Last year in the land of the free and the home of the brave – Chapter 1

I returned to Elizabethtown for my third and last year of college feeling more fearful, cynical and purposeless than ever.

My parents had divorced over the summer after a quick but severe fight that cost my mother five stitches. It was four days after my birthday and they were just talking about taking me out for a treat of my favorite food. Three shouts, one scream and thirty seconds later, blood ran like rain from my mother’s forehead and I had to take her to the nearest hospital. A couple of weeks later, they fought again. All the ghosts of conflicts and discontentment that they tried to bury in the past came back. That was when I realized we had been living in a lie, pretending we could forget the past but what had happened could never be erased. It was imprinted in our mind, leaving scars in our heart that could never be changed. The past, no matter how much we tried to leave it behind, to run away from it, would always find its way back to haunt us.

Just like it did to me even after I had flown half way around the world, trying to run away from reality. I thought leaving the broken family behind, not having to face the heavy silence and constant threat of domestic violence would free me. I was wrong. Unwillingly, I was the prisoner of my own background. I wanted to forget I had a family. I wanted to never go back to my country again. I couldn’t. I still had a mother who sacrificed her whole life for me. I still had an extremely sick mother who could probably live only a couple more years. I still had a duty as the only one capable of and willing to take care of her. I had to go back to her, to my origin and my past. I didn’t choose to do that but the past just kept coming at me.

As I looked out of the van window into the dark, at the rural views of Pennsylvania around me, a meaningless feeling gradually killed me inside. This darkness, these woods, this deserted highway were depressing. Why was I here, in the middle of nowhere? If I was going back, why couldn’t I just go back now? Why did I have to spend another year in this strange land with people I would most likely never see again? As those thoughts marched through my brain, I sighed, telling myself work and study would keep me busy and before I knew it, 9 months would have passed.

Kira, a chatty IPA (my college’s fancy term for peer mentors of international students) and also my friend, was driving. A few days before our arrival, Danny, another Vietnamese student who was taking the same flight with me, asked her to pick us up at the airport and she, as helpful as she always was, agreed right away, even though it meant driving at night. Kira was one of the first Americans who gave me the feeling that no matter how different they looked from me, we were all just teenagers. The first time I talked to her, 2 years ago, she told me that she missed her mom so much she called home every day and that she couldn’t imagine being away from home for a whole year like we international students were. I really like Kira, although sometimes her constant talking gave me a headache. Like right now, she was talking nonstop like a Formula 1 commentator to Hang.

Hang was a strong and crazy Vietnamese girl that I knew since my day at home. She was the final push for me to choose the US as the study abroad destination and the one telling me about this small college. I used to describe her as “a total bitch that was good at heart” in my first year and the more time I spent with her, the more I thought of her that way. Her family situation was similar to mine, but the way she handled it was so much braver. I admired her determination and optimism. I wished I could laugh all the time like she was doing right now.

At the same time, Danny and I sat quietly in the back seats of the van. Jetlag and the 40-hour flight were taking their toll on us. I didn’t know how Danny was feeling but I couldn’t even concentrate to understand what Kira and Hang were talking about. All I needed to know was my roommate, April, already came back and was in our room. I would hide there and try not to be seen by campus security until the day students could rightfully show up on campus. However, they were dropping me at Hang’s place first for some reason, after taking Danny to his room.

Hang lived in Quads E1. Quads was simply the name of a bunch of houses, each having its own kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and a dining room, with two bedrooms. Four students lived together in each house. Rather separated from the rest of campus and reserved for upperclassmen only, the Quads was considered the party paradise of the college. I myself never understood the appeal of living there. I had to pay extra to live there, I had to clean my own kitchen and bathroom, and I had to deal with noise and drunk kids. The only pro was I could cook my own Asian food, but cooking everyday sounded too exhausting. I chose Schlosser, the only all-girls dorm left on campus to live for my whole life in college.

Right when we arrived at Quads E1, Hang screamed all the way from outside:

–          Em, guess who’s here?

Em was Hang’s own way of calling Emily, her roommate and also my best friend. Her real name was Ruohui. She was from China. She started college the same year with me but transferred one year’s worth of credits from her Chinese university. As a result, she was also graduating this year with me and Hang. We were drawn to each other due to many similarities. Up to that point, I had never trusted anyone as much as I did in her. I told her all my problems. I cried in front of her. She was a sister that I always wished I had. Over the summer, she stayed to work on campus, rooming with Hang, Khin, and another American girl, Kira’s friend – the social and popular girls. Khin was a Chinese Burmese girl, pretty and nice. We spent quite a lot of time together when we first got here, but soon after that, I went to my own world and we were only good friends. I had a feeling, through our Facebook messages, three months living and working with Khin and Hang had changed Emily a little bit into their lifestyle, while I went deeper into the reclusive path of life. But I still believed what we had in the past would always be there and definitely meant so much.

–          Chi! – Emily happily greeted me with a hug. It was warm and tight, but somehow I still felt it lacked the sincerity. I just hoped I was imagining everything, that my tired mind and sorrowful spirit had tricked me into suspecting everyone.

Emily, Hang, Khin and I talked a little bit, about my flight, their summer, the food I successfully smuggled into the country, the woman who was fined 5000 dollars for attempting to bring undeclared meat through the customs, my excitement for the trip to NYC for the US Open in a week, and other things. For a moment, I completely forgot about my family and the nightmare summer as I laughed, boisterously telling my stories and commenting on others’. I called April to let her now I was on campus and would go to our room once Kira came back with the van to drive me and my huge, although empty, suitcase across campus. Kira never came back that night though, and I spent the night there, on a mattress placed on the floor, sleeping my first night of my last year at Elizabethtown College away in a mild happiness.

That happiness was dampened a little the following day when I saw my roommate, April.

April was Chinese American. Her family was the most messed up one I’d ever known. Her mother must be either extremely rebellious or utterly whorish to do what she did. April was nothing like her mother. I first met her during orientation week. I lost my group and was standing confused in the cafeteria when she walked up to me and introduced herself.

–          Hi, I’m April. Do you need help?

I was even more confused with my friends nowhere to be found and a stranger in front of me.

–          Do I know you?

–          No. I see that you’re Asian and look lost. I’m from here so I know more about this. If you have anything you don’t understand, you can ask me.

–          I’m fine. I just lost my peer group. We agreed to eat here together at this time but I don’t see them.

–          Oh, ok. I hope you find your group. What’s your name?

–          Chi.

–          Nice to meet you.

That was the story of how I met my current roommate, the story that told a lot about her. She was sweet, caring, weird, and drawn to people of her race. I found some images of me in her sometimes. The way she was not involved in school activities and only interested in boys who spoke Mandarin told me she was also lost in the new culture, unable to adapt to the different way of life. We didn’t belong to this world. But at least I hadn’t felt that lonely and desperate like April did.

The moment she told me about her “boyfriend” – a Chinese guy from a rural background living his entire life in China who she met online but never in person before and probably never after – I bitterly asked myself “Is it how I would turn out if I stayed here for a long enough time?” I pretended to be happy for her, but inside I wondered why I always roommed with weird people?

Well, my first roommate, Emily Kumpf was not weird. She was from outside Philadelphia. Being a music major, she had a brilliant voice, in my opinion, and played about 4 types of instruments. She was nice, polite, and didn’t have a boyfriend. We were good roommates. We simply didn’t talk. I was shy and so was she. My next roommates were Kimberly and Reva. We lived together in a triple room for a semester and constituted the most diverse room that could be found on campus. When we went to the Residential Life office to apply for a triple room, the assistant, someone as white as it could be in this Central Pennsylvania area, was shocked to hear our names – Kimberly Suarez, Reva May, Chi Dao. We were also the most interesting combination I ever thought could happen. Shy and antisocial as she was, Reva was not weird. She was calm, charismatic, and proud of her origin as being among the first people to settle in the New Continent. If I had to use one word to describe her though, it would definitely be Republican. She fitted into every stereotype of people supporting that political group. Kimberly, on the other hand, was the total opposite. She definitely was the example of someone too good to fit in the ordinary definition of normal. She was so open-minded that most people would consider it freaky. She had this impossible belief that everyone should love anyone. She was extremely self-aware of the underlying racial tension going on in this school, which she hated for being too white. She dropped out of college near the end of our second year, for numerous reasons. And Dara Gross replaced her as my roommate for a few weeks. Dara was a geek, an overly chubby girl bullied in high school and even in college. She loved computer games, obsessed with Japanese everything. She was the president of Anime club. Although from a very wealthy family in Philadelphia who owned two houses in downtown and a cottage in Long Island, she dressed like a Goth creeper. On top of that, she was a lesbian who thought having guy friends sleep over under my bed was totally acceptable. Although she was one of the nicest people in this school, I had to admit she was also the least normal roommate of mine, until I knew who April was deep inside.

–          We talk every day. He really cares about me. – April happily told me about her boyfriend.

–          How long have you guys been dating?  – I asked, knowing it couldn’t be for more than a few months since she was still single and found those guys “unreliable and disgusting” last year.

–          Just since the beginning of the summer. – She grinned, slightly lifted her chin as her eyes became thin lines. – I feel really happy talking to him. I tell him everything.

She made her relationship sound so romantic. It would be, if they had met or would meet even once. Her boyfriend virtually didn’t exist. That was when I realized how much worse she was struggling with this life than me. To resort to someone half way around the world who you met online for a fake warmth and care from a so-called boyfriend just so you could feel loved and less lonely, that was simply beyond depressing. As I unpacked my luggage, I listened to April skype with her boyfriend in the ear-hurting language and felt a wave of mild sorrowful realization gradually take over my soul.

My first class of the third year was Financial Institution. I took that one because my advisor suggested it should be an easy A. “Emma teaches it”, to quote his words. Emma was a Chinese Canadian finance professor in our college whose knowledge had never been adequately appreciated. She was hardworking, smart and had a broad knowledge in this area, but somehow she was just not good at explaining what she knew to students. To compensate for it, she was rather lenient in giving grades. She was the professor I talked to most, partly because she was my first business professor and only the one I had most classes with, but mostly because she was Asian. Subconsciously, I felt closer to her. I was probably one of her most favorite students too.

Brooke was also in that class. I’d known her since our first year, as all International Business freshmen were required to take a seminar class together in the spring semester. I had never been particularly close to Brooke. She was cute and extremely friendly but I just never felt the connection necessary to draw two people closer. This one time though, I felt happy she was here, although I never found it difficult to go to a class full of strangers. Actually, I felt freer and more relieved among people I didn’t know.

Wherever Brooke was, Julie was there. Julie was another international student from China. I could never understand why someone so rich, beautiful with a perfect American accent could be so shy and reserved. Whenever I looked at her, I found the consolation to myself.

The class I feared most was International Law. Each major in the business department was required to take a variation of law classes – Accountants had to take Business Law, Business Administration Legal Environment, and International Business this one. I had heard many rumors about the crazy professor who taught it – Sylvester Williams. Just the look of him was scary enough – he was big, black, with loud gangster voice. Again, I was happy Brooke was there, sitting next to me, together with a galaxy of brightest students – smart Alison W., eloquent Alison C., hardworking Kristen, critical Joe K., confident Dan, among others.

But Law didn’t turn out to be the most stressful class I had that semester. Community Chorus did. It was the 1-credit class I chose to fulfill my general requirement although I didn’t know how to sing a single note. Nevertheless, that class introduced me to a passion I never thought I had – playing the piano.

On the other hand, the class I expected most was Tennis. Tennis, especially Roger Federer, was the reason I carried on through hard times, the inspiration in my life, the guide for my conducts. this time as well, I was so thankful I took tennis class because that was where I met and became close to Anna – the most amazing and courageous girl I’d known.

However, my most favorite class was International Finance, taught by professor Varamini – the director of my department’s International Business Program. I never fully appreciated him as a teacher when I was his student. I thought his demands were unrealistic and too much compared to his help. He did a much better job explaining class materials to us than Emma did. But that wasn’t the reason I like International Finance. The small class size, the intimate atmosphere, and the relatively easy materials were.

                So I started my last year in college, my last year as a child, my last year away from home, my last year in the dream land America with a broken heart attempting to flee from haunting memories, with my best friend slowly drifting away, with my new roommate falling to the desperation pit, and with a full load schedule of 6 classes.

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