It has been nearly a year since I was at home and saw my parents. Seven years ago, my parents would never have imagined me studying abroad, backpacking across continents, and hopping around by planes. While my parents do not need to pay for my school (Singapore, U.K., and the U.S.) throughout theses years, (thanks to scholarship from Colgate University) they never spend a dime on traveling or entertainment. “What if something happens? You are all alone, without any relative or friend in all these new countries. We can’t help you solve any problem, we don’t have any network, but we can at least give you some emergency money,” my mum always says. It does frighten me sometimes when I fill in the emergency contact. Who should I put there? What’s the use of putting my parents? If something really happens, will people find an interpreter to talk to them? Usually, I push back these thoughts when they arise, and after so many times of leaving, I thought I would be more immune to what I call airport emotions, which include nostalgia for the old attachments, anxiety towards the unknown future, and a heavy heart that wants to linger and settle.
I could still remember the first time our small family sent farewell. In the crowded Pudong International Airport four hours away from my hometown Hefei, we didn’t hug, nor did we cry. I was only a secondary schooler about to embark on a four-year journey abroad and alone. And before I entered the security check, my father gave an affirming squeeze to my hand.
When I was young, my father always clasped my hands tightly. He knew that I was hasty — always wanting to save time and get to the destination as soon as possible. He never grew tired of saying, “don’t save a few seconds at the risk of your life” before we crossed roads. I never understood why he made such a big fuss of it. It was a crisp autumn night, a few weeks after I signed the contract for a scholarship to study in Singapore, and he asked me to go out for a walk. I was a bit unwilling to move, but as I would be leaving him, this city, and this country soon, I thought it was nice of me to spend more time with him. I could not hide my excitement, for finally, I could start my independent life.
My father was walking in front of me. The golden piles of leaves covered the road like a thick mat and rustled under our feet. He wobbled as we walked and that made him look clumsy. In my memories, he was always so fit. When I threw my badminton racket down in exasperation after an hour of intense playing with him, he stood there and yelled sternly: “Pick it up! One more round!” Once, my fingers were drenched with blood after prolonged rubbing against the handle, he forced me to carry on. Now those scars of yesteryear have become calluses that help me survive more brutal fights. As I walked by his side with my hands wrapped inside his, he and said, “I intended to tell you after 18, but it seems the time now.”
My heartstring tightened.
I thought I always knew it. When I was young, I always wondered why my parents were so protective and controlling that I felt suffocated. I hated it and once even made a plan to run away from home. They always wanted to know where I was going, they never failed to pick me up after school, and all these omnipresent control made me feel like being watched. I also did not have pocket money, and my mother bought me anything I needed, which further excused me from doing anything on my own. I was rebellious, and even reckless sometimes. Yearning to be free and independent, I resorted to books that offer me another life, wrote diaries in broken English mixed with secret symbols no one but me could decipher (at least to my impression), and saved letters at my friends’ houses. I was self-reflective, pensive, and kept-up, for mind was the only place that I could have autonomy. Growing up, I have a penchant for adrenaline rush, new experiences, and dangerous adventures. And maybe more out of unconsciousness, I have always been in long-distance relationships, for that is the safest kind for me to have my own world, my independence, and freedom.
However, the father to daughter talk that night shattered me. In the middle of the street, I wailed like a deserted child when I learnt that his 15-year- old son died in a car accident on the way home. The driver ran away and was not punished. Not surprisingly, it was too hard for them to bear, so they decided to have a new child – Over these years, I have tried to listen to my heart, but I gradually realized listening to my heart alone is no longer possible. I could not help thinking about my parents in another continent, who are probably left with only a quarter of their life. It took me so many years to make sense of my childhood and how it has shaped me, yet I have not fully understood. Over these years, as I set foot on more foreign soils and meet more people all over the world, I feel it is unfair for my parents to relive the similar experience of their child leaving, again and again. I do not want to broach a subject that would trigger so much pain for them. Once I asked my father why they would encourage me to pursue whatever I want and just go further and further away. It must feel like a second loss, and that sudden letting go must have worried them so much. But my father answered with//ease, “I know that we cannot keep you. Since young you are so ambitious and free-spirited. I remembered once I found your plan to run away and travel! I was so frightened, but I realized that your heart is with the world.”
Sometimes when I relish an exotic view or a sumptuous meal, I wish I could bring them here and enjoy together as a family. But as they age rapidly, their health is also failing. Both my parents haven’t left our city for years, but they print out all the pictures I sent them during traveling through the Internet. My mother never knows how to use a computer, but she signed up for a computer class to type me emails handwritten by my father. My parents still don’t understand a word in English, but they remember the obscure names of every place I went and tell their friends about them, proudly. Maybe like a reader who lives a thousand lives through books, my parents can go to a hundred places through the lens of their daughter.
Ironically, going further away from home has not helped me become freer, because, in my heart, there are more feelings of duty, mixed with guilt, responsibility, and love. It adds complexities and struggles to each decision I make, but it is not a burden.
It is strength.
The world is right in front of me, and I am ready to embrace it bravely with love and faith.
Quanzhi Quo is a sophomore at Colgate University. You can contact Quanzhi Guo at firstname.lastname@example.org.