When it comes to goodbyes, I’m experienced, or so I thought. Last summer, I said goodbye to skipping school for a Starbucks run under the 90-degree California sun. Before that, I said goodbye to lunch under woven canopies that never stopped the rain from wetting our food. Further back, I said goodbye to the comforts of motherland and native tongue. Moving across the country for college? It’ll be a piece of cake, I told myself as I hugged my brother and bid farewell to my parents. Before I knew it, I was out the door.
Arriving was disorienting to say the least: the chaos, the welcomes, the dragging-suitcases-across-campus, the unfamiliar faces. Everything was new and strange. The Vineyard Vines, the way people say “bubble tea” instead of “boba,” the fact that Shake Shack, instead of McDonald’s, takes center stage in the town, the sheer number of people from New Jersey. New, for sure. But exciting also, right?
At the time, I agreed. New is good, different is good, and sentimentality is overrated, I thought. But as I lay in a tarp tent on the First-Year Outdoor Orientation Trip, I was overcome by a sudden longing. Newness became fear, and fear graduated into longing for home. I started to miss a lot of things. The nights when Dad sat in front of his computer, crossing off items on a list: ropes for climbing, boots for hiking, sprays for bug bites, down jacket for winter, bedding that must be Egyptian cotton with 800 thread count. Some of them from Amazon, some of them brought all the way across the ocean in family friends’ suitcases. The warm smell of the tofu fried pork belly embellished with vibrant green pepper, and Mom knew just the amount of spice to add without having me chug down potsful of water. The way Dad walked by my desk at exactly midnight with a palmful of vitamins before he went to bed because he knew I always forget them.
During my last couple days at home, Dad kept repeating how “by the time you leave for college, you will have already spent 93% of the time you will ever spend with us.” I didn’t pay much mind to it then, I thought it’s a moment worth celebrating, a new page. I wanted to commemorate it, not to let the end dim the sparkle of the story. But when I was enthralled by the new, what I always seem to forget is how much I rely on the old.
On the first night of elementary school when all the kids were scrambling out of the dorm and screaming playing jump rope on the moonlit field, I pulled the teacher aside and pointed to the apartment building barely visible behind layers of leaves and said “look, that’s my home.” Weren’t my eyes teary then? On one of the first nights in the U.S., after coming back from Denny’s and trash-talking American food, I sat on the balcony of our new house and sighed “this doesn’t feel like home” and how Mom looked up at the blank ceiling, her smile forced and bitter. It didn’t feel like home to her either.
We always took on the shifts and goodbyes in life together, me and my family. In elementary school, nights in the dorm were lonely, but every weekend, I went home. Then we would drive across the city to East Lake, where there’d be cherry blossoms by the pagoda in the spring and water lilies roaming the surface in the summer. When we first moved to L.A., we endured the miscommunications with the water meter together, the unwilling-to-engage with The Home Depot employees together, the too-afraid-to-order at restaurants together. And until that common denominator was ripped away from me, I never quite grasped the value of it.
For the final get-together with my high school friends, we watched The Farewell. My favorite scene was the ending, when Awkwafina stops in the middle of the busy New York street and shouts at the top of her lungs. The sound ripples all the way back to her hometown in China, scaring a flock of birds out of the tree by her grandma’s house. It makes me wonder sometimes, when I scream in the shower hoping none of my floormates notice, would my family hear me? Is Mom tending to her succulents? Is Dad compulsively wringing the clothes out of the washing machine for the fifth time? Are they alright?
But isn’t that the beauty of growing up? You become more and more alone until you’re all that’s left on the road. When I was young, I thought I could be anything, Premier of the State Council, CEO of a Fortune 500, scientist discovering the next big thing, until I realized I could be none of those. Because at the time, I didn’t know I would volunteer at two research labs and end up abhorring both, I didn’t know my dad was detained by the Communist Party for two months under false allegations, I didn’t know I missed the recruitment mark for my elementary school by two points and wouldn’t have been able to attend if not for the 5,000 yuan my mom gave to her friend with a connection.
It sounds like a grim world, but I’d say growing up is not necessarily the process of discovering a darker world. At seven-years-old, everything was shiny and splendid. Now I realize it seemed magical and wonderful because back then, everything was simple. The people who love me shielded me from the complex, the blurry, the despicable. The world is neither intensely beautiful nor extremely horrible. It’s just difficult and complicated, and neither the good nor the bad present the whole truth. I’ve learned that growing up is accepting the complicated world, accepting the gap between reality and expectation, and still choosing to believe.
I guess you always start off wide-eyed about everything. But the novelty wears off as soon as you come to the realization that any stranger you lay your eyes on the street might have a totally unique story, a story that might remain a mystery to you forever. You realize the planet is filled to its brink with extraordinary people doing all sorts of things. That’s why you would, while traversing the vast and lonely world, reminisce more furiously about the suburbia.
Nostalgia really is a funny thing. Most days, you don’t pay much mind to it. But at unexpected times, under unexpected circumstances, it would revolt, charge, attack with power beyond description, and leave you with insurmountable strength. Then it fades and hibernates for its next spring. Nowadays when I go home, I get reprimanded less for waking up too late or staying out too late or eating too much In-N-Out. It’s good. Different and good. I also get phone calls from home. I dread them sometimes because I know Mom would be pressing me to join Club Swimming, or badminton, or go to calligraphy class, things that I inherently hate or refuse to find the time to do. But it’s ok, it’s all love, I tell myself. It’s all love.