Away and Back Again

Sean-Yuei Tseng, Grade 10
Grade 10
San Jose

I was twenty years old and sobbing
in the bathroom,
waiting for a plane I never wanted to come.

I was tearing through the terminals,
afraid to miss my flight,
my heart sinking in my chest
with a bigger fear of catching it.

When I arrived, the world was dark;
an expanse of endless black.
I sat on the shuttle with twenty other people
and for the first time felt
truly alone.

The dorm
was a narrow coffin with a roommate.
She introduced herself
and waited five whole minutes
before I could form my tongue around

The first year was homesickness and night classes
biting back my words.
I lived for the 11 p.m. phone calls,
when international call rates
were low,
sneaking out in the dead of night
to hear my sisters’ voices.

I learned a few things the second year:
how not to look lost,
how to smile and nod as if
I understood.
I did not learn who I was on that campus,
but I did discover that
not knowing was okay.

I graduated like I had arrived,
holding a Master’s degree
that should have meant the world.
Instead, it was just another
map to nowhere
and I was lost again.

In my head, I could not decide
the world was too big
or too small.
Sometimes, the walls at work
closed in on me,
and sometimes
I was only a city light,
directionless in the spinning stars.

When I met him,
I was sure of it—
the world was bigger than
the both of us
and yet still small enough
to fit in his smile.

He was sweet and smart and back then
I didn’t need much more.
He reminded me of the home I left,
a lighthouse in a foreign sea,
and oh, how I missed the shores.

It was a modest wedding.
I wore the best make-up I owned
and an American white dress my mother cried over.
My father refused to come
so I walked myself down the aisle
to the man with sad eyes who had captured my heart.

After a while, he gave it back,
my heart,
“For safekeeping,” he had promised,
so I nodded and watched his plane leave.
That was the day I realized
money was worth so little.
But my family could not eat without it,
so we learned to eat without him instead.

My eldest daughter
used to always ask if I was happy.
I would tell her in Chinese, “Yes,
I am away from my husband, my sisters,
and still I am happy.”
She has yet to understand
how that can be so.

To my youngest daughter, who knows none of this,
I am only a checkpoint to pass.
But my home, my family, I am split between
two countries and a husband
and she has only seen glimpses of each.

So I will tell the both of them one day,
how I had cried over leaving,
how I had thought my blue veins were maps
to nowhere.

And I will make sure they know
my home never left me
and my veins led me
back to my heart.