03 May, 2012

Book Report

Around the London Center I think it's fair to say that the staff are reticent to give recommendations on life decisions.  Ask as much as you want, the staff genuinely have no way of telling students where a good place for you to live in London is, if this is the right work placement for you, if you should take that class. 

But if we're anything, we're all avid readers.  As a non-mandatory assignment, we usually choose a book of the term which has some relevance to the semester abroad, whether it be about London life, Shakespeare, or the nature of being abroad.  So this is where we take the opportunity to make recommendations. 

I was intrigued by a previous book of the term as students have come back with strong feelings about the controversial nature of the narrative.  The book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, is the story of a Pakistani man, Changez, who graduated from Princeton in the spring of 2001 and proceeded to work for the next year or so in New York City.  He experienced what it was to be a New Yorker and a foreigner at the same time, and as tensions mounted back home between Pakistan and India and nuclear war became a growing threat he gave a detailed description of the range of emotions he experienced.

I think this was a good choice for the book of the term because one of the things the author does best is describe what being a foreigner feels like.  "In a subway car, my skin would typically fall in the middle of the color spectrum.  On street corners, tourists would ask me for directions.  I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker."  Most of our students are unlikely to become British, but as soon as you have a place to live, you're Londoners.  Take a step back and imagine yourself feeling like a Londoner.

Some people have described this book as anti-American.  I disagree with that opinion, without saying that it's wrong.  It depicts the emotional range of a person on September 11, 2001 who is not American.  It depicts the wider repercussions around the world after 9/11 and Changez's response that came with feeling more and more foreign in New York in the year that followed the attacks.  Reading this book I saw through my American eyes the perspective of a non-American.  During and after 9/11 I remember the fear of war and a complete shift in the world I had grown up thinking I knew.  After 9/11 Changez went through a similar series of emotions, though his were tied into his own struggling love story.  Much of what happens in the romantic plot influences his actions thereafter, so we diverge from there, but the surprisingly shared perspective remains a common thread.

I went on to study abroad the following year, and I became aware of what it meant for me to be the foreigner.  I felt so very at home in London that semester, but I knew that as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke I was labeling myself as foreign.  The question is, what do you do with that information?  Do you thicken your accent?  Do you have a Big Mac when you feel homesick?  Do you immerse yourself in the local culture and ride the tube silently?

Many of you may have completed your time abroad, others may be about to come abroad and still more may have returned abroad.  For me, nationality was never something I thought much about until I knew I was a foreigner.  I live happily in my foreignness, and I hope I have successfully embraced it. 

*These are my opinions, not those of the ICLC.

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