Not All That Foreign is a biweekly column about life as an international Yalie.
On the last day of the semester, the exodus begins. International students at Yale pack their bags, lock their dorms, and go their separate ways only to reconvene at JFK’s Terminal 4. There, we enjoy the strange camaraderie that comes from noticing each other sporting at least one item of Yale Bookstore merch (staple airport attire) as we wait to board our long-awaited flights home for the holidays.
The flight back is always strangely cathartic. All worries seem to vanish at ten thousand meters above ground. Some sleep off the craze of finals week. Others watch each and every Netflix episode that they were able to download at the gate. All revel in the thought of all things home as the view from the window begins to hint at a descent.
Throughout my first year at Yale, home was a sporadic memory. It made a brief appearance now and again, like a ray of sunshine on a New England winter day. The overstimulation of being in a new country, constantly meeting new people, and adjusting to the rhythm of college life left no space for any far-reaching thoughts. I was working so hard to make a home of Yale that I barely had time to really miss the home I already had. It was only once I spotted the contours of Milan from my window seat on that first flight back in December 2021 that home slapped me in the face, reminding me of all the things I had missed: going full days without speaking a word of English, showing up at my sister’s apartment unannounced and making dinner with her, laughing until my ribs get sore at every immature inside joke brought up by a friend, savoring all those things that “just don’t taste the same” in the States. I’d even missed tripping over the misplaced cobblestones that blanket Milan’s city center.
I remember how excited I was to reunite with my high school friends after only having seen them through a phone screen for months. During hours and hours of conversation over coffee, I would try to answer the “how’s Yale?” question. I’d go to great lengths to describe my friends, my classes, the clubs and traditions, but really, I was just trying to share everything I could about a place I was still trying to figure out for myself.
This year, it felt even harder—perhaps because now I have had the time to make a home of Yale. A strange sense of impotence came over me whenever I attempted to articulate what Yale had become for me in the past two years. I realized that my life here offers me a radically different experience than those of my friends who study in Europe. The American college experience is an aesthetic; a romanticized image that is hard to shake, and when asked what Yale is like, it’s hard to make space for the reality behind the ideal.
How do I explain the way strangers at a pre-orientation program become family, the kind of people you’d take two bullets for, in a span of months? How do I explain G-heav pit stops and the midnight migration from Sterling to Bass? Or the way we all make way for a bunch of naked people to run through the libraries twice a year? How does one explain that someone created a website just to help humanities majors in their search for science guts? Or the adrenaline rush that overcomes any survival instinct as one prepares to rush the field after a Yale football victory in enemy territory?
How was I supposed to explain the will to endure frigid December days in an Old Campus dorm? And the way the golden string of lights run through the cracked window makes it all worth it when you walk by and read “JE Lux”?
In attempt after attempt to bridge the gap between Milan and New Haven, I’ve learned that it’s just one of those funny things about being not all that foreign. With every departure, regardless of the starting point or the final destination, we leave home to go home.