Kotona

at home

I don’t know if it’s birthdays, or anniversaries, or the summer itself that makes me nostalgic, but I can’t help but think how the time does strange things when you stop to think about it.  One year and eleven days ago, I stayed up all night too excited to sleep.  I packed my life into one large suitcase, said goodbye to my family and friends, and got on a plane with nothing but hope for a new start to my future.

Between then and now I found a supportive research group, started a PhD program, made better friends than I could ever have dreamed of, had adventures beyond my wildest imagination, traveled places I’ve always wanted to go, ate things I didn’t know existed, and learned a ton about science and people and life and myself.

There are a lot of things that are scary about moving to a new place, no matter where it is.  Being single, having to make new friends, adapting to a new city, a new job, a new culture, a new language. I’m so grateful that I have found this place and that I’ve been welcomed into the best work group a girl could ask for and the most supportive and awesome group of friends.  I respect each and every person in my life here more than I can tell them, so I usually just bake for them instead.

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Sometimes I have to sit back and think about how much time has passed without me realizing, how much has happened, and at the same time how little time it’s been.  Ten years ago I was in high school, a stereotypical band nerd, uncomfortable with pretty much everything about myself, knowing I didn’t belong there but unable to imagine a future outside of my bubble.  Five years ago I was halfway through college, gaining confidence in a professional future but unsure of how to make it happen, and not convinced that I deserved it.  Three years ago I packed my life into two suitcases (I’ve gotten better at packing lighter since then) and moved across the world, having never been out of the U.S. before. Six months later I spent a snowy weekend falling in love with this place.  Two years ago I watched my plans for both my professional and personal future crumble into dust in front of my eyes, and feeling like I had failed in every sense, I moved back to Ohio.

That has been the hardest thing I’ve had to do yet in my life, but I refuse to have regrets.  During the 9 months I was back in Ohio, I learned to ask for help, and to accept it.  I learned that setbacks do not mean you have to abandon your goals.  I learned that you don’t have to let other people’s negativity hurt you, but also that there is so much love and support and kindness and wisdom out there, often in unexpected places, if only you’re open to it.  I learned to let go of relationships that hurt and to work at keeping relationships that enrich my life.  I learned that integrity is more important than everyone liking me, and that it’s okay to be honest about how I feel.   And I learned to stand up for myself because I AM worth fighting for.  It was an incredibly tough year, but I think I needed it, to bring up and get out all of my hang-ups.

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One year ago I left my home country again, not knowing what the future would hold, but knowing that my place in the world was somewhere else.  That was the idea behind this blog, to open up and show the public the everyday picture of what it’s like to be an immigrant in modern society, but more universally, what it’s like to be twenty-something and looking for your place in the world.  Someone once told me something that stuck with me: home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling, a state of mind. I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I’m starting to.  Life is complicated, and places, events, people–they all resonate differently together.  And they all change over time.  Occasionally I will sit back and suddenly realize that I’m very happy with my life.  It’s not perfect, and it never will be, but I’m becoming who I’ve always wanted to be, and I have great hopes for the future.  I may not know what the future will hold, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

This year has been so revolutionary for me in terms of outlook on life and how I feel in general.  I know I’ve tended to get philosophical about things lately, but that reflects the change I’m talking about.  I’ve always believed in having no regrets, but somehow that turned into putting way too much stress on myself and then blaming myself when things don’t go to plan.  It wasn’t regret exactly, but it was a different kind of holding on to negativity.  It’s a weird and new feeling now, to be living what I’ve believed in for so long.  For the first time in my life, I feel like anything that happens can be a good thing, and that I have the abilities and the confidence to deal with it in a way that is consistent with what I believe in, and that will keep me headed towards the kind of future I want for myself.  Last year I realized the things I have to do–let go, ask for help, take chances, be confident, accept anything that happens and adapt–and this year I’ve finally been able to start living them.

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That’s all fine and good, you might be thinking, but it’s kind of fluffy stuff, isn’t it?  I’m a scientist after all, and I like to be able to apply ideas in a practical way.  Well, it is a practical thing for me, because it’s helping me deal with the things that don’t go to plan.

We’ve come to the end of another grant call season, and there’s nothing on the horizon.   I have one active application in that’s announced at the end of June, and another that will be announced in October but will be too late as my current funding runs out in the end of July.  If I don’t get something before then, and it really looks like there will be no time, I’ll have to go back to the states again.

It was a weird feeling to realize that, and I braced myself for the emotional deluge of horrible feelings I remembered from the last time.  But they didn’t come.  After a while I tentatively asked myself why, and found myself surprised by the answer.

It’s different this time.  This time you took control, you took responsibility.  It’s different here.  You have a place here. You have friends who live here, and you’re in the middle of a degree.  You can keep going in the meantime, like a working vacation.  You have so many things to come back to here.  You belong here.

There are a lot of things that are up in the air for me right now.  I have only been here one year and it would be very easy for me to leave and be quickly forgotten.  I’m 25, and alternatingly feel like an old spinster when I see 90% of the people I went to high school with are married and raising kids, and then like a teenager again when I realize that most of my friends are older than me, and many of them dealing with the same constant struggles of academia that I am.

But I can choose my future; I know that now.  I refuse to be forgettable, and I refuse to let the funding competition get the best of me.  I finally feel like I’m doing what I used to fantasize about as a child.  For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a scientist, to know things and to discover things about people and the world.  I wanted to work with people who were brilliant and funny and creative and curious, I wanted to live somewhere beautiful by the sea, full of art and culture and just enough challenge to keep me on my toes.  I’ve found that place here, and I will be back.

So for now, I walk through the cobblestoned market every morning and watch the vendors bustling around changing from winter apples and root vegetables to the sweet peas and jewel-like berries of summer, the air always smelling of strong coffee and rye bread, smoked fish and a light breeze coming off the sea.  I stay up late and watch the sky change from dusky pale blue and lavender to bright tangerine and crimson in the middle of the night, without ever going dark.  I sit on terraces and in parks and on beaches laughing with friends, taking in the moment.  And one word comes to mind.

Kotona.

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