Incoming Exchange

Foreign Home Country

September 4, 2019
By Alexander Basescu, University of Edinburgh

To be a foreign exchange student in the country you grew up almost feels more foreign than to be an international student in a foreign country. At seventeen, the decision to move to Scotland and live the Lizzie McGuire fantasy at a prestigious university, contradicting all expectations I had of my own academic future, was an early test of my cultural comfort zone. From the suburbs of New York to the foothills of Santa Barbara and then on to the castles of Edinburgh, my identity as an American constantly evolved but never departed from being defined as American nonetheless, encompassing the vast diversity that makes this country what it is in the first place. The University of Edinburgh has represented the happiest chapter of my life. Despite feeling foreign at times, Scotland has become home, the place where I met lifelong friends, came out, dived into the depths of a Politics degree, explored Europe from, and ultimately became an adult in among many other fabulous firsts. Now studying abroad, that college chapter continues, and I am thrilled to embrace it as the next home where I continue to enjoy my adult life. However, one unexpected emotion has arisen since I've been here that I assume is rather idiosyncratic to my situation as an American foreign exchange student in my supposed home country at the University of Pennsylvania: statelessness.

My deep, east-meets-west coast voice sounds like something off a morning talk show and my backwards baseball caps and half-zip jumpers are undeniably appropriate camouflage to blend in at Penn. Yet, the addition of Scottish influences on how I live has most definitely fostered a departure from the norms that the American students here would define as American. I've noticed my diction choices raise eyebrows; the use of overalls (and I cannot even fathom a kilt) in my outfits is suddenly individualistically fashionable instead of just fashionable; people being outgoing and open juxtaposes the reserved coolness of Brits; grocery stores are overwhelmingly big; buildings rise over six stories; school spirit exists; drinking tea is only for old people; using the c-word is taboo; I have to look both ways ten times before crossing the street; all cash bills look the same; being gay in a country I've never been out in is simply intimidating; the list goes on. I'm not as comfortable as I am in Scotland or as comfortable as I used to be before I left America.

The moral of the story is that my return to the United States isn't necessarily a homecoming so much as it is a simple return. To come home would imply I've left and if there's one thing I have learned from being an international student for all of my university career, it's that home is ever expanding. It is an internal feeling, finding materialism or geography irrelevant, that grows through the open-heartedness that allows you to connect with others and feel self-love as you acknowledge how beautiful the world and you within it are. Penn is quickly becoming my home and that does not in any way detract from the validity of saying where New York or Santa Barbara or Edinburgh is my home. However, I do feel foreign right now. As my identity incorporates and reconciles my history in different countries with my present at Penn, I am humbled by how much my Americanness has separated from my feeling of home. Not only does this make me even more grateful and confident that Edinburgh taught me how to find a feeling of home anywhere, but it means that Penn poses a fresher and newer lifestyle to learn from than I thought it would.

They say you have to walk into your year abroad with no expectations. My expectation that being an American in America would make me feel right at home right away was an expectation nonetheless, breaking this rule. As odd as it is to accept that my nationality is no longer intrinsically tied to my feeling of home, it is far more wonderful to reflect upon the fact that studying abroad has allowed me to make a home anywhere. That being said, I am technically currently a foreign exchange student studying abroad, and that can only mean I have a new home at Penn to look forward to creating.