On the streets of Zamalek, at the base of the pyramids, wandering Al Azhar park, we are celebrities. Our blonde hair, our blue eyes and our armed guard (mandatory by Egyptian tourist law) make us the subject of numerous stares and whispers. The bravest of these admirers are undoubtedly the fearless children who, with absolutely no sense of what we would consider decorum, run up to us and tug on our shirts and proudly ask us the single English question they know how to ask: “What’s your name?!”
Usually, we giggle and answer, and they start off right away, practicing the new sounds in their mouths. “Chess-ee-ka, Jeezyka,” rolls over the tongue, wobbles around the teeth between small chuckles indicative of how foreign my name must feel to them. Some of the girls will ask to take a picture with us, and then they’ll wander away, carefully analyzing the grainy pictures on their camera phones as I go back to my tour or grocery run.
In Alexandria this past weekend, however, while touring the Citadel of Qaitbay (the reputed site of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria), when a small boy from a school tour asked me the expected question, I hesitated. You see, just the night before, while walking home with Katie from an internet cafe, I had been approached by a man who appeared slightly older than me. He started speaking to be in broken English, asking where I was from, and, of course, “What’s your name?!” My normal reaction to such heckling is to just ignore it and keep walking, but he kept pace with me and continued to pester. It was late, dark, and something about the situation felt a little off. But I knew that I would have to respond in order to get him off my back. So I did the only thing I could think of. I whipped out my best Russian accent.
In the worse grammar I could muster, I told him that I sorry, I no know Anglais. And then I broke into a long string of Russian phrases, that in actuality make absolutely no sense whatsoever (“I have a book. I go to college in France. I ate a bologna sandwich in my car today, thank you very much.” Thanks, St. Olaf language requirement!) To him, however, I must have sounded stark-raving-mad, so he turned and just walked away and we were free to finish our walk home.
Taking a new identity while abroad is not a new concept for us TIMEers. Lizzie spent most of Turkey telling strangers (read: cute boys on the beach) that her name was Olivia and that she was from Australia. Matt and I spent a day pretending to be siblings while wandering the grand bazaar in order to get the absolute best bargain on Turkish tea cups. Christina got a new name, Helen, that she’d whip out once in awhile. Ben literally appears to be the ethnicity of every country we visit, which he constantly uses to his advantage to strike up conversations with locals. We’ve all at one point or another decided to just be from New York, because it’s easier than explaining where exactly that Minnesota place is. And sometimes, like during a period of extreme bombardment while walking in a park, we’ll hold up our hands and tell the little boys, “What a coincidence! My name is also Mustafa!”
A huge part of studying abroad is being able to learn more about who you are by placing yourself in a new, foreign environment and watching how exactly you’ll deal for a few months on your own. Forming an identity is a huge part of the process, and becoming confident in this identity is one of the largest benefits of time spent abroad. And yet, while abroad, it feels that much easier to lie about who I really am for the sake of simple convenience. This binary was especially pronounced as I looked down into the eyes of the little boy in the citadel, and all of a sudden I wasn’t just being asked what my name was, I was being asked who I was, what I had become on this trip and whether or not I felt ready to share this person with the rest of the world yet.
So what have I learned about myself during this time abroad? The list is long, vast and extremely personal, ranging from silly to serious. I’ve conquered my fear of jumping into water from high heights, and I have come to recognize just how vulnerable I am when presented with a plate of hot bread or a juicy lemon tart. I’ve learned that I have a knack for direction and figuring out public transportation, and I’ve learned that I get queasy in roller coaster taxi rides. I’m an absolutely awful over-packer, gummy vitamins are my weakness, and I can, indeed, survive six months without dying my hair.
I enjoy being humbled by the history of humanity, the monuments we leave behind. I am easily moved by the number of stories I see around me every day that may never be told, thousands of intricate lives that walk the streets, each as deep and meaningful as the one I myself lead. I am a searcher, never satisfied. I am easily swayed by my emotion, ecstatic one moment, devastated the next, never in an in-between. I value alone time but require care and company. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned to value my own thoughts and opinions, because, in the end, no one will ever care as much about them as I will, so why not be my own biggest fan?
These are the things I’ll think about as I come home. The places I’ve been and the things I’ve learned are undeniably important. But more meaningful is the emotional development within. This is not something to be shared with just anyone on the street. The people I’ve traveled with, of course, I feel the most indebted to in sharing my true self with simply because they have become instrumental in the development of it. They have guided me in ways I never could have imagined, holding my hand during the rough moments, clarifying for me in tense moments, and laughing with me in the glorious moments. This person that I’ve created is still precious, and sometimes it is hard to share that with a perfect stranger.
But this little boy is different. He is curious too, on his own journey of self-discovery. And maybe my identity, in this case, can help him, in some small way, develop his.
“My name is Jessica,” I say. “What’s yours?!”
I just want to say a quick thank you to Mark, Meredith, St. Olaf, my support system at home, and the amazing people on TIME (Ben, Mike, John, Matt, Duncan, Christina, Lauren, Lizzie, Amy, Meg, Alex, Katrina and Katie). You have made these past four months unbelievably fabulous, and I am so thankful and blessed to have had this opportunity and to have been able to share it with you!