Building a Home Away From Home

Sophomore Savannah Billman reflects on the past year in Shanghai and the changes ahead.

Everyone I’ve met in my life has different definitions of Home. For some people, Home is no more than the house you grew up in, and there is only one. For others, there are many Homes, scattered through different countries and times of their lives. For me, Home is a place where you are comfortable. You can relax there, get back on your feet, feel secure in yourself and your place in that particular space. You love it when you’re there, and miss it when you’re gone. For a long time, Shanghai was not my Home.

When I stepped off the plane with too-heavy suitcases ready for my new life in Shanghai, I was filled with excitement and unrealistic expectations about myself and NYU Shanghai. I still remember the frenetic anxiety of Orientation Week, and how determined I was to make friends and memories that would make this place just as much Home as anywhere else I’ve lived and emotionally connected to. But along with all the excitement of a new place came the difficulties–some of them generic challenges I expected, like how to live and budget on my own, and how to deal with classes that just didn’t make sense (pat yourself on the back if you survived Calculus…). But some of them were problems that were unique to NYU Shanghai. In such a new school, where there’s no established helping hand or alumni advice, how do I navigate a tiny community that sometimes felt stifling and a city that felt overwhelming?

Of course, I knew what was going to happen. I had studied abroad before, and as a study-abroad student, I was familiar with what I refer to as the “adaptation arc.” First is the initial excitement: I can’t believe I’m living in Shanghai!  After that comes the confusion phase; then, anger and hatred. It’s the gradual shift from Why does NYU Shanghai do things this way? to I can’t stand it here. I can’t do this. This was the worst decision of my life. Even though I knew about these phases, I still got trapped in them anyways, and Shanghai was the furthest thing from Home for me. Thankfully, however, the arc doesn’t stop at anger. I call it the adaptation arc for a reason: I might not totally fit in here, or completely understand or agree, but I can live here. I can find my place in this chaotic jumble, and it’s actually not so bad after all.

Some people I met here adapted seamlessly to NYU Shanghai, finding their niche quickly and easily making connections in the city. Some people, like me, took a bit longer to embrace the challenges and discover their new identity in this new place. It’s a guarantee that everyone changed as a result of the experiences here, which is neither a bad or a good thing, just a fact of life. We evolved, grew, matured. For perhaps the first time ever, I took my life and my choices into my own hands. I made some bad choices. I also made some good ones. Sticking with NYU Shanghai through all the difficulties was one of the best ones. Yes, freshman year is difficult for everyone, but in the end, time moves on, and so do you. The difficulties become mere raindrops in an ocean, and I know as I move forward into my second year there will be more trials to face, and more amazing things about myself and Shanghai to discover, and there’s no way I’ve learned all there is to learn about the world.

I don’t remember when Shanghai became my Home. It wasn’t on the long, exhausting days I spent in the library writing essays and studying for Chinese tests. It wasn’t during the days I sat and cried and just wanted to go home (a totally undefined place, not even I know where I wanted to go). Those memories are fading fast. Instead, Shanghai became Home as I climbed onto rooftops in People’s Square to watch the flickering pink lights of the distant Pearl Tower. I fell in love with the city when I found myself at the end of metro line eight, totally lost and in the middle of an incongruously placed farming community, or when I leaned over the railing of Suzhou Creek cheering on the Dragon Boat races. I fell in love with NYU Shanghai when I sat in Chinese class reading Confucius and laughing myself to tears, or when I worked with my Student Government committee members to bring NYU Shanghai’s first-ever music festival to life. I don’t miss home anymore. I am Home.


This article was written by Savannah Billman. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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