University of Wisconsin–Madison

Leaving the Bed 6,157 Miles Behind

My dad keeps texting me the number of days I have until I leave for China. He sends them intermittently throughout the week, and they pop up on my phone like strange numbers left by a kidnapper who is counting down the time I have to deliver a ransom. I know that’s an unreasonable way to see it, but it’s accurate to the panic I’m starting to feel.

I am going to Tianjin, China for six weeks. I could have gone for the whole summer, but not working for three months and being away from my family, my fiancé, and my cat for that long is not compatible with me. I shouldn’t be as scared as I am, and yet every time I think about leaving for the airport I have the urge to smoke all 16 of the cigarettes I have stashed away in the back of our freezer.

I’m not even scared for all the normal reasons a first-time international traveler should be scared. I’m not worried about navigating foreign airports, immersing myself in a language I’ve only studied for two years, or even about my safety. No, I’m worried about the person I’ll come back as, and who I’ll come back to. Will our bed feel the same? Will we love the same things?

Mostly, I’m worried about how we’ll change. I shouldn’t be, though— I’ll only be gone for six weeks. A lot of people are so encouraging, saying I’ll have a good time, that this will be the experience of a lifetime, and that it will go by faster than I think it will. Mostly, I believe them. At least, I want to. But it’s the moments in between all of the living I’ll do that scares me. I worry that I’ll turn my head in bed that is more than 6,000 miles away from home and expect to see someone there to talk to about a weird guy I saw in a coffee shop that day, and nobody will be there.

“9 days,” my dad texted me yesterday. I widened my eyes and turned my phone off, hoping I wouldn’t get a follow-up question from him like I did last week. “Are you getting nervous yet? What else do you need to do before you go?”

My cat, Errtu, meowed softly at me from inside my open closet as he looked at himself in the mirror. He wants to know too.

Wayne, my fiancé, knows I don’t really want to talk about it. Sometimes, in the morning when we sit in the dark sipping coffee waiting for the day to start, I want to talk about what I’ll do during my layover in Vancouver, or what I should bring back for everyone, or what kinds of food I should try. But he knows I really don’t want to talk too much about it. We go back to staring at the clock and playing with the cat.

I like our quiet life. We’ve been doing this for five years now, with and without roommates, at our parents’ places or in our own apartments. It’s comfortable. It’s comforting, especially as an introvert. Upsetting that for six weeks is insane. I feel safe here. That “going out on a limb” metaphor is really graphic in my head.

But as my trip gets closer and closer, I also think about the kind of person I want to be, and what kind of education I want. I’ve always admired those people who go out on a limb for their own benefit, taking themselves out of comfort and security to gain something greater. I want to do that. I guess that’s why I applied to the program in the first place.

So I am starting to picture downtown Tianjin, bullet trains, the Forbidden City, and street vendors selling breakfast as my comfortable place. I try to transport myself there, feeling around to see if I could thrive. It feels like I’m missing an arm, but I think I can do it.

I want to come back with greater fluency in Chinese than I have now, and a language immersion program seems to be the best way to do so. The drive to get there, the excitement of a new place… I won’t let my hesitation hold me back.