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The beauty of an unintelligible world

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I’ll never forget my first experience abroad, which was this semester. Exiting the plane for the first time, as I stepped into Hanoi, Vietnam, it was as if I had been transported to a whole new universe. Looking around me, I was mesmerized by all the signs in Vietnamese. Continuing on to a restaurant for dinner after the flight, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the first time, English was not the dominant language flooding my ears. Instead, I was in a crowded buffet room with people yelling syllables to me that resembled an old voice-over cartoon. The letters of the signs surrounding me were strung together in indecipherable units, although they were supposed to be words. Clearly, these units did not add any clarity to the situation.

As my time in Vietnam continued, it became clear that communicating with others was not going to hold the same meaning as it did in the United States. The first few days, when I needed to know where to get off the bus, I had to rapidly point at an address I had written and hope that someone would know my destination and nod at me when to get off. During lunch, I could only yell “an chay” (vegetarian) at the street vendor, and wait for my food to arrive with no idea what dish would be placed in front of me.

At first, I was terrified in Vietnam. Since I didn’t know the language, I felt like disaster could happen so easily. All I had to do was take the bus stop one street too far and find myself completely lost. All I had to do was misunderstand a social cue and I would find myself offending someone. If disaster occurred, I would have no idea how to remedy the situation since I had always relied on my voice.

 

But as time continued, I learned to navigate the city and realized just how powerful social connections and interactions could become, even without a common language. There’s something beautiful about living in a place where words suddenly begin to fail and observation becomes the greatest tool for understanding one’s surroundings. It’s as if the pressure of continuously asking questions or searching for a social connection through voice suddenly ceases. Instead of talking and diverting attention away from the physical environment, one is forced to simply observe and take in all that is happening around them.

There is so much beauty that can be missed if one is not paying full attention. For example, watching people on the bus every day, I realized that it is custom for younger people to stand up and give their seats away to elders. Not only did I find this such a beautifully nuanced and important part of the culture, but I also found myself able to replicate this norm on the bus because I had watched others do the same. Through observation in Vietnam, I counterintuitively started to feel more like I belonged. I learned to walk on the side of the road since the sidewalk is needed for motorbike parking and to use chopsticks with my right hand even though I am left-handed, because in Vietnam, using the left hand is just strange.

But beyond creating a new way of belonging, the loss of common language created whole new types of relationships for me, which I had never before had the honor of experiencing. For example, I lived with my host family who could speak limited English. We could not speak deeply about family history, values, or beliefs. Yet my best memories in Vietnam are those with my host mom and sister. I looked forward to meals together every night as  my host mom would prepare an “an chay” dish she’d be excited for us to try, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company at the table, laughing over facial expressions or bonding over how much we truly appreciated the food.

Looking back, it is impossible to capture how strong of a relationship I formed with my host family and how much I learned from Vietnam because of—rather than in spite of— not knowing the language. It is as if a whole new perspective of the world is gained through less talking and more observing, listening, and embracing. And this lesson shapes my view of academics on campus as well.

At Swarthmore, it is easy to get lost in attempting to speak the most in seminars or talking over people who have a different perspective. Yet perhaps the beauty of not communicating verbally is entering what is typically deemed the “introvert” world. As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet,” there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” While it can feel natural to want to speak the most or fill the empty spaces in class discussions, space must be made for embracing the silence, observing the dance of everyday life, and listening to the sounds beyond the words. As I have discovered through not having the ability to speak my thoughts, often more can be learned from watching and listening than from anything I could articulate myself.

Now in Buenos Aires for the final aspect of my adventure, I am in a country where I don’t quite understand all of the language, yet I am also not completely lost. While I am happy to be able to communicate with those around me, I think I’ll also continue to embrace the lost part of myself a little more. By listening and observing before speaking, individuals can gain more perspectives and learn new insights.

The Past, the Present, and the Future Walked Into a Bar. It Was Tense.

in Campus Journal by

The future. What even is it? Well people, the future is a noun, a rapper (listen to maskoff #hype #lit #do #it), also there is, or I guess there was, Phil of the Future (arguably the hottest disney character to ever exist), and the future is what will happen in two seconds but now that’s the past, so the future is the next two seconds but that’s the past again, DO YOU GET WHAT I’M SAYING? THE FUTURE IS CHANGING, ALL. THE. TIME. For example, when my high school boyfriend and I planned to go to the US Surf Open in Huntington Beach and then he ended up bailing on me and somehow forgot to tell me (?) and then we end up breaking up the week after… I can tell you that the future sure does constantly change, especially in relationships.

The future and this idea of planning for couples in a relationship is different in high school than it is in college. It’s cute in high school when your girlfriend or boyfriend makes summer plans with you or when she/he plans on going to senior prom because junior prom was so fun. But with college relationships, planning carries more than just the adjective “cute.” Because after college, real life hits and real life includes a shared apartment, then maybe a proposal. Then all of a sudden, next thing you know is that you have a dog (golden retriever obviously) and then a kid, and then two kids, and then next thing you know those kids are going to college and now you’re retired and BOOM you have grandkids and fun Thursday nights no longer include pub night but bingo and AHHH!!!!! Also, I forgot to put “getting a job” on the list, so clearly you see where my priorities are.

During freshman orientation, I remember the great emphasis that was put on college relationships potentially turning into marriages —the so-called “matchbox” lovers. It was almost like the college wanted us to find our spouse here. Maybe because if we all married each other (lol as if), our children would be so smart and add to the brilliant, astute, and ingenious Swarthmore community — obviously this is a joke but as I wrote this down it could maybe be true. Nonetheless, it was quite intimidating because the future is just that, intimidating! It is unknown and something that cannot be completely controlled, no matter how hard we try. Life is not about the final product or the end goal, it is about the process. So enjoy the moment and enjoy the now because that is all we have (so cheesy but also so true). Don’t worry about being exuberant with your partner 24/7 to ensure a future for the relationship. If you worry too much about the future, then there just simply won’t be one.

A key component to this is communication, as a relationship is a two-way street. Maybe you’re having fun and enjoying the moment but your partner isn’t. Communication is a fix for that. Essentially, if your relationship is healthy, happy, and fun there will more likely be a future than not. So just focus on “right now.” I am not saying to cheat on your partner because you were “in the moment” or to treat your partner badly because you weren’t “planning for their reactions.” No. Be respectful and treat your significant other with the care and love they deserve, but do not obsess about the future — just be with your partner because you both want to be with each other.

I understand, though, that we are all human and are all most definitely flawed, so here are some helpful tips that could help make your life easier:

See your relationship for what it is. A relationship is a shared experience and a time to grow not only by yourself but also with someone else. No planning will change how compatible you and your partner are, so just be yourself. If you are yourself, the relationship will either work out or it won’t, but you do not want to be in a relationship in which you are not yourself.

Don’t stress. Even though we all do it, stressing is the most unproductive activity ever. It will get you nowhere! Stressing too much takes you out of the present, which means you are not only missing the process of the growing relationship, but you are also killing the process and the relationship as well. We all get excited for what could be or for what could happen, and then we stress about those things becoming a reality. If we “plan” too much for the unexpected future, there won’t be a future.

It is that time in my article that I shall leave you all with a short, sweet anecdote. I had a fairly big crush on this one boy in elementary school and he and I would email (hahaha) all the time. During spring break, he went to Washington D.C. with his mom and grandma and was emailing me back on his mom’s phone while they were in a museum. His mom turned to him and said something along the lines of, “Hey, stop texting and learn about some history.” But then this young, elementary-aged ANGEL said (*cue to grab tissues*) “Mom, I’m making history.” Well, he sure was making history, because that crush ended up fizzling out, but he’s a prime example of focusing on the present, I would say, because he sure as heck did not care about the past.

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