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When ‘home’ is thousands of miles away

<h5>Davis International Center</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Davis International Center
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

Over the past week, my homesickness has increased manifold. While I felt grateful for the many people that made Tết celebration a reality, I could not help but realize that Princeton’s campus still did not feel quite like home. This was the first time in 18 years that I was not able to celebrate this important holiday with my family. 

Although the holiday reminded me that Princeton feels nowhere near like home, I can also easily recall times when I subconsciously referred to this place as such. For example, I happily proclaimed “We’re home!” as my friends and I stepped off of the Dinky after spending a day in New York last semester. 

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I surprised myself with my remark. When did Princeton become my home? 

Is it really home when I never feel warm enough, no matter how many layers of winter clothes I put on? How is it home when the closest place to get Viet food — which unfortunately is not even open anymore — is a solid 10-minute drive away? And how is it home when I still stop in my tracks to watch any airplane that passes overhead and wonder when it will be my turn to go home? 

For a long time, I have feared that I will never be able to truly find “home” on campus, and that Princeton will always welcome me only as a seasonal guest. Albeit inadvertently, the University has played a role in deepening this fear. 

Back in August 2021, I had to arrive on campus early to quarantine with a group of other international students who were unable to fulfill the COVID-19 vaccination requirement before arriving. There was a short period of time between the day we completed our quarantine period (before which our meals were provided at no extra cost by the University) and the commencement of International Orientation when our unlimited meal plan activated. 

During this short period, the University did not have a meal plan for us. I will never forget the countless phone calls we made to all the University agencies that could potentially help provide us with this most basic level of support. But neither Public Safety, Undergraduate Student Housing, nor Campus Dining and the on-call Dean were able to help us. 

It might seem melodramatic, childish even, to still feel wronged by a one-time oversight stemming from unintentional miscommunication among University agencies. Yet, to the 18 and 19-year-olds in a foreign country, some for the first time in our entire lives, this was more than a small mistake. The lack of care for international students that Princeton displayed even before the start of my freshman year will always leave us wondering why the University relegated our basic needs to the background. 

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More recently, just a few days before winter break, the Davis International Center sent out an email encouraging international students to consider staying back on campus in light of new COVID travel restrictions. This move generated backlash among international students and the larger community, which stood in solidarity with us. Even though I fortunately did not have to choose between seeing my family and continuing the very education for which I left them in the first place, it hurt to see yet another instance in which Princeton put international students’ wellbeing last.

These two examples, and countless others, convinced me that Princeton will never truly become my home away from home.

Nevertheless, over time, I realized that while I reserve the right to point out how the University can treat the international population better, shifting my own perspective on the meaning of “home” helps me feel more at ease on campus. By strictly limiting my definition of “home” to my childhood neighborhood, to traditional Viet dishes perfectly seasoned by my mom, and to the year-round tropical weather that I took for granted, I am letting go of the opportunity to make a home out of Princeton, thereby losing the chance to make the most of my experience here. 

Even though Princeton may never feel the same way as “home” does, it does not have to. Because it is not. 

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Princeton is a second home where I have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from people coming from more than 60 countries all over the world, each bringing their unique perspectives and cultural values to the table. Where else would I be able to engage in intellectual dialogue in and outside the classroom whenever I want, or to immerse myself in the richness of cultural diversity for which I left my largely homogeneous country in the first place?

Princeton is also a unique home, populated by people who truly care for me. It is home when a friend insisted that I wear her coat on top of my thin sweater even though we were both trembling in the cold. It is home when someone listens with genuine curiosity as I start my sentence with “See, back in Vietnam we usually do it like this…” 

Princeton is simply a different kind of home because I am a different kind of person when I am here. With my family, I am a daughter, a conformer, a believer. At Princeton, I am a learner, a challenger, a leader. And they are all versions of myself that I love, made possible only by reconciling with the belief that I do not have to limit my definition of home to the place where I was born. 

Some fellow international students — especially first-years, like myself, who have never been away from home for such a long time — may still believe that Princeton is far from the loving home that we long to return to every day. I understand this perspective. There are, and will be, moments that make us doubt the reasons why we are here. But I also believe that if you really give Princeton a chance and look at this far-from-perfect institution with a bit of empathy, patience, and grace, you will find home in the people that you meet every day in your hallways, classrooms, dining halls. You will find home in the sheer beauty of this campus. You will find home in midnight walks around Palmer Square and 2 a.m. Wawa runs with brothers and sisters you are still getting to know.

While the definition of hometown is stagnant, that of home is not. I know that for me, Princeton will never replace the home that is thousands of miles away. Instead, it will be a second home built out of laughter and tears, memories and lessons, with people no less endearing than those who are waiting for me back home, as long as I open my mind and heart. 

Audrey Chau is a first-year from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She is also an Assistant Opinion Editor. She can be reached via email at audreychau@princeton.edu and Twitter @AudreyBChau.

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