Radia Lahlou '18: In Spring We Bloom!: The Ups and Downs of Moving Overseas
Radia Lahlou is the 2018-2020 Shansi Fellow at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her first year narrative.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about plants. As Spring ripens, I watch soft buds unfurl into quite shades of pink on the trees surrounding my home, filling the campus with a sweet scent that calls: “at long last! winter has gone! you are here and you have made it this far!” My succulent is withering, so I put her on the ledge by our front door in hopes that she, too, can feel the sun’s warmth. I like that her two branches are crooked from leaning towards the light, as if frozen mid-dance. I’ll sit next to the ledge and watch the wind float fluﬀy, cotton-like seeds through grandparents with grandchildren taking walks. Spring is good, good, good.
Me, sitting outside our red house next to a newly flowered plant
When I decided to embark on this fellowship, I imagined the core focus of my first year to be English teaching, the main site of my personal growth to be the classroom. While not wholly inaccurate, there is much this vision did not predict. Living in Taigu, and more importantly, figuring out how to exist post-undergrad, has brought with it a slew of experiences beyond what I could have anticipated. It is hard to move across the world, learn a new language, and adapt to new cultural norms. It is hard to take to care of yourself, identify your needs, and command your time. Some days, even getting out of bed, doing the dishes and leaving the house can be a huge accomplishment. I look towards plants as a means of comparison; their growth is slow, steady, and beautiful.
When I think about my own growth, I think about it in two necessarily intertwined parts: 1) recovery 2) learning. For me, to grow means to recover, or work through, the poignant/diﬃcult moments in the 22 years that lead me to this one, as well as to work through the history that happened long before me, allowing for my existence. It equally means to learn: from the past and present, from books and other media, from relationships between people and nature, and from one’s internal self. As is probably apparent by the tone of this post, this Spring has put me in a very… reflective… state of mind. The more I reflect, the more I find myself comfortable in my own skin and mind. This, to me, is a marker of growth. Living in Taigu, as well as traveling through China and other parts of Asia, I feel myself growing (slowly) every day.
A close up of the pink, fragrant flowers that have recently popped up all over campus
cw: discussions of mental illness, but a happy ending
I have struggled with mental illness throughout my young adulthood, a part of myself that did not disappear as I moved overseas. I write this because I know I am not alone in my experiences and I think it is important to discuss what it means to live transnationally with mental illness.The process of moving overseas can be as alienating as it is liberating, and feelings of alienation can be further exacerbated by depression or anxiety (I list these two because I do not want to speak outside my own experience). This made my first semester here difficult—as English teachers, we are only expected to work around ~20 hours a week, which left me with loads of self-directed free time and a stark lack of self-direction. Leaving my student orgs, meetings, classes and 5-minute-away friends behind at Oberlin, I found myself, for the first time in years, with something so precious, so seemingly intangible: time.
As someone who has been conditioned to crave validation brought by “productivity,” I filled my gcal by the hour with various tasks, allotting myself time to study Chinese, make art, exercise, read, study Spanish, lesson plan, cook… the list goes on. At first, the planning was good; I felt I was making progress towards my goals and adjusting to life in Taigu pretty well. As time went on, I began to feel more and more unhappy, and then I began to feel more and more of nothing — I knew I should be feeling grateful for my opportunities, but I couldn’t access those emotions. Instead, I felt negative, lonely and numb. As the semester came to a close, I knew I had to find a way to shift my frame of mind.
Then came winter break: a two month hiatus from teaching in which Andrew, the Beijing fellow, and I backpacked across the South of China, Vietnam, and Thailand for two months (Jesse, my roommate, and Hana, our good friend, also joined us for parts of the trip). While I was still feeling exhausted from figuring out how to exist in Taigu the semester prior, the trip was incredible. In the South of China, we made friends with a young Swedish backpacker and celebrated the New Year together, visited my host family from my summer language intensive in Guilin, and saw the infamous pandas of Chengdu. In Vietnam, we motorbiked through trees so green they looked straight out of a doctor Seuss book, drank a ridiculous amount of coﬀee, and saw the ocean for the first time in months. In Thailand, we walked through lush fields at sunset, ate delicious street food, and experienced the sweatiness of overnight buses. Traveling with Andrew for two months was one of the best experiences of my life, and I am forever grateful for the way or friendship strengthened as we figured out how to navigate travel together. There are very few people I could hang out with for 24 hours a day, let alone for 2 whole months! Our friendship is one of the best parts of my fellowship experience thus far! :)
Here are some photographic highlights from the trip:
The famous pandas (Chengdu)
Andrew and Hana holding up a pagoda (Vietnam)
Andrew and I laughing after a silly and serious photoshoot (Chongqing)
Andrew, me and Jesse after completing a hike of many, many steps (Chongqing)
Me pretending to ride Hana’s motorbike, while in reality, I was far too afraid (Vietnam)
The best bowl of pho (Vietnam)!
Working on my sandal tan… (Thailand)
The best bowl of fruit (Vietnam)!
A sunny day at the most perfect Air BnB (Thailand)
The last mango sticky rice (Thailand)
After two months of travel, I was nervous to return to Taigu. I had felt so helpless ending the semester, and was worried second semester would be the same. Over winter, I took to journaling, which really helped me put into words the the anxieties inhibiting me and the needs I was ignoring. A huge mistake I was making first semester (something I still struggle with now, but less) was living in the future and past, but never in the present. Either I was sad to be away from the USA and was constantly reflecting on my past, or I was concerned about next steps: what will I do next week, next month? what will I do after this fellowship? where will I be when I’m 25, 30, 35?
I began to do research on mindfulness, the mental state achieved by putting focus on the present moment. I found there are many ways to exist in the present but the ones that spoke to me most were meditation and gratitude. Now, I try to meditate every day for at least 10 minutes, and found (after about a month of meditation) that I notice when I do not. I also found a pottery teacher, who I am incredible grateful for. Three times every week, I practice throwing pottery on a wheel for hours at a time. It feels really good to be doing an activity using my hands, being able to step away from the world around me and focus on something completely for a set period of time. It’s also been a great way to learn Chinese; I’ve been able to learn and use Chinese in pottery class more than in other part of my daily life! I also try to take moments every day to think about the things I am thankful for: the opportunities this fellowship has provided me with, the beautiful places I get to explore, the people I get to meet, the books I get to read. Simplifying my goals and trying my best to practice gratitude has really made a diﬀerence in my daily life, and I look forward to seeing how intentionally working towards living more presently influences the rest of my fellowship experience.
This is not to say that I think the present moment is the only one to live in— of course, I still get nostalgic and homesick, and I will eventually have to plan for what happens after the fellowship (grad school??!). Instead, I more wanted to express that moving overseas is challenging, and that, often, the things people share about their post-grad experience (especially on social media) is only a highlight reel. It is very human to go through ups and downs while figuring out what modes of living serves oneself the best. Growth is not linear! I also wish to state that I don’t believe there is one solution to depression/anxiety, and that simply “shifting your frame of mind” is not always realistic, just that I’ve found practicing mindfulness helpful to me!
I am concluding this report on my way to see Andrew in Beijing, where we will meet up with a few of our friends from the States and head to Qingdao for the labor day holiday. I love Beijing in the Spring— the weather is hot, the sky is blue, and everyone seems happier. How lucky I am, to have the friends that I do! To live in a place where a speed train bridges distance! To have the time to read under the sun! I am here, it is Spring, and I am happy. If anyone who is reading this is/was on a similar boat as me, I wish you the best! You have the tools you need to succeed within you! 加油！
1 Upon a friend’s recommendation, I use the paid app “Waking Up with Sam Harris,” but there are plenty of free ones as well!
Me, feeling powerful!