Illustration by Reine Defranco/The Gazelle

To the wide-eyed stranger

Whenever I go back to Poland, there is always something new waiting for me: family claiming even more space in what used to be my room, a friend ...

Illustration by Reine Defranco/The Gazelle
Whenever I go back to Poland, there is always something new waiting for me: family claiming even more space in what used to be my room, a friend getting married or yet another new spot to enjoy the nightlife in Warsaw. This time, the most exciting development will probably be Poland’s new government. Yet there is one thing that never changes: the struggle between my need to deal with exaggerated reactions to my educational experience, and my reluctance to display what can sound like false modesty.
After all, it was my choice to transfer to a high school in Kolkata and then apply to a university in Abu Dhabi. It makes perfect sense that I have learned a lot from these experiences; it has influenced me in one way or another. Upon hearing the location of my high school, university or both, it is much less apparent to a wide-eyed stranger that I am still just myself.
I can understand the reason for this reaction, and truth be told, I am grateful for it sometimes. There are moments when, immersed in an education full of travels and inspiring figures, I regard them as just another part of everyday life. Back home, despite changes in the real picture, a stereotypical university student still studies only when absolutely necessary and parties whenever possible.
But I also get tired of strangers’ shock at my stepping so far away from this stereotype. Or rather, tired of the fact that to the new people I meet, this one characteristic trumps all other aspects of my personality and my life, as if these other parts did not exist. Whether it's the curiosity for the unfamiliar or the assumption that I would no longer find it interesting to listen to stories of life in my homeland, the most common end result is a short silence followed by a now very familiar series of questions. It is not that I am unwilling to answer these questions about so-called life in the wilderness, as some people perceive it. But I sometimes miss those simple, almost banal conversations about a life I do not live anymore.
Thus, recently, when the unfortunate question about my education comes up, I have been trying to brush it off. If it comes back, for a moment I become a student of the University of Warsaw or a tiny college somewhere in the U.S., and then I can happily engage in a conversation about what most university students have in common. After that, I just keep going my own way, and so does my forever stranger.
But if I answer truthfully, the conversations that sometimes follow only strengthen my belief that the media in my country does a terrible job. I have been regarded both as a fearless hero and Mother Teresa the Second. My sanity has been questioned several times, and twice some romance stories have been suspected for making me run away so far. I have been warned against rape, terrorism and marrying a local, and instructed to wear a full burqa while in public. The list of racial jokes and stereotypes could go on for several more lines, but I think I have made my point.
This is not to say that there are no nice surprises. Last time I went home, a brief mention of my high school during the biggest rock festival in Poland helped me learn that the guy I was talking to had studied some of the most famous Hindu religious texts — which were only vaguely familiar to me — in great detail, but had never been anywhere near the region. What followed was an unusually interesting exchange.
Often, after explaining briefly how I ended up studying in India and the UAE and sharing some general impressions, I am told how great or adventurous my life is. But regardless of how different people’s reactions may be, they all converge on one point: in a world of opportunities offered by globalization, it is still so unique to take advantage of them.
I consider myself very lucky to have a family that supports and understands me, and a group of old friends that acts just the same way as before I left Warsaw for the first time. I have made many friends from all around Poland with the same experience of studying abroad since high school, for whom my life is just as normal as theirs. Reunions, particularly with those who also spent two years in India, feel like family gatherings. Many of my former classmates chose to apply to universities abroad or student exchange programs. Thus the group of my fellow countrymen who I can easily relate to continues to increase, although the path of education leads westwards for most of them. This direction is generally considered the way to a successful career, and thus spares them many of the shocked reactions and misconceptions about their education.
All in all I may have traveled more and partied less than many of my friends, written more essays and taken fewer final exams. I may be learning Arabic instead of French, and putting a little more English into my Polish than necessary. I probably see some global and social issues in a different light, and cannot understand all of my peers' daily jokes. But I am a student, and as most students in the world would probably agree, I do not want my school or its location to be the only thing that defines me.
One day, when I go back home again, I hope it will be easier for people to see this.
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