In the summer of 2017, the plan was to be on track for my lifelong goal to apply for medical school. But I decided to toss that blueprint into the back burner. It was time for some soul searching. And so I dropped my MCAT classes, packed the first $1400 I made and bought a one way ticket to a little old town in Eastern Europe, the continent that I felt for the first time, for as long as I can remember since I was a little kid — joy. The continent I believed time stood still, the place of fairytale castles and old towns of dreams.
Throughout my life, I had always thought of my life in a checklist, schedule driven kind of way. I wanted to be graduate from a prestigious school, be a doctor by 28, married by 30, have 3 kids by 35, and retire with grandkids by 65. Everything was drawn up on some kind 90s high school freshman year cheatsheet of career planning. Somewhere along the way in college, I started to realize that I these things that I had planned out was for the sake of stability. The people I met and the things that I experienced made me realize that I wanted so much more than to spend all my time and efforts just to feel safe — I wanted to really live my life. I wanted to see where I can go, how far I can reach with everything that I’ve got — my creativity, my intelligence, my diligence, all my foundations. I wanted to see what I could do for the world.
But the more I tried to pull away from what I had always planned for myself, the more scared I found myself to be and the more worried that I wasn’t good enough to actually try the things that I thought I might want to try. So when I first decided to travel, I wanted to run away from these voices in my head — the voices telling me that I wasn’t good enough. I also wanted to run away from I wanted to escape into a foreign land, away from the reminders of who I was told to be, from all the pressures of the kind of person I should be, of the career I should follow, of the societal expectations of the role I should play — as a little sister, as a daughter, as a girlfriend. An escape from the masks and costumes that have piled up in my upper-middle-class-second-generation-Asian-American closet.
I thought that if I had cleared my head for a few weeks, I could finally get back on track. But I was wrong, I couldn’t really just cast away bad thoughts, I couldn’t just force myself to be someone else. I couldn’t just escape my head. My body was in a different world, but my head was still within this mess of sadness, confusion, anger that’s all tangled up in my mind. I had to face the fears and anxieties of who I should be, of who I could or could not become — these voices that stem from broken pieces, wounds that has been left open and neglected over the years.
I realized that I’ve never forgiven the people and the situations that has left these marks or let go of the pain. These little broken pieces, piercing at me when I came a little too close to my thoughts, always left my heart throbbing, my eyes swollen in the morning, and my world a little darker.
Through the time that I spent in bus rides, planes, trains, and walking, I retraced all the pieces that fell, all the wounds that were left open. It was really hard to pinpoint when it first started, but I tried to mark the largest pieces that fell in my stories. It was when I moved to the states, when I first felt the most vulnerable. It was the first year of living in silence in the fifth grade room, where I only knew English words of greetings, where I was picked last for baseball, where my classmates preferred not to be with me in the group projects. It was the summer when my family nearly fell apart, when I saw a side of my dad that was a little too human, a side that I did not realize existed. It was when I moved into my grandparent’s house in the sixth grade, and I missed my mother every day and night, counting down the days until I saw her again. It was when my brother, who had once been like a best friend to me, first shut me out of his life. It was when I first moved into the boarding hall, where I cried myself to sleep every night, missing home. It was when my best friends stopped talking to me midway through high school and I sat alone in the yard during ceramics class, my hands on the spinning clay, my eyes watching it go — round and round and round again.
Within it all, it was when I decided I wasn’t enough for this world — not smart enough, not talented enough, not beautiful enough. It was when I went on a tinder rage, went clubbing, and let any boy touch me the way they wanted — because in those moments, I felt wanted. I was when I would find myself crying in bed, hating myself for letting anyone do what is supposed to be loving things without love. It was when I was wondering who I really was, to lie to my family and some of my closest friends, the people who really loved me, to spend time with people who just wanted to use me. It was all the nights that I cried myself to sleep, squeezing the parts of my body I thought was wrong, days that I decided not to eat, and times I have tried digging my finger down my throat but but ended up crying over the toilet.
I have felt so broken inside that I was constantly searching for distractions, little pieces in the world to replace the broken pieces. I clung tightly to anything and anyone that I believed I could trust, who I thought could give me love, and I became reliant on them. I wanted to feel worthy and I thought that perfect scores, skinny jeans, and long hair would be enough. But I lived my life clinging on to the little pieces that were meant to replace the cracks and holes inside, always afraid that they would wash away. I was constantly living in fear — terrified of loneliness, of losing my best friends, of losing my boyfriend, of losing my family, of saying goodbyes.
In the broken pieces that I left lying around, I’ve lost faith. I’ve lost faith in the world, and in all its people — that there are loving people in this world, that there are people out there just as amazing as the people I’ve had in my life. I’ve lost faith in myself — that I would be able to find people in this world who would find me beautiful, find me extraordinary, who would care for me. I’ve lost faith that I was good enough, strong enough, smart enough to conquer what I wanted to conquer.
And so the backpacking trip that was meant to be an escape quickly turned into a treasure hunt. A hunt for faith — faith in love for myself and love around me.
My heart and the world
It is not that I really had to travel in search of faith. But I think that traveling alone put me in a situation where it was a lot easier to search. Maybe it was because when I am traveling alone and meeting new people in new places constantly, I have less attachment to my identity back at home — an identity that may have been defined by my family, my history, my reputation, or the categories I belonged in back at home. I did not have to worry about any predisposition people might have of me.
When I am traveling, I felt that I did not really belonged to many categories unless I claimed it for myself — not Asian American, not daughter of a doctor, not an UCLA student, not Taiwanese, etc. I did not have a history and I could create any stories that I wanted for myself — from past, present, to future. Where I grew up, who I’ve loved, where I’ve been, where I want to go. I did not have to explain myself to anyone. I did not have to prove myself to be any kind of person. I could be anyone I can imagine, any persona I wanted to and could pursue. I had full control of how I wanted to present myself, without any pressure of who I should or should not be. It was just me — in the flesh, in the here and now — and that was all I needed. It was me and the world. With less attachment to these identities, I felt a greater freedom to truly find what I wanted for myself and see the kinds of people I could attract.
I wanted to feel something different, something out there that I’ve never felt before. I wanted to be someone different — not to abandon my family, my history, and all that has built me to be who I am — but I wanted to know who I really am, who I really could be. I wanted to see how much of my identity was actually mine and how much of my thoughts and behaviors were conditioned by my family, my history, and the categories I’ve tried to identify with. I wanted to see what kinds of people I was drawn to, what kinds of places I wanted to see, what kinds of stories and knowledge I wanted to fill my mind and heart with. I wanted to see where truly “following my heart” would lead me to.
When it was just me, my heart and the world, I found myself in situations I thought could only be written in fictional travel novels and short stories — that in the streets of a medieval citadel, I could meet a man who reminded me of the first boy I’ve ever truly fell deeply in love with, smiles that reminded me of children receiving gifts, a voice vibrating with excitement about this world, who thought me beautiful. That in the run-down train of Transylvania, to meet a man who truly found my thoughts and creations one of a kind, who saw me more than I ever believed I was, just like my closest friends back at home. That at 3am in a Hungarian hostel, I could be sitting in the lounge in darkness, listening to the story of a young boy’s love life — his stories playing out like a movie in the ceiling. We could be talking as if we’ve always known each other. That I would get lost in the woods with a girl I met on the bus to one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, learning about her love life, feeling as if I was back at home, talking to one of my best friends.
Through it all, these people helped me believe that I was enough. They didn’t need to know where I was from, where I was going, what career I was pursuing, what grades I had in school, what school I went to, who my parents were, what I’ve accomplished in my life. They just needed me to be there — laughing, talking, dancing, smiling, enjoying what was right in front of me.
Sand under my feet
While I was traveling and searching, something changed inside me, little by little. As I was searching for faith, I decided that I wanted to feel more. I really wanted to feel love — not the kind of love that western media has ingrained in our brains, the kind with roses and chocolates and throwing stones at windows. No — I wanted to feel my love for myself, for the things I do, for the places I see, for the people I meet. I wanted to feel my love for the history and culture of different places. I wanted to feel the love I had for my young and abled body to travel these distances, to feel my passions. I wanted to feel every emotion, every sensation that came into my head and hit every part of my body — to finally accept that both my strengths and weaknesses, my good and bad thoughts and emotions, all of it were part of me. I wanted to feel the love in others, the kind that they have for each other — when strangers helped strangers navigate through the mountain, or offer each other water and candy, the kind of love others had for themselves — for their lives, for their exploration, for their passions, for their families — as they told me their stories. I wanted to feel love in the marks of history, in personal and national stories. I wanted to feel the love in places, in the designs, in the ambience, in the buildings, in the way things have resulted from thoughts. I wanted to feel the love in animals, in pets for their owners, in owners for their pets, in people for nature.
I realized that I have been holding back in my life and that I have not been allowing myself to enjoy as deeply as I could. I have not allowed myself to feel deeply when I am around people. I realized that when I truly tried to feel every moment, every laughter, and every sensation around me, I could see so much more beauty. When I close my eyes, I can still remember the deep deep feelings I had at the flutter of the pretty girl who lived in my room — the flutter of her golden eyelashes, the amazement I had for her radiant smile, the happiness I felt when I saw her and was around her. I remember the wonder and peacefulness I felt walking in the streets of Brasov. I remember the sudden strike of confidence I felt traveling alone, the joy I felt in talking to different people on the trip, the sweetness of the boy’s British accent next to the glistening lights of Budapest as he told me that I was beautiful. Yet, though those moments were ephemeral and now just part of my memories, now I am somewhere else, someone else. But I can still feel it — every moment, I am changing. Just as these moments pass, as positive emotions pass, negative emotions also pass. At each moment, I build on the last, but I am in the present.
When I returned to the states, my new habit of actually feeling my world made me realize some things.
Of course, I still felt my frustration about my future — my worries about not being able to get into medical school, not knowing whether medical school was even the right path, not knowing if I will be able to do the right thing. But I also felt the sadness of how distanced I have become with my mother, the woman I used to rely on so much, how empty I felt in front of her, and how unseen I felt in front of my family. I also felt the deep intensity of my gratefulness for my best friends — those who see me, who believed in me, respected me, and loved me when I could not even do it for myself.
I realized that I could feel it everyday, even in the days of frustrations and sadness, the love from my friends who understood me and from my family who did not, but still loved me. I think I am finally starting to understand how and why things would always get better, because the people who loved me will always be there, and if they weren’t, I could always still find people who can love me. Maybe I am starting to have a little more faith.
It’s been almost a year now since I first decided to travel. Now thinking back on the experiences from when I was traveling, I realized that it wasn’t that I had to be in a different continent, or that I had to be alone to enjoy the world and see my experiences and the people I meet as fiction and stories. My life is an adventure, the sort of treasure hunt that would continue to write itself — if I would allow myself to continue on this treasure hunt — a hunt for the best kind of me that I can be, for the me that can do the most for this world.
If I think of every thing that I do as a chapter the way that I thought of each experience and place I was in while traveling to be a chapter in an adventure novel, if I thought of every failure that I might face to be just another page turner — maybe I can have a little more faith.