For many young people, studying abroad is the experience of a lifetime. But sometimes, as Patrick Thomsen writes, it can also be desperately lonely and demoralising.
In 2015, I moved to the US from Korea after accepting an offer to study for my PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle. From the outside, my life looked positively magical. I took endless photos of the lush Pacific Northwest as I ran circles around the city every day. Posting pics from numerous mountain peaks I had scaled, new restaurants I was trying, with new people I was meeting.
I developed quite a reputation for running Seattle’s streets filming myself lip-synching to Mariah Carey songs. (Actually, that part I did genuinely enjoy).
But this perfectly curated image that I had crafted on social media, hid the reality of what life was really like for me abroad. I was lonely, extremely displaced, and fell into a deep depression that threatened to end me. My boyfriend and I, once on the brink of gay matrimony, broke up unceremoniously when, on a subsequent campus visit, it became clear that we had become two very different people.
My life in Seattle was nothing like I was making it out to be. Studying in America slowly turned into a daily cycle of microaggressions. At best, these included questions about why I, a brown gay person, was even allowed to be studying for a PhD through the Center for Korean Studies. At worst, it was nasty vindictiveness, when classmates would suggest I was only in the programme because I was brown and gay.
And it also culminated in being threatened with violence on the streets. One particularly hairy moment took place the day after Trump was inaugurated. I was walking to the supermarket and, at that time of year, the sun was gone before the late afternoon hours in Seattle.
As I found myself in the shadows between light posts, a pickup truck slowed down as it neared. It stopped suddenly right opposite me. The occupants, two white men, clearly emboldened by this regrettable moment in American history, popped their heads out the window and screamed at me: “Get out of America you f****** Muslim. Go back to Mexico! Trump’s president now.”
The cacophony of confused racist slurs aside, that night I felt like I had lost my voice. Despite every fibre of my being pushing me to shout back, I was paralysed by the fear that these strangers might look to unload their second amendment rights on me. The day after Trump won the election, as some of my students poured into the streets to protest, I was told by one of my Republican students that they and their friends all carried guns in their cars and weren’t afraid to use them.
At that point, I knew I had to get out of America — and, if I was lucky, I’d never have to return.
Escaping Uncle Sam saw me returning to Korea, where I’d studied before the US, and then two years of painstaking, traumatic field research for my PhD dissertation, which turned into the worst writing experience of my life.
One day, after being screwed over by my employer while being forced to move into a squalid apartment in Seoul, with no money, commuting three hours a day between cities, I found myself frazzled, exhausted, drained, alone, feeling totally abandoned.
I remember standing on the Hangang Bridge, staring at the night lights of the city, wondering what it had all been for. Why I had found myself in this impossible position. I began contemplating whether there was any point in carrying on.
As I stared out at the lights reflecting off the water, suddenly, I was reminded of Teresia Teaiwa’s words: “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood.”
The ocean is in my blood. My ancestors dreamed one day for who I was to become, and I needed to survive for them, more so than me. I became determined to make it home again. And, in the end, it was only by sheer stubbornness that I managed to save me, from myself.
Now, when I think about those times in the US and Korea, where I was trying to literally keep myself alive, I think about other Islander kids who find themselves in the same position.
Every year, Sāmoa sends her kids abroad to study on scholarships. A great many will call it the experience of a lifetime, returning with a newfound appreciation for the homeland having tasted the delights of foreign places.
But there will always be a few who won’t have such an experience.
There are fellow Sāmoans I’ve spoken with who followed a similar path to me and found themselves in American or Asian universities. They speak about feeling completely disconnected within the local communities they study in. That feeling of isolation is sharpened by being unable to explain to friends and family back home how distressing and demoralising their situations can be.
Shakespeare once wrote that weary lies the head that wears the crown. For our lupe (doves) who’ve been sent abroad in search of a communal lumana’i or future, I say, weary lies the heart that carries the hopes and dreams of their communities, villages, and families.
There’s a Sāmoan saying about the toloa, or aquatic birds, which goes: E lele le toloa ae ma’au lava i le vai. The toloa may fly to many places, but will always return to the water. It means that we Sāmoans may travel far and wide, but we will always find a way to return to our home.
Not all of us find our way home, though.
In the midst of the ever-shifting Covid news cycle, about a month ago, a story surfaced that a Sāmoan scholarship student who was studying in Australia had passed away. Although the news reports initially gave no cause of death, it was obvious what had happened by the way people were interacting on their social media pages. Eventually, it was confirmed that another one of our promising youth had been taken from us by suicide.
I was particularly moved by this story, because, although I didn’t know this young person or their family, I could imagine what they must have been feeling.
I was already in my early 30s when I moved to the US, living off a meagre stipend that I joked to my sister made me skinny because I couldn’t really afford much food. I had at least some life experience behind me, and I did have a track record of being able to overcome mental health issues in the past.
But this student was still a child in my eyes. Barely 19, sent away from all they had known to pursue an educational dream that was meant to bring them and their family prosperity. This child who I’m sure was their family’s pride and joy, had left their home with their ‘āiga’s love and hearts embedded into their very being.
What continues to be heartbreaking is that this child was following a well-trodden pathway many have taken before. This toloa was meant to find their way back to the waters of our homeland to live out their days and possibilities. Instead, they were returned to our ele’ele, to our soil, to be buried.
Our students who struggle abroad often do so because they don’t receive the support and care they need in cultural and educational settings that aren’t inclusive. But we also need to accept that, as a community, we probably don’t do enough to support them and our youth in general.
I think this is because we understand the significance of their achievements in winning scholarships to study abroad, but not the weight of the expectations. Nor the reality of what it’s like to be disconnected from all the networks and people you know.
Today marks the end of Mental Health Awareness Week in New Zealand, and I know that we’re well aware now that our youth are more likely to be affected by mental health issues, of having suicidal thoughts, and falling into addictions that can harm their health and wellbeing. We also know that this is a structural and systemic issue, too, that relates to inherent racism and, for Māori, the impacts of colonisation.
I know that there’s no panacea for the prevalence of mental health issues. But it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do anything about it as a community. As Pacific people, and as Sāmoans, we can still do things in our families and communities to begin to break these cycles.
We can make changes in the way we talk to our children, in understanding that the often violent ways in which many of us were raised and disciplined took place in a different time and context and that a lot of our young ones need more care, time, patience, and investment.
I believe that we must build spaces where we can feel comfortable in expressing vulnerability, and stop dismissing mental health issues as a weakness. We need to pour the same love and energy into honouring people when they live with us, today, in this moment, as we do into honouring their legacies when they’re gone.
And we need to do this for our children, now. For our future generations. We need to realise that all our beautiful lupe, our toloa who lele far and wide, are either destined to return to us on the wings of our love, or we risk them drifting into the arms of our ancestors, way before their time was meant to come.
May you rest in love Eteuati Junior Eteuati and may your family continue to be comforted by our prayers and alofa at this time.
Where to get help
If you or someone else is in danger, call 111. If you need to talk, these free helplines operate 24/7:
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Need to talk? Call or Text 1737
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 6333 or text 234
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