I stare past the old man next to me and out the window, zoning out as I try to suppress a mild feeling of claustrophobia. On the nights I’m traveling home, I always take a moment as the plane touches down in Frankfurt for my layover to think about how weird it is that most of my American friends are already back home, whether it took them five minutes to drive down Nassau Street or six hours to fly to the West Coast.
My roommate must already be sitting in her room by now in her house in North Jersey after a 1.5-hour drive upstate. When I visited her during Dead Week my freshman year, I was surprised to find myself totally comfortable in her environment. Hers was the first American home I’d ever seen, and I had been wondering how different it would be from Princeton and my home in Singapore.
I guess my immediate comfort wasn’t all that surprising, given that we were in the same country and state as Princeton. Still, I couldn’t help but think she probably wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable if she ever visited me.
For me, traveling home from Princeton takes about 30 hours. It’s almost always the same flight, and I’m so used to it by now, I have it down to a science.
Step One: Catch the Dinky. Be running late. Don’t forget to obnoxiously brush past everyone with your oversized suitcase. Lug it up various staircases and tunnels and stow it by the bathroom on the double-decker trains. Feel paranoid about your suitcase getting stolen, even though the most valuable things in there are your textbooks, which you never fail to bring even though they’ll stay in there for the entirety of winter break. Push your mammoth suitcase past the angry-looking people in the monorail and at the airport. Make sure to watch your bag get loaded onto the check-in belt, because the airport will without a doubt lose it if you don’t.
Step Two: Try to sweet-talk your way into an upgrade at the check-in desk. Carry large textbooks to gain sympathy, or invent sob stories about your poor, sick great-aunt or your blasted rheumatism. (Never succeed.)
Step Three: Experience various stages of a panic attack as you stand in line for security. Feel more pressure about fumbling in front of TSA than you did while writing that last paper before break. Crack jokes about how you always get selected for the “random” screenings because you’re foreign. Laugh nervously when the passport checker just gives you a stony-faced stare.
Step Four: Head straight to McDonald’s at the food court — it’s the only real food you’ll get for the next 26 hours. Relish the looks on people’s faces as they watch you stuff your face as if it’s the last cheeseburger you’ll ever eat. By the time you sink into your airplane seat, you’ll be in a McFlurry-induced coma.
Beyond these steps, the first 12 hours of my flight are always a blur. I usually promise myself that I’ll get all my assignments out of the way or that I’ll finish that book I’ve been meaning to read. It never happens. Those 12 hours spent in that 40 cm by 40 cm area of space never go by fast, but somehow, by the end of it, all I’ve managed to do is watch two movies and spy on my neighbors.
My stopover in Frankfurt is always interesting. I subscribe to the belief that although Haagen-Dazs is an American company, their store in the Frankfurt airport is far superior to any American location. One thing, however, that is not superior about the Frankfurt airport is that a large part of it resembles a prison. And the airport can never seem to make up its mind about whether or not people on stopovers have to go through security. It’s enough to amplify my panic attacks, on top of the fact that my surroundings alone make me feel like I’m in a maximum-security holding cell.
As I board my flight from Frankfurt to Singapore, I’m never really surprised to see a handful of my classmates from high school. A lot of us chose to go to college in the States. The first time it happened, though, I was hopelessly unprepared to see all that I thought I’d left behind in high school judging me viciously for my sweatpants.
When my plane finally lands in Singapore, I’m itching for freedom. Here, I can stroll through immigration without so much as blinking an eye. Going through immigration in America is practically a heart attack, with my stack of I-20 forms and I-94 forms and I-don’t-know-what-you’re-even-asking-me forms and the frowny, intimidatingly mustachioed immigration officers. It’s pure terror. So smirking at all the foreigners as I whiz past the smiley Singaporean immigration desk marked “Residents Only” gives me more satisfaction than I could possibly explain.
Though I end up losing two days on the way to Singapore because of the time difference and the jetlag, though I feel like I need to shower five times when I finally arrive, though I only get to go home once every six months or so and though it means I can never talk to my parents on the phone at a normal time, I like living so far away. At the very least, it means I’ve learned to be self-sufficient: I know how to do my own taxes, set up a bank account, apply for visas and social security numbers and pay my phone bills. And when I hear stories of immigrants who come to America for college and don’t get to go home even once during their four years, I’m thankful I get to go home at all.
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