With encouragement from a friend and a beer I agreed to join our friends who were snorkeling in Costa Rica last summer. Being a person who runs out of the ocean when seaweed brushes past my skin, I hesitated to venture into the water. Not knowing at the time that fish actually scatter in the presence of a foreign body, I was afraid of hundreds of strange fish nibbling at me. Layered upon those imagined fears was the task of mentally adapting to breathing with a snorkel.
I geared up and jumped into the water. Soon after I found myself independent from my friend, breathing calmly, and exploring at a distance far from the security of the boat. I first noticed that in that world just below the surface I felt like an awkward visitor. The schools of fish that swam by were fascinating, dynamic, and colorful. Compared to their size and the grace with which they navigated the waters I felt large and clumsy, almost embarrassed.
Amazement with this new strange world eclipsed my awareness of the fact that I was breathing in a manner completely unnatural to me. I would occasionally remember that I could not breathe through my nose, but would immediately redirect my thoughts so as not to panic.
I find similar thoughts appearing and fading sporadically as I live my life in a foreign country. Day to day life is a peculiar blend of the unusual and the mundane. That is, I am no less sensitive to the richness of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes than when I came here for the first time. But in many ways I have ceased viewing life with a tourist’s zeal. Despite the attention that I receive, I don’t feel excluded. My sentiments may just speak for the overflowing warmth of Turkish people, but I feel at home.
Conversely, there are moments when I say to myself, stunned, “Shit. I am in Turkey.” Often a sight seen while walking or from the seat of a train reminds me that I am far away from all things familiar. Like suffering the dark effects of a hallucinogen everyone suddenly appears alien and the language seems strange. For just a few seconds I become uneasy and succumb to an alienating sense of loneliness.
Now, like when I was underwater and suddenly became cognizant of my altered breath and the strange beauty of it all, there are fleeting feelings of anxiety. I find myself aware that living in a foreign country is like I am breathing in a different way. But I know that the more I engage in such thought, the more it invites disquiet into my mind. I prefer to divert myself away from dark notions that nothing is familiar and everything is frightening. I choose to forget about being foreign and to swim along instead, assuming I am one of the fish.