I have always had a hard time saying goodbye to things. Moving from country to country throughout my life — from Korea to Japan, Japan to Scotland, Scotland to Hong Kong and Hong Kong back to Korea — I was constantly forced to leave my friends and memories behind. With no time left to process the change fully, I have had to cling to the memories of the past. Even as I mouthed goodbye, I never fully meant it, always reminiscing about my life in the previous country.
Since being accepted to Hopkins two years ago, I have again been forced to say goodbye to people and things almost regularly. As I prepared to leave Seoul for Baltimore, I was forced to say goodbye to many reminders of my home, from my favorite cafes to my childhood bedroom to my mom’s kimchi. These departures triggered the child in me again, tugging me back into a sea of memories that I could not swim out of.
The fact that I was saying goodbye to my native language first hit me while traveling from Korea to the U.S. I heard less and less Korean on the plane as I flew into San Fransisco, and then to Baltimore. By the end of my trip, all I heard was English, occasionally mixed with some lines of Spanish, which confirmed that I was truly disconnected from my home community. An unexplainable wave of sorrow engulfed me, prompting a long session of hot tears and uncontrollable snot.
When I arrived at Hopkins, I had hoped that I was done with goodbyes, but there have been many goodbyes in my experience here. At the end of my freshman year, I had to say goodbye to my roommate, my room in Wolman Hall and the lab mentors I had connected with throughout the year. Still, after a year in college, my farewells have become surprisingly calmer, accompanied by a last look and a deep sigh. On my face, I wear an ambivalent smile to assure everyone around me that I am okay and to trick myself into thinking I am used to saying goodbye now — when I am not.
The problem is that I am never prepared to say goodbye. When I realize that I’m approaching the end of an era, I find myself already situated in the moment of having to greet a farewell. This has happened in the wake of parting from my friends, my parents, my hometown and my country. I find myself panicking as if I could not have expected the parting; I frantically grasp at my jumble of memories as if trying to preserve them.
And before I realize it, these emotions wrap around one another until it becomes a big knot that I can’t even start to unravel. Waves of helplessness consume me, and I, time after time, become even more fearful of saying goodbye.
We always prepare for the start of something: new books, altered schedules and bubbles of excitement. But never in my life have I prepared myself for the end of something. How can I think of an end to something while I can still access it easily? Why should I go out of my way to recognize that what I have right now will not be there forever?
Reflecting on these questions, I think the reason why goodbyes are so hard for me lies in the fact that I always seem to have regrets. I believe that if I could go back, I would have been nicer; I would have spent more time there; I should have enjoyed that moment more than I had.
It is difficult to think in the back of my mind that nothing lasts forever, but it has to be recognized. Finally, after struggling with goodbyes for so long, I’ve come to learn that knowing there is an end to something makes me try harder to make the most of every moment and appreciate the time I have with the people I have.
With this in mind, I can finally understand the good in “goodbye.”
Yuna Um is a sophomore from Seoul, South Korea studying Neuroscience.