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I can still taste the bitterness in my dry mouth and smell my kurta, a traditional Indian dress. My plane landed at dinnertime on a Saturday night in late July. My belly was empty; I was restless from the 16-hour flight and anxious to take a shower and sleep off the reverse culture shock.
I was also anxious for my reunion with my father.
He greeted me with daisies and a long hug. I hopped into the car, and after I threw my floral Vera Bradley suitcase into the truck of his green Jeep, his body tensed up and his demeanor grew nervous. The words slipped out of his mouth as the beads of rain smacked the roof of the car.
"If you don't live with me and you live with your mother," he began, emphasizing your mother in a tone of hostility, "then I will refuse to pay for your junior year of high school."
I curled up in a fetal position and rested my head on the window with my eyes squeezed shut. I braced myself for a long car ride of him screaming and me sinking deeper and deeper into myself — something I've learned to do ever since my parents decided to get a divorce.
One month later, I enrolled into my local public school and decided to join the field hockey team. My mother and I went back and forth about my plan for the upcoming school year, and I decided to stay optimistic and find the best in this awful situation. I called my friends from my old school and lied about my circumstances, saying it was due to financial reasons that I couldn't return; after the phone calls, I fell to the ground and sobbed.
My 16-year-old self didn't understand why the only stability in my life was being ripped away.
During preseason field hockey practice in late August at my new school, I tried my best to immerse myself with my teammates, but I found it impossible. I couldn't explain to them why I rarely smiled and had this cloak of sadness over me. Everyone was kind and welcoming to me, but I felt distant from them; I also felt distant from the beloved sport that I played varsity in at my old school, while now, I could barely hit the ball.
September came and I went to the first day of school with a forced smile. I kept telling myself it would work out, and I believed it would. I stayed positive. The highlight of my day was field hockey, and as my first game approached, I felt excited and determined to prove something to my coach and teammates.
But that all ended once the field hockey stick struck my left cheek, causing me to black out and be carried off the field in a blood-stained shirt. My mom rushed me to the hospital where I got stitches, an MRI, and CAT scan. After almost three weeks of requested leave from my doctor, I returned to school. I was behind academically, which I told myself I could catch up on; but what hurt the most was being behind socially.
As I walked through the halls alone with a huge bandage on my face, I heard a guy say, "It looks like she got beaten," and laugh. I remember running to the bathroom and crying in the stall. I felt alone, lost and hopeless.
I walked out of the school after and vowed to never go back.
I got a full-time job at a local Italian restaurant and fell into a routine. My mom was working full-time an hour away, so I rarely saw her. I wasn't speaking to my dad. My sister was busy with college. I didn't see any of my friends; they didn't even know I'd dropped out of school. I felt secluded from my family, friends and even myself.
One night, I came home after a long day at work and went upstairs to wash my face. As I looked in the mirror on that December night, I saw a girl that wasn't me. The light in my face was faded and my smile, crooked. I was unhappy with my life. I felt so hopeless, and my coping mechanism was to forget that I was hopeless. I told myself this was my life now and I had to accept that, but it wasn't until that moment that I told myself I'm in charge of my life — not my father, not a bruise on my face, not even my sense of hopeless. I told myself I can control my future and my happiness.
I knew I had to get out of that situation because it was draining the life out of me.
I ran downstairs, grabbed my computer and spent four hours applying for a program that would change my life forever — Where There Be Dragons — to study abroad in China for three months during the spring semester of 2015.
Two weeks later, I got a phone call after work. The woman on the phone told me I'd been accepted and they were willing to give me a generous scholarship; the rest of the funds could be paid off with the money I'd been making. I twirled and danced on the porch of Starbucks in my black waitress uniform with my sauce-stained apron tied around my waist. I couldn’t stop smiling while tears streamed down my cheeks.
China was the best experience of my life and changed me in ways my 16-year-old self couldn't imagine. I traveled within that beautiful country for three months with three mentors and nine other students. We trekked through mountains to villages where we created unbreakable bonds with the locals, prayed in Buddhist monasteries at the peak of sunrise, practiced tai chi in misty fields of evergreens, ate delicious dishes where the Sichuan spices danced on our tongues, rigorously studied Mandarin (which I'm proud to say after two years I speak exceptionally).
I lived the most authentic experience possible in a county that opened my eyes and heart to a new perspective on what I went through. I still hold so much pride that I got myself out of that situation by my own merit and ideas.
After crying with my instructor about how I ended up in China and how I was afraid of my future, he said, “If you must decide to walk through a forest or walk on a path, you should choose the forest. The path requires one direction, while the forest allows you to choose your path."
I remember looking up at the field as my peers played soccer with young monks. I decided to live then and take in that moment. I decided to take in China with every part I had in me. I breathed in, held my breath as the breeze kissed my face, and exhaled.