After roughly 24 hours of travel, I stepped off Philippine Airlines and entered the Jakarta airport in Indonesia for a brief visit with my brother before I continued my journey home to the U.S. It was hot, stuffy, sticky, and the air was thick, unlike the weather and quality of air I had left in chilly, pure New Zealand.
I felt sick from not eating and tired enough to keel over, yet I was wide awake because this was the day I had anticipated for months; I was about to see my family again. I was racing through the airport, trying to get to my brother when, naturally, my suitcase was the last on the conveyer belt, WiFi was spotty, and then, my phone died. I had lived without consistent data for months, meaning that bad cell service no longer bothered me. What upset me was that it was delaying me from seeing my brother.
When I had finally made it through customs and saw him from a distance, I did my best to not cry in the middle of the airport. It had been a long 5 months without my support system and I was one step closer to home, but also one step farther away from my other home – New Zealand.
Those first few days in Jakarta, approximately 24 hours after leaving New Zealand, is when I first noticed my growth as an individual. For one thing, long plane rides became a norm. I learned that if I plug my headphones in, I can curl up in a ball and sleep anywhere if need be. I also came to realize that going to new countries did not scare me as much as it used to, and I was unafraid to ask people for help when needed. Most of all though, after being on a roller coaster of emotions for the past 5 months, I had learned how to deal with my feelings and figured out what made me truly and utterly happy.
Before I began my life in Dunedin, I went through many emotions and thoughts. I wondered if I had made the right decision, and constantly wondered why I was choosing to leave the country for five months. I had been dreaming about going to New Zealand for so long and was in fact excited, but I felt perfectly content in my world surrounded by the people that I love that I questioned why I was leaving them.
Despite being quite terrified, I was surrounded by friends, peers, advisors, and family members telling me how amazing the study abroad experience was going to be. They informed me that it would be challenging, but well worth it in the end. They focused on how I would overcome homesickness and have the best time of my life.
Before I left, I felt over-prepared on how to handle myself away from home. However, what I did not feel prepared for, and despite being informed, was how I would feel when I returned home. Individuals who have never lived abroad cannot fathom the idea of what it is like to have your heart split into a million places for two different countries and for friends who are spread all around the world. They also cannot fathom how lonely yet rewarding it feels to have grown and learned so much about yourself, only to come home to your loved ones who have not grown with you physically and mentally.
I remember when I arrived in New Zealand and I was on FaceTime with my one sister who had studied abroad in Italy. “I do not understand or know why I am here,” I had said, “I already know who I am as a person and I have everything I need back at home. Did I really come to the other side of the world to remember that I enjoy the very simple things in life when I already knew that?”
Her reply was, “You think you know who you are Aimee, but just you wait.”
When homesickness would hit hard in New Zealand, I would close my eyes, and home would be right there. I could see my family’s smiling faces and I could hear my friend’s laughter ringing in my ears. I could imagine how spring was blooming on the other side of the world and feel the warm, summer sun on my face while we were freezing in the dead of winter. Home had become a distant idea and a faraway dream, but in my heart, it was always right there.
I anticipated the day I would step off the plane and be lifted into the arms of the people whom I loved. While abroad, I missed my comfort zone and the people who knew how to lift my spirits. What I did not realize is that when I would return home, I would be different and that I would miss my other home and the people who helped me to grow and bloom into a better person.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Where we love is home – home where our feet may leave but not our hearts.” Now the tides have turned and when I am feeling homesick, I close my eyes and I see my second beautiful home and city that I laughed, cried, and changed with.
By the time I stepped off the plane in Philadelphia, I had been awake for roughly 48 hours. Despite being awake for so long, I was numb to the lack of sleep because now, I was officially home. Returning from a study abroad program is a very surreal experience because it feels as if you have been gone for so long, yet like you never left. It is weird to realize how much you have changed, but how everything else seems to have stayed the same.
It may even feel like a slap in the face when you step off that plane, because your home has not grown in the same way you have. You are no longer living independently as an active, world-traveler, and for a while, this may leave an empty hole in your heart. What I have learned over the past few months is that studying abroad is not an end, but a marvelous beginning. You change in ways that enhance who you are, and I think that that is what is so beautiful about going abroad.
If you allow yourself to go outside of your comfort zone and see who you truly are in a stressful situation, you may discover parts of yourself you might never have known. You may even find strength in learning how far you can push yourself. Learning these aspects can help you in so many different areas of your life, whether that be school, friendships, or work. Life really does begin at the end of your comfort zone and I am so thankful that I decided to make that leap.
So yes, I am very glad that I went across the world to remember the simple things, like how much I love laughing till my belly aches, reading a book with a cup of tea, sitting in cafes on a rainy day, and going for a walk. The mountains were what I anticipated and were a journey within themselves, but I did not realize that the things that would matter most would be the people who made me smile and laugh. The coolest thing is being able to step back, look at my experience, and realize that I created a whole bunch of nothing into something, which is one of the biggest accomplishments I have ever made.
About the Author – Aimee Stonelake, spring 2018 Dunedin, New Zealand & Elizabethtown College student
Aimee is a Psychology major, Social Work minor at Elizabethtown College working in the BCA Central Office as a Peer Advisor.