On (Not) Writing While Traveling

By: Stephanie Koo

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Would it be blasphemous to suggest that I didn’t have the time of my life while I was abroad?

I should have expected to feel this way, in all honesty. At the time, the opportunity that I had received felt like a once in a lifetime adventure. When else was I going to be able to spend an entire three weeks, during the last winter break of my undergraduate career, being able to travel to China, Malaysia, and Singapore with my dad? When I won the UConn IDEA grant (which, as ungrateful as I sounded in the first sentence of this blog, I am deeply thankful for), I was already a bundle of nerves. At first, I couldn’t tell if this reaction was from the good or the bad form of anxiety.

I was planning on visiting my relatives in both Singapore and Malaysia (people I haven’t seen in thirteen years), as well as my Ancestral Home in both China and Malaysia. I felt like I was going back to my roots. I thought that I was going to find myself in my new surroundings, experience something that would light a fire within my soul, and maybe even write the next Great Ethnic Novel, etc. etc. You know – the easy stuff.

Look, I’ve always scoffed at those posts that I see on my Facebook newsfeed — people who embark on their journey with “nothing but a backpack and an open mind” (No one that I know has actually said that, but it’s not that far from those selfies with impoverished children along with those captions about how seeing these people’s living conditions has, like totally, changed their lives). I tried to get around this narrative by becoming invested in travel blogs, but the only ones that kept me entertained were the ones about food. I’m fine with traveling—I love my family’s annual camping trips—but something about leaving the US for southeast Asia remained completely daunting.

The planning process was draining: from booking plane tickets and researching hotels to making sure that I didn’t miss any of the attractions that I probably wouldn’t be able to see for at least another decade – if ever. Soon, I promised myself, the planning would be over and the trip would finally become enjoyable. Then, at last, I was going to start feeling inspired. I was going to start writing again. I had been suffering from writer’s block for almost an entire year before receiving the grant from UConn. For an unknown reason, the only thing that I was able to write was starting (and never finishing) a series of angst-y fanfics and whiny diary rants. Once I saw my relatives and, like, connected with them, I was convinced that I would become inspired. Words would flow from my fingers! I had a blog set up and I was ready to go.

But no.

It turned out to be difficult to find the time to write when my relatives were making me eat all the food that I had previously been missing out on. My father and I, my relatives’ poor, poor US kin, needed to consume everything RIGHT NOW because, obviously, who knew when we would get the chance again? I was surprised when I got back to find that I hadn’t gained any weight on my trip—I must have sweat off the pounds in the 90-100 degree heat. I found myself longing (yes, I realize how crazy I am about to sound) for those cold UConn winters.

And since my dad, who had made it his mission to become my personal photographer, had come on the trip with me, I should have been prepared for posing next to everything that he deemed worthy of immortalizing with a photo.

I should have expected this, but for an awkward introvert like me I felt drained at the end of each day. I was joined at the hip with my dad for an entire three weeks while socializing with people I had only met a handful of times before. It almost didn’t matter how awesome and welcoming my relatives were.

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Take early mornings and late nights, throw in a bad internet connection, mix in numerous hours combing through four cameras worth of photos (literally thousands), and what you have is a recipe for a series of late (read: very very very late) blog posts.

At the time, I feel very guilty for not writing (even though I ultimately don’t think that anyone cared as much as I did). I felt like I was letting Future Me down. Would I look back at this time, these precious moments with my dad and my family, and think, “Wow, why didn’t you record your grandmother talking more? Why didn’t you smile more? Why were you so grumpy?”

I took notes when I could. I soaked in as much of the atmosphere, the stories, and the people as I could handle. I spent time with my last living grandparent, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins. I learned a lot about my dad and the life that him and my mom had left behind.

But what I came back to the US, I quickly realized that the reason why I felt so disconnected during the trip is because my relatives’ lives are not my life. My parents, who grew up Chinese but lived in Malaysia, met in the United States. I was born in the US. Malaysia, and even more removed, China and Singapore, were never true homes for me; this was never what my life could have been.

I don’t know if I have changed as a person because of my trip, but what I do know that I now have a whole jumbled, contradicting mess of feelings towards my heritage (Yay). I guess it’s only fitting that I am finally able to process my thoughts and write now that – four weeks later—I am on my home turf.

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