Past midnight on a Friday, I found myself in a kebab shop with two of my clearly intoxicated friends. The kebabs came in styrofoam boxes that would not close because of the sheer amount of meat stuffed into them.
One of my friends started yelling excitedly. “They have a full staff here just to make kebabs for us! And it’s only seven pounds!”
The other guy just stared at his kebab in utter amazement. He gently lifted his kebab up as though he was the Virgin Mary beholding Baby Jesus for the first time. Chunks of juicy lamb rolled out of the naan and landed in the box below.
Kebabs, alcohol, and friends mix surprisingly well in Oxford, England. I went abroad expecting to learn all about game theory and integral transforms, but ended up learning much more about midnight snacks and different types of drinks. Who said that they were mutually exclusive?
When I first arrived, however, I thought I would never make new friends in the land of ale, crumpets, and unpredictable weather. On my flight to London, I collapsed into my seat and cried because I was so nervous about fitting in to the social scene. Leaving the familiar comfort of Swarthmore after two years was just as daunting as leaving home for college. In fact, it was much more difficult because of all the expectations surrounding what an ideal study abroad experience should look like.
Whenever I told someone I would be in Oxford, they would congratulate me and tell me how wonderful it would be. Whenever I opened Facebook or Instagram, I saw pictures of my friends all around the scenic spots of Europe, basking in the classical beauty of Venice or cold majesty of Iceland. I was afraid I would never live up to those perfect images, but instead would constantly mope about in my room while watching Netflix and eating Tesco sandwiches.
My greatest fear has always been loneliness and the social stigma that comes with it. In my first few weeks, I would often eat and study alone because I did not have my steady friend group at Swarthmore. Everyone here has their own schedules to follow, whether that involved attending lectures or showing up to sports practice. Initially, I hated being seen alone in public for fear of someone thinking I was a perpetual loner. My anxiety took centre stage, telling me that I was not interesting enough, or not pretty enough, or not intelligent enough to form friendships with the people around me.
Despite that nagging voice in my head, I told myself that feeling out of my comfort zone was totally normal, even in an English-speaking country. I forced myself to attend special lectures, yoga classes, Lunar New Year celebrations, and other social events. I even went to a bar alone to watch a rugby game between Wales and France, sipping on cider while everyone around me was cheering whenever Wales scored. Whoever said that Americans are crazy about the Super Bowl have clearly never seen Brits hollering over a rugby match.
What struck me was how normal it was to be seen alone in a public place. Gradually, I discovered that my apprehension was unfounded. I noticed students sitting by themselves in cafes, libraries, and lounges, some engrossed in their homework and others simply enjoying a cup of coffee. In the parks were solitary runners and cyclists dutifully following the dirt path beside meandering streams full of ducks, geese, and gulls. Nobody gave me a second look, much less express their disdain, when I was by myself.
Being alone, or dare I say, being lonely, can be liberating because I can be totally anonymous. Any shenanigans would be forgotten in this mid-sized city with barely any memory of a random foreign student. Here, I can get kebabs anytime I please without anyone knowing who I am, very different when compared to stumbling into Renato’s late at night and seeing five people I know. I have utterly embarrassed myself when I first started cycling on the busy roads, but I realized that it would not matter in the long run because no passers-by remember me. Humiliation somehow seems less significant when it is just me and Oxford.
I still grapple with loneliness occasionally. There are days when I would skip meals and stay huddled in my room, feeling more alone than ever. Other days, I cycle aimlessly along side streets, looking at all the people around me who seem to have their friends or partners right beside them. But those days are getting fewer and fewer, and I believe that everyone experiences acute bouts of loneliness even if they are supposed to be living it up abroad. Behind all those perfect pictures and videos of exotic locations are plenty of pain that help us grow into better people.
My fear of loneliness still lives on, but it no longer defines my social interactions. I have found amazing friends at Oxford in spite of my worst fears. I have done so much I never imagined myself doing, including drinking three glasses of wine at dinner, trying to punt a boat and scaring all my friends, or even going to a kebab shop at an ungodly hour.
Loneliness is an absolutely normal part of life and will always be here to stay, whether at Swarthmore or abroad. I have grown to accept it, instead of demonizing it as the antidote to all my happiness. Perhaps having a fulfilling social life is not mutually exclusive with feeling lonely at times.
For now, I propose a toast to loneliness.