I was 22 years old the first time I really stepped out of my comfort zone. Straight out of college, I was excited to finally leave for a world beyond the confines of familiarity in Mumbai, India. My destination was Hong Kong, a city I hardly knew anything. And yet, I could barely contain my excitement as I prepared for grad school.
This would be the first time I was going to live alone in a neighborhood where nobody knew my name. It was almost like courting a romantic dream I’d been harboring inside my head for years: carving new beginnings in a new city, talking to strangers, and discovering new restaurants and bars. And it was exactly that. I made new friends, adjusted to a completely different lifestyle, and taught myself to navigate unfamiliar streets.
However, there was one thing that was frequently on my mind: my parents. My first day in Hong Kong, I found myself sobbing as I sat in a mall, frustrated by my inability to communicate with a store manager who only spoke Cantonese. I missed my father’s astute thinking, my mother’s gentle demeanor. I missed knowing that I wasn’t all alone.
I’d made a choice, and yet, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that without my family, I was incomplete. My parents were supportive but scared; they teared up a little when they realized I didn’t eat the first day after I landed – I was too overwhelmed, too homesick. They offered loving words of encouragement and kindness, staying patient as I ranted about being confused and nervous.
In the months that followed, there would be emptiness in my chest that was hard to fill. I missed my parents and the warmth of home: my mom’s spicy curry, my dad’s intriguing anecdotes from work, and the never-ending supply of squishy hugs. I missed it all.
I tried to fill the void by sending regular updates through texts and hunting for cheap calling cards to talk to mom for hours without being interrupted. We scheduled Skype sessions whenever we could, especially on festivals when everyone missed me and tried to include me in the festivities. I also decided to be honest about struggling to adjust to the local cuisine and, before I knew it, packages of food arrived for me from my parents. My folks spent hours scouring local grocery stores for non-perishable food items that would make me miss home a little less.
There were tough times. At one point, my parents battled a personal loss: An uncle died in a road accident. They waited to tell me, afraid of how I’d react. When I finally heard the news, I felt numb. This incident was a huge blow; I spent a lot of time clinging onto my phone with mom, hearing her talk about our shared grief.
It’s been six years since I left Hong Kong. I spent three years back at home in India, soaking in the happiness that comes with being in a place where I truly belonged: wandering around my room in old pajamas, sleeping like a baby, and enjoying festivals with my family. It was a deliberate decision; I needed to spend time with my parents and squeeze in as much quality time as I could while I figured out my next steps.
However, I knew I was a xenophile — someone who actively sought unfamiliar places and foreign cultures. The itch to fly away showed up not long after I moved back home, and I wanted to explore unfamiliar streets again. However, I was afraid: How do I take care of my family while being far away from home? What if I can’t be present for all the moments that matter — birthdays, anniversaries, sick days, and the nights they’re too stressed to sleep?
These are thoughts I often end up wrestling with, especially as the world battles a pandemic. I’m now in Dubai where I’ve been living for two years, working as a journalist. My parents and I talk every day and often swap photos in quarantine and share quirky updates. We now consciously spend a lot more time talking every day, prioritizing our conversations even on the busiest days. My mom is privy to all the little things such as photos of my new highlights, my recurring anxieties, and my failed attempts at cooking. Before the pandemic, we also ensured that we’d visit each other once every few months to bridge the distance and spend more time together.
And yet, I sometimes can’t help but feel scared. I’m so far from my folks. Are they alright? Is there something they’re not telling me to protect me? My doubts are endless. How do I deal with them? I talk, I communicate with my family and share my fears. I let them know that no matter what, I’d drop everything in an instant and fly back to them if they need me. I hope, I dream and I love.