Going Back, Going Again, or Going Home?

Not even two weeks after I returned from my semester abroad in Scotland, I was in my academic advisor’s office, discussing all things college — namely, my upcoming schedule for the winter trimester, and, of course, my incredible study abroad experience in the fall. I was gushing to her how much I adored the University of Glasgow, how much I missed it already, and how determined I was to go back for my postgraduate degree. It was at that point that she said,

“Why wait for your master’s degree when you can apply for a research grant and do your thesis research there this summer?”

I was floored. I think I immediately said something along the lines of, “Please don’t say things like that, because I’m going to take you seriously.” I was not only having an emotional reaction to her words, but also a physical one — my heart was pounding, my hands got clammy, and I almost even started crying. Could this be possible?! She assured me of her seriousness, and that yanked me out of the post-Scotland melancholy from which I was suffering. (This is a terrible analogy, but if anyone’s seen Jordan Peele’s Get Out, it was comparable to the effect of a hypnotized character being exposed to a camera flash. Though I was only in it for two weeks — albeit a very, very long and painful two weeks — my academic advisor’s brilliant idea rescued me from a Sunken Place.)

It made perfect sense. I had already been planning on applying for a research grant for my original honors thesis idea — examining civic engagement in the Asian American community — but a series of time-consuming events over the summer of 2016 and my following adventures in the fall had rendered that initial idea postponed. At the time, I’d been feeling terrible about my inability to get going on that research grant application. But after my academic advisor’s suggestion, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a perfect alignment of stars — my failure to succeed in pursuing that first idea only made room for a bigger, better, more fulfilling (and more terrifying) idea. And, sitting in my academic advisor’s office, I already immediately had the perfect research question: How does racial identity affect a student’s university experience? 

Surprise surprise, racial and ethnic studies is exactly the subfield of sociology I want to pursue. In the global studies seminar that was a prerequisite to going abroad, students were required to do a project on one aspect of our host country’s history or culture. The topics were endlessly fascinating — I still remember the individual presentations on everything from religion to accents to mythology to drinking culture in Scotland or Ireland. My topic? The racial and ethnic breakdown of Scotland’s demographics and the subsequent racial climate. I think I’ve already written a little about my experiences in that area (see: People Make Glasgow, Kultura at Identity). But what especially inspired the topic that immediately came to mind for this research grant and my honors thesis was the phenomenon of collectivism I observed among the East Asian student population. Everywhere I went on campus, or even in Glasgow in general, when I saw an individual who I could identify as East Asian, there were at least one or two others accompanying them. While I will always entertain the benefit of the doubt that maybe I was just projecting, I couldn’t help but notice that sometimes, I’d receive concerned looks from them — What is she doing walking by herself? More tangibly, on multiple occasions, I was approached by Asian individuals solely for my own self being clearly Asian, with the assumption I could speak Mandarin or Cantonese. This phenomenon among the Asian population in Scotland fascinated me to no end just as an individual experiencing it firsthand.

But goodness gracious, this new idea just felt perfect in every possible way. I could explore a topic that fascinated me and was important to me for both personal and professional reasons, and the cherry on top was that it would be in a place that meant the world to me (because, essentially, it was my world). And if that last bit was the cherry on top, then I suppose the big delicious chocolate-dipped waffle cone enveloping this amazing sundae of perfection was that this research grant would cover all expenses: research equipment (printing funds, audio recording equipment), airfare, lodging, and even food for the entirety of the period of time during which I would conduct research.

So, I set to work. Though I had plenty of submission and resubmission opportunities before this summer, my academic advisor set a goal of having my first submission for this research grant within five weeks of our meeting. While such a tall order was daunting on paper, it was something I was absolutely willing to add to my plate because it meant going to Glasgow.

Fifteen weeks, hours and hours of research, endless e-mails to the University of Glasgow, two submission attempts, quite a few tears, and twenty-nine total pages later, this past Wednesday, April 12, I received the news that my application to travel to Glasgow for three weeks and conduct research was accepted.

I was beside myself. To have these last four months (oh my goodness? four months already? holy moly) result in success was nothing short of exhilarating. To tell my loved ones in Europe that I would be seeing them soon tasted like the sweetest nectar on my tongue.

And to know that, at the time of writing this, in sixty-five days I will be in Glasgow once more, is enough to bring me to tears — happy ones this time, of course.

It’s bizarre. It’s surreal. But to be honest, it’s also a little terrifying.

Propelled by the bright, beautiful memories of my past adventures in Scotland and an unbearable longing to return to that environment, I’ve done nothing but think of Glasgow over the last four months as this research grant application loomed over my head. But I’m scared. By the time I get to Glasgow this summer, that will have been about six months of intellectual and emotional labor for only three short weeks.

Here’s the thing: I had barely any room between my return to the States and the introduction to this thrilling idea to conduct research in Glasgow to completely process my time abroad. I mean, given the time sensitivity of the grant application and the research, there would have been no alternative than to do it right away. But given my emotional attachment to Glasgow, this meant that I was (and still am, honestly) relying on a foreseeable, concrete return in order to cope with the pain of my first departure. Don’t get me wrong, I was still in a lot of pain — as all my peers whenever in a ten-foot radius from me suffered through my incessant I miss Scotlands and This one time in Glasgows would probably tell you — and part of me believes that if I hadn’t had this opportunity to go back right away, I would have been in even worse shape. But another part of me is wondering if I’m just prolonging the inevitable, that following my second departure from Glasgow this summer — this time, with no foreseeable concrete return (other than applying for my postgrad? but that would require a lot of money, and I might not have something like a research grant this time around to support it) — I’ll be back to the rock bottom I hit from December 17-28 last year.

I’m also concerned about another aspect of my trip to Glasgow this summer. My first experience there was so transformative, altering me on the most fundamental of levels. It revolutionized the way I perceived the world, from the relativity of time to the way one could build friendships and family to the ability of being able to appreciate life for all its nuances and dramatic events. My experience in returning to the States, with all its challenges of reverse culture shock — the shift in my social circles, the reorganization of my priorities, the integration of these new life lessons I learned abroad into life in the States — has been just as transformative. Just as I was not the same person who came back to the States from Glasgow, I know I am not the same person going to Glasgow this summer. And so, having said that, I cannot help but wonder about these nuances:

Am I going home to Glasgow? Am I going back? Or am I simply going again?

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As gorgeous as this picture is, I wish we had more group photos…

Without my beautiful family with whom I created that sense of home last semester, it’s likely that Glasgow might not feel like the home it was in the fall. And six months can do a lot, not only to a person, but also to a place. With political unrest in response to Brexit and events here in the States, it’s likely that I might not be returning to the Glasgow I knew in the fall either.

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Byres Road, I will be walking down your sidewalks again very, very soon!

So having said all of this, even though I get to go to a city that holds a special place in my heart, I know I have to be intentional with the way I approach this summer. I can’t assume that I will arrive in Glasgow and everything will be just as I remember. I can’t go into this expecting to have some similarly earth-shattering and life-changing experience as I did in the fall — but don’t get me wrong, I am so excited that I get to explore my love for this city and its culture from a research standpoint, and I know I can and should be open to the lessons I learn from this both personally and professionally. And along those lines, I hope it goes without saying that I’m going into this with the priority being my thesis research and not gallivanting around Scotland. But I can’t help but also wonder if I’ll have time to do things I wasn’t able to do the first time around, like visit the Glasgow Necropolis or go to Stirling Castle, or do things that made Scotland what it was for me, like go to ceilidhs and hike Arthur’s Seat again.

But for now, I’ll try not to worry too much. I have sixty-five days before I arrive in Glasgow. In these next sixty-five days, these are my intentions:

  • Breathe. I’ve overcome one of the biggest hurdles in completing my new thesis idea. The application itself was a lot of intellectual and emotional labor that I don’t have to worry about anymore! (Don’t get me wrong, though, this is just the beginning… the beast of my thesis is only bigger than ever now that I’m one step closer to it.)
  • Celebrate. Well, I kinda did immediately on Wednesday night with coffee-braised beef tacos and a coconut margarita at a pretty sweet joint in West Loop. It was just as expensive as it sounds, but just as worth it as it was expensive. But there’s always room for more celebration.
  • Be present. If I’ll be in Glasgow in sixty-five days, that means I have less than sixty-five days to enjoy the place I’m in currently. Now that it’s guaranteed I’m going to Glasgow, I want to stop pining for it for once and make the most of the dynamic and beautiful concrete jungle that is Chicago while I’m still living here.

And lastly, it just feels really good to select “Scotland” to categorize a blog post again.

Featured image taken at the University of Glasgow cloisters by my friend Emily, September 8, 2016

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