“It’s alright, there’s Skype!” you say, as you and your best friends hug each other, promising to stay in touch.
“You’re going to have so much fun!”
“Remember to tell us if you get an angmoh boyfriend!”
“Let us know once you’ve touched down!”
You walk through the glass doors at Changi, passport firmly in one hand, a bag of last minute farewell gifts in the other. Your two gigantic suitcases, stuffed full of sweaters and Prima Packs, have been checked in and are lounging somewhere on the airplane. The desk officer checks your ticket and you march through the gates before turning around one last time and offering a big wave, as if to say, ‘Bye! I’m off to see the world!’ They wave back through the glass, “Bye, take care, we’ll miss you.”
While on the plane your hands tingle with excitement – you’re on the biggest adventure that your 19 year old self can muster. I’m moving countries, you ponder, smiling at your accomplishment.
In the first few days of fall, you find your new reality as awkward as it is exciting. It’ll be the first time you’ve made friends with Ghanaians, Kenyans, Egyptians – what a global community, you marvel. It’ll also be the first time that someone tells you, in pleasant surprise, “you speak English really well!” (In two years, good friends will make a joke about your accent and you’ll find yourself sitting in a dining hall, tears pouring down your face, apologizing for the overreaction. Later, a friend will say that you had a part in it because you hadn’t said anything before and you will dry your tears and promise yourself that you’ll move past that. You don’t cry like that in front of anyone again.)
You Skype your friends, squealing about every detail – the liberal arts curriculum, the dorm room and its brick walls, your Puerto Rican roommate – and in so doing cling onto a home that only exists through the mysterious portals of the World Wide Web.
What you don’t realize is how the multiple Skype conversations you envision gradually turn into a Skype occurrence once, maybe twice, a year. Freshman year sees you getting snail mail; the next sees a couple of email exchanges; the regularity of conversation diminishes with the passing of time. Once in a while, most likely in the middle of the seemingly never-ending winter, you post a Facebook update lamenting the lack of good Singaporean food here. It’s your way of saying, “I miss those suppers at Al-Azhar. I miss the sound of its plastic chairs scraping against cement. I miss the whirring fans and the uncles yelling orders – ‘kopi bing, siu dai! kopi-o, lai, lai, yi kuai wu mao!’ I miss being called out of the house at 11 o’clock at night and getting plonked in a car to spend time with you.”
The cold gets to your bones; you buy far too many jackets and wrap yourself in blankets constantly, whining, in response to friends who laugh, “I’m from a tropical climate!”
Yet in the four years that follow you find yourself wedging in your consciousness the curious temporality of home in the form of Boston, landing spot of the pilgrims, people you’ve no personal association with other than childhood memories of Pocahontas, people that you soon learn have made indelible marks that go especially unappreciated during Thanksgiving. You discover the city’s nooks and crannies – you find yourself in the cramped apartment of a Nepalese immigrant, then in a protest with Tibetans, then in a refugee center in Worcester. You make friends with these people who are living reminders of a world that extends beyond the cushions of college life, people who have lived through war and persecution and moving countries, as you have done. They are the pursuers of the American Dream, which you had only heard about but never really understood, and now that you have it is much less American than it is universal – it is the dream of an elusive Something Better. You’ve learned and discovered so much through knowing these people but these thoughts are almost impossible to string into casual conversation for the ones that you so love so you string sentences of stories together instead and type them in Georgia, font size 12 and publish them on WordPress, hoping that these paragraphs are enough to bring them close to where you are.
Somewhere along the way you pick up a camera and figure out how to use it, its knobs and meters and buttons becoming familiar nodes under your fingers. You grow to love it and what you can do with it, because when you are capturing life you forget about your own for a fleeting moment, and life is paintable in all sorts of Reds and Blues and Greens, colors of heat and cold, shadows and light mixing together to form a life worth seeing.jpg.
You get involved in multiple activities on this hilly campus, some of which are more fulfilling than others, and when the student organization you’ve founded has its big concert you want to iMessage the ones you love but you stop halfway because of the reason of because. Even the conversations that fight their way through are dragged out over the course of days, because if you reply too quickly one of you will tire out and that will be the end of that. But no matter, because sometimes there are nights when you and your friends sit in cosy rooms and order in Chinese food that comes in little white packets like you’ve seen on American TV shows and the inevitable happiness that ensues reminds you that you are lucky, so very lucky.
When your friends stage a surprise for the administration by handing out leaflets about the importance of Africana Studies you join them even though you feel queasy throughout. You wear their T-shirts and you walk around the academic quad talking to students about race because you love your friends and you want them to not feel this injustice and that seems more noble than comfort and you just want to do what’s right. You find that your years at this school see endless students taking up endless causes and you also see these defenders of human rights unable to treat their fellow human beings with kindness and respect in light of differing views and you question why and how and what for.
And now, in just under a couple of months, you’ll find yourself walking up on stage in a billowing black gown, about to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, which sounds grander that it feels. You’ll look back on all the classes you’ve taken and the papers you’ve churned out and you’ll wonder why you don’t feel prepared or very much educated at all. The supposedly famous commencement speaker will encourage you to do big things and follow your dreams. The student speaker will do likewise, but you will cheer, because it is probably someone you know. He or she will encourage you, as they encourage themselves,to believe that life has limitless possibilities, and that home is the world.
Home is the world only in bits and pieces, lodged in the contours of my mind, you think, as you pack your bags and sit in your bare apartment. In the last few weeks, you’ve given away most of your things – to underclassmen in need of a desk chair or a space heater, to Buffalo Exchange in hopes of getting some dollars back for the expensive, impractical pair of boots you had regrettably bought online, to Goodwill for the rest of the lost causes. All that’s left, the chosen few of your personal belongings, are your clothes, letters, books, and your gifts from beloved friends. These are worth carrying over oceans to your new life, you say to yourself. You make sure to take along with you these little reminders of friendships because as with the island home that you left behind four years ago, you know that companionship will fade.
You learned once in your Media and Society class that the world is becoming smaller because of ingenious inventions like Skype, iMessage and Gmail. It was supposed to be different, you think, as your drag your luggage through the door and into the taxi that will take you to the airport that will take you to your new life on another hemisphere.