a flag for montezuma.

it’s approaching a year. i count ten more days until the day a year ago, when i bundled into the back of my parents’ rental car, suitcases rattling in the trunk while we watched the tip of the castle grow smaller and the waving hands of my friends blur away. all this time, there’s been a red flag decorated with a white bauhinia shoved in one of the pockets of the suitcases. an extra. or one i saved for the day i can catch my breath again, away from the dusty, dry, oxygen-thin air.

it’s around this time of year when students start receiving their flag orders. or start writing on them – discarded sharpies littering carpeted floor among metres of colourful fabric. perhaps clothes strewn around with them, to be packed in suitcases or boxes or brought to the auditorium to join heaving piles of thread to be picked up by others or stuffed in garbage bags to be donated. books, binders, and loose pages of notes pulled out of shelves, finding refuge in every corner of the rooms. papers and notebooks stacked, ready to be burned.

the last days of the academic year, just as the weather warms, always make me nervous. the frenzy of packing and last minute errands mask the sentiment of loss. i realise that again, now two states away, in college, with different people, trying to fit everything into a few suitcases, boxes, baskets. surrounded by disarray. when tension bubbles up my throat and my hands jitter as i shove clothing into suitcases as fast as possible, i don’t think about what this means. i don’t think about the people i won’t see again. the people i talked to, but never became closer than a nod and a quick hello in the hallway. the people i wanted to become friends with but was too afraid to. the people i stood next to, brushing our teeth in silence. remembering tears i couldn’t shed last year watching car after car leave from the space between kili and chum, watching people with tear-stained faces exchange long hugs and last goodbyes through my own dry eyes.

only this time, i have no flags to write. the heavy feeling of nostalgia and things-not-done settles in my chest.

the truth is, montezuma, i still don’t know how to think of you. not what, but how. and it’s going to take many more years until i can fully understand whatever happened in the two years, from the interview where i sat stammering in front of the national committee, to my last morning in las vegas, bringing my family to charlie’s (which i’d never been to before, with my friends). how do you piece together a “uwc experience”? how do you hold it in your hands and inspect it when it was all too fleeting? when people ask what uwc was like, i dodge anything concrete, because uwc was not concrete for me.

“the uwc experience is what you make of it.”

“everyone’s uwc experience is unique to them.”

“uwc is for a certain kind of person.”

and then i’d add on, “i don’t know if it was for my kind of person.”

the truth is, montezuma, even though i wanted to detach myself from you, i know i still care deeply about my two years with you. it shows when i unfold the flags i received from my friends and reread them; when i wash my sweaters inside out because the printed designs of the elephant and the lettering of ‘kilimanajaro’ have begun to crack under the stress of college-issued laundry machines; when i find myself revisiting kpop videos that we pored over to learn for f.e.n.d.; it shows when something inside me lashes out in opposition when my parents mournfully say they regret sending me there – knowing i could have done so much better academically in hong kong, for returning home more withdrawn than before, more irritable than before, with a cynicism, an apathy and a lack of motivation they had not observed in me before. it was a failure on my part. the desire to break away from the previous me, the kid with a one-tracked mind to academic ascension and an idealistic future, to the uwc of firsts – of trying everything, of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, of doing things i otherwise wouldn’t have done. they didn’t have to be in conflict, not zero-sum, but somehow i tried to do both and ended up somewhere in the middle, unable to balance two types of success; not wanting to take risks or do new, unfamiliar things, always choosing to return to my books; and then pushing them away with the excuse that uwc is so much more than studying. the tug of war ended in the same position it started. nowhere.

was it then a waste of two years? it would only be a waste if i kept on seeing it as a waste.

did it derail the path i was going to take? yes, it derailed me from the naive aspirations of my fifteen year-old self, infused me with new ideas, new possibilities, concerns that had never troubled me before.

now, i prefer to place uwc in the grand scheme of things. it’s easier than trying to dissect uwc in isolation. i’m still trying to figure out how uwc shaped me in the context of my new life, things i recently discovered: a renewed love for studying societies and cultures (todd’s the best) – but not through anthropological lenses but sociological ones; a renewed love for creative writing (although parris would’ve cringed at my lack of uppercase letters and terrible punctuation), a newfound love for disney songs and mainstream musicals (sorry ron), a newfound obsession with hair product and headbands and rolled-up jeans, and other newly discovered identities. each of them, baby steps to figuring out what uwc is to me.

this time last year, i was stepping gingerly around open suitcases and flags and binders and notebooks and clothes and garbage bags thrown all over the floor. second-years, so ready to leave, but not ready to say goodbye. first-years, looking forward to the summer, but unsure of what they’d return to in the fall. i can imagine my co-years, in scattered corners of the globe, reminiscing or trying to forget.

i don’t regret uwc.

it has given me perspective. it has opened doors to paths i never considered. even as a shell of myself, it made me feel alive. and that was enough.

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