Pursuit of an unconditional self: A personal essay

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A whole year ago, I was a different person. It’s obvious to say but startling to think about. A whole year ago, I hadn’t been away from home on my own for longer than three weeks at a time. I was myself by relation to everything else: my home, my close circle, my school. I was mapped by checkpoints and landmarks — the supermarket near my house, the day I’d decided to be a writer, the majors and minors I chose to pursue. But who was I, on my own, alone? What could I be stripped down to? What essence?

I didn’t know.

At the very least, I knew I didn’t like not knowing. And this unknown, this phantom mental itch, I had felt for years now. It drove me to first take a small step abroad, going to Nicaragua for two and a half weeks as a junior in high school. But it was too easy to come home afterward and feel myself shed the incredible experiences I’d had over those few weeks. Before I knew it, the elasticity of my mind and heart had adapted back into my comfort zone. The work I’d done to learn who I was outside of it had unraveled. What I’d learned about the world remained; what I’d learned about myself did not.

So when I decided once more that I would go abroad in college, I knew it had to take me out of my bubble for longer. It had to be long enough to break habits and build new ones, to disentangle myself from the crutches of familiarity and convenience. I wanted to get to know myself in a different context. Why exactly, I hadn’t yet uncovered. I only knew the “what”: that I needed to know me before anything else.

That “what” motivated me through months of paperwork and planning last fall to get myself 102 precious days in Dublin, Ireland, in the spring of 2019. A few things I knew for certain: I would deeply enjoy the creative writing curriculum I’d chosen, I would miss my loved ones every single day I was gone and I was growing increasingly uncertain that I wanted to do this at all.

The day I was to leave was the day I most regretted planning to go in the first place. I watched my mom and sister for as long as I could before the security line pushed me into the belly of the airport with its all-white fluorescents, linoleum tiling and promise of absolute isolation on the other side of the world. I followed the flow of people mindlessly. It was the only way not to panic, not to give in to the sudden overwhelming fear that I had confused alone with lonely. That in my rush to find myself by myself, I had set myself up for three months of displacement and heartache. That I had truly no idea what I was doing, but somewhere along the way, I’d bought into the illusion that I did. And now, faced with the reality of what I was about to do, I wasn’t so sure I knew what was best for me.

And now, faced with the reality of what I was about to do, I wasn’t so sure I knew what was best for me.

Ten hours after I boarded the plane, I reached Dublin. I met my housemates and toured our apartment. Throughout orientation week, I met our program coordinators and professors, made tentative acquaintances among my peers and tried desperately to memorize the route to school. For the first few weeks, fear and uncertainty were too much to bother with. I made friends. I learned my schedule. I did what I needed to do.

But a writer on a study abroad program for creative writing can’t well avoid thinking forever. And even if the first few assignments prompted us to internalize and respond to the newness of it all, as we wrote more and more, compiled our portfolio and embarked on a writer’s retreat, I had to remember what I was there for in the first place.

“Why did you go abroad? What insight have you gained?”

On paper, it was the topic of our personal essay for my immersion writing course, the longest piece in our nonfiction portfolio and one of the last works I wrote in the program. In reality, it was a challenge of honesty and self-awareness — to reflect while in the situation still. I put it off for days.

What I finally wrote was a testament to the moment in which I wrote it — on a bus, in transit. The piece was temporally confused, emotionally undulating. It came to no certain end, drew out a minute into 2,000 words, and brought me backward years in reflection. The feedback I got on it when it was workshopped was at once unanimous and split: 

“It’s beautiful,” they said. “But what does it mean?” 

Some thought it was fine not to understand, while others took that as my own lack of self-understanding. Some told me it was too pretty to be raw and honest enough.

The jury is still out on whether that piece is any good to read. All I know is that it was a good piece to write, the type of essay that, by the end, I learned what I couldn’t quite put a finger on in the beginning.

Why?

Why did I need to know what others are content with assuming, imagining, even dismissing? What did I get out of understanding who I am outside of what I am? 

I was not anything outside of context: a student, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend. A year ago, I was nothing to or for myself alone.

The answer was in the semester I’d spent a year ago, right before going abroad — a juxtaposition so stark yet so easily missed. I had lived alone in the midst of a suffocating semester, drowning in the work, avoiding others and simultaneously holding on desperately to each bit of human interaction I came across. I was not anything outside of context: a student, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend. A year ago, I was nothing to or for myself alone. And how could one care for, consider and love — nothing? 

A whole year ago, I was the culmination of my attachments. Conversely, I was nothing without them. I left to find something about me that stayed when the scenery changed. 

Did I find it?

When I was abroad, I took a picture that is ambiguous about if the sun is rising or setting in the sky. The sun in the photo is suspended, nearly here, nearly there, but neither completely. Coming back, rereading my pieces and writing new reflections as my time abroad percolates through everything I do has brought me out of the nothing state. But to create something, to build up, has always taken more time than to break down and scrutinize. 

My experience abroad gave me the space to unfold myself and lay flat the pieces of me. The work now is to rearrange, rediscover and relearn how to be, without condition or context.

Contact Sean Tseng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @STWeekender24.

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