The Fear of Returning Home

Rebecca Janacek

What if everything at home has changed? Or worse—what if it's stayed the same?

I was terrified of going home. I’d just spent half a year studying and travelling in Taiwan, and the fateful day when I had to return back to Canada was upon me.

It felt like it was the right moment to leave. My visa would expire in a few days, I had seen most of the places I wanted to see, all my close friends had left back to their home countries, and I was starting to really miss my family and my boyfriend. Back in Canada, the last year of my undergraduate degree would begin online in September, and I still had to quarantine for two weeks and then drive across the country to Ottawa, where I’m studying, to pack up my belongings and bring them back to Calgary, my hometown.

With those tight deadlines in the back of mind, I begrudgingly booked a flight back across the ocean and tried to shield myself from my impending departure.

I took a lot of videos during the last few days. I was afraid that pictures wouldn’t capture the exact feeling of walking through the bustling capital, or the way that motorcyclists danced around each other on the street. I didn’t want to forget the exact tone of the chimes that announced a train was arriving on the metro, or the transaction of ordering bubble tea in my broken Chinese. I was terrified of forgetting the details that had woven together to create my perfect experience. Because without even one of them, it would be incomplete.

On my last day, I bought two bubble teas. I couldn’t decide whether to get a milk tea with fresh taro and pearls, or a roasted oolong tea with QQ. I had the same breakfast that I got every day with my friend before class: green milk tea in a cardboard carton, a tuna omelette with sweet sauce and a red bean donut. I filled my carry-on bag with all my favourite snacks and some last-minute souvenirs. I returned to parts of Taipei that held my fondest memories, leaving my university campus for last. (Since the moment I had stepped foot on it on my first day of classes, I was enthralled with its architecture and lush vegetation. I often took my lunch outside onto a picnic table in one of the secluded fields, and sometimes wrote my blog posts in front of the lake, bathing in the sunshine.)

I took more videos, shed a few more tears, tried to stop the seconds as they passed. It was time to call an Uber to get to the airport. With every step, my heart tried to pull me back to the place that had become my home. But I walked forward. Through the front door. To drop off my luggage. Through security. Through the gates. Onto the plane. Into my seat. Into the sky. Out of my fairy-tale, and into the unknown.

It wasn’t really the unknown that I was flying towards; I was returning home. But I was no longer the same person that I had been when I left Canada.

What was I so afraid of? It wasn’t really the unknown that I was flying towards; I was returning home. But I was no longer the same person that I had been when I left Canada, and I knew that my country wasn’t the same as I had left it. COVID restrictions were a lot stricter than they were in Taiwan. Dining in restaurants was prohibited and businesses were reduced to 10 percent capacity. I would have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, a considerable shock after travelling around Taiwan for weeks on end and spending most of my time outside. Since I was quarantining at my boyfriend’s house, I couldn’t see my family or friends when I arrived. Surely, I would go stir-crazy.

I was also worried that everything would be the same. How could the vast experiences I had accumulated from overseas fit into my life at home? I’d grown more confident over the past few months and morphed into the person I had always strived to be. I didn’t want to lose this version of myself, but when I re-entered my old life, would she disappear? Was there room for the new me in my old life? Or, like the countless memories I had made over my exchange, would this version of myself slowly fade out of existence?

I transferred flights: Taipei to Tokyo, Tokyo to Vancouver, Vancouver to Calgary. I was almost home. Soon, I would see my boyfriend for the first time in five months. What if we didn’t feel the same way about each other? What if spending two weeks quarantined together after so much time apart broke us? What if I could no longer relate to him and the rest of the people in my life? They had all been under strict lockdown while I had been living the adventure of a lifetime, and while I desperately wanted to share my experiences I didn’t want to overshare or risk alienating them.

All these thoughts swirled in my head as my plane began its descent. Anxiety slithered down my body and formed knots in my stomach. In 10 minutes, this chapter of my life would be over. I read and re-read the list of my favourite things in Taiwan to try to ground myself: tea plantations, stinky tofu, pineapple cake, cold springs. . . And just like that, we landed and I was home.
I gathered my bags, keeping a straight face as I got off the plane. The airport was nearly empty as I maneuvered through the halls to collect my luggage. I felt like a foreigner arriving in a novel destination—weary and out of place. Dejected, I followed the small knot of travellers that had accompanied me on my journey as we reached the last stop, passport control.

“Reason for travel?” the agent asked.

“I’m returning home after studying in Taiwan.”

Put this way, my journey seemed inconsequential. All the highs and the lows and infinite memories summarized in one short sentence.

The agent smiled at me but didn’t press for details. After asking me to remove my mask so he could compare me to my passport photo, he waved me through, already fixated on the next traveller.

Passport in hand, I dawdled through the last few metres of my adventure, savouring the feeling of being in transit. And then, with a last glance back at my fellow travellers, I stepped through the gate.


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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Rebecca Janacek

Becca is a Slovak Canadian doing an exchange semester at National Taiwan University in Taipei, where she is studying Biology and Mandarin Chinese. She is passionate about the environment and loves going on adventures!

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