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The Gift of Wanderlust

By Rebekah Davis Ahrens '00

Twelve years ago, I walked across the graduation stage on a dewy spring morning at Queens. I had a job lined up in Hong Kong and as I accepted my diploma from Dr. Wireman, all I could think about was boarding that plane and the adventures in store. Sure, America was great, but she was so, oh, old hat?

I longed for exotic shores and I found them: Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and France. Life was grand. I darted here and there on vacations to Thailand, Cambodia, Shanghai and Beijing. I was in Hong Kong when the twin towers were struck on 9/11. I voted in two presidential elections from abroad by absentee ballot. I learned Japanese, French, Arabic and Korean. I was honing my skills as a global citizen.

Living abroad was a high from which I dreaded coming down. The summer I returned home from my first long stint in Asia, memories of tuk-tuks and Star ferries melted away, replaced by what seemed like unending commutes from American suburbs and ubiquitous fast-food restaurants. It felt like the very antithesis of the exotic lifestyle I so craved.

Eventually I joined the Foreign Service of the US Department of State and was dispatched to South Korea, the "Hermit Kingdom," where I now work as a Foreign Service Officer.

Somewhere along the way my perspective began to change. I don't know when it happened, but somehow, as time has marched on, "old hat" began to seem pretty great. America has now become the place I long to live.

Every day I see Americans who flee abroad to find themselves, hunt adventure and exchange their American identities for global ones. It's an important process: pushing yourself beyond familiarity, learning to look at yourself and your cultural identity from the outside in. But there is an intrinsic value to one's nationality that I under-estimated in my younger days.

I have lived in cultures where homogeneity is the key to success, where crimes that involve domestic abuse or sexual assault are under-reported or swept under the table, where women executives are a rarity, if they exist at all. I get a thrill these days when I walk to the airport line that says "American Citizens" and see every type of feature, skin and race. In Japan or Korea or China, such diversity does not yet exist.

America is lambasted from outside and within every day. It's in every news report-how she's falling behind here, breaking down there. She is criticized and attacked by those who fundamentally differ with what our nation stands for, or simply by our own citizens who are unhappy with the government, the economy, education or a million other things.

Seven years as a global citizen have given me a different perspective.

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