photograph of Broad Street, Oxford

Sustaining the magic: A Stanford student’s wanderings in Oxford

Well into my sixth week as an exchange student at Oxford, I started to take the city and university’s quirks for granted. I had gotten used to the crowds on Magdalen Street, the flights of stairs I tread daily to and from libraries, and the buses that sweep past my shoulder as I stand on narrow sidewalks — I no longer snap photos of Rad Cam and Christ Church Meadows every time I walk by. Having been an international student in middle school, high school, and then Stanford University, I am used to this cycle of settling in: amazement, followed by appreciation, and ending with acceptance. 

I remember my day of arrival at Oxford. I got off the Airline at the wrong stop, Gloucester Green, then dragged my two check-size suitcases across cobblestone paths towards 65 High Street. There was a moment when I stopped for the traffic light at the intersection of Queen’s Lane and Cornmarket. I surveyed the environment around me, 360 degrees: narrow streets, historic buildings, and groups of sightseers hustling hither and thither. That moment, when I grasped the great unfamiliarity that faces me, was like a shot right out of a movie.

There is something beautiful about settling into a new place, something that travellers — the ones that move from tourist site to tourist site like bees — don’t get to see (Chinese netizens recently gave these sightseers a nickname — “soldiers of special armed forces” — for their speed). Those moments when you want to take in everything around you, when you want to savour the city like eating a cookie crumb by crumb, are magic. 

When the magic fades you feel a tinge of disappointment. Not at the city itself, but at how normal it feels, walking down the same street for the thirtieth time. You would give anything just to re-experience the charm.

But the moment the magic fades is also when the understanding of the place really begins. You begin to say “that’s lovely” in response to your friend’s recounting of her weekend trip. You learn to start with the outside utensils and work your way inwards during formal dinners. You begin to notice the social issues around you: student rallies, racial tensions, stark class divisions.

My experience in the UK has not been like any other. For one, strangely enough, the UK is one of the smallest countries I’ve ever set foot on (I spent the majority of my time in China, the US, and Russia). More significantly, though, I have not studied in any other country where most of my classes are devoted to making me understand the place’s peculiarities.

Those moments when you want to take in everything around you, when you want to savour the city like eating a cookie crumb by crumb, are magic.

For my mandatory course for the study abroad program, titled A Model Island, we discuss British culture through the lenses of race, national identity, and colonialism. Our readings are scholarly articles on why tea and football have to occupy their place in British culture today. My elective seminar, taught by a Stanford professor that came to Oxford with us, looks at whether globalisation failed Britain, and why the Brexit vote turned out the way it did. Essentially, I am being fed analyses of British culture at the same time as I am immersed in the city of Oxford.

The more I learn about the UK, the more I understand what a special place it is historically, geopolitically, and culturally as ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’, with more than a thousand years of history leading to the coexistence of a plethora of identities.

However, other times, I wish I had learned less. I wish I had simply approached Oxford as young Harry Potter did Hogwarts, his jaw dropping at the long tables of self-replenishing food, the talking portraits, and even the moving staircase. 

Maybe then, the magic would have lasted longer — at least for a bit.

Image credit: Ananya Navale