Dear 20 year-old me,
I want you to know that your letter made me cry. It made me relive some of those memories of what compelled me to write that letter in the first place, it brought me back on that cream-coloured white couch just past midnight while I typed my heartache and exhaustion away in the dark as my roommates slept, because I couldn’t sleep and you know why. I have so much to tell you, but I don’t know how you’ll take it. I hope you’ll smile through the tears welling up in your eyes, I hope you’ll burst out laughing, I hope you’ll lay back on that couch and know that life is funny, life is complicated, life is unpredictable, yet life is meant to be.
I’ll cut to what you want to know the most: you never said goodbye to him. Notice that I didn’t say you never got to say goodbye. You got your chance and you avoided it at all costs, but I promise you, it was the best thing you could do. You see, when you left the city for part of the summer, you learned something about him that absolutely broke you, thanks to your obsessive inquiries (decent euphemism, right?) about his life. And it was probably the worst and best thing you could discover, because you ended up crying on A’s couch by yourself for four weeks straight and heading on 10 km walks, and it was torment but also the greatest relief, because despite how painful of a realization it was, it was the only thing that jump-started your recovery from your depression. And yes, looking back, you were indeed depressed. You couldn’t get out of bed, you couldn’t sleep, you had such low self-esteem hinged on what some boy thought you meant to him, you couldn’t get him off your mind in a manner that is unparalleled and dangerous. And the storm blows past, because he became someone that you didn’t know anymore and didn’t care to know, and eventually he broke up with the Perfect Blonde Girl That You Were Never Going to Be. And you are genuinely fine. You are not heartbroken. Trust me. It gets better, your heart heals. He becomes but a statue that commemorates 2013 and nothing more.
On another note, I didn’t move to New York City, didn’t snag that dream internship at NBC, didn’t buy that PS1 bag, still don’t own a leather jacket, still single, and didn’t even end up applying ton Columbia. Perhaps you are disappointed, and if I saw even a twitch in your face as your eyes welled up again, I would slap it right off of you. You see, your skin did clear up with time and with less stress, you bought a Givenchy Pandora instead, you bought black Alexander Wang ankle boots and they’re so chic and bad-ass, and you just started a new job in a field that you don’t yet know about but by which you will become enamoured and fascinated after you graduate. You started running for complicated reasons (let’s use the term “heartbreak” very loosely here) and you did lose weight -enough to occasionally fit into a size 2, you read like a fiend sometimes and you paid for a subscription to The Atlantic (which I know is weird, because you don’t even know much about The Atlantic right now). You still read trashy teen fiction. You bike to work sometimes and it’s a good 25 km trip. You still write. You dance briefly after you graduate, but you stop for a good reason. You do a different type of dancing now that’s more casual and you love it. You cut your hair short (bet you never saw that coming) and you’ve been rocking that since you graduated and might never go back. But that was the only way you got rid of the stringiness, and frankly, your hair doesn’t grow as shiny and long as you age.
You know, life has this funny way of going in full circles, of ending where it began, of beginning where it just ended.
First, you end up downloading this app called Vine and you spend countless hours on it, in A’s bed when you sublet her room, laughing at the videos in hopes of forgetting about him -and just so you know, it takes you about eight months to a year to fully get over it. You share the videos with your friends, and the community of content creators later influence your life in very funny ways. And in the fashion of things coming and going, Vine abruptly shuts down in 2015, and you’re not sure what to do. It has gotten you out of an agonising heartbreak, and suddenly it is no longer there to amuse you. You survive. You start listening to this one kid’s two podcasts and you love it, and when some girls in his videos have hoop earrings and they look fantastic, you end up buying yourself a pair and you look superb.
The tricky thing between the person you want to become in your head and the one on paper is that they are starkly different versions of your expectations. You want someone to be okay with themselves, but this same person to meet all of society’s expectations of what it means to be great, to have it all, to have that glamorous Blair Waldorf life. But you come into your own in those five years: you learn who you are and who you are not, and who you want to be. The first prompt stems from the act of buying lots of clothes that don’t really fit but you buy them because they look nice or seem expensive, especially a pair of mint Lanvin calf-skin ballet flats, which you liked since they were designer but in hindsight acknowledge that they were the worst purchase you have made in your life so far -they get dirty really fast, they were not meant for wearing outdoors, you walk funny and ruin the heel in about two weeks, and you really could have used that $600 for other things… badly. The second prompt comes from your experience at your new school, which is such a culture shock and humbling experience that you couldn’t possibly fathom it as you sit on that couch crying over a boy who will never love you. It is this second prompt that is so sobering on the fact that you are NOT at the top of the food chain even though you feel like you and your friends own a corner of the school, which will make you re-examine everything about who you are and say you are, who your friends are, whether or not you have appreciated your friends enough, and who and what you want to be. And these two things will force you to take inventory of your life, to reset your expectations to something more genuine and realistic (which is not equivalent to the act of settling), and become more comfortable with yourself. Like how you are not wealthy and shouldn’t pretend to be, because it becomes apparent really quickly. Like how you are quite introverted and hate going out. Like how you have gained an incredible amount of weight from the lack of sleep and exercise, but pretend you haven’t until none of your clothes truly fit and you hate every recent photo of you on the Internet. But trust me, this takes years to figure out. You’re only really coming into your own once you turn 25, and you still don’t have it all figured out, but you’re okay with that and you know you’re heading in the right direction. And there comes this moment where it dawns on you that you need to be yourself, and for the first time, you understand what that means.
Besides that watershed moment of coming into your own, you also realize that life is bit more complicated than moving to New York and becoming a media mogul. First, there’s the harsh realization that media jobs don’t pay well. Second, there is something that you didn’t anticipate in your simplistic five-year timeline: the ramifications of the U.S. presidential election in 2016. These have profound implications on where you eventually set your sights for your career: you want to work in media regulation, not the media business, and you ultimately want to help citizens.
You travel. You see the world, but not all of it. You finally get to see LA and all the places that you learned about when you were 15. You saw the pole at Archer. You saw Santa Monica pier. You go to New York several more times by yourself, and rarely the same places. You watch gentrification unfold and it worries you. You go to London, Paris, Costa Rica, DC for a conference that makes you question everything, Charleston. You realize that you love travelling by yourself, and you also love your friends. You know of a lot of places you want to visit, you learn that you are not a backpacker, you feel jealous for people like DJs who get to travel the world all the time, everywhere. You don’t have severe wanderlust, but you know you cannot stay in this city forever. And funnily enough, you start questioning if New York is even the city where you’d like to move. Maybe you would like to move to the West Coast, but not San Francisco.
You remain friends with your college friends. A goes off to school abroad and it feels super weird. And the other A returns from school abroad and now she’s home and it feel super weird. The friendships weaken, let’s be frank, and it’s sad, but it’s still there. And it works. And you all love each other in this complex web of relationships and drama that you’re not necessarily involved in but affects you nonetheless. You still see V on occasion, you make new friendships. You realize that as an adult out of school, it’s actually quite difficult to make new friends let alone meet people. You grow very close to your high school friends, and this is a friendship that even now I hope will last forever. That these are strong women (and men) who have grown up with a background like yours, who understand what it was like to grow up in this part of town, who are not ashamed of where they come from and where they will go, and you should never ever ever have to defend your neighborhood, defend your story. Events will test your friends’ lives and composure, so be there for them. Love them. They love you.
Two men enter and exit your life in these five years. None of them you truly love, but they change you. They make you a better person: one of them makes you better after you no longer speak to him, and the other is like a rude awakening and a blessing at the same time. You write so many poems and letters about the latter, he frustrates you, he haunts you. He means well; he just… changed his mind. The former is the reason you started running, he is the reason you started getting involved in the arts, he is the reason you got involved in your city. Because he didn’t believe in the arts, he didn’t believe in the city. He made you realize that actually…. you might just be a socialist. And an anarchist in Theory clothing. The latter was perfect, and that’s when you realized that you weren’t on the same page. The latter made you rethink a lot about yourself, about your self-worth, made you stand up for yourself once. The latter still hasn’t left you, still his shell comes up in casual conversations, his white shadow always present. All you want to do is stop living in his shadow.
I’m not sure if I feel good enough now. Instead, I think the conversation has evolved into whether or not I feel more comfortable with myself, and where I want to go next. Because I’m ravenous for the next, I know that I cannot stay in one place, I cannot grow complacent. And my goal is not to become something better than myself, but how to make myself better -there is a difference that you wouldn’t discern, my dear 20-year-old me. And so in many ways I have learned to trust myself, to know that I know myself better than anyone, that my direction is the best direction. That I am proud of myself, but it took a long long time to feel this way. And it was a long and arduous and tough journey that I felt like I would never overcome at times. That I do not regret anything, because this is how my life has played out and I cannot change it. That no, I do not wish things had changed with the boy, because I wouldn’t have grown the way I have grown, that I wouldn’t have known how to handle vulnerability otherwise. And most of all, I am glad I left. I am so so so glad that I left where you are right now, I am so so so so glad that I did not stay. Had I stayed, I would never have had so many about-faces, I would have been even more lost. I would have perhaps never realized what I wanted to do and what I was capable of beyond the world that was composed of your house, locker, work, and school in that 20 km radius. Maybe there is lost potential, but you learn to look forward, not backwards. So as I am recounting all the things that have happened in your life, I also look at this letter to guide me forward, to figure out what is still left to do and what I might want to add or remove from that list. And it always makes me smile to review all the things that I have accomplished, and all the things that I have achieved that were never part of some to-do list.
Thank you. So much. For this letter. I love you, I love you, I love you. Most of all, thank you for the advice. I needed to hear it, I needed that reminder. You’re not naive or dumb, you just don’t have the advantage of hindsight. Life comes fast at you, kiddo. Trust your own decision-making, laugh at yourself, go out with your friends, don’t watch Breaking Bad (please… oh please… the timing was so wrong for you to start bingeing this show), and focus on school. Because doing well in school will pay off. And be yourself because that will save you a lot of grief. And have fun. Have so much fun.
With so much love,
25 year-old Me.