By Hina Khalid
So, a while ago I met up with a friend – for a casual chit-chat catching up on our respective times at university. I asked him how he’d found the past year. He proceeded to narrate everything he’d got up to and how much fun he was having. I asked him if he was ever homesick. He said no. When I told him I was regularly homesick, he said, ‘Wow that’s sad, you must have had no fun’.
But I have had fun. What irks me is that when I told this friend that I missed home a lot, and the fact that Cambridge was often alienating, frustrating, even oppressive – I was suddenly made to feel like I was at fault. Like I was the one who hadn’t lapped up all the exciting adventures university life had to offer – forcing myself to question the validity of my own feelings. Am I entitled to feel down sometimes? Am I entitled to be grateful for being at Cambridge, and yet feel utterly alone and exhausted at times? Am I entitled to enjoy things the way I want to enjoy them, in a way that might not reflect the ‘normal’ university experience? I wasn’t so sure.
As a Muslim student coming from an ethnic minority background, Cambridge has not always been the easiest place to navigate. With dated portraits of old privileged men decorating the college halls, with all-white supervisors and professors, and with the drinking culture being so prominent, it was often difficult to cultivate a sense of ‘belonging’ to a space that was palpably never built for me. I was grappling to stay true to myself and yet not be seen as the ‘odd one out’.
My friend’s remark is perhaps a mundane example, but it got me thinking about the many ways that we are, subconsciously or consciously, almost forced to buy into narratives that aren’t our own as well as grant them a superior status. The fact that you’re not going out as much, the fact that you miss home so much more (and must make regular visits back for the sake of your own wellbeing), makes you feel like you’re somehow doing university ‘wrong’; as if there is a way to do university ‘right.’
But I have come to realise just how damaging this whole binary of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ really is. I do not constantly need to justify why I don’t drink, or have others tell me how much I’m missing out on because of certain lifestyle choices – because, simply put, I’m not here to ‘prove’ or ‘validate’ myself. Sometimes we aren’t out to secure the ‘victory’, if that means achieving the archetypal university experience. Most of the time, we’re just out to make the most of what we’ve got and hope that others can respect us for it.
The way I see it, to truly care for another person isn’t just to be ‘there’ for them in that wishy-washy ‘I’ve got your back’ kind of way, but is to truly be there and nowhere else, to truly listen and shut out that voice in our own head that’s always internally comparing someone else’s experiences with our own. The power of listening to a voice that’s not ours – and I mean truly listening – can be transformative.
“I do not constantly need to justify why I don’t drink, or have others tell me how much I’m missing out”
Meaningful dialogue isn’t a kind of competition where one side must win against the other, where I must show you how to really have fun at university because you’re doing it wrong – it is one where I can recognise that there is no overarching, universal ideal that relates to all people. It is one where I can meaningfully relate to the other person in a way that transcends how I want to understand them. A kind of attention and awareness that doesn’t depend on anyone legitimising their feelings or the superior worth of their own experience.
To truly be with someone, to truly listen to someone, is to let go of that self-referential imprisonment we are almost always locked in. It’s risky because we are suddenly confronted with a worldview that is alien to our own; and that can threaten what we have come to see as binding. But the power of doing so can be eye-opening. For that reason, I’m done questioning whether my feelings towards certain things are valid, or justified. I’ll just carry on feeling them anyway.