Seeking the Familiar

Being a veteran of several international experiences, I have discovered that nothing can truly prepare you for living abroad. There is always a novelty, with varying degrees, that takes some adjusting to. Starting my journey in India with the intent of reflecting on my experience has heightened my awareness of the adjustment and immersion process. Upon scrutinizing my reactions and thoughts, I realized that one characteristic response many of us have when immersed in a foreign environment is gravitation to familiar details and cues.

Yara Photo 1
South Indian Hindu Temple Complex Near the Shell Technology Centre Bangalore (STCB)

When plunged into something entirely different, we intuitively seek grounding in what we feel comfortable with, which can make an overwhelming situation more approachable. The most common examples that come to mind are perhaps a familiar cafe you find near a new neighborhood or a snack you bring from home. During my first few days, I started noticing similar reactions in small, seemingly insignificant details. When looking out the window of my bedroom, I noticed an Indian palm squirrel scaling the trees nearby. It reminded me of the energetic squirrels in front of Hayden Library’s lawns, which never failed to entertain me while studying for exams. On one of my first nights, I went to a restaurant nearby that was not like anything I had experienced before. I remember being engulfed with the stark differences, and clearly recall seeing two men sharing a meal. The rings on their fingers were reminiscent of the rings many men would wear in my hometown of Zahle, Lebanon. Those rings are often a cherished family or religious possession that’s passed down from one generation to the other. I found some reassurance in the constancy of such traditions across the world. On our first morning, I noticed a colorful Hindu temple towering over the road to work, which reminded me of the gothic cathedrals that dominate many European cities with their majesty and sanctity. Both structures almost erase the buildings around them as your focus gravitates only to their details.

I realized that embracing these small familiarities allowed me to open myself up to experience more of India, rather than recoiling away from the terrifying new landscape. Through accepting the similarities, I began to expand my scope, stretching the familiar to encompass more of the nuances of new events and environments.

With that mindset, something as seemingly mundane as the walk back from work became an interesting opportunity to observe details, such as flowers and vegetation. Every day, my appreciation grows for the bushes and greenery that conquer and engulf the sidewalks. Closer scrutiny has allowed me to observe many of the various stages of blossoms and fruits on bushes and trees, with a detail altered or added every time. The same set of flowers bloom with renewed beauty and intrigue.

Yara Photo 2
Pictures from a tree near our accommodation

My enthusiasm to document these changes reminded me of my upbringing in Lebanon. I had spent so much time living in cities and had forgotten the appreciation my father taught me for nature and its beauty in the midst of everything. He taught me to derive joy from simple things in life and to appreciate what can easily be taken for granted. Being at MIT and other similar environments distracted me from that, and I am glad I am reminded of it now every day on my walk back from work.

Yara Photo 3
View of the road back from work

I have been pleasantly surprised to find myself constantly gravitating and connecting to my childhood in Lebanon. In my first few weeks, I grew more conscious of comforting elements that I associate with feeling at home. I have discovered what can seem like the most unexpected of consequences of traveling abroad: we anticipate learning a lot about the world we are entering and exploring, and end up reflecting and learning equally as much about ourselves.

Yara Jabbour Al Maalouf Bio Photo

Yara Jabbour Al Maalouf is a member of the class of 2019 studying chemical-biological engineering. This summer, she is working at the Shell Technology Center – Bangalore, India.