I was twenty-three when I moved from Montreal to Manchester to pursue my Master’s degree. It was my first time living overseas. It was my first time living away from home at all. Twenty-three is late, especially when you consider the number of teenagers who leave home in search of freedom, growth, and independence at university. My parents preferred me to stay home. That way, I didn’t have to work and pay rent while being a full-time student. I didn’t mind either, but that was because I was waiting for grad school.
I remember the evening I left. I was having dinner with my family at a restaurant, a final meal before my overnight flight to the UK. I turned to my older brother, who’d left home over a decade ago, and said, “I can already see it coming. When I get there, I’m going to feel all alone. I’ll spend the first night crying.”
He gently patted my shoulder. “You know,” he said, “it’s okay if you cry. It’s okay.”
I had waited a long time for this day to come, to finally “spread my wings” and flee home. Going so far away was more than just about discovering a foreign city, its nation, its culture. It was about discovering myself. I had lived a sheltered life. I had travelled, but never on my own. Not even with friends. My parents had a hard time seeing me go out and an even harder time seeing me come home past midnight. And now I was going to take the plane by myself for the first time. Now I was going to live in a country where I didn’t know a single person. As the day turned to dusk, the reality began to settle in. I was terrified.
I’d only learned three things about Manchester from my upbringing in Canada. Football. Working-class. Coronation Street. I knew it wasn’t my ideal of the Old World either. No castles. No abbeys. No beaches or bays. But I spent the following year having the best time of my life.
I made new friends, both native and from all over the world. I visited the buildings of old and new: a neo-gothic library exhibiting ancient manuscripts since the turn of the twentieth-century located next to a glass prism of an Armani store on a popular downtown street. I ate some of the finest Indian cuisine in The Curry Mile, a long stretch of South Asian shops and restaurants with brightly lit signs and colourful decor. I prowled alfresco markets on the few days that didn’t rain. I navigated the littered, grey streets of the city centre, even when it did rain. I frequented nightclubs and danced to 80s music from local bands like The Smiths and New Order, and came home way after midnight. I explored other parts of the UK and Europe too. By myself. I’ve become a different person. I’ve become more capable, more self-assured, more adventurous. I even drink tea now.
I arrived to Manchester in the early afternoon and spent the rest of the day meeting my new flatmates at the residence hall where I was to stay for the next year. Exhausted from my flight, I went to bed early, but I didn’t fall asleep right away. I waited for a sense of fear and dread to overwhelm me as I lay in bed alone that night, in a cubicle of blank, starch-white walls that was now my home. But to my surprise, I felt okay. I didn’t cry.
About the Author: Karen Chung is from Montreal, Canada, and she recently graduated from the University of Manchester with an M.A. in Creative Writing. Her travel blog can be found at globetrotterkaren.blogspot.com or you can tweet her @ChungKaren