As winter break came to an end, I watched Columbia’s campus slowly return to life. College Walk went from an eerie Christmastime emptiness to resounding with the patter of boots on brick. The sight of people coming back was reassuring—I had spent the most wonderful season of the year in a mostly deserted Wien this year. That might seem like a sort of punishment to some, but staying for the break reminded me of something I’ve come to forget: how not to live out of a box.
Columbia is as good a teacher as any at teaching compartmentalization. When I arrived on campus as a freshman, it was with no sheets, no pillows, nothing. I came hoping to ride on the wings of charity, and was vindicated when a newly-formed-friend’s mother swept me up into the back of her car and took me downtown to Bed Bath & Beyond. At the end of that same year, everything I bought went back into the boxes that it had come in. I learned very rapidly to compress my life into only as many containers as could fit comfortably into a handcart, or to regret it. The walk down to Manhattan Mini Storage on 107th and Columbus is short enough when unencumbered, but feels like the Odyssey when weighed down by two semesters’ worth of books and an entire room shoved unceremoniously into cardboard boxes.
How do you live when you have to pack and leave every three to four months? Throw things away. Give everything you can to friends whose car-owning parents come to liberate them at the end of semester, sell books back to Book Culture for 10 percent of the price you paid for them, give up on the idea of ever having a well-stocked kitchen, learn how to maximize the density of your packing. I learned how to decorate with only posters and postcards, knowing that any other kind of wall art took too much time to put up and pull down. I took to shredding notes and notebooks because they wouldn’t fit—along with the rest of my life—into the single suitcase I had to drag to JFK every May.
Even life at home will never be anything but compartmentalized for the duration of college. The shelves and wardrobe in my room in Singapore are organized to enable efficient packing. I own no plants, mostly because of the reality that I’ll never be home long enough to see them grow. My suitcase never gets put away into storage. It sits underneath my desk at all times, waiting.
Packing up to leave these days is a matter of minutes when it used to be a matter of days. I know how to bag my existence better than I know how to unpack it. If there’s one thing being an international student at Columbia has taught me, it’s how to cut off emotional associations with material possessions. It’s psychologically exhausting to realize that it is sometimes much less troublesome simply living out of a suitcase. The thought is depressing.
So when I learned that, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t going to be required to fly home this winter break, I was pleasantly surprised. No packing! No need to box up my year or to throw away the things that won’t fit into bags! For the first time in a few years, the holiday season felt like a real vacation. There were no schedules to live by, no flights to worry about catching, no thoughts about whether presents would fit into carry-on luggage.
Better still, friends offered to have me over for the break, or to stay with me on campus. I reacquainted myself with hanging out with people sans the stress of schoolwork hanging like a ghost over our conversations. I realized again how beautiful campus looks when you’re not striding fixatedly en route to that next class. I let New York seep back into my bones.
To be sure, I wasn’t going back to my family, but Columbia has come to be home to me, too. This winter, I couldn’t have fit my life into boxes if I had tried. I have too much stuff here now: too much paraphernalia shoved underneath my bed, and—more importantly—too many friendships to simply pack up and leave.
Po Linn Chia is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian studies. She is chief of staff for CMUNNY and a member of the Global Recruitment Committee. Ever the Twain runs alternate Tuesdays.