Two years ago, in a typhoon of mixed emotion, I left all I knew and moved clear across the Pacific Ocean to pursue my college education. When I first got to Berkeley, backpack and overstuffed luggage in tow, I was overwhelmed by the excess of the unfamiliar. Everything and everyone felt so foreign; it was all so weird. But over time, I got used to it.
I started to remember the faces of the strangers I passed on the street daily. I studied at the same coffee shop every other day until the baristas memorized my order. I took the night shuttle enough times to get on a first-name basis with the driver. Strangers were no longer so strange, and what had once been unusual was now my usual.
One particular pair of strangers with whom I’ve developed a familiar relationship is the couple that owns the nail salon I frequent. The salon had just opened less than a block from my apartment at the time, and because of the convenience, I became a regular. After two visits, they recognized my face. After five visits, we traded stories about our hometowns — mine in Guam and theirs in Vietnam. After eight visits, they sent me home with a five-pound bag of fruit because I was “like family.” After 10 visits, I became the first customer to fill out one of their stamp cards.
Getting my nails done anywhere is relaxing, a way to treat myself, but getting them done while surrounded by kind, caring people is all the more comforting.
One day, I sat down on a leather chair in the salon and lowered my feet into the warm bath for yet another pedicure. The owner must have thought my backpack would get wet, so she asked me if she could move it, already reaching to pick it up. Before I could stop her, she lifted the strap and got the backpack a couple inches off the ground before immediately setting it down and letting out a heavy breath. “Oh my God. So heavy.”
I laughed a little and then apologized for not warning her. “I know, I know. It’s always that heavy.” Between my laptop, a textbook, various notebooks and readers, my backpack is probably about half my weight.
Her husband came over and lifted my backpack and set it on a nearby chair, saying as he moved it, “You know, you carry that heavy backpack around all day every day. But one day, it will be worth it.” He paused, and I looked at him, lifting an eyebrow in curiosity. He continued, “On the day you graduate.”
Carrying 20 pounds on my already scoliotic back every day is hardly a sacrifice when everything in it is a part of an amazing four-year journey that I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life. It’s kind of like backpacking across Europe.
I’ve never done that, but I imagine what it might be like. I’ll have a plan, but it’ll change probably every day. I’ll pack something that I will probably never need just in case. I’ll go to all the places I’ve dreamed of going to. I’ll meet people and create friendships that will be better than anything I could ever imagine. I’ll be so busy growing and making memories that I won’t even notice how damn heavy my backpack is.
Backpacking across the last two years of my life has looked just like that. I had a plan when I got here, but I’ve switched my major three times and I change the direction of my future every day. I stay up studying a reading that I’ll never need in life, but I read anyway. I’m getting a stellar education at an esteemed university.
I’ve met people who have changed my life for the better, and now I can’t imagine how dull this journey might have been without these once-strangers. A girl I ran into at the gym during Welcome Week my freshman year is now one of my best friends. A bunch of sweet people who introduced themselves to me at a meeting are now my roommates and my sisters. The guy who walked me home at night because he happened live in the same direction is now — well, we’re still figuring that out, but I couldn’t be happier.
My backpack, along with the other burdens on my shoulders, will always be heavy. But I don’t really mind because I don’t notice. I’m too busy appreciating every page in this chapter of my life. I’m lucky to have found a community of individuals who will support me and help me carry the weight on my shoulders. I’m only halfway through this trip of a lifetime, but on the day I graduate, I’ll look back and know it was worth it. All of it: carrying that backpack, choosing studying over sleeping and everything my family sacrifices, even paying out-of-state tuition.
I’ve learned to see the beauty in the struggle, to find friendship in strangers and to find a home in the unknown.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected.
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