By Nikki Huang
I’m on the plane home from Boston, and I can’t believe that my first semester at college has come to an end. I don’t feel I’ve been away for four months. I feel, instead, that I have been away from the land, the ocean, and the people who lay claim to my heart and soul for more than a year.
Does anyone else who studies or works abroad feel this way? That the times spent away are longer than they are? I wonder if this feeling will ever fade.
I grew more accustomed to my life in Boston as the weeks passed, for sure, but I carried the heaviness of homesickness with me every day. It never went away. I wonder what it feels like for those whose homesickness does dissipate.
What is it with me and time? Why do I feel that time escapes me as much as it sometimes stands so magically, wonderfully, and achingly still right when I need it to?
I sit now on the last leg of my journey home, on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Manila. I feel numb with emotion and disbelief that I’m coming home. I know I haven’t been all that active on social media and on this column, but the reality is that I didn’t put as much pressure to record everything that was happening to me as much as I put pressure on myself to properly live through all of it.
Much has happened since I first stepped onto my university’s campus, alone, afraid, and resenting the fact that I was so far away from everything and everyone I loved. For one, I learned what it meant to truly be alone. Loneliness is something one doesn’t come across that much in a city like Manila, where everyone is so tangled up in each other’s lives all of the time. In America, it’s a different story: An overwhelming amount of self-interest and political divisiveness seems to push people further and further from each other. I learned, once again, what it meant to be different, and how to proudly hold on to this difference instead of covering it up and assimilating into a series of social norms that went against the grain of who I knew I really was. I also dove into my academics, after a notable time spent wallowing in homesickness. I realized that if I was to be so far away and so alone, I had to at least make it worth my time by taking every opportunity available to me. I had to open doors for myself, and it was hard in a way I had not experienced before—sometimes it felt like I had to conjure doors of opportunity out of next to nothing.
But my efforts paid off, and one particularly exciting thing I’m now gearing myself up for is a graduate course in Contemporary Sociological Theory next semester, which I’ve been allowed to take as an undergraduate freshman. I also switched my major and minor many times over the course of the semester. I’m now, decidedly, a Sociology major with a double minor in International Relations and Psychology. I see this academic trajectory as my best bet at becoming what I like to think of as a triple threat: Someone with an understanding of how people work at the macro level (Sociology) at the micro level (Psychology), and how the nations these people inhabit operate in relation to one another (International Relations). I can graduate in two and a half years and come right back home. I have enough credit from high school to do so. But, surprisingly, I have decided not to. There is something about the academic quest that fuels and fulfills me, and I’ve begun to find professors who push and inspire me.
I did so much more than just study, though.
I drank way too much watery, bitter coffee from Trenta Starbucks cups with Alexa, longing for nutty, dark espresso drunk at a cafe in Paris as much as I relished the jittery high of cold brew in finals week. I waited in line for the university gym squat racks with Angel, lamenting over our shared experiences of beautiful boys who got away, as much as I missed 10 a.m. workouts with Paul at Kerry Sports Manila. I ran around New York at four a.m. over Thanksgiving break with Bettina, Chris, Francis, Kiko, and Mike, tossing back copious amounts of fine tequila and ending the evening in Chinatown eating fried rice. That night, I knew there was nothing else I’d rather be doing, or no one else I’d rather be with. I reconnected with a friend I’d met in the most unlikely circumstances and allowed him to bring me experience I’d never thought we’d share. It turned out to be exactly what I needed, freshly reeling from some of the hurt and frustration Boston had brought me.
Loneliness is something one doesn’t come across that much in a city like Manila, where everyone is so tangled up in each other’s lives all of the time. In America, it’s a different story.
I learned so many things about myself that frightened, and then excited, and then liberated me from the cage of some of my more traditional beliefs.
I dated a little, and thought, for a wild moment, that I’d found someone who was going to be the salvation to the unsettledness I felt inside. As has been the case too many times in Boston, things didn’t work out for reasons I continue to wrestle with. He seemed to be the type of person I’d moved myself so far away from home for the chance to meet, and yet, it was the strength of my own moral compass that turned him away. That, admittedly, was a hard and confusing pill to swallow.
I am learning that I need to know how to light my own fire instead of wandering around, hoping someone or something will do it for me. At the same time, however, I’m realizing that I need to put myself in foreign, often stressful situations to have the experiences I’m looking for. I could be satisfied with calm and predictability. Actually, I know that I could not: The thought of it makes my stomach turn. I am learning, though, that the peaks I crave come with equally intense valleys. Have I said this in an article before? It’s something I now think about all the time.
Now that I’m home, and over the initial wave of tears of relief that hit me, I find that I am able to look at everything I’d grown up so used to and unfazed by with twice as much gratefulness. It is carrying this feeling that I’ll be spending this holiday season. My heart is both light with joy at being back where I belong and heavy with the intensified appreciation I have for all that makes this country my home. I feel changed, in the most profound way. I used to love airconditioning my room till I had to wear a sweater under my blanket. Now, I sit in our lanai with just the fan on, letting the wet heat wash over me and warm me up again. It fills me up, calms me down, and thaws my soul. I used to black my room out so that I’d wake up as late as possible. Now, I’ve been sleeping with my shades drawn so that I can rise with the sun, which burns better and brighter on this side of the Pacific Ocean.
At the same time, however, I also unexpectedly find myself accepting the fact that I’ll be back in Boston in a month’s time. I know I’ll be cold again, and uncomfortable. But I think, this time, I’ll also be headed back feeling a little stronger, a little happier, and a little less alone.