I used to live in a house up on a hill overlooking a valley floodplain. Some mornings, when the conditions were just right, we'd wake up to find our house drenched in sunshine and the valley below filled to the brim with fluffy white clouds, as if it had snowed overnight and had filled the lowest-lying areas with ten-storey drifts. On our way into town, we'd start out in light and warmth and inevitably descend into cold grey mist, and it was hard to believe that just a little ways above us the clouds ended and the sky began.
If you'll excuse the painfully obvious analogy, I can't help but wonder if this is an image of what our exchange students go through--or any experience, for that matter, be it concert, rally, summer camp, or exchange program, when you step away from your normal life and see everything in simplified terms. The muddle and habit of everyday life is stripped away and the road to take is so well-defined and obvious that it seems absurd to think you ever did it any other way. You feel resolved, determined, transformed, empowered to change your life--to find God, to lose weight, to make a difference in the world, to change your habits, to break out of the rut you've been trundling along in for months or years. You take a deep breath and set your feet on that road and...you find yourself back in your old life. Suddenly the way is confused and less clearly defined; all those confounding factors that seemed so trivial above the clouds loom large again in the mist. It's not as easy as you thought, and you settle back in the rut again.
I've experienced this mountaintop-to-valley process myself many times; it seems that every first taste of success is flavored with this laughably oversimplified crystalline clarity. Maybe others have the willpower to push through the haze and focus on that vision glimpsed from a faraway peak, but for the most part I don't.
The other day in computer lab, I was chatting with one of our exchange students from Japan. She's been a ray of sunshine all five months, the very incarnation of genki: full of energy and enthusiasm with a huge smile ready to break out at any second. She's in our mid-level class, but should have been in the lower. She's progressed hugely over the months, in large part because of joining the tennis team here and participating in practice sessions and tournaments. Tennis has been a huge part of her life for a long time, so I was pretty surprised when she told me that she didn't want to play tennis anymore when she went back to Japan. Why? Her experience in America taught her that there was more to life than tennis; that was a choice made for her by other people, and she wanted to make her own choices and try something different.
All those are admirable goals: try something new, take control of your life, break away from the way things have been. But already, the mist is creeping in; she also said that she received a reply from her tennis sempai telling her that she couldn't quit the tennis team because she's already been scheduled to play doubles. She is energetic, friendly, enthusiastic, yes, but she also told me that she goes where others tell her, that other people (her parents, her tennis coach) have dictated her steps for a long time. She's even attending her current university, and therefore here with us, because her tennis coach told her it was a good place to play tennis--so she went. It's terrible, but I can't help but wonder: with such a fun-loving, amiable disposition, how long will it take the combined pressure of habit and duty and parental/peer expectation to put her right back where she was before? The difference would be, she wouldn't want to be there anymore. I really hope this doesn't happen, but I don't know if she has the strength and support to fight it.
I guess the question is: is it possible to hold on to that mountaintop vision and make it real? More fundamentally, can people change their lives? I think they can, but it will never quite match that hopeful glimpse in the clear air; real life is always more complicated. "It's much easier to change your tune when your song ain't being played," as Earthsuit sings. Now that our exchange program is coming to an end, our students will have to reenter their old, normal lives, departing with promises made with the best of intentions to write and call and visit again and practice English, most of which are never fulfilled. The familiar tune is too overpowering, and they end up marching to the beat again, almost without realizing it. As usual, as ever, life just gets in the way.