When you’re feeling down, look at the stars

When I was 16 or 17, I embarked one of the most memorable trips of my life as part of a Commonwealth leadership program called the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It was a 4-day, 3-night canoe expedition in a place called Pitt Lake.

Our supervisor was quite impressed by our group’s strong paddling skills, and this, combined with fair weather, let us wander farther than our original route. We paddled all the way to the northernmost tip of the lake body where there was no sign of civilization at all. No more lakefront beach homes and pleasure boats—just forest, rock, and silence. The “campsite” we stayed at, Vickers Creek, had no amenities whatsoever. We dug our own toilets and boiled water from the creek. The atmosphere was made eerier by a plethora of abandoned rusted furniture and old bullet cases strewn across the shoreline.

But when the sun went down and darkness draped over the site, the sky was washed with the most beautiful display of stars I had ever seen.

If you’ve done true stargazing without any light pollution, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, stargazing in a completely dark place literally looks like this:

Exactly like spilt milk.

It was in this moment that a thought came to me, a thought that would resurface for the rest of my life: looking at the stars, I realized how damn small we really are. Just like how this cool series of graphics shows, we are nothing but blips on the universe’s timeline, and the universe is nothing but a blip on the timeline of the grand scheme of things. In fact, within the observable universe, we might as well be nothing.

Lying on that shore, 17 year-old me thought: why the hell am I so worried about everything?

You would think I’d be enlightened by that thought by now, but I no, worry still plagues me. Everything from what I should pack for lunch tomorrow to what I’m doing with my life. Of particular, something that worries me every day as a twenty-something young adult is whether I’m hitting my milestones on time. I worry a lot about being “normal” and being “behind” on accomplishing certain things in my life. Each year I push back the ages I believe I’m “supposed” to get married and have kids and afford a house.

But why cry over spilt milk?

Several weeks back, an old friend from high school and I reunited in the parking lot of our former high school. We sat and lay on our skateboards and watched the sky. There was plenty of light pollution so the night sky looked more like the bottom half of this picture:

Still, alone in that parking lot, far from any main roads with a majestic Pacific Northwest rainforest right beside us, we got very contemplative.

My friend remarked at how she felt done with the young person’s life. She wanted to finish her master’s degree, get a stable job, and settle down into a quieter life. I remarked at how I was intensely anxious about not having had a fulfilling youth. Unlike her, I didn’t move away for university, so I still feel like a child with years of exploration and adventure ahead of me. I don’t think about settling down. At all.

So I went down the spiral again of obsessing about being “late” to everything . Society tells you there is a “normal” timeline to getting stuff done—you get married at this age, have kids at this age—but so far, this timeline hasn’t been working that well for me.

Then I looked up at the sky, and I remembered that night several years ago at Vickers Creek. I was alone, in the real wild world, far from this oppressive society we have built to tell us to do stuff at certain times… And my friend said: “You shouldn’t care.” And I thought: yeah, why the fuck should I? Society’s timeline is nothing in the timeline of the universe. It’s a thing we’ve made up, not even as a human species, but (for me) as a specific cultural community in the western world of North America. Why should I conform to something completely made up? Fabricated?

You go at your own pace. You do things according to your own timeline. Because at the end of the day, you only get a small blip of time in the universe. Make that blip yours.

On pseudonyms and non-English surnames

For a while I used a pseudonym, “Tawney K.” The “tawney” came from reading a poem back in Grade 12 where the colour “tawny” stuck to me. (I’ve since forgotten what the poem was called). The “K” comes from the name of the main character of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” and is also the main character’s name in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite books. I know, it’s all pretty pretentious…

I chose a pseudonym because I really really dislike “ethnic writing” and the baggage that comes with having an “ethnic” surname. When I was growing up, all the authors with ethnic surnames had books attached to them that had to have some ethnic edge. I can’t tell you how many Coming To Canada To Build The Railroad And Endure Racism novels I’ve seen attached to people with Chinese surnames. I thought: why can’t a person with an ethnic surname write about a “normal” book for once? Like high fantasy? Or a detective story?

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about history, I’ve come to appreciate more the importance of storytelling from the real perspectives of lived experiences. I can see the importance of Coming To Canada To Build The Railroad And Endure Racism stories. I’ve realized what I thought as a kid to be a “normal” story was something middle-class, white, North American, and Western. And really, there’s no evidence that that is a “normal” story.

But at the same time, I’m still a little alienated by these stories because my family, incidentally, did not belong to the wave of immigration often fictionalized and immortalized in mainstream Asian-Canadian/Asian-American historical fiction. And not all Chinese-Canadians do.

Where, then, was my story?

My story was loudly absent during my childhood, but it makes me smile to know that it’s (slowly) getting more visibility. Shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat directly star Asian-Americans in contemporary settings, in stories I recognize and relate to.

Still, there is something about putting my non-English surname on an English-language publication that, well, kinda “others” me. Maybe it’s all in my head. After all, there is nothing strange about my writing in the English language despite my non-English background. I was born, raised, and educated in an English-speaking country after all.

What is this dissonance I feel then? Why do I feel that if I attach my name to a work of literature, that piece of literature has to do something for the culture of my name? Like I have to “represent” something, “tell” people something. Be a mouthpiece. Do some activism, even.

To fully give this topic justice, I would have to write way more than a blog post. But I think the bottom line is this: the Anglicization of non-English surnames is, well, kinda problematic, if you look at it from a historical lens. It’s a remnant of colonialism, and it fails to translate the nuanced meaning and history of the surname at the very least.

Of course, I recognize the impracticality of walking around without a surname whilst living in my English-speaking corner of the universe. Some things are status-quo and you just can’t change them.

But you can change what you decide to attach to your work. Some authors use pseudonyms, J.K. Rowling being one of the most famous ones. Her pen name Robert Galbraith was “was kind of a basic desire to distance this persona as far as possible.”

I realized I wanted to use my Tawney K. pen name to distance myself as well, and as a way to distance myself from my cultural background. My non-English background isn’t something I chose and I remain having mixed feelings about it, having been grown in a completely different (western) atmosphere. To be honest, I don’t know if I can identify with my surname as much as I could identify with an English surname.

But my cultural identity remains, for better or for worse. And, the older I get and the more I educate myself about my cultural history, colonialism, and the colonial reverberations that run through my family (my parents and grandparents grew up in colonial Hong Kong as British subjects—not citizens, there is a difference!), the more I’m willing to draw closer to my surname.

The fact that it is an inaccurate representation of my real surname in its native language remains, however. That is why I have since opted to stylize my name as “Surname-First English Given Name-Middle English Given Name.” While preserving the Anglicized spellings, this re-ordering at least preserves the traditional Chinese ordering of surnames-first, followed by one- or two-character given names. It’s tough straddling multiple cultures as a first-generation citizen of a family with an already-existing history of colonialism. But names are more than just words. Even Romeo and Juliet knew that.

Why we’re obsessed with labels

When I was around nine years old, I developed a very strange habit. I did certain actions in even multiples and in a specific order before going to bed. I was obsessed with cleanliness, and I had recurrent thoughts I couldn’t get rid of. For no reason, these rituals would change or I would add more intricacies to them, and even though I knew very rationally that this behaviour was irrational, I kept on acting on my compulsions for fear that something would go horribly wrong if I stopped.

I never met a psychiatrist. I never told my parents. In fact, I tried very hard to hide my weirdness, because that’s what I thought it was—weirdness. Eventually, the anxiety waned. It wasn’t until many years later, in my late teens, when I started reading about psychology, that I realized this childhood experience wasn’t weird at all, but was actually similarly experienced by others. It was a legitimate thing. My behaviour was made up of textbook Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder symptoms.

Finally, I had a word to describe something I had until then believed been unique to myself. And with that word, I could talk about my experience.

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What am I trying to get to with this story?

The feminist and LGBTQ+ liberation movements have an ironic contradiction in that they advocate for the doing-away of existing systems, such as binaries and words, yet are seemingly obsessed with language. Every day, it seems, I learn a new word. Gone are the basic categories of “gay,” “straight,” and “bi.” Now we have grey-asexual, aromantic, pansexual, gynosexual, androsexual etc. So why are we so obsessed with labels? Why do we say “don’t label yourself” and come up with a new plethora of labels all the time?

Labelling people is potentially harmful because humans don’t fit into nice little neat categories. Somewhere along the line of LGBTQ+ history, someone figured out that many people aren’t just “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.” Human sexuality, and human experience, for that matter, is more nuanced than that. Instead of being exclusively attracted to one sex or equally attracted to both, our sexuality can be understood on a spectrum. Hence a lot of people prefer to think of themselves as somewhere along the Kinsey scale.

But the Kinsey scale negates people who are asexual and also non-binary people. Hence we have come up with terms like “pansexual” to describe attraction to all genders, not just male and female. Meanwhile, “panromantic” describes romantic attraction, not sexual attraction, to all genders.

The more we learn about the human experience, and how wide-ranging it can be, the more words we use to describe it.

But here’s the caveat. If the human experience is so wide-ranging, diverse, and unique to every individual, we cannot possibly find a word for every single thing.

It’s like music genres. Yes there is rock, pop, classical, and hip-hop, but there’s also hardcore, softcore, skate punk, ska punk, black metal, death metal, and heavy metal. But at the end of the day, doesn’t each band have their own unique musical style?

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Travis Wise CC by 2.0

Labels do have a purpose though, and I think that purpose is similar to my experience with OCD. Labels give you a way to talk about things, and to find other people who have experienced those things, or even just find out other people with those experiences actually exist and you’re not alone. Many LGBTQ+ people, for example, can remember a point in their life when they hear about the label they fit with most for the first time and have a lightbulb moment. “Hey! This fits me! This is me!”

Reading about OCD gave me a sense of legitimacy. That all the bizarre stuff that happened to me wasn’t just something I made up because I was “crazy.” Realizing that this phenomenon of being meticulously obsessive was a thing that exists enough to have a label gave me an enormous sense of relief.

Of course, I identify with many labels, and I have mixed feelings about many of them. For example, I don’t know if I should identify more as a Canadian or a Chinese-Canadian or a Canadian-born Chinese (CBC). Similarly, words like “queer” have a long and complicated history with a multitude of polarized opinions.

Words are interesting, and while it may seem like we can do away with some of them, remember that a word always exists for a reason.

Walter Mitty and Living to the Fullest

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visually astounding film. In the story, a middle-aged, single man, Walter, is stuck in a humdrum job working with negative assets at LIFE magazine. He dreams of adventure, but has failed all his life to find it. Finally, a lost photo negative probes him to travel the world, from the mountains of Iceland to the mountains of Nepal, in a frantic search for something seemingly more than a negative.

A fictionalized motto of LIFE is repeated throughout the movie. It sounds quite nice, and it goes like this:

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.

Sounds pretty nice, eh?

Unfortunately, the film has mixed reviews and for good reason. It’s a bit overly-romantic in its find-the-meaning-of-life way and, if you’re interested, CreativeIndie covers some problematic aspects of its message here.

Still, it’s a pretty killer quote, cheesy as it sounds. And it made me think what my life manifesto should be.

Because that’s the meaning of life, you know? You have to define your meaning of life.

I’ve been mentioning that I’ve been experiencing a bit of a quarter-life crisis lately. Yeah, okay, so I’m not that old, but my impending mortality is a reality, and I have to figure out what to do with the next 50 or 60 years on Earth I have left for me.

This is what I came up with:

To discover.
To connect.
To feel.
To be afraid.
To create stories.

…interlaced with pictures of Iceland because it is beautiful and you should watch the movie just to see it.

To Discover

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I’m a big fan of the idea that what we know is barely anything and to know more is to feel more, understand more, and appreciate more. Having just returned from a brief academic exchange to England, I am now humbled by the truth that there is an enormous world out there, brimming with worldviews, perceptions, values, beliefs, and experiences just waiting to be discovered, explored, and understood. And I only went to another western English-speaking country. Think of the difference if I’d gone to South East Asia. Or Africa. Or even the Arctic tundra of my own country.

We have to define our own methods and goals of discovery. What treasures are we looking for? One of my closest friends, who’s the nomadic backpacker type, firmly holds the philosophy that she’ll never visit the same place twice. That’s her way of ensuring she’s always finding new and novel sensations, sights, and perceptions.

Personally, I haven’t set the parameters of my own discovery yet. I know I want to live for extended periods of time in different places, try my hand at different jobs, and be more open to chatting with people very different from myself. And, of course, read tons of books and listen to tons of music and bring myself in contact with tons of art. Because it’s important to see how different people express themselves. And also the intersections of our experiences.

You can vow to never taste the same beer twice. Or never read the same book twice. Or do something completely different like talk to a new person every day. The point is, the world is a library, and in our brief lifetime it’s in our best interest to check out as many books as we can.

To Connect

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This is the most challenging one to me, because I’m not a very sociable person. In fact, I’m rather introverted. While it’s not that difficult for me to make casual friends and acquaintances, genuinely connecting with people is another level. But it’s magical and it’s worth the effort, to be honest.

The older we get, the more complex our personalities, and the more difficult it is to find real connection, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop trying. I think simply putting ourselves in a place where connection can happen is a big favour to us, because genuine human connection is a wonderful thing. It’s built into our DNA. Otherwise, why is it that singing and dancing around a campfire still fills us with utmost joy?

Having grown up a little more, I’ve realized that finding connection is also knowing when not to pursue connection. I think many people are still in the “high school mentality” of wanting to validate themselves in front of people they think are cooler than them. (Or maybe that’s just me. Huh.) Anyway, it’s important to know that not everyone is obligated to like you as much as you like them, and likewise, you’re not obligated to impress everyone. Don’t waste your time on people you don’t connect with and find the ones you do.

To Feel

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To feel is to simply let yourself be affected. This ranges from love and ecstasy to heartbreak and melancholy and everything in between. Why let yourself feel the bad things too? Because it creates empathy.

Empathy is what connects us together. So by allowing yourself to feel, and by feeling, you know you’re doing “to connect” correctly. You also know you’re doing “to discover” correctly because it means you’re finding things that are actually impacting you.

Empathy also lowers our tendency to judge others and create an us vs. them mentality. Sometimes we put value judgements on other people and their experiences simply because we haven’t walked in their shoes and felt what they’ve felt. By allowing ourselves to feel instead of think, by giving way to our emotions, we come a little closer to understanding and appreciating different life experiences.

It also works both ways. By figuring out what impacts you and why, you can apply this to effect good feelings in others. Make the world around you a happier place. At least just a little.

But at the end of the day, human emotions are beautiful. (I mean, think of all the poetry and music dedicated to love and sunsets). Allow yourself to feel beauty, inspiration, and everything in between.

To Be Afraid

Why be afraid? It’s a bad thing, isn’t it?

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Well, I believe that extraordinary things happen when we are afraid. It is when we are uncomfortable, in a foreign place, dealing with new challenges, that our true potential shows itself. Being afraid kickstarts our creativity and problem-solving skills. And when we mess up in the face of fear (which we often do), that is when we grow and mature.

I wondered for a long time why I was such a more interesting person while travelling abroad, and that is because at home, I’m not afraid. Abroad, I am. Giddy, ignorant, and curious, I wanted to see everything, hear everything, taste and explore. And so doing, I learned many hard lessons and got rewarded on the way. I also discovered what I was capable of (and not capable of!).

To Create Stories

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This one’s a little different in that it goes two ways for me. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to tell stories, whether in the cool places I find or the unique experiences I undergo. I’m always looking for ingredients by observing the world and trying to pin down into words exactly what is so fascinating about our lives. And to do that, I have to go out and live and do all the above things: discover, connect, feel, be afraid.

But for everyone else—and it applies to me, actually—creating stories reminds me of Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother. He tries to make every night “legendary” by always convincing his friends to do something crazy (often in an inebriated state). Creating stories is about making memories, living a life now that will make you sound awesome in front of grandchildren. Living with no regrets.

And it’s hard. We chicken out all the time. Most of us want to stay comfortable, stay home, Netflix and chill. But I think if you are actively pursuing the other stuff on this list, stories will come. And it’s not instant. That’s something I have to constantly remind myself. I feel that I’m more of a talker and a walker, because I understand what I have to do and how to do it but it’s another step to take the courage and actually carry it out.

Guess that’s what life is for then: carrying things out. Onward.

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Post-Travel Identity Crisis Follow-up Post (Study Abroad reflections pt.4.5)

So it has come to my attention that my previous post, “A Post-Travel Identity Crisis (Study Abroad reflections pt. 4)” was terribly written as far as my blog posts go…and meanders quite a bit without having much of a point. This post is an attempt to rectify that.

Climbing ancient Roman ruins. (PC: K. Lowman)

Climbing ancient Roman ruins in Colchester, England, UK. (PC: K. Lowman)

Bottom line is, studying abroad and living abroad for a long time when you’ve grown up in the same place all your life makes you question who you are. I have a close friend who was born in Europe but grew up in Canada and then went on exchange in Europe again only to question whether she was truly North American or actually European.

I have it a little easier—I was born and grown in Canada so I’m comfortable saying I’m 100% Canadian. Although my folks are from Hong Kong and I am not the expected white Canadian most non-Canadians imagine Canucks to be, I still identify as an overly-apologetic mickey-drinking tuque-wearing cold-loving Canuck. I loved my time in England and may even move there someday, but to be honest I’d never call myself “British.” (If you want to read more about my identity as a Canadian child of immigrants, read my Children of Immigrants series).

More than who you are culturally though, I think my post-exchange identity crisis can be summed up by the following points:

  1. Being in a foreign place motivates you to get out of your comfort zone and accomplish more. Whether this be out of fear or out of excitement I have no idea. But I was not alone. Many people abroad with me felt braver, more sociable, more welcome to risk than they did at home. You realize you’re capable of much more.
  2. There’s a sense of disillusionment when you get home and you no longer have this motivation. I think it’s because home gives you a sense of satisfaction and safety that you subconsciously don’t want to ruin. I wrote a post on this regard on how I miss being the person I was when I was on exchange.
  3. You think you’ve seen all types of people, but abroad you will meet even more people and get to know their stories with an intimacy and an understanding you never expected. And this is humbling and perhaps the one of the most rewarding experiences you can get while on exchange. You get to submerge yourself in a culture and see it from the inside, see how it really ticks. And that challenges you to question your preconceived values and beliefs, about other people and yourself.
  4. Seeing all these possibilities, you start to wonder if you’re that complete after all. Before exchange, I had a pretty good idea of who I was. I am yea tall, have this colour hair and that colour eyes, am interested in such-and-such hobbies etc. Coming home, I’m not that sure anymore. After experiencing #3 and just meeting tons of people, I feel inspired to emulate admirable traits I’ve found in others I haven’t known existed before. And then I’ll have to figure out if I can even pull that off…
  5. I’m having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. This is more personal, as I never moved away from home and lived in a dorm for university like the stereotypical college experience. (I live at home and can commute to campus in 10 minutes.) I had a taste of “stereotypical college experience” living in a dorm abroad, and it brought to light exactly how much I missed out, and how much I could have grown, potentially, if I had had that experience. What kind of person would I be now if I’d taken that route? Would I be much different? More mature? Less? It depresses me a little, knowing I can never go back and do a first year as a wide-eyed 18 year-old again. But it’s no use dwelling on the what-may-have-been; rather, we must use look at the what-may-come.

Yeah, I’m a bit of a late bloomer, and honestly, I think I’m hitting a “turning point” in my life right now after this exchange adventure. I’ve been doing a lot of questioning, introspective thinking, philosophical musing…that sort of thing. This further drives my point that studying abroad is not about finding yourself. Rather, to find ourselves, perhaps we must lose ourselves first. And only gather up the pieces that truly matter, the pieces we really want and need.

A Post-Travel Identity Crisis (Study Abroad reflections pt.4)

How much are we a product of our influences and our heroes, the social groups we belong to, and the social groups we want to belong to? I hope I find some camaraderie through this post. It’s a bit of a meandering post and ends in a thing about youth, but anyway, enjoy my thought dump.

Cromer Lighthouse

After the hike up to Cromer Lighthouse. (PC: M. Pluskota)

Truthfully, this post doesn’t have much to do with the studying abroad series I’ve been writing the last while, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I’ve gotten back.

You must hear all the time that travelling opens up your perspectives. I’m tired of repeating this cliche, but it really does. Seeing different places and faces lets you appreciate the diversity of people out there. For example, I live in an immigrant-heavy coastal city where practically everyone I know has been on a plane and a different country because they were probably not born in this country. However, while abroad, I learned (quite surprisingly) that for many of my fellow-study-abroaders, this was the first time they’d ever gotten on a plane, went to a different country, or had their passport photos taken.

And the more people you meet, the more lifestyles you encounter that are different from your own, the more you start to question who you are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on the things I do and why I do them. I do things because I enjoy them…right? Or do I do things because the people in my immediate surroundings are doing them. Even worse, do I do things to fit in, to look good in front of a person/people I’d like to accept me?

Thinking like this makes me scared, because to be honest, I do take part in certain activities to appear a certain way or please a certain group/person. I think we all do. It’s how we get validation and a sense of belonging, to an extent.

(Generalizing immensely), I feel that most groups of young people are either very sociable and outgoing individuals that prefer activities like going to parties, or more introverted individuals who prefer a quiet night of conversation with intimate friends.

In my experience, it feels like you either have to belong to one or the other, but not both.  And having dipped in both types of these groups, there is definitely a stigma both types have against the other. People who like to party tend to see people who don’t as nerdy and boring, and wonder what the fun is in that. People who prefer staying in see people who party as unproductive time wasters not doing their livers a service, and wonder what the fun is in that.

I hope I’m not alone in admitting that, depending on my mood, I like both—to an extent. This became especially clear during studying abroad because I had more opportunity to spontaneously go out. At home, going out is something laborious that I kind of dread, and last year I would have considered myself a quiet and stay-at-home person. But while in the midst of random dorm parties in England, I’d think to myself, “Hey, this really isn’t all that bad.”

On some days I’d want to let loose and go to a loud place, talk loudly, and enjoy a highball. On other days I’d rather snuggle up with a few close friends and watch a movie with a hot drink. And that’s where my identity crisis lies—in each of these spheres, I feel, well, incomplete. In the first scenario, I feel that I lack an important sort of social intimacy, the kind you can’t get at a loud club. In the second scenario, I have a restlessness that I should be doing something more than just sitting around.

Am I supposed to pick one social-culture and commit to it, or find a social-culture exactly like myself? If it’s the latter, I haven’t found a group like this yet. I feel like a floater, floating between personalities, floating between spaces where I feel comfort in one moment and discomfort the next.

I don’t know how to answer my question. Maybe I have to do the thing where I hike out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and get to know myself. Or maybe, as I’ve disclaimed, I’m making massive generalizations that are uncalled for, perceiving people as more polarized than they actually are. But a lot of social interaction has to do with perception, right? And this is what I (perhaps in a skewed way) perceive: a general sense of un-belonging, of something-missing-ness amongst other humans—and consequential identity crises.

Like I said in a previous post, I felt like a different person on exchange, willing to take on more things than I usually do. Now that I’m home, am I still that person? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Or maybe people are fluid. We change by the day and by the decade, and between the hours of the day we adapt our behaviours accordingly.

Or maybe I’m just growing up and changing and finding my niche. Just a year ago I was definitely not the person I am now. Just a year ago I expected to stay in Vancouver for the rest of my life, get a career here, and eventually earn enough to buy a house maybe. Now, in February 2016, after coming back from exchange, I want to live in a variety of places. I’m thinking of moving to Scotland for a year or two. I’m thinking of doing more travelling after that. I’m thinking of doing more physical things, whether that be outdoor adventuring or working in a forest doing manual labour. I’m thinking of becoming a barista and meeting a hundred different people each day.

When I was in England—probably due to living with a dorm of eager students several years younger than myself—I was reminded of the newness and wonder of being young. Having been in university for some years now, I’ve started to move away from youthful idealism towards a more adult-like seriousness when thinking about life. But while I was having adventures in England, watching my first-year roommates move out for the first time, seeing the excitement and anticipation in their eyes, I thought: “Hey, youth doesn’t have to be over. I’m still only 21. I’m allowed to make mistakes, explore, and discover who I really am.”

And I don’t think we should stop doing that. Ever.

On Regrets (Study Abroad reflections pt.3)

Some time has elapsed since I’ve gotten home, plenty of space to think since it’s the holidays. As much as I loved my time abroad, I can’t help but think of all the things I could have done to make my experience even better.

My biggest regret was not spending an entire year abroad instead of a semester. I was just starting to get comfortable with new places and faces so that they were not new anymore—to have these things taken away right at the high point felt cruel.

And as strange as this may sound, I regret traveling as much as I did. I felt I did not spend enough time in my home city of Norwich and building stronger, long-term relationships with the people there and getting involved in local places and happenings. I regret not being more involved with my exchange school and going to club socials.

I have other regrets, and they all have to do with not seizing the opportunity enough, if that makes sense. It was the first time in my life I got to live for an extended period away from my family, in a land of what seemed like boundless opportunity because I knew no one and no one knew me. I had a clean slate and looking back at the experiences I had, I believe I didn’t take full advantage of it.

And I don’t think I’m alone. I do think others who went abroad for a semester, or even a year, have similar thoughts. And after spending a little time being bitter about it all, I have a few words for you—us—who have thoughts of regret:

You did the best you could.

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Balliol College, Oxford University, Oxford, UK

Perhaps exchange has changed me from the person I was before I left home to the person I am after I left home, and I’m looking back on exchange with the eyes of this new person I have become. At the time I was making pre- and during-exchange decisions, I was a different person and making the best decisions I could make at the time.

Sometimes I imagine all the possible trajectories my exchange story could have taken if only I’d done X, Y, or Z. But who knows they would have panned out in the way I imagine them to? What if I’d taken path Y instead of my current path X, and end up regretting not taking path X instead?

There will always be some regret when going through a big experience.

But that means you’ve learned.

And next time, maybe you’ll be a new self making new decisions. And there will be decision-regret then as well, but that’s inevitable.

And yes, there will always be a next time. If not on exchange, in life at home. How different really is it, our lives abroad and our lives at home? You are the same person, you may have just learned something different from your time abroad. Bring it back home and use it at home.

What I learned about travelling travelling (Study Abroad reflections pt.2)

Travel wondervibes. (PC: K. Lowman)

Travel wondervibes. (PC: K. Lowman)

It’s 7pm on a Saturday and I’m reading in my dorm room. I’d wanted to go on a trip this weekend—every weekend somewhere different, that was the goal—but a trip to Yarmouth on the coast with my flatmates got called off because of the pitter-patter growing ever more aggressive outside my windowpanes. So here I was, toying in the back of my mind what to do about tomorrow, when one of my American friends also on exchange messages me on Facebook. Colchester. Tomorrow. An hour or less by train. Cheap prices. What’s in Colchester? I’ve no clue, so I ask, but before the history-major Americans even start explaining, I give a resounding yes.

I grew up being told by adults to meticulously plan everything for maximum success: have a set itinerary, do research, go to places that are “worth it”, strike these things off your list. But a little spontaneity can go a long way. Having no expectations can let you have an amazing, stress-free time rather than being disappointed with something you’ve previously hyped up in your head. Of course, planning things like how to get somewhere and how to get back takes off the worse of anxiety (and after my nightmare in Stansted Airport, I will hereby be at airports 2 hours prior my flight like they tell me, thank you very much!), but being spontaneous lets you be flexible and live in the moment.

Our spontaneous trip out to Colchester turned out to be one of my most memorable trips, even though it was relatively low-key, just a day trip, and I got feverish the morning of the trip. The town was a small one that we covered satisfactorily in one day and was teeming to the brim with neat historical ruins left over from the Romans—yes, that old, that far back—and locals just walk by them without a second glance!

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Colchester Castle

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Castle was guarded by a real dragon.

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Really old stuff: Romans built these walls way back when.

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The devil’s in the details: doodle by someone on guard duty.

Some ruins are climbable...

Some ruins are climbable… (PC: K. Lowman)

We visited a castle with Roman temple foundations, a central layer commissioned by Normans, and additional layers from prison to personal estate and more. We burrowed in the basement once used as a bunker to the rooftops now sometimes used as a wedding space. Dressed up as jousting knights with the costumes and toy swords they leave out for kids and built an arch out of foam blocks. Walked around the city, found a few neat (and free!) museums, and this otherworldly and majestic place called St. Botoph’s Priory:

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Surreal, no? Many stories must have happened here long, long ago.

There’s a grandness to places like London, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen (big capital cities I visited whilst in Europe this trip), but there’s something fleetingly precious and memorable about tiny off-the-beaten-road gems like small towns too. They too can have richly delicious plates of history to taste, arches and tunnels just as magical to scurry through. Maybe because small towns are quieter, with less distractions, but it’s much easier to breathe in the place and appreciate that you’re actually there when you’re there. And of course, wherever you are in England, you’ll always get cream tea (tea and scones with jam and cream) to round off any travel day.

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PC: K. Lowman

The real reason why I miss England (Study Abroad reflections pt.1)

It’s been a few days since I’ve returned home from my three-month study-abroad stint in England. Thanks to jetlag, I’m asleep by 10pm and up at 5am. For the first time in three months, I’m not living with 12 other people in a dormitory, nor do I need to read or write essays, so it’s been eerily quiet. Time and space to think.

I haven’t written in three months; that’s how busy and wild and chaotic and hectic it’s been. I apologise (look! I used an S instead of a Z! the British way!). But if you knew how many times I’ve had to sleep at 2 and wake up at 4 to catch a plane/train/something that moves, you’d understand.

I’ll talk about the trip. I’ll talk about the stories, the people I met, the shenanigans I got into, and of course the deep and reflective stuff about paradigm shifts and world perspectives and growing up and blablabla—but before all that, I want to talk about just one thing.

I miss England. Deciding to do a semester-long exchange instead of a year-long one was the worst mistake I’ve ever made. (Granted, I didn’t really have a choice because if I did do a year I’d delay my already super-delayed graduation). Yes, I miss England because I miss the places I found and the people I met. I miss cream tea in gardens and used bookstores with hidden back rooms and endless galleries and cobblestones rippling with hundreds of years of stories. I miss group selfies that never turn out right, midnight pranks on roommates, and even that time I was certain I’d miss my flight at Stansted because security thought my hands were—and I quote—”explosive.”

But what I miss most is myself. The me that was there.

Let me be clear: I’ve never lived away from home before. I grew up right on the borders of one of the nicest universities in the country with a program well-suited for me, so I had no reason to leave home for school. And although I know how to take care of myself to the extent that I sometimes cook for my parents, the comfort of home and the need to respect the rules that come with a free roof have always been there.

But taking care of myself wasn’t a life-changer for me. What changed was my approach to things. Unencumbered by authoritative limits and living in a land I had not explored, I was pretty damn motivated to do things. Be my own chooser of adventurer. I made it a point to travel somewhere new basically every weekend, to embrace the unknown, the foreign, the strange, the discomforting. Another thing to be clear about: safe at home I’m powerfully introverted—I prefer to be alone, I get tired of socializing, my walls are usually up. But over there…my walls lowered just a little. I went out a little more, interacted a little more. I even asked someone out—which I’ve never done before—and although I wasn’t successful, I’m pretty damn proud I did it.

In other words, I was in a really healthy headspace. I was driven, and I had this belief that there were so many things to do and I had to do as many of them as possible before time ran out. As a writer, my mind was overloaded with stimulation, and waters blasted open the dam that is writer’s block. I was in a place with so much literary history and so many stories wedged in its street corners. It was then that I vowed to return again for a solid year (or even more) and be in this mood again.

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Spontaneously-found viewpoint in Stirling, Scotland (on the border of the Highlands).

That’s it for now, but stay tuned for more stories.

Why I’m not going on exchange to “find myself”

I’ve written on this topic before about the need to travel and “find yourself.” This post is going to be more or less the same thing…except I’m writing it from an airport gate about to depart on a 10+ hour flight to Amsterdam, layover for 3 hours, then continue on to Norwich for a three month study abroad session in the United Kingdom. (I find it amusing that the passengers of this flight are mostly older folks, save a teary young man calling his girlfriend or something).

The reason I’m going away isn’t really to discover some greater meaning in life or myself. Rather, I thought it was high time I get a crash course in taking care of myself. No, not the kind of taking care of yourself you do crouched in front of a toilet at 3AM after a night of hardcore drinking and partying. A little more mundane than that—stuff like learning how to get your paperwork together, learning how to live with other people, learning how to navigate a different country with nothing but Google Maps (thank the Lord for Google Maps).

Throughout the last couple of weeks of travel planning, I’ve learned that being an Independent Adult is as much planning your next adventure and getting really really stoked about it as it is filling out forms and checking and double checking and triple checking that you have everything you need so as to not be turned back at the border of your new adventureland. It also means rolling your eyes when Older Adults give you Travel Advice only to realize later that they were maybe at least 90% right…

Otherwise, like I’ve written about earlier, I don’t have a need to find myself because I already know where I am. I’m at a somewhat-naive, doesn’t-know-what-to-do-when-she-grows-up-but-oh-wait-she’s-grown-up university student who’s finally embarking on the Go Away To Study dream she’s had since she was a-little-girl-without-any-realistic-knowledge-of-finances.

So instead of going abroad to find myself, I’m going away to Find Other Stuff. Find other people, places, things, and ideas. And finding out how to do things I’ve never done before.