Beyond Mai Fulbright Experience

Absolute silence, the sound of a tranquil morning, was something completely foreign to me. Yet most of my mornings are now like this; filled with a sense of peace and comfort, similar to the feeling one gets from drinking a cup of hot chocolate on a cold night. I may not sleep as often as I would prefer, but I no longer wake up with a sense of immediate urgency, the way I used to in college. It’s hard to imagine that a year ago, my life was consumed by an endless stream of courses, organizational meetings, volunteer activities, and side jobs. I remember free time being scarce with mornings that consisted of repeated rings from my alarm. Starting my day involved checking my emails and trying to set a new record for how fast I could get out the door. So far, it’s 10 minutes.

Who needs a lunch break when you can scoff down your sandwich on your way to another meeting? There’s always another meeting or some work-related obligation. I was your traditional workaholic, finding value in productivity and efficiency. With the current corporate culture, long gone are the Dolly Parton days where people worked 9 to 5.

Or so I thought. In Belgium, people do work 9 to 5, and as Dolly would say ironically, “what a way to make a living?” After a year of having a work-life balance, I’m not sure I can go back to rushing on my way to the next meeting.

With extra free time, I’ve spent the year traveling across the country, going to festivals, attending concerts, and getting to know my current home, Hasselt. I’ve even partaken in local events like the Jenever festival, where I witnessed groups of people downing shots of different flavor liqueur—such as speculoos, apple, vanilla, chocolate, and even cactus. I enjoyed a few myself—for the cultural experience of course.

As a city, Hasselt is known for its hospitality, coziness, and numerous coffee shops. It’s filled with small stores and friendly locals. On the weekends, people are out and about running errands, shopping and enjoying each other’s company. Though people won’t wave or talk to strangers on the street, they will stop to help you if you’re facing any issues. In my case, it’s always bike-related. It’s incredibly charming the way people take care of each other in this city.

While the city isn’t fast-paced or very cosmopolitan, it allows people space and time to enjoy their lives. Life moves at a slower pace in Hasselt, and I find myself constantly trying to slow down as well. After all, what’s the rush?

As the saying goes, “Life’s a marathon, not a sprint,” and it was here, that I finally understood what that meant.

Thanks to the Fulbright Belgium Program and my wonderful colleagues at UHasselt and PXL, what was supposed to be a nine-month teaching fellowship turned into a cathartic journey of personal growth. It’s safe to say, my life has forever been changed by this experience.

Thanh Mai is a 2018-2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium. Thanh Mai graduated in May 2018 from Loyola University New Orleans with a B.A. in Philosophy and History.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.