Campus Life vivian’s reflections

Dear Housemate, Rewritten

it’s over

I didn’t expect to cry so much after I left Taipei. In the 24 hours between leaving the Taoyuan Airport and arriving home in the suburbs of Boston, I cried three times, the first two times on the plane and the last time at home.

The tears started on the flight from Taipei to San Francisco. Unlike previous flights, I didn’t feel like watching a movie. I tried watching a fashion documentary, but I lost interest after watching 15 minutes of it. I didn’t want to numb my pensive thoughts by watching hours of inflight entertainment. Doing nothing but thinking on the plane sounded like a boring idea, but the timing felt appropriate. I simply wanted my mind to reflect upon the 80 days I spent in Taiwan, trying to process all the things that happened there, from the places I visited to the conversations with my housemate.

I was 40,000 feet above sea level, immersed in my thoughts, stuck in my seat,  surrounded by strangers. I was in a crowded place, yet I felt so lonely. I was sure that some passengers were in the same shoes as me, feeling sad about how some things must come to an end and be left behind.I wondered who these people were.

Feeling sentimental, I decided to play Stefanie Sun’s “A Half Goodbye” (半句再见), a song from my Spotify playlist of Mandopop songs. I heard the song many times before, but this was the first time I felt that the song’s lyrics and emotions described what I was thinking about at the exact moment — faces I wouldn’t forget, lost sleep, many memories, etc. Tears started to well up in my eyes when the chorus began. I couldn’t continue listening to the rest of the song. Tears streamed down my face.

Never had I cried because of a song before. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the nuanced reasons behind why I felt so emotional. I cried because I wondered when I would have the chance to visit Taiwan again. I sobbed because I wished I had more time to talk to my former teachers before I left. The main reason I cried, however, was my housemate.

I didn’t understand why so many of my tears came from thinking about her, considering that we had a heated argument before I went to the airport. I was still hurt and embarrassed when I thought of what she said to me the last two hours we were together. Perhaps my tears came from thinking about how much she cried for me the last few days we were together and how much she would miss me. For context, my summer housemate was a single woman in her late forties. While she has a lot of relatives, they live in Malaysia, so she rarely sees them. In other words, she has lived a solitary life for a long time.

Compared to her previous tenants, I was the youngest and came from the U.S., which made her have strong impressions of me. This large age gap made me think of her as an aunt I never had, as I only have one uncle whom I rarely see. On the other hand, my presence made her think of her two college-aged nieces. As one may expect, living with someone like her for over two months meant forming a strong connection in a short period.

It wasn’t until I listened to the song that what she said hit me — we may never see each other again. It was probably the first real farewell I had in my life. While I could always fly back to Taiwan, I didn’t have a good answer as to when in the future. Likewise, my housemate wasn’t sure of how long she would stay in Taiwan before moving back to Malaysia. But I still didn’t have a concrete answer as to why my feelings for her felt so complicated, like a mess of emotions from all over the spectrum.

I thought these feelings of melancholy would go away after crying, but I was wrong. For the rest of the flight, there were times I felt my throat tighten as I recalled recent memories. I survived the rest of the first flight without shedding more tears, but I cried again on the red-eye flight from San Francisco to Boston. I don’t remember exactly what made me cry. Maybe it was listening to “The Longest Movie” (最长的电影) by Jay Chou, a song about the end of relationships that my housemate shared with me before I left. Regardless of the actual reason, my second attempt to listen to Mandopop songs as a source of comfort ended up backfiring, just like the first time.

As much as I wanted these waves of overwhelming emotions to end, I realized that sadness doesn’t automatically come to a halt simply because I want to turn it off. Rather, it is a process consisting of many stages that requires undergoing the lowest lows to ultimately reach an emotional state of equilibrium.

This internal battle throughout the trip of having the urge to cry while trying to suppress these feelings at the same time was one of the most emotionally taxing things I’ve undergone in my life. It felt like a mental tug-of-war that lasted for nearly a day. I wished I could feel whatever I wanted, but I didn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable in the presence of others around me. As a result, my crying on the plane felt restrained, as I tried so hard to cry as discreetly as possible, covering my eyes with a sleep mask and hoping that others ignored my sniffles and hiccups that came from sobbing silently.

Fortunately, the 22-hour journey ended once I arrived in Boston. The drive back home was somber as if I wasn’t done grieving for a place. As I stared at the sunrise outside my car window on the highway, I thought about how I was now on the opposite side of the world, thousands of miles away from Taiwan. I was in my home country once again, yet I couldn’t stop missing the landscapes of Taiwan, whether it was the Taipei skyline or the green rice fields. It is amazing to consider what eighty days in a foreign place does to you.

I expected to fall asleep right away the moment I crawled into my bed, but I was wrong. Holding back tears wasn’t working, so I let them all out — hot, messy tears. I cried so hard in my bed, my body trembling as I struggled to breathe in between my sobs. I was frustrated that so much of my crying came from thinking about my housemate because my feelings for her were complicated.

As robotic as it may sound, I wanted to attribute a specific reason for these tears. To cry without knowing why felt like entering uncharted territory, which I found frightening. If I couldn’t even explain to myself why I was feeling a certain way, then what did that mean about my future self? In the past, I cried mainly because someone or something directly upset me, whereas this time ruminating about the same wistful thoughts was enough to make me cry. This was the first time I truly cried for someone.

I must admit, there were times she annoyed me and made me feel uncomfortable. I still don’t agree with some of her views and beliefs. Despite these disagreements and awkward situations, all I could think of when I cried were bittersweet recollections of my housemate: her mischievous smile, the times she made me laugh to the point of tears, eating together in the kitchen, and so much more. After living with her for 80 days, not only did we learn a lot about each other from our families to our upbringings, but also we had conversations on all sorts of topics from Chinese idioms to current events in Taiwan.

The main reason I cried, however, was that I regretted my past actions towards her and was sad about leaving her in Taiwan. I cried because I wished I was more patient and kind, instead of getting into disagreements and avoiding her in the beginning. I wished that the falling-out hadn’t occured in the first place. But all this wishful thinking was useless because it was too late.

I cried because I finally understood how loneliness drove her to become attached to me. For the first time, I learned what it was like to have no family or loved ones nearby. Over time, I noticed that what she wanted was someone to listen, to sympathize, to simply be there for her, really. From my conversations with her, I realized how hard her current life was, as she had to handle so many problems at once while not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I now understood why she grew so fond of me: my presence offered the daily companionship that she needed during her lowest lows.

 If it weren’t for the fact that she struggled so much with letting me go, then I probably wouldn’t have cried that much. I knew that my stay in her apartment was only meant to be temporary, but I wondered how long it would take her to readjust to her normal life that didn’t include me.

I cried because no matter how much she cared about me, I never fully reciprocated those feelings. Although she was critical of me at times like a parent is of their child, she also cared about me deeply, whether it was showing concern for my health when I felt unwell or writing me a well-thought-out farewell letter. What I did in return could not compare to the amount of mental and emotional effort she put into me. Despite our relationship’s unbalanced nature, she still enjoyed having me as a housemate. I always felt uneasy when she told me that I didn’t cherish her enough before I left. I wanted to deny this fact, but the truth was that I wouldn’t admit it.

I cried because I thought it was unfair of me to portray her as a laughingstock in my conversations with my friends, chatting away about how odd it was for her to believe in horoscopes or have socially conservative views on dating and men. Although these are aspects of her identity, they are neither a complete nor an accurate representation of her. She has her shortcomings, but she also taught me valuable lessons and habits that I still think of now.

When I lived with her, I was tired of hearing her tell me the same things over and over about how I should love and thank my parents. Looking back, I wish I had a better attitude at that time. She taught me the importance of gratitude, a virtue I barely practiced when I first lived in her apartment. To put it simply, I lacked perspective. While I wished that some aspects of my childhood were better, I wonder what good came out of focusing on the negatives. If there is one thing I won’t forget from the Chinese idioms she taught me, it is 生在福中不知福 (to live in plenty without appreciating it).

On a similar note, I rarely thought of my American and MIT privileges until I had deep conversations with my housemate about how hard life in Taiwan is nowadays and how many resources I have by attending MIT. It’s something that my classmates and I don’t consider regularly. I was annoyed that she often lectured me to work hard in college and prioritize academics, but in retrospect, I am glad she frequently reminded me to continue striving for excellence and not lose ambition.

Although crying at home helped me reach some conclusions as to why thinking about her made me cry, I was still unsatisfied with these reasons. The cognitive dissonance continued for the next month or so, which was mentally draining. Writing journal entries to make sense of this internal conflict made me feel better, but not much. I still had mixed feelings about my relationship with her, as I wondered whether it was unhealthy or even toxic.

It wasn’t until I talked to my therapist a week ago that I finally reached some sort of resolution. For a while, I felt like I had to justify my feelings, as if I had to choose between two sides. After the therapy session, however, I realized that it is okay for me to feel the way I feel, even if these feelings may be conflicting because people are complicated. Things aren’t black or white. Perhaps my sadness came from grieving the loss of a relationship.

Therefore, was there a point in forcing myself to feel one way over the other if that meant lying to myself? While the time we spent together was relatively short, it was undeniable that our relationship felt as close as an aunt-niece relationship, something that I never quite experienced before. It isn’t the same as a mother-daughter relationship, but it is still special nevertheless. I don’t know whether I will see her again in the future, but even if I don’t, I won’t forget this summer with her.

“微红的眼微亮的天好一次失眠,回忆轻易带走了时间 (Reddish eyes, a slightly bright day, many times losing sleep, the memories easily took away time)”