Finding my way home

Impulsive Coward

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The r/berkeley subreddit is a magical place. No matter how depressing or absurd a post is, there will always be a chain of replies from people offering their two cents. With this knowledge, I took to writing my first ever Reddit panic post the other night:

“it’s 2:40 AM and i’m thinking about dropping out and f—ing off to the netherlands. help.”

I’m a freshman at UC Berkeley, and we haven’t even finished the fall semester. With my motivation and self-confidence dwindling, the spring semester being confirmed online felt like the last straw. After a few hours of sporadic research, I found a university in Utrecht I began placing all my hopes on. I even figured out what I’d major in and which organizations I’d join. 

I blew the dust off the escape hatch that lives rent-free at the back of my mind, always; only this time, it was destination Utrecht. 

Visits to my imaginary escape hatch are a lot less frequent than they used to be. I tend to escape when I already feel invisible, powerless or unwanted, which first became lasting feelings when I moved from suburban Massachusetts to the alien world of Shanghai years ago. 

Despite the fact that I’m ethnically Chinese, the culture shock I experienced upon arriving in China hit me in waves. Existing in a cultural limbo between Chinese culture and American culture made me feel like an outsider, particularly among my extended family. Every time I asked what a Mandarin word meant or why we practiced certain traditions during holidays, I felt like I was taking notes and trying not to look like a tourist. 

Even attending my cousin’s wedding and learning about Chinese wedding traditions left me feeling out of place. “就让她体验一下中国文化吧,” my aunt remarked to my mother, looking me up and down. Let her experience some Chinese culture. “君逸穿的衣服好洋气啊,” my uncle commented in passing. The clothes she wears look so Western. I’d forever be a foreigner in their eyes — not Chinese enough to simply be a part of that celebration. Feeling like an outsider only pushed me to want to escape.

Although my Netherlands escape hatch was a lot less thought-out back then, escaping my situation in any way felt like the only way to take back control. I’d immerse myself in fiction, TV, online forums, scouring the internet for a community to latch on to. I was afraid of coming to terms with not having a home or community where I longed for it the most: with all of my family. 

That same feeling crept back at 2:40 a.m. that night, the soft glow of my laptop screen displaying my literal call for help. I wanted to escape to Utrecht because I was afraid of coming to terms with not having a community at UC Berkeley. 

As I reread my post, I felt pathetic and alone. Sitting there in the dark, I contemplated shutting my laptop and going to sleep. Then, a soft ping. A reply!

“I’d make the decision from position of power rather than stress. You got this!”

Response after response, I felt more seen than I’d ever felt in Zoom classes or orientation. I found that everyone was working through their own problems in the ways they knew best. Apparently finding community is as simple as reaching out, albeit virtually. 

In retrospect, I was ready to up and move to Utrecht even though I was confusing healthy risk-taking with escapism. Instead of being an adventurous risk, though, it was a panic move driven by my idealization of someplace I’d never been. It was the perfect escape from having to confront my own inadequacy. If I ever were to end up in Utrecht, I wouldn’t want my decision to stem from fear.

Turns out, I’ve been seeing risk-taking the wrong way for a while now. It doesn’t always sound very exciting, and it’s not always about having the courage to up and leave — it’s also about having the resolve to stick it out and confront who you are, and risk being hurt and let down by putting your pride on the line. 

One of my greatest fears is that I’ll never find a sense of home outside the small bubble of my current life in Shanghai. Each small risk at a time, though, I’ve learned that finding “home” is all about improvising and redefining my idea of it. 

I’ve been feeling so alone within my college community, but at least I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who wants to drop out and move to the Netherlands. I’m finding community through common experience, and it’s something I’ll continue searching for. I couldn’t find belonging within my culture or extended family, but I’m learning to celebrate my cultural limbo instead of viewing myself as a pitiable spectator with a need to escape. Instead of fleeing to the internet,  I’ve opened up to friends who have similar experiences being cross-cultural, and I continue to surround myself with people who understand. 

Building a sense of home takes a lot of work, but I’ll stick it out — one little risk at a time.

Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]