An Open Letter to Freshmen

Dear Freshmen,

Welcome to this world of late-night study sessions, early-morning panic attacks, coffee addiction, and registration confusion. This is your home now. I know the furniture is strange, its blocky shape designed to let a hundred different people stack it into a hundred different temporary arrangements. I know your new sheets smell wrong and you miss your dog and all you want is to go home, away from this place where strangers pass you in the bathroom and nobody gets your in-jokes—but give it a few weeks, a few months.

This will become home.

It will become home as you sit in the suite with the reflection essay you don’t understand and the new friends whose names you can’t remember; as you ask dumb questions and make bad jokes; as you laugh with people because they forgive your quirky humour. It’s okay if your laughter shakes and wobbles to begin with. Those midnight giggles will turn to sobs sometimes. That’s normal. Cry on your new friend’s shoulder and let yourself notice that this stranger is growing familiar. Tell stupid stories about that time you were ten and you thought you wanted to be a doctor even though you hated needles. Admire your suitemate’s new tattoo. Eat ramen at three in the morning while you wonder whether you can call your mother without looking uncool. Call your mother whether it’s cool or not. Tell her you miss her.

Then hang up.

Hang up on that home and immerse yourself in this new one. Take part in celebrations of school traditions whose beginnings are buried in grainy black and white photos of people you’ve never met. Let the hodgepodge culture of a thousand people from a thousand places wash over you until you cheer instinctively when a plate shatters in the dining commons or shout, “Pantsless o’clock!” with the rest of the floor when open-house hours end and the boys traipse out. Eat Nutella from a spoon while commiserating with your roommate over midterms. Feel the bittersweet grief of your first birthday away from home. Thank the friends who remembered to make you cards, blow up balloons, and surprise you with gifts of chocolate. You won’t notice it at the time, but they’re becoming family.

Let them.

Let them take root in your heart as you memorise their faces and voices. Notice as you begin to instinctively guard against one’s tree-nut allergy and another’s acrophobia. Realise you miss them when they leave for weekends. I know you’re counting down the days, the months, the years, eyeing the deadline, wondering if a four-year friendship is worth the pain of yet another goodbye. There are times to keep your heart safe, but this is not the time. At this place that will be home, hold your heart open. Let friendships bury themselves in your soul. Let memories twist subtle chains. Leave pieces of yourself in corners of the music building and the writing lounge. At this temporary home, let friends become permanent. Let them catch you when you fall. Let them hold you when you crumble.

And savour the moments.

Savour the happy moments and the sad ones; the happy moments feel better, but the sad ones—those are the moments that make you. The times you think you’re drowning and your roommate sits and drowns with you, the nights of crying into tea as you stare at yet another registration email, the hysterical laughter and tears as you try to pack a year’s worth of life into suitcases grown too small by the end of finals week—these are the things your new home is built of. And when it’s over, when you’ve blinked too many times and four years have passed, these are the things you’ll know for certainty. Not the content of that last class, not your plans for the future, but the content of that last conversation as you packed your room into cardboard boxes, the plans you carried out with strangers who became family in this temporary home.

It’s like nothing else you’ve ever done. It’s scary and wonderful, eternally long and infinitesimally short all at once. Plan it, experience it, tell it, live it—just don’t waste it.

Sincerely,

A University Senior

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Vulnerability: in which I get published

This is a quick note, my darlings, to tell you that this month I have a piece published in Hippocampus Magazine.

I know I should be over the moon excited, but the truth is I feel extremely small and vulnerable now. It’s very personal, this piece, written out of the emotions that have sifted to the top of several years’ worth of murky feelings. I don’t want to write a treatise on the piece; I hope it speaks for itself. But I do want to admit that I’ve never wanted less to share a piece of my writing—yet, at the same time, this piece feels important, and I find I can’t not share it.

So if you like, go see the sliver of my soul that I handed off to the world. Perhaps it’s a sliver that we all share.

An Open Letter to a Toxic Couple (5 things not to do)

Dear Toxic Couple,

I call you that because a few nights ago, I lay in bed listening to you shouting for over an hour. My thin apartment walls let every word through, and by the time I fell asleep, you had sketched your relationship for me. From your argument, I gather you’re engaged to be married and that one of you recently disclosed information about painful past events and relationships.

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I’ve been privy to and participant in countless fights, shouting matches, and tearful discussions. But for some reason, your fight got under my skin. It wasn’t just the invasive volume; loud voices can’t explain why now, days later, someone else’s fight still troubles me. I think it’s because you gave vivid examples of abusive tactics I’ve read about but never witnessed directly.

You, sir, cared more about being right than about loving her.

I listened to you ridicule, condemn, and dismiss her pain, her convictions, her family, her choices, and her person. When she had the courage to say, “You’re being hurtful, and it’s not okay,” I listened to say, “No I’m not.” More than once, your response was, “You need to let that go.” When she tried to explain how she felt, I heard you interrupt her mid-sentence, blatantly tell her that her perceptions were wrong, and then have the audacity to say, “You need to stop interrupting and show some respect.”

I fought the urge to bang on the wall and shout, “She’s right! You’re being awful! Listen to her!” I thought better of that, and instead of barging in on someone else’s conversation, I’m writing this: an open letter to remind you of things that are never, ever okay in a relationship.

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1. Ridiculing insecurities.
She trusted you enough to share deep hurts, secrets, regrets, and convictions, and you have a responsibility as a decent human being—not to mention as the man who claims love her—to respect that trust. She gave you the gift of trust by showing you where you could hurt her most. You should now know how to protect her, not how to wound her. No matter how heated the argument, those insecurities are absolutely off limits, and you lowered yourself by attacking her vulnerable points.

2. Negating pain.
When she says, “You hurt me,” I don’t care how innocent your intentions were, you stop immediately and apologise. What’s real to her is the pain she feels, not the intentions you claim. Instead of apologising, you told her to get over it, to let it go. You told her that her hurt wasn’t real, wasn’t significant—you were insulting, cruel, and, frankly, wrong. Your reaction to her pain was a form of gaslighting, an abusive emotional manipulation tactic. I never heard you apologise. Not once.

3. Attacking family.
Family is like extra weight or grey hairs: if they’re yours, you can make them the butt of the joke, but if they’re not, treat them with respect and discretion. From your shouting match, I gathered you think her family did something worthy of eternal hatred, but she wants to forgive and reconcile. I don’t know her family (and according to her, neither do you). What I do know is that attacking the people she loves is petty and unlikely to either improve their relationship or encourage her to leave a toxic situation. If you think her family is coming between you, a rational conversation might be warranted, but vicious insults are not. And unless her family is actually hurting her, you trying to separate them is emotional manipulation on your part and is a warning sign she should know to look for.

4. Demanding respect without giving it.
When you ended your tirade, she tried to explain how she felt. You interrupted every other sentence to tell her she was wrong. You never listened or gave her time to talk out her perspective. And then you had the nerve to tell her she should stop interrupting and respect you. And she tried. She spoke rationally. She never attacked you personally. But you have no right to demand respect when you treat her with such harshness. As it happened, she was already showing respect whether you deserved it or not; you demanded submission, and I applaud her refusal.

5. Using “I love you” as an excuse. 
What really turned my stomach as I listened was your use of, “I love you.” You fitted it in between insult and disparagement, first telling her she should “get over it,” then telling her your harshness stemmed from love. You made it sound like she owed you something, like you did her a favour by declaring affection, and in return she should agree with you and forget the ways you ridiculed her. But love does not attack; love protects. It does not wound; it comforts. It does not demand; it gives. “I love you” is never an excuse for the type of cruelty I heard from you.

I want to believe this argument represented an anomaly in your relationship, that you were both tired, stressed, caving to human pressures and saying things usually wouldn’t and truly regret. I want to think you’ve sat down since then and had a real conversation—one in which you listened to each other, refrained from interrupting, acknowledged the awful things you said, took responsibility, forgave each other.

If not, then I hope, ma’am, that you keep the strong voice I heard through the walls when you told him how unacceptable you found his words. I hope you raise it in protest and, if it comes down to it, in finality. There is much to be said for forgiving, loving, accepting others with all their flaws. But if his “love” crushes, manipulates, and wounds you, walk away. You deserve a healthy love, one that respects, encourages, and shelters you.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth

Dear Third Culture Kid

This week, being finals week, my internal clock is off, and I missed Tuesday. Deepest apologies. As everything else is a little different this week, my blog post is a bit outside my norm. A meeting this week brought me face to face with a fear that I hadn’t even realised I had. This letter is my response.

Dear Third Culture Kid,

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, stretched and pulled, going in and out of style over and over again, distinctive in a subtle way that makes you look like every other pair of jeans and like none of them at the same time, a size that fits some people decently and others not at all but that fits nobody perfectly. I know you feel like you’ve seen every rack in the store. You’ve hung with other jeans, you’ve been tossed onto a stack of shirts, you’ve fallen under the shoe rack; there was that time the sales girl put you back in storage and the time they displayed you on a mannequin. You’ve been in the sales window and on the clearance rack; you’ve been tried on and taken off, selected and rejected, admired and ridiculed, purchased and then returned. I know your price tag has changed a hundred times with the fashions and the economy.

My dear Third Culture Kid, you are not a commodity.

There is a difference—a subtle but a vast and vital difference—between price and value. Value is what you’re worth; price changes with the season. Your value is intrinsic and stable, no matter how the people around you try to write your label.

I know that you’ve been told over and over about how valuable your experiences are, how grateful you should be for the life you’ve lived, how much you have to contribute. I know you’ve been set on a pedestal in your passport country and asked to share the deepest parts of you with strangers; they’ve told you it’s your responsibility to share your most vulnerable feelings with those who will never understand. I know you’ve gotten scholarships for being you and then been asked to justify the money by putting your life on display. I know the guilt of wanting to keep your secrets, the frustration of being misunderstood—again—asked stupid questions—again—and stereotyped—again. You would give anything to understand that slippery word, “home,” and you would sell your soul to never again answer the barbed questions, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you miss it?”

My dear Third Culture Kid, I feel your worn-out, aching longings and the guilt that surfaces when they tell you that you should be grateful instead of anguished.

But you are not a commodity.

In a way, they’re right—your experiences are valuable. Your perspective is unique. The things you have seen, done, and lived give you maturity and ideas that other people cannot imagine. But those experiences are not a commodity. Your perspective cannot be labelled, and your life does not wear a price tag.

You are no more or less valuable than that girl on your wing who’s never left the state, whose whole life is measured in pencilled height marks on the kitchen doorframe—no more or less valuable than the elderly lady who bagged your groceries at the same store she shopped at with her children twenty years ago—no more or less valuable than your international friends whose passports match their language and who you’ve secretly envied your whole life.

Life is valuable. Experience is valuable. Perspective and understanding and secrets and feelings—these are all valuable, whether they span entire continents or a few city blocks. They are valuable beyond the limits of price.

Your perspective—the perspective they hang a price tag from and set in the display window—your perspective is a shadow they can never own, a tiny, precious glimpse into a life they cannot have, because they have different lives, different experiences. Experiences, perspectives—they cannot be collected, purchased and displayed at home in a case; they can only be lived. Everyone thinks someone else’s experience is more exciting, more meaningful, more valuable. It is not.

Yours is not.

You are valuable because you are you. Not because you can teach your roommate a few words in a language that’s foreign to her and home to you. Not because you’ve seen the inside of a national monument that your extended family has to look up in the encyclopaedia. Not because you can make ethnic food or share an unusual opinion on other countries’ foreign policies.

If you never tell your story, you are valuable.

If you never share your homesick longings and your cultural curiosities, you are valuable.

If your perspective stays hidden and your multicultural heart learns to assimilate, you are valuable.

That glass box they put you in, that means nothing. That display window you live in, that is their mistake, not your prison. The pedestals, the sales racks, the stages, the hot seats—they do not bind you and they cannot contain you.

They cannot buy you. They cannot sell you.

You are not a commodity.

My dear Third Culture Kid, if you see a price tag on your life, be sure that you don’t put it there yourself.

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, tried and rejected, stretched and discarded. I know because I, too, have hung in the display window, languished in the storeroom, and lain time and time again on the returns table. Our cuts are different, but our labels are the same.

And just like you, I am not a commodity.

Sincerely,

A Fellow TCK