I spent eight months in Australia when I was 19. It was only the third time that I had left the US (not counting Canada because I am from Buffalo and Canada is right there. Fun Fact: I took a Canadian Studies class in high school.) It was the first time that I went without family or a friend. This week I went back to Australia with my husband to visit friends and to see more of Australia.
Of course, we had an excellent time. So much fun but it made me think back on who I was the first time I was in this country. That was 15 years, several degrees, and 50 countries ago. Australia may have changed a bit, but I have changed a lot. I remember Australia being pretty challenging. I had some pretty intense culture shock: Swearing! Unisex bathrooms in the dorms! So much beer! It seems tame now but 19-year-old me was completely overwhelmed.
I wouldn't take back my first Australian experience. It was the set up for pretty much the rest of my life. But I would be lying if I told you that I was able to take advantage of the time there. I am both intensely introverted and shy. Over the years I have learned to deal with my shyness, but I was still a mess of insecurity while living in Australia. Having to deal with human beings in the smallest ways caused me intense distress.
I lived on campus in Rockhampton. Australia had the decency to only have single rooms. I spent a lot of time in that room. A full load of courses in Australia was much much less than in America. I had a lot of free time. You would think that I would have used it to explore this new country/city. Nope. I went shopping a couple of times and to the beach a few times, but for the most part, I was within walking distance. I did get to do some traveling during the school holidays. I was able to go to Sydney, Brisbane, Carnes, Canberra, and Adelaide. But the majority of my time was spent alone in my dorm room. It is where I read Harry Potter for the first time. The university library had a "children's section" and a nonfiction section. I like nonfiction, but it was only a matter of time before I was reading MG and YA. I rekindled my love affair with YA here.
I remember there was a formal sit down dinner at the dorms. I am not sure why. I signed up but didn't get assigned a seat. I think I was supposed to choose and didn't know it. The cocktail time was okay, but then I couldn't find where I was expected to sit. I thought I found it, but it turned out to be the seat of another girl named Tara. I still get sick to my stomach when I think of how embarrassed I was when she had to ask me to move. I faked being all nonchalant while I made my escape from the humiliation of being displaced and then I snuck back to my dorm room and hid there. The rest of the weekend. With the lights off because omg people could not possibly know that I exist and am lame. I even snuck into the bathroom like a spy, peering around corners and running down the hall. If I recall correctly, I also cried on and off for a few days.
That was a slightly more dramatic example, but even things like being able to get a soda from the machine in the common room meant having to gear myself up for an hour beforehand. It wasn't until the last three weeks in the country that I was familiar enough with the people around me that I started trying to make friends.
It wasn't until years later that I was able finally to overcome my shyness. I say overcome like it is a dragon I had to slay. But to be honest, the shyness is still there I have just learned to work around it, ignoring that voice inside that tells me to fear the judgment of others eyes.
Even though I know that it is me who has changed, it still feels as if Australia is different this time. I was so out of my depth before. Everything seemed strange and scary. I was self-conscious about being American. I look back at myself agonizing over packing, being weirded out at new food, and unable able to speak over a whisper to strangers. I hardly recognize that girl.