Looking back on my first semester, I remember that it could not have started any better. My mother flew the 22 hours from Singapore with me to Philadelphia and we set up my room in New College House together. Penn’s campus looked majestic — walls dressed in a cloak of green, and aged arches caught in the golden rays of sunlight.
I met a group of friends that I felt I got along with and we started eating in the dining halls together. NSO was exciting — meeting different people every day. The whole experience was so fresh and novel, sheerly because it was my first time on the United States mainland. My mother left for home the first weekend, and suddenly, everything started to fall apart.
The group of friends I had hung out with started going out at night a lot and the days slowly began to fill with conversations recounting "Embarrassing Thing She Did #1" and "Embarrassing Thing She Said #3" and "Don’t You Remember That Cute Guy #4." I started to realize how different our lifestyles and values were.
Memories of my mother’s warmth were suddenly tampered by the increasing sense of alienation I felt wherever I went. I vividly remember walking with that group of friends from the Kings Court English House dining hall to New College House and tearing up suddenly. I had to speed-walk ahead of them so that they wouldn’t see me crying.
I think it is always infinitely more confusing and difficult coming from a country that is a 22-hour plane ride away from Penn. Do I not fit in because of who I am, or because of some cultural thing I am not “getting?" Is this just the way relationships are here, or is this the “wrong group?" Am I saying the wrong things? Is my humor not “right?" Is my accent difficult to understand?
This brought me to a fateful day — the second-to-last day of NSO and the one right before Convocation. I had to attend the Penn Athletics picnic lunch event at Penn Park and gather for the Class of 2020 picture. If you’re following the trajectory of my story you’ll probably expect this — I walked to Penn Park alone. My group of friends texted me, “Come join us here! :)”; I asked, “Where in Penn Park are y’all?” I also called, but they never replied.
After ambling around a little on my own and signing up for a bunch of listservs, I spotted, in the sea of excited freshmen and fervent chattering, three girls (also international students) whom I had met early on during NSO. I ran towards them — please imagine this scene as dramatically as you can — and we ended up eating lunch together, sitting on the dusty sidewalk by Penn Park. We talked and laughed heartily. Conversations were easy and hearts were light.
The Class of 2020 gathered to take the class picture. We were not inside. We were still in the distance on the sidewalk, finishing off record-breaking amounts of cheese, watching our class slowly form the number, “2020.” I was still in the periphery, the “outside," as I had been throughout NSO — but this one was different.
We continued to talk, deep into the evening, as Penn Park emptied itself of students. We watched the caterers come back to clear up trays of food, and the horizon gradually swallow the fading summer sun. “Penn’s becoming a little bit more like home,” I thought to myself.
Looking back, NSO is the time where we figure out how we prefer to socialize and make relationships at Penn. This might not always go the way we planned, but don’t fret too much — serendipity goes a long way here.
It is funny how “Penn” can suddenly become “home” and where you belong, or “not home” and where you don’t belong. This can depend on whether you had a bad NSO experience, were rejected from a club, are currently struggling with a friend group you feel like you stick out in or not feeling like you are part of one at all.
The search for “home” and the need to belong often nags at the back of our heads and tugs at our hearts as we navigate our way through Penn. We’ve all had rough patches here — whatever form and intensity they take — and we all identify, in some moments, with that alone-in-the-crowd feeling.
Take heart, keep on looking — maybe, just maybe — we’ll find home.
SARA MERICAN is a College sophomore from Singapore. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Merican in America” usually appears every Monday.
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