(totally meant to post this in October, hence the ‘happy fall.’ It is past winter now. Oops)

Hello, happy fall, back from another blogging hiatus. I have wanted to write this post for a while now, but was kind of swamped with other writing commitments. I finally have some time to reflect now, on this crisp autumn day, sitting inside a crowded Darwin’s (which I frequent for the vibes and proximity, despite the overpriced drinks and shitty wifi).

Late August, I visited Riverside for the first time in two years. I had not gone ‘home’ since leaving the US to start my gap year, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet. Spending six months trapped in Riverside during the pandemic had destroyed my mental health, my relationship with my parents, and any lingering goodwill I might have had for the place I grew up. In fact, I believe it was the desperation to get the hell out of there that drove me to take my gap year. I hopped on the plane two years ago and never looked back, trying my best to abandon – to forget – all the trauma that had accumulated in the decade I spent there, exacerbated by the heat (literal) of the COVID summer. So when annual health checkups and dental cleanings necessitated me to finally visit the site of my insurance coverage, I was just a bit apprehensive.

Well, the week was, surprisingly, not too bad. Riverside is still a shithole, of course, but there were certain things I missed about SoCal that didn’t conceptualize until going back. For example, the diversity. MIT is quite diverse ethnically, but it was still nice to hang out with Asian friends who didn’t go to fancy prep schools, or simply see the sprinkles of ethnic neighborhoods that harbored a sort of culture missing from Boston’s gentrification central. And with diversity, of course, comes better food. Boston is a literal food desert, and that part was made quite apparent when visiting places like LA and Irvine, where even your average restaurant is better than most of the top-tier places over here. Oh, how I missed tacos that didn’t cost $6 a piece.

The trip itself was also quite reflective, hence the title of this post. Unlearning. It’s not until being away from ‘home’ that you realize just how much unlearning you need to do, for so much of our current baggage and insecurities are a reflection of our surroundings, from our parents’ imperfections to the random utterings of kids in the playground that somehow remained ingrained in our mind for the next decade.

It’s freeing even, to realize that the traumas of the past do not bind you, that the arbitrary rules that you had held so dear, when unraveled and deciphered, are merely invisible ropes you have the power to step out of.

I started running during the pandemic as a means of getting out of the house. Even in the scorching heat, my runs were a means of solace from the environment that I could not bear to remain in any longer. The best parts of those runs were the beginning, where the loop took me further and further away from home. It felt like, at least figuratively, I was escaping, with the lyrics ‘I just keep running, running, running, running from my home’ blasting inside my head. During those stretches, I fantasized about successfully returning to a pandemic-free life in China, about living in Beijing for the first time since childhood – almost like some scene from a sitcom where we would live together, in our own house, without the fights – about all the happiness. Nothing was certain back then, but those daydreams fueled my runs and my conviction to leave. I envisioned the new life ahead of me, free from the darkness and uncertainties that had plagued my world since March 2020.

‘So much happiness we wouldn’t know what to do with it.’ A line from a movie that made a stronger impression than the film itself.

The end of the run was always my least favorite part, for no matter how far I had gone, the loop would always take me back. Back home. Back to reality. I rested my hopes on a faraway vision, so blurry yet so bright.

I traced those same running paths on this trip back, reliving those memories, reflecting on how dark of a place I was in the last time my feet dashed across those sidewalks. I wish I could go back and tell myself that everything that I had dreamed of in those desperate days would come true. True in its own way. No, living in Beijing together will not fix your family, because it is not the location that is broken. But you will find a new family. And you will have so much happiness that you won’t know what to do with it. And you will become a different person. And everything will be okay.

Everything will be okay. Perhaps growth is when you realize you’re in a position to say those words to your past self.

And, of course, being back again for winter break means that I need to keep reminding myself to unlearn. Keep analyzing those stray emotions and nudging discomforts so that your future is not bound by vestigial trauma. Keep reminding yourself that things will eventually make themselves okay. Not in Riverside, but somewhere.