Orientation week can be exhausting. Not only are you trying to get your schedule straight, move into your room, and decipher syllabi, but you’re also doing all those annoying, repetitive introductions with everybody you meet. Like any other form of small talk, the typical introduction follows a sort of predetermined script, consisting of, “What’s your name?” and, “Where are you from?” For students in General Studies, though, a third and sort of peculiar question is always asked: “What’s your ‘GS’ story?”
Maybe it’s the nature of the school that prompts this intrusion into the personal. After all, most students who apply to General Studies have taken at least a year break from school. So, in addition to telling people your name and your hometown, you are constantly hounded for an abridged version of your life story. Many of these stories you hear are fascinating, but what I find even more interesting are people’s responses. More often than not, after hearing about somebody’s remarkable journey leading them here to Columbia, you hear someone’s refusal to reciprocate theirs, with a self-deprecating, “My life is just so normal.”
It’s funny; I always wanted that “normal life,” until I found out that no such thing exists.
Growing up, my father worked for the State Department, staffing embassies around the world as a diplomat. Time and time again, he’d receive a new assignment and then abruptly surprise my brother and me with the news, moving the family to yet another foreign country. Once again, I’d say goodbye to my old friends to search for new ones, forget my old language to learn another, and leave my old life behind to begin one more.
For many, the thought of living overseas is exciting. Old friends would rave about how “cultured” I am, about how I am gaining all of these experiences abroad that they could only dream of, about how they’d take my place in Jordan in a heartbeat if it meant that they could finally leave “boring Virginia.”
But for me, home was always Virginia. Where everything was familiar. Where I wasn’t a stranger every day of my life. Where life was normal. And that chance for the normal life, after many years overseas, finally came.
It was June 25 and I had just graduated from my American school in Amman a few weeks prior. The next day—my 18th birthday—I was scheduled to fly back home. My bags were packed, and just about every goodbye had already been said, except for one.
I used to live just down the street from the U.S. Embassy. I never had too much of a reason to go over there—usually I would only go to visit my father at his office or for a doctor’s appointment. However, after years of flashing my badge to get through security, I’d befriended the Jordanian embassy guards and wanted to let them know that I was leaving. The Foreign Service Officers, despite passing by them multiple times a day, never seemed to pay much attention to these guards. However, I would often sit down and chat with them. We’d spend hours talking about their family, their lives growing up, and the past week of international soccer.
And they would always, without fail, prepare tea.
I came specifically to say goodbye to Abu Jad. I got to know him because he would often come and watch me play soccer with the Arab embassy workers. He was an older man of about fifty, and had gone through a lot in his years. He would always tell me about his life: his time in the army, his family, the difficulties that he faced. And yet, he was always cheerful, constantly reminding me to study hard and to respect my parents.
I expected to swing by just for a few minutes, but upon seeing me, he excitedly sat me down and asked if I wanted to stay for dinner. He reminded me that the sun was soon setting. It being Ramadan, he wanted to break the fast with me before I left for home. I was touched, and graciously accepted.
An officer soon came by and dropped off trays of food. Abu Jad walked around distributing the meals, making sure that I had received the most, and then passed out the teacups. Once the sun finally set, he customarily gathered everyone around to give thanks—just for the meal, I figured.
As usual, he first asked that the “iftar” be blessed before quickly—surprisingly—turning in my direction to thank me for joining him and his fellow guards. He sincerely expressed to me that I had honored them by sharing my time over the years, called me an esteemed and respected friend, and then prayed that I be blessed as I continued on with my life. Only then did I finally realize something so obvious, yet so important. There is no such thing as a “normal life,” just yours.
Everybody’s life has a story, even if you think that yours seems so routine. After all, I always thought that Abu Jad had lived a normal Jordanian life until that dinner when I realized that, despite being Christian, he voluntarily fasts during Ramadan simply out of respect for his Muslim co-workers. That act, though he may not think much of it, is truly awe-inspiring, certainly not normal, and definitely worth sharing.
You don’t have to have an awe-inspiring tale to attract people’s attention—all you need is pride in what you've already done. Yes, we have actors, professional athletes, and people who grew up overseas, but there is something worth sharing about your life even if it seems so “normal.” You just have to look inside yourself and figure out what it is.
So, you’ve heard my story; what’s yours?
Kevin Petersen is a first-year student at the School of General Studies, attempting to pass Calculus 1. He hopes that this column will give you a different perspective on things. Feel free to write him at email@example.com, especially if you know of any good tea shops in the area. Different Places, Different People, Different Perspectives runs alternate Fridays.
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