Week 12: Time Passes, Tables Turn

I have 2 full weeks and 2 half weeks of classes left, you guys. Can you believe it? BECAUSE I CAN. I AM EXCITED.

It’s been a great semester, though. I was so weary of everything, I was trying to make sure I don’t “slip” and mess up, lose control of my workload… but I’m grateful that so far, it has not happened and I think it’s safe to say I don’t foresee it happening soon. Granted, I have the easiest workload I’ve had in like 2 years, and that’s probably 90% of the reason why. I’m enjoying it either way. College has never been more fun.

Last weekend, for example, was excellent. I got to watch a play in Philadelphia for the first time on Friday night. I watched Disgraced, written by Ayad Akhtar who won a Pulitzer Prize for it. It’s about a Pakistani American lawyer navigating his Muslim heritage in the post 9/11 world. I don’t know much about theatre, but I really enjoyed it and I’m glad my friend Adriel invited me to watch it.

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PAACH, the Pan Asian American Community House, celebrated its 15th year anniversary on Saturday. It was a really great celebration and I’m glad I was invited to attend! I got to hear Amy Gutmann (the Penn president) speak, meet some alums who came back from homecoming weekend and listen to a great keynote speech by Vijal Patel. Vijal is a Penn alum, class of ’98. He studied finance and engineering but then went into a career in comedy writing. His speech was so funny. If (or when) I get my hands on a recording, I will be sure to send it to everyone I know. He talked about how important it is to have safe spaces on campus so that students have the freedom and confidence to explore their abilities in new and interesting ways. He also talked about how he took a huge risk, declining a huge Wall Street job offer to drive across the country and move to L.A. to pursue a career in entertainment. Sigh, I wish I could tell you more but my memory of it is super spotty so just trust me, it was hilarrrrious and inspiring. I got to meet him after, and he was really nice! (You can read a little about him here!)

The PAACH anniversary celebration in Huntsman Hall.

The PAACH anniversary celebration in Huntsman Hall.

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He took this with his phone and texted it to me. WHAT.

Homecoming weekend was also really great because I got to see Amanda again. She was a senior last year, and one of the first few Malaysians I met from Penn. It’s always really nice to talk to people who’ve been through the whole Penn journey and know what it’s like to make it out on the other side, but it’s a bonus to talk to someone who understands the path I’m on and part of where I come from. It really means so much to me to have such supportive and understanding people in my life.

Early Sunday morning with Amanda <3

Sunday morning with Amanda ❤

This past week, I’ve also started watching The Office and, well, I don’t know why I put off watching it for so many years because it’s an amazing show and I kinda squeezed in time to watch it whenever I could. For example:

Watching it while having breakfast in bed.

Watching it while having breakfast in bed (and yeah, that’s Nestum).

Watching it while doing laundry.

Watching it while doing laundry (I am also watching it while I type this).

It has also been a great week even though it’s only Wednesday so far. There is a farmer’s market every Wednesday in front of the bookstore on campus and today I bought some good fresh bread there. Conveniently, the farmer’s market is also next to Cosi which gives free coffee on Wednesdays! So I got fresh bread and free coffee, which is, *deep breaths* wonderful.

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What I did with my bread for lunch!

What I did with my bread for lunch!

Then, today after class, I went to see Rachel who is a freshman in Write On, one of the volunteer programs I’m in at Penn. We talked about the many difficulties of freshman year and reliving them sent chills down my spine. The overwhelming feeling of lostness–physically around campus, navigating new friendships, finding an area of interest and just generally finding a enclave on campus makes you feel like you belong. It takes time, I guess, but I genuinely believe it gets better. That’s what I told Rachel.

Gratefully and certainly, it has gotten better for me. Today, for the first time, I felt the tables turning a little. I’ve had the chance to meet with 3 freshmen girls so far this semester to talk about adjusting at Penn but it just occurred to me right now that I’ve kind of transitioned into a different, um, how do I say this, position(?) here. I remember talking to my freshman hall Resident Advisor, Cat, and other upperclassmen like Petra and Hanna because they reached out to me wanting to talk to me about how I’m doing in my transition into Penn. It’s hard to believe I’m now on the other side of that conversation. It’s really weird, because 2.5 years in, I still feel like I’m transitioning into life at Penn every day so I don’t know how it’s possible that I’m giving advice or whatever. I feel that this transition is never complete and so is always ongoing but I suppose, in some sense, I can’t really say that I’m adjusting anymore because I’ve been here for a while, and no matter how much more experience I have to gain, the fact is that I have gained some experience.

A few hours ago, I was at an Asian Pacific American Heritage Week event. We invited Vidya, a YouTube star to perform at Penn. She does mashups between Hindi and American songs and she performed a bunch of them earlier. I also got to meet her earlier and speak to her a little, it was really fun.

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Vidya’s performance.

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At the meet and greet with the planning boards after the performance.

It was great to be a part of an organising group that helped make this happen. That would not have happened 2 years ago. Also, as I was at this event, I was introduced to a freshman who asked to know more about what the club I am part of does. When she left, I again found myself thinking that 2 years ago, I would’ve probably been on the other side of that conversation as well.

In fact, when I left the venue, I walked on the steps between College and Cohen halls onto Locust and recalled the time in freshman year Saffa (who was a senior at the time) walked with me there. We were walking back to our rooms after the first MSA meeting that year. She was giving me a little tour of the campus. It felt like quite a long time ago.

For the first time, it feels like I’ve actually made progress. That’s a pretty difficult thing to feel here sometimes, you know. Everyone just seems to be doing amazing things that it’s hard to see my own progress at times. But today, as I walked home, I felt proud of myself because I know I’ve progressed here as a result of my baby steps–slowly, putting myself out there and steadily putting one foot in front of the other.

I know it’s not a lot, but if I don’t start feeling a little proud of me for something, then, well I don’t know. I gotta start somewhere and this seems like a good place to start.

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Week 4: I Invite You To Walk A Week In My Shoes

The past two summers I’ve been back, I’ve often found that it’s been difficult to answer simple questions like “how do you like your university?” or “what is Penn like?”. It’s hard to do justice to questions that require you to somehow summarise your entire year in a relatively unfamiliar place. It’s hard to share with people this experience if I’m not having proper conversations with all of them regularly–something very difficult to do because of time constraints and time differences. Being really close to my family and friends, I like being able to share my experiences with them. Not being able to tell them about my life abroad just, well, sucked, because it’s currently a huge chunk of my life. This is why I decided to write about my week in detail, as much as I can remember and think is significant. It’s a far-from-perfect representation of my entire year at Penn, especially given the fact that exams haven’t started, but maybe it’ll be a good jumping-off point. So, here it is.


Sunday

Didn’t get out of bed until 11 a.m. because Hui Jie and I stayed up watching Running Man and talking while being slumped in my couch until late at night the night before. Later in the afternoon, I had lunch with my friend Adriel who’s from Singapore. I was so lazy to do any walking that I asked him to meet me at the Thai restaurant in my apartment building.

At night, my friend Fahmida organised a pot-luck type thing in her room for the MSA girls. It was really nice to meet the freshmen who all seem to be great girls. We pretty much just ate briyani, danced to desi/arab music and made a lot of noise. Honestly, it’s the closest thing I have here to spending time with my cousins at home.


Monday

It was labour day, so we didn’t have classes. I stayed in for most of the day. I cooked the chicken (the breaded chicken tenders from my last post!) and watched a lot of The Big Bang Theory. I did about 50 pages of reading for my classes, which honestly, was not as much as I could/should have done.

This has nothing to do with the day's events, I just wanted a picture to be here.

Monday is also the day I have club meetings. One of the clubs I’m in is Penn Sangam–we organise dialogue events once a month where we moderate a discussion on a specific topic within the context of the Asian community. After the Sangam meeting, I had to go to the Malaysians@Penn (M@P) elections. I brought poppadoms. I also got re-elected as External Affairs chair. It probably sounds like a bigger deal than it is, because M@P doesn’t even have 30 members.


Tuesday

View from class.

View from class.

As on most days, I cook eggs in the morning. My earliest class is on a Tuesday–I have Ideas in Mathematics at 9.30 a.m. at the opposite end of campus. Then, I have Evolutionary Psychology right after. It’s 5 blocks down from the Math building, and I’m always late because I can never make it there in the 10 minutes I get between classes. I have a 1-hour break after this, and I usually go home for breaks to eat, pray and sometimes even nap.

Then, I have a Sociology class which is Educational Inequality. We learn about how educational opportunities intersects with class, race, politics and stuff like that. Tuesdays are also my longest days so I have one more class after this, and it’s Cognitive Neuroscience. Yeah, you can tell how scary it is from the name. So far we’re learning about neurons and the brain–things I haven’t thought of since I finished SPM almost 5 years ago.

After my last class, the day is still far from over, much to my dismay. I went home to cook dinner and do some reading for class for a while before I have to head out again. I’m a coordinator in a volunteering group called Write On! that mentors middle school children and teaches them creative writing. Because it’s the new school year, we’re looking for new students to join the group. We had an event last Tuesday where we pitch it to a bunch of people who’re interested and encourage them to apply to join. There is also free pizza.

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The other coordinators at the Write On! meeting.

Afterwards, I go home and do laundry while watching some TV. At this point, I was very worried about how I will handle all my classes because I’m going through my readings very slowly (they’re so hard for me to understand, honestly) and I find it so difficult to keep up with taking notes in my Neuroscience class.

Waiting for my laundry.

Waiting for my laundry.


Wednesday

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I wake up extra early today to go to my favourite coffee shop to finish my readings (which were due to be read by 2 p.m. that same day). After I’m done, I go to relax outside because the weather was amazing. As I’m lazing at College Green, I remember I don’t have time to be chilling because I needed to see my faculty advisor about questions I had on my Psychology research requirement. So, I run a few blocks to his office so that I have time to see him before class. I was quite worried about it so he gave me some advice about how to start and said I’m on track time wise, so that made me feel better. Then I have to rush to Math class but I make it in good time. Despite all that physical activity, I was so sleepy in class.

Reading at College Green.

Reading at College Green before I panic.

Then, I got lunch at the halal food truck because I didn’t feel like cooking. On Wednesdays after lunch, I have a Political Science class called Political Change in the Third World (this is the class I was rushing my readings for, lol). It’s very interesting and Hui Jie is also in the class with me! The professor talks a lot so my hands are always tired after 50 minutes of speedily taking notes. Right after this lecture, I have recitation for this class. Recitation is kinda like tutorials in Malaysia and even the UK, I think. We have to discuss the assigned readings.

Discussion-based classes make me feel so nervous. Sometimes, when I think of something to say, I can’t say it because I’m so nervous I can hear my heart beat in my ear. I used to be so scared to say anything in class because I was scared my heart beat would be louder than my own voice and I won’t know what I’m talking about. Things have gotten better, but I can’t believe I’m in Junior year (third year) of college and I’m still nervous about talking in class..

Sangam board at the PAACH open house.

Sangam board at the PAACH open house.

Right after class, I have to go to PAACH — the Pan-Asian American Community House. PAACH is a cultural center for Asians; a space for us to chill, get together and reach out to staff for help/support. As a representative of Penn Sangam, I have to go to their open house to talk about PAACH, what it does and also about the club I’m representing. It was a little tiring because it was a lot of smiling and high-energy talking, but it was fun I guess. After the open house, I stopped by at Houston Hall to see my friend Ken. He was presenting his summer research project, and I wanted to support him!  And then I went home, completely pooped out.

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Thursday

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I woke up early and made eggs for breakfast again as usual. Then I went to the coffee shop downstairs to do some readings and revision–going over my notes, watching some videos of stuff I didn’t quite understand. I had my first class at 10.30 a.m. and we learned about kin recognition. After class, I had to go to the Netter Center to get my security clearances done. I guess it’s kinda like a background check? It’s for my Sociology class–there is a volunteering aspect to the course which means we get to go to a school in South Philadelphia once or twice a week to understand the schooling system through a hands-on perspective.

Then, after lunch, we went to visit the school. It’s about a 25-minute train ride away from campus. It was really interesting to see the condition of the school. Public schools are largely under-funded in Philadelphia, and so they’re getting a lot of help from universities and other institutions like Penn which is partly why we’re there. Everyone at the school was great. The staff were all really nice and the kids are adorable! After a 30-minute tour of the school, I had to rush back to campus for class. A few of us took the cab because it was raining and we were short on time. I was a little bit soaked when I got to class so I felt really gross and found it difficult to concentrate.

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After class, I went back home to get changed into my gym clothes. Hui Jie and I went for a gym class called Barre Fit. It’s a lot of slow, controlled movements with lots of reps. Think ballet foot work + weights. It was so painful, and by the end of it my legs were jelly but I LOVED IT. Because I was soaked once with rain and then twice with sweat, I went home to take a good long shower. I made prawns with thai chilli sauce and peppers and onions like my mom makes sometimes for dinner. Then I went to the Muslim Students Associations (MSA) gathering for a while to see my friends.

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It was still raining when we left, but Shahirah and I wanted to go to Trader Joes (best grocery shop I’ve ever been to). I got my usuals: salmon, eggs, cheese, yogurt, soy milk and apples (which are the bulk of my diet, really). Then we were stuck at the shop for a while because the rain was so heavy. We ended up taking a Lyft back and the driver was really nice.

Realizing we were both somewhat-matching as we were waiting outside Trader Joes for the Lyft car.

Realizing we were both somewhat-matching as we were waiting outside Trader Joes for the Lyft car.

Once we got home, I was so tired but because I’m one of the coordinators for Write On!, I had to read through the applications we received for potential volunteers and rate them. I can’t imagine what it must be like to read college applications. I read just over 50 short club applications and already found it so difficult to pick my favs. It was difficult because everyone was so accomplished and also, to be honest, sounded the same.


Friday

Breakfast: eggs. Yes. Again. Always. Everyday. Forever. Also had mango juice, that was new. I had an earlier-than-usual Friday this week because we coordinators had to deliberate who would be part of Write On! and send out the acceptance emails. Then, I went to class. Some people don’t have class on Fridays but I think I prefer having one to keep me busy all week. After class, I went to a Career Fair for the first time! I felt so lost. I didn’t even know it was held at Sheraton, or that you needed to bring a resume, or that you get a name tag printed for you, or that there’s AN APP to help you navigate the fair, much less know what to say to recruiters. It was slightly overwhelming, but luckily I had friends to go with me and honestly, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.

9 a.m. deliberation meeting.

9 a.m. deliberation meeting.

Random stuff from the career fair.

Random stuff from the career fair.

I went home for lunch, watched some TV and took a nap. Later at night, I got to catch up with two of my friends, Habeeb and Zohair. We took the Penn Transit bus (which is FREE, I never knew?!?!) and we went to the city to chill at Rittenhouse Square, which is a nice park to relax at! I love sitting on the benches and talking. It’s always a good time. I’ve always wished I could do that with my family and friends from home.

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Rittenhouse Square.


Saturday

Finally the weekend!!!! I woke up early, made breakfast and did what I was procrastinating all week: cleaned the kitchen. Specifically, there were some old rags in the kitchen I’ve been meaning to wash/throw out but was too grossed out to touch. In the end it took less than 10 minutes, and I love it when things tend to be not as scary as they seem in my head.

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Later that same morning, I went to try my first spin class! If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a cycling-ish class in the gym, where you cycle at the speed and resistance level you instructor tells you to be. There are sprints, and different “poses” like standing/sitting etc. It was really tough and I hated it and I was ~15rpm slower than she told us to be for most of the class. I’m sure it’s a great work out but I doubt I’ll be going back any time soon!

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I went home to shower and eat lunch. I was too lazy to cook, so I went for my trusty salmon salad and peaches which is really low-effort. I did more reading yet again, and then went to the city. I needed to go to Center City because I bought a sports bra in the wrong size and had to return it. But since I was there, I went to La Colombe again to get their draft latte and stayed to finish my Political Science readings for the coming week. An hour later, as I sat at a table by the window peacefully reading, someone suddenly bangs on the window in front of me. I was so taken aback I almost fell off my stool. It was my friend Adam who saw me as he was walking past. It turns out a bunch of my MSA friends were chilling in the city because Fayaaz, who graduated last year and is now working in Atlanta, was here to visit. So I ended up walking home with them because if I was alone I would’ve spent $2.25 on a bus ride home. With company though, it’s a nice walk back to campus.

Adam and Fayaaz after unintentionally surprising me.

Adam and Fayaaz after unintentionally surprising me.

With the girls on the walk back to campus.

With the girls on the walk back to campus.

I was quite tired when I got home but I still had work to do. Every time I finished a chapter or one problem set, I would reward myself with one episode of TV. And I did that until I went to sleep.


So that was a somewhat-faithful description of my week. I mean, I didn’t include a lot of things. For example, every time I walk to my math class, I’m always soaking through my t-shirt and it looks like I’m crying because sweat is just dripping down my face until my glasses get fogged up. The chicken I made last Monday tasted good after baking but the breadcrumb skin wasn’t as crispy as I wanted it to be so I had to lightly fry it. I walked into wrong classrooms multiple times. I was nominated for President of M@P but was too scared to lead anything. I had to miss a gym class on Wednesday because I forgot to buy a class pass in time.

All in all, I think my Penn experience has been great because of the variety I’m presented with: I’m currently in 4 different clubs and I have friends from all over the country and the world. But it’s also difficult in many ways: I always feel like I should be either doing more or be doing better. Even though I’m already swamped and unsure of how to balance everything on my plate, I’m always dealing with a sense of fear that I’m not doing my best, or that I’m not living up to my standards. I think wanting to do more and do better is a great attitude to have and I’m thankful I have that motivation, but I’m constantly trying to be mindful of how I channel that energy into my daily life. It’s so easy to turn this energy into a self-deprecating voice, but I really need it to be a constructive, productive force or whatever.

Admittedly, this was a really great week. I got a lot of things done, and managed to have a lot of fun too. It was a great balance. Like I said earlier though, not every week is like this. Sometimes I’m too tired to go to the gym the whole week. Sometimes I eat maggi four times a week because I’m too lazy to do groceries. Sometimes I can’t answer any questions in class because I didn’t do my readings in time.

But I’ve always dreamed of becoming superwoman. I’ve always wanted to do everything. It’s not always going to go my way, and honestly, things rarely go my way, if ever. Most of the time I don’t have this balance, but it is always great to keep trying to get there.

Week 3: I Try to Look Like I Know What I’m Doing

My labour day long weekend was good. I love the 28°C weather, city streets and iced lattes. I love the view of the Schuylkill river as the 21 bus crosses over the bridge that links Center City to Penn. I like feeling okay enough to walk around on my own and feeling like the language and the roads are familiar to me. I like feeling like I know what I’m doing–which, often times I don’t. But I try!

The view of the Shuylkill from the 21 bus.

The view of the Shuylkill from the 21 bus.

Trips into the city are fun but this week I also made money because I managed to sell some of my clothes at a thrift store! They’re quite selective so they only took a few items but I donated the rest of my stuff–a suitcase and two paper bags worth of clothing. They say you gotta take out the old in order to make room for the new and it really felt like a good cleanse, getting rid of those things I’ve been hanging on to for years without actually using. I also bought candles because apparently I have a thing for candles. Eucalyptus Mint, Autumn and Mahogany Teakwood. I’m telling you, Bath & Body Works is a big booby trap that lures you in with the smell and then really hooks you with their good customer service and discounts. Candles make me feel very relaxed and it gives me the impression that my bedroom is nicer than it is.

Heavenly goodness in my hands.

Heavenly goodness in my hands.

The most exciting part of my weekend was La Colombe’s draft iced lattes. They started serving these over the summer and it’s one of the few things I was looking forward to, coming back to America. It was smooth, silky, foamy goodness coming out from the tap. It’s so light, yet so rich. I finished one, chucked it and got myself another right away because it was so much better than I expected and that’s saying a lot because I had verrrry high expectations for this one.

I also pretended that I knew what I was doing in the kitchen, as per usual. I made pasta for the first time in months, and I made breaded chicken for the first time in ever. Both were pretty good, I have to say, considering my cooking skills are still rather under-developed.

I call this one: Pasta With All the Random Stuff in My Fridge I Wanna Finish

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And this one was just breaded chicken tenders.

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These were surprisingly easy to make. Chicken tenders dredged in flour, eggs and bread crumbs. Sprinkled with some paprika, baked, then topped off with parmesan cheese and parsley.

Labour day weekend was also fun because the extra time meant that all my friends were also free to hang out! I got to go to the Spruce Street Harbour Park, which is the summer park that appears at Penn’s Landing every year and also got to have brunch and slump in bed, watch 20 over episodes of TV and eat pizza.

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At the park with Fahmida, Joyce, Andrew and Wendy.

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Hui Jie being cute. Isn’t she smaller than the pizza?

Cristina at brunch--breakfast tacos and cold brew on a hot day.

Cristina at brunch–breakfast tacos and cold brew on a hot day.

I also studied and went to the gym but I didn’t take pictures of those.. Also there is absolutely nothing interesting to say about going through 200+ pages on colonialism, natural selection and patterns in math. But anyway, I had a lot of fun this weekend and I’m not quite looking forward to the 4-day week ahead. I’m in bed dreading class as I type this, but I gotta get going, so bye until next week 😦

Week 1: I Travelled 9460 Miles with a Bunch of Daun Pandan in My Backpack

Once a year, I count my last this and thats, pack 100 lbs of my things into two sturdy suitcases, force myself out of my bedroom fighting the temptation of a long lingering glance backwards and head to KLIA. Once a year, I cry until I feel like my lungs are about to collapse, stain my family’s shirts with my tears and take the Elevator Of Sorrow down to the departure gates.

As I walk towards the passport scanning thing, at the back of my mind I know my heart is heavy because I have so much I am (temporarily!) leaving behind. What an amazing problem to have. Because it means I have so much. I have so much love and support back home, from family and friends I admire and respect. I have so much fun, so much security and so much comfort back home. I guess I just really want to thank you all for that.

Thank you to my parents, for parenting me the way you have, such that I always have a wonderful home and family I love coming back to. My sisters, for being the cause of most of the times I laugh. Chik, for being like a second mother to me. All my other uncles and aunties for always bringing everyone together. My cousins, for being my best friends throughout my life. In my life right now, the best thing I have is a family that looks for multiple excuses to spend time with each other and request tables for 16-20 at restaurants.

Thank you to my friends who have set aside time to spend with me and helped make my holiday a really well-spent one. Special thank yous to everyone who helped me cross off everything on my craving list and to everyone who cooks amazing food. Thank you to everyone I had the pleasure of seeing over these past few months, you’ve all helped make my break everything I needed it to be. I’m sincerely sorry for missing those I did, and if I have hurt anyone over the past few months.

I know I’m no celebrity and I am cringing at the thought of sounding like I’m receiving some award at the Grammy’s or whatever but I just really wanted to start by saying I am so grateful to God for all of you. Home will always be where my heart is but it’s time to focus my energy on learning and growing at Penn.

As I write this, I am in the process of getting settled into my apartment at Penn. Shahirah and I arrived safely on Sunday morning (Sunday night Malaysian time). Classes start on Wednesday morning, and as per usual, I have that fresh new-semester excitement and a full bar of stamina. Right now, I have to redecorate my room, stock up my fridge and catch up with the friends I haven’t seen in 3 months. 

Landing safely in Philadelphia.

Landing safely in Philadelphia.

I have to say though, it feels really weird to be back. As the taxi from the airport drove across campus, I realised how distant my last year here feels to me. It felt like ages ago, like it happened in a parallel universe. I guess I was so shocked at how unprepared I felt to come back. I’m lying down on my bed as I type this, and at the back of my mind I’m thinking about the feeling of walking barefoot on a staircase, the touch of sunshine on my skin, marble floors, the slight hint of the smell of haze in the air, the sound of a ceiling fan turning. Little things that take my mind back 9460 miles.

Going home to Malaysia felt like resting my tired head on a pillow, like taking off my high heels after a long day, like eating an old favourite childhood snack. Coming back to Penn feels like crawling into a cold hotel bed, like eating solids after a week on liquids only, like eyes squinting when suddenly exposed to sunlight.

But the bed warms up, teeth strengthen and pupils contract. I will get better. I will be just fine.