I’ve been in Belfast for nearly two months now, and I’ve settled in well to my new environment. As this is my first time properly traveling outside of the United States, everything about my Mitchell year will be new to me. Thus far, I’ve enjoyed learning new things, seeing a new landscape, and meeting new people. Many of my experiences have been as I imagined them, but others have been completely unexpected. One of the most delightfully unexpected aspects of my time here is the opportunity to learn more about myself in the context of another culture.
Studying history during my undergraduate career taught me to understand and appreciate the culture of different regions while understanding how I fit into the social fabric of the society in which I live. When I arrived in Belfast I felt that I had a firm grasp of who I was and what I represented. I expected my perception of what it means to be an American challenged, but I didn’t expect my perception of my personal background to be challenged. Although I love who I am and where I come from—America, the South, Alabama—I wasn’t truly aware of the social, pressures and stigmas that constrained me in the United States until I was suddenly free of them.
What I mean is, here I don’t feel the weight of being a black woman in America bearing on me. The people here don’t understand the long history of black womanhood in America or the social tightrope that we feel ourselves walking daily. Moreover, they don’t know the long history of the South or what it means to be a Southerner. The history of my race, gender, and region that I belong to in the States isn’t an issue here. Instead, I’m simply an American studying in Belfast, and it’s a truly liberating feeling.
I’ve been able to reflect on the state of myself and American culture in a way that renews my resolve to better both. I think that’s the beauty of experiences like these: being able to take a step back and see the whole picture rather than fragments. Here, all of the pieces that make me who I am are united for the first time. I don’t have a fragmented identity. I’m able to live as I was meant to, and when I return home I’ll surely continue doing so without caution or fear. Some of this self-discovery may simply be natural maturation, but I’m sure that process is being accelerated by fresh perspective.
I wonder what kinds of social pressures and stigmas inhibit women here in Ireland. Surely this isn’t a personal phenomenon or even an American one. No, invisible restraints must be a part of belonging to a cultural group. Living in a new place has helped me to identify mine and break free of the undesirable ones. I don’t think I will go home with any radical personality changes. But, I will have a new found self-awareness and confidence. That alone will make this entire experience worthwhile.
I don’t know what the rest of the year has in store for me, but I’m eager to continue to learn and grow.