up on the minor, trivial things that happen constantly in this bubble.
Even after all this reflection, however, I still cannot give you a concrete answer to that question: “Did you like abroad better than Duke?” Paris is exciting (for most of the time). Duke is endearing (also most of the time). Paris is where I would love to live in the future. Duke is where I can feel hurt, defeated, betrayed and rejected but would want to come back nevertheless.
Eva Hong is a Trinity junior and Recess local arts editor.
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