I don’t claim to know much about love. Growing up in a stoic, Asian household where even hugging was pushing the line of too affectionate, I rarely thought much of the topic. Though my parents and sister never overtly say “I love you,” I always just assumed love was part of the equation: they’re my family, so naturally, they have to love me, right? I never looked too hard into the signs—until college came around.
When my family left me at Penn in August to start my pre–orientation program, they didn’t shed a single tear or wrap me in their arms. They smiled at me, carried the things I didn’t need back into the car and told me to call them if I needed anything. To some, this might seem cold, but it was just enough for me—anything more would have been overkill. It was enough because before starting college, I was naive and optimistic, truly believing I could take whatever life had in store for me by myself. Not only did I underestimate college, I underestimated what the world could dish out in the coming months.
The first few months of freshman year brought highs and lows, identity crises, sleepless nights and struggles unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. The first huge blow, though, happened not only on the collegiate level, but on the national scene—like many of us, I was left shocked and grief–stricken in November post–election. I watched not only the Penn bubble come crashing down, but my entire world and everything I’d ever known. I was very much a part of the public mourning, and for many days, I felt like a bottomless void.
My parents, always far removed from the political turmoil, didn’t understand the helplessness I was feeling. Wanting to connect with my somebody, anybody, I turned to my sister, often the person I would go to when we both were feeling annoyed with our parents and everyone else. I called her on the phone out of the blue. It was the night of November 9th, and we ended up talking for at least two hours, well past midnight. We ranted together, cried together, and all at once, I felt tangible relief escaping my body. “Sleep in, skip classes, do whatever to take care of yourself first,” she said to me as we ended our call. “Please, stay safe.” Never have I felt so loved before in that very moment, when we were miles apart, just voices in our devices. I realized my sister wasn’t just family by name—she was truly my flesh and blood, there for me when I needed her the most. She didn’t even have to say “I love you,” and her love saved me that night.
I have experienced other personal crossroads since college began. Penn is arguably one of the most pre–professional spaces one can be in. As a freshman completely undecided about the future, I’m aware that crises about who I am will often come and go. But there was a brief stint when this feeling overcame me, and I was unable to recover on my own. I kept thinking about the road my parents wanted me to be on (pre–med) and the road I wanted to be on (no clue), and what I would do if these roads didn’t align. Was I letting everyone down? How could I be so aimless, directionless?
During this time, my sister and I were texting each other about a Netflix series, dissecting the ins and outs of A Series of Unfortunate Events, complaining about how we would have to wait until next year for the next season. One day, however, I decided to come clean about how I was feeling, casually bringing up that I had scheduled an appointment with CAPS because I was feeling so unsure about my future to the point of being mentally unwell. To my surprise, she jumped right into action, texting me paragraphs about how it was okay to not know what to do, how she was in my shoes just a few years ago, and how everything, ultimately, would be fine. We talked about how much pressure our parents could put on us, criticized America’s (and especially college’s) culture of working hard to the point of extreme stress, and ultimately started digressing and talking about whatever. She wrote me a mini–book through her iPhone, and seeing those three little dots before receiving such words of encouragement and reassurance meant more to me than I thought possible. Ultimately, my sister showed me her love for me in countless, little ways, even if that didn’t entail sappy hugs and showy affection.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about these times in my life. Living at home with my family never forced me to consider how important they are to me, but in college, the distance speaks louder than words. Reflecting back, I realize that even my parents, as much pressure as they exert, just want the best for me. Though misguided and sometimes ignorant, my awkward parents love me, and not just on paper, or because they have to. They love me through their actions, their “remember to wear a coat” texts, their desire for me to have a stable, and therefore, good life. They love me through all the times they didn’t say “I love you,” but could have. My family’s love is a part of me, and truly, I could not exist without it.