Foreign Correspondence: Out of Context

Opinion by and
Nov. 11, 2010, 12:13 a.m.

Did I come to Oxford out of a desire to reinvent myself? This is a question that kept sliding through my head when I arrived in Britain in time for Freshers’ Week, the Oxford version of NSO. It was as if I’d entered freshman year all over again, marveling at stone buildings, towering spires and a world that seemed fresh and new.

Don’t get me wrong: I hadn’t come to Oxford to escape Stanford. The decision to leave my life on-campus had been a difficult one. But it was still enticing to realize how much I was learning and changing through my travels. I could be anything here. It was the same feeling I’d had during those hazy September days two years ago, but tempered less by apprehension and more by wonder.

For the first time, I saw how much I had matured in those two years, and how much my peers had also. Besides being older and more confident, the greatest difference was our sense of Stanford identity. Even if we began as strangers, we all knew the Farm. If all else failed, we could always talk about Stern or Roble or Kimball, or compare notes on classes and clubs and very likely discover and discuss mutual friends. During one evening in London, I sat through a 30-minute conversation about favorite restaurants in Palo Alto. Although it at first felt comforting to disclose my Stanford self to these new friends, I soon found it restrictive. I had come to Oxford to discover myself outside the bubble—but, eight time zones and 5000 miles away, that bubble still persisted.

We were all bound by the context of being Stanford Students, with a capital S. This phenomenon, for me, was not unlike that of returning home for the holidays and seeing old high school friends, or returning to any group in which I have a fixed role. During these interactions, I often find conversation lapsing into the same patterns of reminisce. We discuss the same things we did in our friendship’s heyday, the same events, the same people. As for the foreign territory of our present selves? Only categorized and summed up into a neatly rehearsed elevator speech. We are perpetually stuck in our past lives, because that is the only common context that we share.

Packaging myself into a prescribed “context” seemed to be the best way to make small talk in this city of dreaming spires, but it was not what I wanted from my time abroad. I did not want to reinvent myself at Oxford, but I did want to see how my identity would hold up in, say, London rather than Palo Alto.

In many ways, this is indeed what has happened. My experiences have allowed me to discover and reaffirm things about myself and other people. But, surprisingly, these reflections have even arisen from seemingly unrelated situations like my Oxford tutorial. Having done the reading and having written the required weekly essay, I remember walking into my first tutorial with a sense of mingled anticipation and dread. I expected to have the logic of my argument picked apart, my thesis dismantled, each paragraph and sentence challenged.

But I had forgotten: this was not PWR 1. Instead, my Oxford don merely read the essay through, then launched our meeting into a broader philosophical discussion. My written argument was only the starting point, not an end in itself. I realized with some astonishment that she had given me the compliment of taking my writing skills for granted.

Taking each other’s identities for granted—not ignoring them, but building on them instead of dwelling on surface details—are these not the qualities we seek in our closest relationships? Our closest friends are the friends with whom we are not bound by context or circumstance, the ones with whom we are free to be simply…ourselves. A friendship is like an intellectual conversation: free-flowing, not bound by the rules of rhetorical argument, not even required to have a single unified thesis.

Perhaps it is appropriate that I should end up reflecting so much on friendship, being so far from the people with whom I am used to sharing my life. Being at Oxford has brought me to question my own approach to the relationships that make our time at Stanford so memorable. Why do we limit ourselves to a certain context, within a certain group? Is it because the full stretch and sprawl of our identity is too overwhelming, too tedious or too difficult to express? Are we afraid to allow the people around us to see us as more than physics or English majors, or singers or swimmers, or even Stanford students? As hard as we try, none of these labels can denote us truly.

In the end, all I can say is this: once I return to the Farm, I can only hope that my time abroad will challenge me to examine the context, the assumptions and the labels with which I define myself.

If you think Rachel Kolb should be thinking farther outside the box, help fill her inbox at [email protected].

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