Living through a lens: a fractured view of American life


Most of the defining moments in our lives involve some sort of change—the birth of a sibling, moving from middle school to high school, or even deciding to switch careers. I’ve always struggled with change, but over the years I’ve developed coping mechanisms. If those don’t work I just tell myself to go with it because change is a part of life.

The optimist in me thought coming to Emerson would not be that hard—I have been picturing myself here studying journalism since my freshman year of high school. I am an international student from the Cayman Islands, but I have been visiting the U.S. since I was a toddler. I grew up listening to American pop music and watching Disney Channel. I took a U.S. history course in high school. But living here full-time has showed me that the U.S. is not what I had perceived it to be from an outside perspective. The media I was exposed to portrays life here in extremes, but day-to-day life is actually somewhere in the middle.

The difference between visiting and living somewhere was something I learned during my gap year. Unlike my friends who headed straight to college after graduation, I decided to spend an academic year living and studying in Paris. It was a change I was excited to make. My time in Paris taught me a lot about who I am: I learned how to rely on myself and how to cope with being in a new place surrounded by unfamiliar people. Both turned out to be relevant and necessary skills for when I finally started college.

And yet I find myself in Boston, and things are not as easy as I imagined they would be. I’m having trouble pinpointing why. After all, the distance from here to home is a four-hour flight instead of 12 hours, and there’s not a new language to learn. Having grown up with so much exposure to American culture, I figured the transition to Emerson would not be a transition at all. However, in some ways it is even harder than when I moved to Paris.

I like to think of studying abroad as the Great Equalizer, because everyone is trying to figure out how to assimilate to a completely different culture. Of course, there is an element of ambiguity for all new students at Emerson—trying to learn all of the acronyms used on campus is almost as hard as learning a new verb conjugation.

Living in a place you aren’t from gives you a unique perspective and greater appreciation for the culture of that place. I think part of my attraction to journalism is the opportunity media creates to share new experiences with the world. Not all of those experiences are positive. I was in Paris last November during the terrorist attacks and I am still struggling to find the words to describe that experience. I can say this—my experience did not match with how the news was reporting it. Within weeks, Paris had returned to how I knew it prior to November. However, my social media newsfeeds were consistently dominated with news about the attacks until December. The intense and immediate global reaction was powerful to witness, but it was exhausting trying to keep up with all the details of the aftermath. Witnessing the extreme coverage in Paris by the media was a reminder of watching American media growing up—accurate, but not the whole story. American news outlets distort and sensationalize stories in ways that warp the perspectives of people who aren’t there to witness it firsthand.

I am starting to realize that what I once viewed as a weakness—being an international student—is actually a strength. Change, no matter how big or small, will always require time to adjust. It is unnecessary to try to hide what makes you different; what makes you different is often what makes you most successful.