Tuesday, September 16, 2008

She Paved the Way

In July of 2007, my sister did what no Grooms had done before: studied abroad. She flew off to Argentina for a four and a half month stint as an exchange student in Cordoba.

I think it is safe to say that the first two weeks were fairly traumatic. Communication was a mess. Using the internet to call home was not an immediate reality and her $50 phone card disappeared within a week. Her first call to my cell phone, using her precious last thirteen minutes of air time, was an emotional experience for both of us. I tried to comfort and encourage her as much as I could before time ran out and we were forced to say goodbye. She also faced the challenge of adjusting to the Argentinian accent and improving her Spanish speaking skills. She started school, met new friends, and learned her way around, but it was still hard and we spent much time on the phone trying to cheer her up or calm her down.

She didn't stop missing home, in the way that makes you physically ache at times, until two months had passed. I think she almost felt guilty that she was finally feeling OK. She had traveled around the country a bit, become close with her classmates, spent time with her host family and their relatives. She knew which bus went to the city, to the school, to their favorite haunts. She didn't feel the urge to beg for an easy way out and instead was able to enjoy more of her time there.

As the second Grooms to embark on a global experiment, I would say the pattern has held true in my experience. For the past couple weeks, I have felt better. It's not that I wasn't enjoying some of my time during the first two months I was here, but there was a definite sense of struggle. Now, the air feels a bit lighter.

It may all be because of the weather. The relentless heat of July and August paired with the high humidity dampened my spirits a bit. I am an "open windows" kind of gal, so living with the necessary air conditioning in a closed up environment I usually associate with the cabin fever of Ohio's winters, the isolation I felt was two-fold. Too hot to explore, no one to invite over. But September has arrived and there have finally been some days that could be considered comfortable. A sunny day with cool breezes at the start of the month left me positively giddy, which in turn made me giggle inside, wondering to myself how the Chinese people would react to a crazy white girl skipping down Shannxi Rd.

Weather problems aside, it took a while to just adjust to living here. I had to figure out where to grocery shop and what sorts of Western food I could obtain at specialty stores. I studied the map every time I set out to go somewhere, either by foot or by taxi. It was a month before I tried the subway system. I longed for a shopping trip to Target. I practically fell off my couch in a swoon when my grandpa told me all about a cookout my family had just had with all my favorite summer foods: corn on the cob, steak and Ohio tomatoes. I grumpily ate another bowl of ramen noodles.

I also had a lot of cooking equipment to buy and that proved tricky because any sort of baking dish, pizza pan, muffin tin you could think of were not readily available at the local shops because, news flash, Chinese folks don't even
have ovens. They use the stove top and steaming baskets. Heck, I had to go to an expensive cooking store to buy an oven thermometer because the dial on the oven, instead of listing temperatures, had "1-11" on it. I don't know about other people, but my cookbook has never said "Preheat your oven to 8."

It is tempting to declare that I am past the danger zone of culture shock and all is smooth sailing ahead. I'm not so naive. I am enjoying the sense of accomplishment and calm that I have worked towards, but I am well aware that the challenges do not stop here. I have started Chinese classes, so I am now actively tackling the language barrier. This is, of course, no small or quick task. Chinese is massively challenging to learn, but every word I master helps a little bit. Baby steps. This seems to be the best way to go about this country to avoid being completely discouraged by it's mysteries and challenges.

Back in February, when not even a full week had passed since David had told me about his job offer in China, I came to Amy with my dilemma. I was still very disoriented by the surreal decision I had to make. Move to China, stay in Columbus. I noticed her lips tighten at the first mention of the idea, a subtle sign that she was not exactly happy to hear the news. She waited me out though, let me talk about the scenario, the details, the fail safes, and the time line. She asked questions and we talked about it over our lunch of Greek food. She seemed more relaxed by the time we left. She drove me back to work and pulled into a parking spot. We sat for a moment.

"At first," she said, "I wasn't sure about the idea, but the more I think about it, I think you would have a great experience. I will never regret studying abroad. I wish I had stayed longer even, maybe not in Argentina, but maybe somewhere else. I learned so much." She paused for a second. I focused on her dashboard.

"If you decide to go, I would support you. I'd miss you like crazy, but I'd support you."

And in true Grooms fashion, we both burst into tears. We also chuckled through the tears, knowing full well we're pretty sappy. But I hugged her and thanked her. She'll never know what that meant to me. Her encouragement was exactly what I needed that week. Her selfless blessing made it all seem possible.

Amy had been home from Argentina just three months when I broke the news to her. She had grown in ways she never would have if she hadn't made the leap to study abroad. This conversation was proof. Now my little sister was supporting me and inspiring me to pursue a life changing event of my own. And so far? I'm not regretting it either.

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