Preface: this is very emotionally graphic for me, and although it’s a relatively innocuous topic, makes me very vulnerable so 1) if you generally think people (or, God forbid, specifically girls) just like to be overdramatic, I suggest you stop reading and 2) I’d strongly prefer no one discuss this post with me in person because even though I’m okay, I don’t really want to talk about it- I feel like I’ve gone over it in my head too many times already and just want to move on. Thank you for respecting my space and I hope you appreciate this one in particular.
The day before I left for Penn, I drove myself to the dentist (cue shiver) and on the way there, “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry came on. I remember singing along, save tonight / fight the break of dawn / come tomorrow, / tomorrow I’ll be gone, thinking about how apt the song was because have I ever wanted to leave? No. The answer is no.
That night, like all pre-flight nights, consisted of me lying down in my bed looking around my room considering how bizarre it is that I have to leave this place again. I am almost confused by it. “I am here now, but tomorrow I won’t be.” Huh. OK.
Needless to say, I always leave with a heavy heart. I suppose I am lucky, right? Not everyone has something difficult to say goodbye to, and although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think it’s great that I do. Except then I actually have to do it. Say goodbye, I mean. Some people say it gets easier every year but I absolutely must disagree. I was telling Shahirah a few weeks ago (when the crying-about-going-back-to-school began again) that it feels like when you ride a rollercoaster and after you get off you know how scary and heart-wrenching it was, so the next time you queue up to ride one, the dread and fear becomes even more real because you remember so clearly the feeling.
But beyond that, this year was just a tad different because I can’t help feeling like it’s the last time it’ll be like this at home. Aida will be in London and her summer breaks will get shorter every year… she’ll be straddling two homes for the next 6-or-so years. That’s a long time. Julia will leave for college the fall after I graduate. That’s quite soon. I’ll (hopefully??!?!?!) have a job and it’ll never really just be us, just kids, just laughing about Princess Diaries in the living room anymore. Here, I would like to re-emphasise how apt “save tonight” really feels.
Then as time somehow always does, it just goes on, regardless of how fiercely you dig your heels in the ground. My lungs feel like they are about to burst and the pain makes me grit my teeth but moments later I still find myself on the aeroplane. I stare out at the window, waiting for the exact moment we take off… and I am off home soil. There is one clear line that separates me being home and not home and I take it all in as we make our way to Doha.
Some thoughts I jotted down on the plane ride there: The word “ache” is very appropriate because as this journey drags on, it starts feeling less like acute pain, and more like someone is kneading on my insides like play-doh. My back against this chair (though I think calling this seat a chair is a bit of a reach) is so warm but my front is freezing and it is disrupting my sleep to keep having to put this blanket on and off. People always say “it’s a small world” but how is that true if I have to fly over 20 freakin’ hours to get from one place to another??!!!??! I can feel my legs swelling like Aunt Marge in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I miss bidets already. Our XC60 will not shut up until both people in the front seats have strapped their seat belts on so why the hell do stewardesses have to manually check if every passenger on a plane is wearing their seatbelt? Is it 1990? Clearly I become very sassy when I am stuck in a coach seat. The PA just mentioned “Malaysia” and immediately I realise it will be a long time before I will hear that outside of a private conversation again. I almost don’t want to leave this aircraft because once I step into Hamad International, I could be from anywhere going anywhere, and there will be little left to suggest I was just in Kuala Lumpur, that I was just home.
I make my way to the gate for our connecting flight to Philadelphia and I start to spot people who I know are fellow Penn students. I cannot help but stare because I am partly shocked. Clearly, it has not fully registered in my mind where I am going. But I have to deal with it, don’t I? I am going back to Penn.
Every year, I wrestle with feeling like I am being severely ungrateful for this experience because I don’t love it. What can I say? I wanted to love it, but I just don’t. I sit and think about how to be grateful about things you don’t love… what that feels like… whether I am actually doing that. I will concede, there are days I love, and I love what I’ve gotten out of Penn but I like to think a cake enjoys being a cake without enjoying being baked in an oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes. The process is excruciating. But it’s okay. I remind myself that one of the things I place a high value on in people is the ability to do things they don’t love to do because it’s what they need to do, because it’s the right thing to do.
If there’s any time to think about the stark contra between being at Penn and being home, it’s here, in transit. Sometimes it feels like the only place I can properly juxtapose pictures of both ends of my world is here, in an airport somewhere in The Gulf. My lives seem so parallel that it can be difficult to imagine the other when I’m in one. I remember, about a week-or-so ago, after my family and I had just gotten back from Hong Kong (amazing holiday, by the way, I loved it there) I was washing the dishes after lunch or something and it was a very chill day. We were all tired. I didn’t leave the house. So there I was at the kitchen sink, just calmly scrubbing my plate when my mind started to wander and picture my many hurried walks past Huntsman on 38th street under the Locust bridge… and I realise how easy it always is to forget and to shed off the Penn pace. And that’s a huge contrast. These two worlds seem to run on their own separate clocks. When I’m at Penn, I’m always reciting my daily schedule in my head because I can never afford to mess up the order of everything I planned—there’s just always so much to do—and it’s never like that at home. At home, at least so far in my life, it would be weird to be sitting in bed staring at a Google Sheet of club expenses, weird to be up at 12 a.m. talking about MATLAB codes, weird to be rushing back from the gym to cook lunch. I just don’t do stuff like that at home. I don’t even walk so much at home (god, I miss being driven around).
This year at Penn is also different. It’s senior year, and for most of us, that means relentlessly reaching for opportunities to get a job. I mean, that in itself is a whole ordeal. I am not one for networking so putting on a blazer and heels to compete with intense Penn kids for a chance to speak to recruiters is just so not my thing. But it’s also just crazy to think that what I will be doing a year from now is a complete mystery. Next September, there will likely be a physical space I will be commuting to and spending lots of time in every day. It will be the income I live off of. It will be what I put on Facebook and LinkedIn, presumably. It will be what I tell everyone over and over again at raya. And yet, for the next I-don’t-know-how-many but-hopefully-not-too-many months, I won’t know what that is! Think about it! It’s normal, but it’s crazy! It’s difficult to face because I have loved having a structure, a plan, a procedure to follow. It makes me retreat into and cling onto my youth more and more because the road ahead is so uncertain and so vast, but the past is so tangible and safe.
One of the few certainties is the fact that a lot can happen in a school year. On a big-picture level, I have no idea what will happen, but on a micro scale, I am very aware that I am walking into a school year facing a calendar with overlapping entries and sparse empty spaces. It’s like walking into an abyss by first passing through a very real storm. (Does that even make sense? I don’t know)
I know I’m making college sound like utter crap but there are parts of this experience I will be savouring for the next 9 months. Of course, being with my friends is one of them, but just as notably is the fact that for the past 3 years, I lived with a mandatory irresponsibility that I know I enjoy more than I can currently fathom. Sure, I’ve had to be very adult about being my own discipliner and taking care of myself, but it was my job, I would say, to be prancing off halfway around the world every few months, usually (and coincidentally) whenever one place became too much. Tired of hearing about Trump? I’m off to Malaysia! The haze is back in KL? Hello again, Philadelphia!
In due time, this will no longer be my reality. I will no longer be living a life benchmarked by trips to airports and I will gradually be able to afford recklessness less and less. I do not enjoy this idea. Let me be clear here, I respect responsibility and I despise thoughtlessness. I came back to my apartment to find that someone stacked a baking tray on top of a wok and I cannot even accept the lack of thought that went into that arrangement. However, there is a degree of carefreeness that is still dismissible with my age and stage of life and this privilege is surely dwindling. To be blunt, that’s just like, really annoying.
Over the summer, I saw my cousin firmly embrace one of the traditional landmarks of adulthood—parenthood—and I, in my denial, retracted so steadily. Several times I stared at her baby (and I feel really bad for saying this) feeling perplexed at what is happening in front of me: why is everyone coddling her? Why are they all so happy? Because to me, this was a jarring sign that everything was changing. It was like everyone was throwing a party while taking down our childhood wallpapers and removing our toys while I just sat and watched as the only person retaining objectivity, the only one seeing what was truly happening here. I did not realise when we all left childhood and crossed into adolescence, and was later rudely awoken by all the change. This time, I had my eyes wide open as we were transitioning life stages again, determined not to make the same unconscious mistake. I just don’t want to grow up. I know that sounds immature, but I have never been one to lie to myself about how I feel. I know there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’d just like it to be plainly said. Maybe then I will stop resisting it so much.
I know I will focus on the more concrete things directly ahead of me and ease into it… basically, take things in one baby step at a time. And despite all my resistance and confusion, I will become an adult as seamlessly as I became a senior in college—not having a clue what changed when. I look at freshmen now and I am, at once, surprised and assured, when I realise I cannot presently relate to their concerns anymore. We are often blind to our own progress and, you know what, I’m thinking that can be a good thing because I can be so resistant to change sometimes that maybe I am better off not knowing when I am improving and growing.
As I list down my commitments this year though, I cannot help but again, realise that I’ve grown. This year, I’m a TA for Intro Psych. I am beginning my independent research project in psycholinguistics with Professor Dahan, who taught me Language and Thought last semester. I am attending info sessions and coffee chats and career services appointments. My friend Miru and I are taking on podcasting as a passion project. I am taking a creative writing class for the first time. I am practicing for a (theoretical, someday) 5K (haha). As always, I don’t know how I will manage all of these things but I’ll just have to see how that works out and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
And so senior year started on Tuesday. Shahirah and I touched down in Philly a few minutes shy of 8 AM that morning and by 9.30 AM we were in our off-campus apartment. I changed clothes and instantly darted off to the chemistry lab building, dodging looks along the way because I didn’t want to meet anyone when I knew I hadn’t showered since Malaysia. I made it to Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire with 2 minutes to spare: my laptop clock told me it was 10.28 PM. I change my timezone settings to Eastern Standard Time, and now I’m really back for the first day, for the last time.