Meditating in Missouri

“Breathe in deeply…..then, breathe out….Breathe in! Breathe out……”

I have been in town for seven minutes. Unceremoniously dumped at the back of the campus I legged it to the student centre and managed to slide into the last available seat at the Sponsored Students Orientation seconds before it began. Somehow, we are now meditating.

“Imagine all the people you love at home. Go on, just…. imagine their faces. Put them clearly in your mind next to your home, maybe your town, and all the places you like to be”

What is this man trying to do to me?  I left home less than 24 hours ago and the leaving pains are raw.  Mum often explains how on my first day at school I ran inside without looking back while other children clung to their parent’s legs. Times have changed; I wasn’t clutching her leg when I left, but I might have done if no-one had been looking.

Luckily I’m not completely alone. Somewhere in the town my husband is trying to park an SUV (he’s usually a Ka driver) and move our many over-sized suitcases into a new apartment.  But I’m also aware that a quarter of the world away are all the people we love and hold dear, along with our beloved Stratford town, and the teaching job I left behind. Bringing them to mind is not helping with letting them go.

“Now I want you to imagine all those people and places melting away. See them fading away and becoming smaller.”

He’s killing me. I think my heart might explode.

“And in their place is Missouri. This beautiful campus, its fabulous people, this…family. We’re all here for you.”

All I’ve seen is a back staircase and a boy on a skateboard. It’s not exactly a fair trade.

“As you breathe in one last time I want you to think about the message you are bringing from your home nation. Think about what it means to you, what it means to the people at home, and as you breathe out I want you to breathe that message into our community and into our family.”

Dammit. I can’t think of anything. My mind is entirely blank.

Becoming a Fulbright scholar involves explaining very clearly why you will be a great ambassador for your country. I’ve spent hours writing statements about my messages, convincing people that I have the leadership qualities necessary to imbue this message on host nations and now, though I feel the weight of expectation bearing down like Atlas’ globe, I am suddenly like a psychic with stage fright: No messages are getting through.

Thankfully, we stop meditating and I hear some news that perks me up even though it’s not ‘good’.  More than 75% of the students at the University of Missouri are from within the state, and only approximately 5% hold passports (“Though even then that’s mostly to visit Cancun” quips the Director).  Of the 33,000 students here, less than 1% are from overseas.  The consequence of this becomes apparent in my first class on the History of US Education, when we are each invited to talk about our own schooling. The first half of the room have been entirely educated in Missouri. They are baffled when I begin describing my education. Bafflement turns to incredulity when explaining that most people at our school left at 16 and this becomes open-mouthed amazement at the idea that less than 20% went to university. But the thing that seems to shock most? The fact that I wore a tie to school. Uniforms are fairly rare in the US anyway, but the idea that a British girl would need to wear a tie throughout her education seemed genuinely brain-splattering.

That’s when I realised that whatever my intended “messages” were, the ones with the most importance will probably be entirely accidental. Fulbright’s purpose is to facilitate mutual cultural understanding and much of that true understanding is in the small things, in realising that someone’s background can be different in ways you didn’t even know possible – especially if you’ve lived all your life in one place surrounded by people who have never lived anywhere else either. In that same class I heard from a Taiwanese student, who described his experiences of nightly cram schools; I learned about the one-room schoolhouses that littered America and I thought carefully about why it is that in Britain we have traditionally segregated boys and girls, whereas US schools have segregated blacks and whites, and I pondered why it is that the UK still finds our form of segregation acceptable when the US quite clearly does not.

I left class a lot happier than after the meditation. Turns out the messages will come of their own accord, just so long as I keep breathing in and out.

My move to America has been made possible by the help and generosity of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, to whom I am extremely grateful. This is not an official US Department of State blog. The views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Programme or the US Department of State.

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