My phone vibrates. It’s an incoming call from my mom. I pick up and before she can even say hi, I whisper hurriedly, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now. I’m in the library because I have a midterm tomorrow. Can I call you back later?”
I often feel isolated from the things that happen back home when I’m on campus, and sometimes I feel guilty for going so far away for school in the first place. I tend to miss out on big family news unless I make a pointed effort to keep up to date—I forget which members of my extended family are engaged now and whose wedding is coming up when, who just got a new job or who is moving to a new city. Especially when I’m overwhelmed with midterms or projects, it’s easy for me to forget to ask for updates from my more distant family members. Naturally, I prioritize the life that is right in front of me.
Every day that I’m away from home, my life gets a little further and further removed from that of my parents. Firstly, I live on the complete opposite coast of the US from where my parents live in California. Outside of my immediate nuclear family and one cousin, an entire ocean separates me from the rest of my extended family.
On top of that, there’s the whole language barrier. My parents don’t understand the research that I’ve done or the organizations that I’m a part of because I don’t know how to accurately sum them up in Chinese. (To be honest, it’s hard enough to do that in English.) The fact that I can’t even fully explain and share all that my parents have given me access to here at Duke just makes it harder for me to adequately show my appreciation and love for them.
However, I can’t just place the blame on the language barrier, because I know that I get easily frustrated when I can’t find the right words. It’s a constant fight against myself to remind myself that the explanation is worth it. For example, my parents came to visit me at my host parents’ apartment two summers ago in Madrid, Spain. One of my favorite memories still to this day is translating between Chinese, English, and Spanish as my two sets of parents became friends with each other over jamón ibérico and glasses of wine.
More recently, I was confronted with the reality of my parents’ age. This past winter break, we went on a hike in Mt. Jingshan Park in Zhuhai, China. The hike consists of only stairs winding up the mountain, and I ran up two stairs at a time. I didn’t wait for my parents as I made my way to the top because I was impatient.
Ten minutes passed, and my parents still hadn’t shown up at the top of the mountain yet. After waiting a bit longer, I finally saw my mom round the corner and shortly afterwards, my dad followed suit. Seeing them out of breath made me feel guilty and ashamed for not looking out and keeping pace with them. This was a family trip, so why did I leave them behind?
Now that we had all made it to the top, there were three options for how to get back down. Firstly, we could take the same stairs we took coming up. Secondly, we could ride a cable car. Thirdly—and this was the option that I was most interested in—we could ride an alpine coaster down the mountain. I had seen people in carts speeding past me as I climbed up the mountain, and the prospect of riding an alpine coaster was one of the main reasons why I had so readily agreed to do the hike in the first place.
I eagerly stood in line with my parents, ready for our turn. Once we reached the front of the line, to our collective dismay, the man working the coaster asked us to leave. In explanation, he simply pointed to the sign. One rule was that you couldn’t be over 55 years old, and he could tell that my parents didn’t make the cut. I felt my heart sting.
I’ve always thought of my parents as invincible. As a toddler, when I couldn’t reach the top drawer, I’d yell for Mom or Dad. Now, when I’m cooking, I’ll call my parents to ask for specific measurements (even though I know they’ll just tell me to guesstimate anyways). But sometimes, they’ll call me to ask for my advice or my dad will forward me important emails so I can draft a reply for him. The reality of not just my parents’ steadily increasing age but also my own is something that I am still not quite ready to confront.
This is a reflection on both the passage of time and the creation of distance. Everyone says that college is a period for self-discovery and growth, which is true. We gain independence and self-awareness and attempt to figure out our true passions and goals, and that’s all great—but it’s impossible to do this without first acknowledging your roots.
Everything I’ve done in my life I can credit in some way to my parents. And yet, the things I need to say to them most are also the ones I never say enough: Thank you. I miss you. I love you. I’ll pick up the phone now and tell them that.
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Emily Liu is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.