Smile Because It Happened

Three and a half months
can give a life’s worth of joy
A life’s worth of love

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Kuya Jon and Ate Joanne’s wedding, Chicago, 3 September 2016

It is the last week of August,
and as the date of my departure from the States on September 4 comes closer and closer, I grow more and more anxious. I start thinking irrationally, wondering if the last time I see my friends and family before I leave is the last time I see any of them, period. After all, who knows what could happen? As I say my goodbyes to my loved ones, I also say goodbye to myself, because I know that I am in for a life-changing experience. Of course, I don’t know at the time just how unrecognizable I’ll be after three and a half months.

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Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, 11 September 2016

It is September 12, 
exactly a week after I arrived in Scotland. Within one week, I have already completely immersed myself into living independently in a foreign country, soaking everything up like the driest of sponges meeting water for the first time. I have already bonded deeply with my wonderful flatmates. I have already grown used to grocery shopping and cooking for myself. I have already danced and laughed and felt butterflies and hiked and experienced more amazing things than I thought could be possible within a week. I have already fallen in love with this country and everything about it — its landscape, its culture, its people, and the opportunities it’s providing me to grow. Of course, I don’t know at the time just how many more amazing things are in store for me. It’s only been one week, after all. But I cannot stop marveling at how much has already happened.

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Chilean Independence Day in 50B, 18 September 2016

It is September 18,
a day before classes actually start. (Oh yeah, that’s right, classes. It is called study abroad, after all. I wouldn’t have minded at all if my entire time here looked just like the first two weeks with all its exciting exploring and dancing and getting to know the people around me.) I’ve just returned from a day touring Broughty Ferry and Perth. I’m squeezed into the hallway of a friend’s flat — which my flatmates and friends and I will come to refer to it in conversation as simply “50B” — with about twenty other people. We celebrate Chilean Independence Day. And while I’d already been soaking up the cultural exchange between myself and international students from around the world over the last two weeks, it’s this, I think, that epitomizes the thrill of cultural exchange so far. My Chilean flatmates and friends share with us their music, food, dancing, and culture. And this night introduces me and draws me closer to more people who will become my life partners for all intents and purposes over the rest of the semester. The hallway I’m squeezed in, and the people squeezed in it with me, will become familiar sights to me.

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Loch Lomond, 2 October 2016

It is October 2, 
and I am hiking up a mountain on the shores of Loch Lomond, living a fairy tale. I am already in much better physical shape than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I know it’s all the hiking and dancing and walking I’ve been doing. I feel so healthy and so happy. Yesterday, I’d hiked up one of the Three Sisters in Glencoe and had a magical day at Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan viaduct. By this point, I’ve met so many amazing people, but there are still only a select few with whom I continue to grow closer and closer, like the people with whom I’ve spent this weekend hiking. While Scotland has and will continue to be beautiful in terms of weather for the entirety of my time in this country, this is arguably the best, sunniest weekend I’ll experience here. I’ve been here for just under a month, but though I have two and a half more months to go, I am already wracked with anxiety over the idea of time running out. I cringe whenever someone from the States tells me they “can’t wait” for me to come back, irrationally worried that their impatience will somehow influence the universe to speed up my time here. What’s even worse is when they say that they can’t wait for me to come “home,” because even though it’s only been a month, I feel more at home here in Scotland than I’ve ever felt in the States; I feel a sense of belonging and fulfillment here that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s only been just under a month, but I am absolutely thriving here in every way.

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Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye, 22 October 2016

It is October 23, 
and I’ve just returned from a road trip to the Isle of Skye, so at peace and in love with the world after a beautiful weekend with beautiful friends. This weekend was one of the greatest adventures and best times of my life, which is saying a lot considering that this semester itself has been the greatest adventure and best time of my life. By this point, I’ve also visited Loch Ness and Isle of Arran, I’ve tried haggis, I’m having a great time in my piping lessons, I’ve joined the orchestra, I go to a small prayer group for lunch every Friday, I’ve celebrated a friend’s birthday, and by some fun sequence of events, I’ve made friends with Mormon missionaries I’d met on the streets of Glasgow. My flatmate Annaliese and I even have dinner with two of them one night. I’ve spent countless nights on the eleventh floor of the library working away at two essays: one on portraiture during the Scottish Enlightenment, and the other in how the Spanish colonization of the Philippines provides a framework by which one can examine postcolonialism as an essential factor in the study of religion. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked on assignments, and it was extremely satisfying — in a few weeks, I’ll receive high marks on both those essays, and be satisfied all the more.

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Fireworks Night, Glasgow Green, 5 November 2016

It is November 9
and my world is completely shaken after the events of the U.S. election. The brightness of memories like the fun night I had four days ago on November 5 of fireworks and karaoke and eating vegemite and haggis-flavored dark chocolate with friends is all but extinguished after I stay up all night with two of my American friends, watching in horror as our country reveals its true colors. I return to my flat the next morning, my spirits crushed. Tonight, seven people cram into our tiny kitchen. Only two of us are American; the rest are friends from all around the world who are here to offer support as Annaliese and I grieve our country. I need comfort food and I want to share it with my friends, so I cook enough chicken adobo for everyone and we eat and drink away the night. Despite the circumstances, this will turn out to be one of my many most favorite memories of being abroad: being surrounded by incredible individuals who, at a moment’s notice, changed their plans in order to provide support and friendship at a time when we needed it most. With so much emotional and political exhaustion but also a complete lack of sleep, this whole week will be the longest of my life thus far, but utterly and entirely worth it in the company of my friends who hug me through it all.

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Sugar Cube Nightclub, 12 November 2016

It is November 17, 
and the tears have begun to fall. It is exactly one month before I leave this country, and though the idea of time running out has been plaguing me this entire semester, today I finally allowed myself to cry for the first time, and in front of one of the people I’ll miss the most, no less. Though there’s been too much to explore and hardly enough time for anything to become routine, I’ve become used to some things — cooking for myself and for others, spending time studying on the eleventh floor of the library, stopping by 50B every now and then, looking for ceilidhs to dance at, shopping in City Centre after my piping lessons, going to Cooper’s after orchestra rehearsals, dedicating my weekends to spending time with my friends whether it’s hiking through Scotland or going out in Glasgow or just staying in my flat… By this point, I should know better than anyone that so much can happen within a few days, let alone an entire month, but I’m already grieving the end of my time here.

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After the concert, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 26 November 2016

It is November 26, 
and I am holding my violin and standing with pride, looking out at a packed house applauding us after performing John Williams, Prokofiev, and Michael Giacchino. In the audience, I see the five beautiful faces that matter the most smiling back at me, and my heart swells faster than the balloons in Up. Two days ago, we had just celebrated Thanksgiving with over twenty people, again crammed into 50B’s tiny hallway that’s become home base for such celebrations. Last night, I’d continued the mood of celebration with Christmas too, going to the Christmas markets in St. Enoch’s Square and enjoying pastries and mulled wine and dancing to Christmas music back in my flat. In four days, I’ll be celebrating St. Andrew’s Day, eating a fancy dinner and dancing the night away with flatmates and friends at what will be my ninth and final ceilidh of the semester. With all the joy and love surrounding me and overwhelming me, even though we’re closer than ever to the end of the semester, I’m able to forget, just for a little while, that time is running out.

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The “last party,” 13 December 2016

It is December 13,
and I am sitting around the small table in my flat’s kitchen built for half the number currently gathered. I am surrounded by the nine closest friends I’ve made here. I listen as we go around in a circle, each of the ten of us making a toast of our own, before we dig into my chicken adobo and Persa’s butter chicken. I listen as the emotional words are not contained within the pre-dinner toasts, as throughout the night each of us shares words of gratitude for the semester we’ve had and for the people we’ve shared it with. I listen as a common sentiment is, “You don’t need time to love someone. You just need moments.”  And I, having had the terribly dark and baleful spectre of passing time loom over my head this entire semester, cry without abandon. I, with my beautiful friends, cry and cry and cry as we all reflect on all the amazing, amazing moments we’ve shared together, the many moments which taught us so much about ourselves, about each other, about the world, the many moments that brought us closer together as friends and family exploring and adventuring and navigating life together in this foreign country — the many moments that have brought us so much love. It’s absolutely surreal that tonight is our last time seeing all ten of each other in the same room, and though we’re celebrating our time that we shared, the magnitude of the situation still is not fully sinking in. I’d grown so used to seeing these people — meeting each other for lunch or dinner, for study time in the library, living side by side with them — that the idea that tonight is our “last time” is just such a terrifying concept. We exchange gifts, we take pictures, we sing and hug and cry some more. This is the much-needed celebration, closure, and catharsis as we wrestle with the cruelty that is parting ways after three and a half months of nothing but genuine, authentic, utterly real and raw friendship. But instead of dwelling on the cruelty of parting ways, I try to focus on being thankful that our paths even crossed at all. There is certainly room for tears and grief, and I allow myself to feel them as they come, but what thankfully dulls the very sharp pain is the sheer gratitude I have to have experienced all of this with everyone in the first place, to smile because it happened instead of crying that it is over. I know I will carry these people and these moments we’ve shared in my heart for the rest of my life.

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Our last night in 50B, 15 December 2016

It is December 15,
and I am laying on my side in a tattoo parlor, crushing Pia’s hand with my own, wrinkling my face in response to the sharp pain stroking my ribcage. As I stomach the literal pins-and-needles sensation, I contemplate time again. I think about my departing flight in two days, and how the course of a nine-hour flight will send me halfway across the globe. In nine hours, you could do so much. In nine hours, you could research more on Enlightenment portraiture or Spanish colonialism than you could ever care to know. In nine hours, you could probably drive back and forth between Ratagan and Mallaig to rescue stranded flatmates at least twice. In nine hours, you could go on a Student Tours Scotland tour and hike up hills, marvel at the Highlands, and explore new cities with new friends who will quickly become as important to you as old friends. And yet, nine hours on an airplane will return me to the place I was before this three and a half month-long adventure. I think about those three and a half months and how much they’ve altered my life. I think again about what Sammy said the other day about how you don’t need time to love someone, you only need moments. I think about how two short minutes and forty seconds can document a symbol to represent all those moments on my body, and on my flatmates’, for the rest of our lives. In the following days, I will stare at that symbol in the mirror, grateful for this permanent reminder that the fairytale that I lived for three and a half months was, in fact, reality.

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The last picture we took of the four of us friends, flatmates, sisters, 16 December 2016

It is December 17, 
and I’ve completely forgotten about the saying “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I cannot remember the last time I’ve cried this hard. I’ve cried so much within the last month, especially within the last week, and you’d think I’d be all cried out by this point, but no. I hear the words, “This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.” I feel cold, numb, hollow, and empty as I walk alone through security, away from the familiar warmth and safety I had known for the last three and a half months. It is about eight o’clock in the morning. I have been up all night, spending my final moments in Glasgow, in the company of the people who have taught me and brought me so much love, as awake as possible. I thought that the week of the U.S. election would be the longest of my life — no, this was worse, much worse. With the stress of traveling across time zones, today, my day is at least thirty-three hours long. The worst of those hours is when my first flight is delayed for two hours, and I sit in the plane, tears streaming down my face the entire time, in so much emotional pain it’s physically tangible in my chest, my arms, my head… It’s a special kind of purgatory. It would have been better if I’d just gotten on the plane and it left immediately. But no, for two hours, I am stuck in a limbo between the two places my heart is yearning to be most — the home I’d known for the last three and a half months and the home I had to return to eventually — and the fact that I’m unable to move in either direction is absolute torture. I think bitterly about the movie Titanic and how Rose jumps off the lifeboat and back onto the ship even though she knows it’s only prolonging the inevitable. I’m close to doing the same, to rush off this plane, screw my flight, and run back to the hardest goodbye, even though it’ll inevitably have to be goodbye again sooner or later. I am crying the entire day as each flight takes off and touches down, as I am already messaging and video chatting with the people I’ve left in Glasgow at every possible moment, as I finally run into my parents’ arms in O’Hare Airport, as I finally curl up in the bed I’d almost forgotten.

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Thistle and highland cow ornaments from the University of Glasgow gift shop

It is December 25, 
and I am sitting at my dining room table, dressed in a very festive (and also deliberately very Scottish) red tartan, surrounded by my titas, titos, kuyas, and ates who are eagerly asking me about my semester abroad. It’s good to be among my family again, celebrating my favorite holiday, especially after a long and emotional week. Since returning on the 17th, I have cried every single day. The tears come mostly in the morning as I wake up and realize again and again that I’m not in Glasgow, that the people I’ve loved and lived with for the last three and a half months are now thousands and thousands of miles away from me. The culture shock that I’d anticipated upon my arrival in Glasgow — that never came — had now hit me like a ton of bricks upon my return to the States, readjusting to the same old accents and grocery stores and pace of life I’d known prior to the thrill of newness abroad. Thankfully, I’m on the upswing now, and talking about Scotland helps. But it’s also an incredibly surreal feeling as I relay my time abroad to my family and friends. Over the last week, I’ve been blessed to have eager and curious listening ears with which to share my stories, but I can’t help but be acutely aware of the fact that they’re just that — stories. Though it’s only been little over a week since the end of my semester, the thousands of miles between myself and Scotland feel like they’ve also brought thousands of years between us as well. Telling the stories of my time abroad feels like I have to reach my hands far across those miles and years to grasp them when, not too long ago, those stories were not stories, but living realities — in Glasgow, these stories were still my present rather than my past. It’s truly a surreal sensation; each time I speak of my time in Glasgow, I feel like I’m looking back at it from behind a glass wall that I can’t breach at all. But I take what I can get, I tell myself, and right now, I’m grateful beyond words for the opportunities I have to tell these stories of my time abroad, and all the more grateful for the very fact that these stories exist in the first place.

~

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that there are at least two versions of myself I now know — the person I was before my semester abroad, and the person I was during my semester abroad. And I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself wondering who I am now that I’ve returned to the States. I’ve been terrified that leaving Scotland also meant leaving behind the person I was while I was in Scotland. And maybe I have to come to terms with the fact that that might be true to a small extent, being in a different environment and everything. But it also certainly doesn’t mean I have to return to the person I was before my semester abroad, and frankly, that’s the last thing I want to do, because I loved who I was, who I became, who I grew into, in Scotland. And now I get to grow into a whole new version of myself, even bigger and better than ever before, as I learn how to live in the States after having what was truly the adventure of a lifetime. I was able to experience more excitement, exhilaration, joy, laughter, friendship, love, comfort, safety, warmth, adventure, and independence than I ever thought could be possible within, say, one year, let alone three and a half months. All of that has indisputably and incontrovertibly altered and improved me for the better. I’ve done a lot of crying that my semester abroad is over, but I know without a doubt that I will always, always find a reason to smile because it happened.

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One Comment

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  1. Oh, my goodness, the sheer humanness of this post has me in awe. I’m shivering just thinking about how the emotions you’ve elicited from me as a reader are in no way comparable to the emotions you amassed abroad. This emotional depth goes beyond words. Wonderfully written, wonderfully curated. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

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