It’s funny how easily we can create cocoons. Setting patterns, fixing routines and defining our comfort zones are for most people invariable, almost subconscious, no matter where we go. The need for a sense of belonging drives us to make our own little havens even in the midst of that which is unfamiliar.
I left Lahore for university with a clear purpose in mind (other than the pursuance of a degree, of course!) -- to ‘find myself’, having only a vague idea of what exactly this profound search would entail. Clichéd as it sounds, I thought the exploration of new academic disciplines, diverse people and surroundings would fuel an inner discovery and deeper realisation of who I am, fulfillment of old dreams and formulation of new ones. This may have begun to sound like the plot of every coming-of-age story you may have read but please bear with me.
Lahore I feel like I know something of, and if not completely, even in oblivion there is the knowledge that there remains a lifetime’s worth of experiences to strengthen our association. With London, however, I share a different relationship. The fact that I have only three short years to get acquainted with this vast expanse of museums, bookshops, coffee shops and medieval cathedrals, is somewhat intimidating.
London isn’t a city you can take in in bits, neatly tucking the rest away for later, to understand and absorb another day when you have time and aren’t weighed down by piles of reading. It is a story whose culmination you find yourself in the middle of. The action has already reached its high point. The other characters all seem to know the underground train routes better than you do and move at overwhelmingly bustling paces while you are left struggling not to bump into them as you stumble into the tube.
Even the college students who fill the Starbucks cafes seem to have a grasp on things you wish you knew more about, and you overhear animated conversations about the social contract and Hobbes and Rousseau and Austin’s command theory and Hegelian dialectics with a mixture of awe and fear.
After nearly seven months in the city, even London’s weather remains an enigma -- elusive and precarious, and you shake your head in exasperation every time you forget to carry your umbrella, though the torrential rain has managed to seep through and render useless about five of those already.
It was on my way home from college a few days earlier that I noticed, rather abashedly, that I have walked along the exact same route to my university daily since September. Granted, it is the shortest but I’ve had countless opportunities when time constraint was not an issue.
There’s a metaphor for taking things and experiences at face value without delving deeper somewhere in there. Unknowingly, despite intending to do the exact opposite, I have managed to create for myself a comfort zone away from home, rooted more in a desire for familiarity than for expedience and convenience.
The thought made me consider other instances from my life, starting with the little things. Such as why I buy grocery at the same store every week despite perfectly competitive prices and close proximity in location afforded by various others. Why I experience major tourist attractions like the London Eye and the Big Ben only when friends from home visit.
Surely, a salient reason for my decision to go to college in a metropolis was historical and cultural enrichment.
Does this attitude have deeper implications? Is that why, despite being at an institution that specialises in the study of Asia and Africa, I haven’t taken a Chinese course yet? Or, why my main extracurricular activities continue to be the ones I pursued during O’ and A’ Levels?
If this is the case, in essence it undermines the spirit of learning with which I began my college journey -- a troubling thought.
It’s interesting how we adjust ourselves to fit within what we perceive as existing boundaries. I suppose a part of my hesitation to study things that do not fall directly within the scope of my chosen degree subject is a preconception of British university education as being focused and subsequently, restrictive. The paradox is clear: the aspiration for personal growth versus self-imposed limitations.
The path every college student undertakes is one paved with daunting prospects. It is only once the challenge of leaving one’s comfort zone is overcome, however, that we can begin to take on the bigger challenges, the experiences that, hopefully, will change us from within and not just give us a certificate that qualifies us gainful employment.