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International Voices

15079 km


I was a kid who stuck close to home growing up. From the minute I started school, the commute was never far. Going to the middle school from my house was a mere 1.7 km. Moving on to high school increased it to 4 km. University was a completely different ball game. Moving from the east coast of Malaysia to the West (a whopping 340 km) to study was the farthest I’ve ever been from home. However, that distance meant nothing because I could easily make the travel home if I wanted to, not to mention the frequent visits my parents would pay just to see me. At that rate, it left me to wonder what sort of feeling the distance 15079 km would evoke?

At a distance of 15079 km, separated by a 12-hour time difference, whenever I get up to go to school and get busy, my parents are in the late hours of their night. When they are busy during the day, I am often burning the midnight oil. In truth, we don’t have much time to talk. However, my parents will always give me a call every evening without fail, which is early morning on their end. The familiar voices I hear during each call I get fill me with immense warmth and a renewed pang of homesickness. Despite my hectic schedule, all I need is just a few words from my parents to keep me content and happy for the rest of the day. Each call we exchange allows me to feel that the distance between us is minimal, almost as if we are residing in the same city but are too occupied with our individual lives to meet up in person.

At a distance of 15079 km, it is a 24-hour journey by flight. Last year, July was the happiest I’ve been in my entire year of being here, since that was when my parents and sister visited me in Philadelphia. At that moment, I deeply felt that even in a foreign country, as long as family members are around, I was home. After a year of being away from them,  to remember them stepping out into the arrival hall still leaves me with a sense of disbelief. I still cannot believe that they were actually in the States, a mere 10 feet away from me. The moment they held me tight, warmth surged through me. After having to rely on myself and live independently for a year, the moment we reunited filled me with feelings akin to a bird who returned to its nest–nothing but a sense of security. During their trip here, we traveled around New York City and Atlantic City. We went sightseeing around the Statue of Liberty and shopped. Immersing myself into these touristy sights and sounds allowed me to deceive myself into thinking that I was merely an excited tourist like my family members instead of a student here. After that, my mother decided to stay back a week longer in Philadelphia to accompany me. This act was a gift; it allowed me to re-experience the feeling of living with family despite her short stay. During the week, my mother spoiled me rotten with bountiful food and immense care. It was a wonderful way to relive my old days from home.

At a distance of 15079 km, I had the courage to break out from my circle of friends of 16 years, and throw myself into a foreign beginning. My hometown is not large and everyone banded together from childhood. We played together and got into trouble together, we went to school together or played hooky together, and we were always there to witness each other’s personal growth. Even in college, some of us still stuck together as roommates. This band of merry friends played a prominent role in my life during my teenage years, always there for me when needed. That’s why the parting was so much more painful when I moved away for college, which left me with a sense of helplessness. However, social media and FaceTime makes it easy to stay connected. We will stay up till the late hours talking each other’s ears off. “If you need me, call me anytime, there is no time difference between us.” These parting words from them to me as I boarded the plane moved me to tears. Fast forward to now, and we’re still connected through social media, trying to keep up with everyone else, and honestly, it does not feel like much has changed.

At a distance of 15079 km, after 492 days of anticipation, came the long awaited one. It was the day I crossed this distance and finally returned home. The minute when I entered the house, that familiar appearance of the house did not change as it did when I left. As I went into my room, the room was “automatically” spotless as usual. I know that this is my mum’s silent act of love, her way of welcoming her children back home. But thinking that everything would never change, was that the truth? I remember when I left home, my nephew was still a toddler; the little boy who was still in my arms at the time now knew how to walk. When I was excited to run forward and pick him up in my arms, he was suddenly scared and started crying. My mum reassured him with kind words: “silly baby, this is the aunt that always talks to you on the phone.” Although this was funny, I can’t help but wonder, “What did I miss when I was not around?” Everything that I thought would never change as long as we kept in touch, was it really the same? Where does this feeling of unfamiliarity come from?

The first day when I returned home was Winter Solstice, an event that’s far more important than Chinese New Year according to the older generations. After a long absence, sitting down for that reunion dinner with my family, filled me with warmth. However, when I took a serious look at everyone, I realized how weary they looked. Since when did my parents have this many wrinkles on their faces, and had their white hairs always been this visible? Grandmother is getting older, her memory and hearing are slowly fading, even the grandmother I was close to as a child brings forth a feeling of strangeness, and we are not as close as we used to be. After dinner, I went for a joy ride with my friends. Looking at the small town that I left a year ago induced a touristy feeling. Since when do we have this tall skyscraper? Since when do we have this many new restaurants? Why is the breakfast spot I used to frequent during high school closed now? The town is changing, so do my friends. They are all grown up too, from  naïve and childish kids to mature adults. Some have gathered more experiences, some have more heartaches, everyone is going through their own personal growth. We will never be the same as we used to be.

I know, during our twenties, as mature birds would leave the nest for better things, so are we as we leave the coddle of our parents and friends and head out into the world. Maybe it is the distance amplifying the homesickness and making the changes apparent in everyone that  has made me so sensitive that I have seen such a change in everything here. In truth, I understand that people are always changing. I have also experienced something that I have never experienced before. I have also grown up; from never stepping into the kitchen, to making sure I don’t starve to death by dealing with my own three meals. My mum thinks this is an incredible accomplishment for me! It is this 15079 km distance that prevents me from being part of their life story, and likewise for them with my story. I missed out on them, they missed out on me. No matter how much effort we put into keeping in touch, we live in different circles. They can never truly understand the emotions and challenges I experience here. This goes both ways as I will never fully understand the dedication and perseverance they put into their own goals. Although warmth radiates between our computer screens during our skype sessions, even to the point of deceiving us into thinking that “everything is still the same”, an illusion is still an illusion. We cannot stop change from happening.

My friend said: “We will not forget you, but we will gradually get used to your absence”. In reality, I’m also getting used to life without them by my side. Perhaps as we grow, we will gradually reach a point in our life where we have to separate, and we will have to learn to keep our tenderness within our memories until we meet again. We will live out parallel lives, never to intersect with another until the time comes.

As it turns out the distance of 15,079 kilometers is the distance between two worlds that are only stitched by pixelated faces and threads of who I was before.