Two summers ago, I hiked across a vast and forested mountain range, 10,000 miles from home. My heart raced as I climbed. Any burden encased deep within me released with each breath. I reached the peak and shouted across all of northwestern China. My voice echoed through the endless valleys. There, in Zhangjiajie, I felt an incredible freedom I had not known back home, in New Orleans.
New Orleans has a culture as unique to America as China itself. Tourists and musicians fill old-fashioned, French Quarter streets. Athletes race on Saturdays at City Park. Saints football is broadcasted, and big-name artists perform concerts in the Mercedes Benz SuperDome. Quality southern seafood and creole cuisines can be found at just about any restaurant. So why would I want to leave a southern paradise such as New Orleans? I traveled away from my city and out of the entire country because I had believed there to be much more to the world than what I saw at home. I had lost satisfaction in my day-to-day life. I had not known it back then, but I wanted to discover a deeper sense of myself.
My daily lifestyle had become a routine of taking classes at Xavier University of Louisiana. During weeknights, I would study hard science as a chemistry major; I would hang with friends on a Friday or Saturday at their homes or on Canal Street; and I would spend time with family on Sunday. Every once in a while, I would deviate by binge watching anime or traveling to Houston to visit my grandparents. Even so, the repetition began to feel like I was a puppet on strings.
About a month before I decided to venture on my own, I sat with a friend of mine, Jon, and asked him if he were content with his life. “Yeah, I would say so,” he said. This wasn’t a good enough answer for me. When he asked me if I was content, I told him, “no.”
My mother often played tracks by India.Arie in the car when I was growing up. In her song, “There’s Hope,” India speaks of paradise as a state of mind. Sometimes I would spend hours meditating, searching for peace of mind. Every prayer felt comforting, but it never changed the fact that I would wake up the next morning to the same cycle as the day before. Eventually Mardi Gras came, breaking the daily loops with enormous, elaborate parade floats and unhinged crowds. Nevertheless, I had been to Mardi Gras every year since I was 5 years old. I was 20.
When the school year finally ended, I was left directionless. There were two weeks before departure, and they had been two of the longest weeks of my life. Going from endless studying and loads of work to sitting at home, contemplating my thoughts, had made anxiety great company. It revealed just how internally lost I was.
Two weeks became two hours before departure. When I got to the airport, ready to hop on the plane to China, my mom stayed in the minivan and my dad walked me to security. I was confident, but the tears that had formed in my mother’s eyes, and the sound of her voice cracking, left me with a heaviness I couldn’t lift. I would be gone for ten weeks, completely on my own, for the first time. After helping me drop off my two luggages, my dad hugged me and left. All I had was a duffle bag, a laptop, a wallet, a cell phone, and a plane ticket that would ultimately fly me to China.
The freedom I had gained in China had not been unique to Zhangjiajie. I had felt closer to my truest self within only two weeks of a ten-week study abroad experience. I was stationed at Soochow University, (Suzhou Daxue), a beautiful and enormous campus with blooming lotus ponds and a quiet, modern coffee shop. An enormous library sat at the center of the campus and appeared on every Soochow University logo in the area. At first, I was completely isolated. My lack of experience with the mandarin language left me too nervous to approach anyone.
There were a few Africans, but I was an African American male — the only African American male — on the entire campus. Eyes stared, but no one spoke. I had one friend named Ryan, who shared my experience, but even so, two people in an entire country was frightening. The AT&T bars on my phone had been replaced by a series of characters that began with 中国, which meant China.
I hadn’t paid for international service, so it was clear I wouldn’t have access to social media. It was also clear I would have loads of free time. The only thing I had to study was for the MCAT, which I had planned to take two weeks upon my return to New Orleans. I began to study rigorously every day, drawing diagrams of the heart, and reviewing pathways for parathyroid hormone and estrogen. This lasted about two weeks.
My third week in Suzhou began as just another Sunday in Asia. I slid my bare feet off of the bed and onto the marble floor, filled a bucket with detergent and water, and began to hand-wash some dirty socks that had piled up. I stepped outside and hung them on a rail to dry. The sun was shining on my face, but it wasn’t blinding, it was warm. I stretched my arms out like a starfish, and my back felt twenty pounds lighter. It was like a large book bag had been removed from my shoulders or like ankle bracers had been untied from my feet. I was free — from any situation, judgement, and any prior condition that had been defined for me back home, and it felt incredible.
Bruno Mars had released his album 24k Magic a few months before I left America. In my last week home, I watched his music videos wishing I could imitate his personality and style. I wanted his confidence. In China, there was no need to impress, watch my behavior, or be anything less than my truest self. There was no need to mimic Bruno; I loved exactly who I was. My timid aura evolved into something adventurous, creative, and compassionate.
In China, there were plenty of times when I was completely by myself. This was mostly true on the weekends or any day I finished my responsibilities before noon. Ryan had been busy with her own endeavors and I was still having some difficulty communicating with the students. They were usually always busy with studying for exams anyways, despite it being summer. I began to venture out on my own. I visited malls, markets, and restaurants in the area. Suzhou even had a “Times Square” similar to that of New York minus the dense crowds and cold weather. It was in my solitude that I realized there was a significant difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Surprisingly, I did not get homesick until the last week before returning to New Orleans. I would have never thought that as a local, born and raised in the Crescent City, the most vivid flashbacks of New Orleans would be the French Quarter. My interest in listening to jazz skyrocketed as well, and the very first thing I did when I returned home was go to Snug Harbor with a friend. When I was home, my parents admired my new energy and my friends said I had changed. I never felt more myself.
While staying in the familiar gives a safe and predictable future, sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk and venture into the unknown. What’s to be discovered is a deeper appreciation for home, a purpose to each day, and an unraveling of a truer sense of self.