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lucy staring out of plane
Credit: Lulu Wang

When I first set foot on Locust Walk’s tired red bricks on that sweltering August day in 2016, it was the first time I had ever left home.

For someone with no experience, the first step should always be small — like 14,000 kilometers. Separated from home by the whole of the continental United States and the Pacific Ocean, I thought I was detached like a bee lost from its hive. But here’s why, almost two years later, I’m telling you to leave home if you love it.

Freshman fall was defined by a refusal to accept my surroundings. When I listened to my professor’s monotonous drivel in Meyerson Hall, I longed to be going for a run in that park near my house, playing with the sheep. When my head hit the pillow in my dorm every night, I pretended I was back in my bed in my leafy suburb in central Auckland, 9000 miles away. When I walked on Chestnut Street, seeing the cars drive on the wrong side of the road, I felt foreign.

A magnifying glass amplified every small subtlety that defined home into the most substantial aspects of my life. Frosted Flakes were way too sweet, but Cheerios were too plain. I had my parents ship me Weet-Bix Bites, my favorite New Zealand cereal. How could I ever call home a place where I didn’t like the cereal?

Home, in my mind, was a mosaic of tiny things like cereal. But then, something wacky happened.

On my first trip to New York, as the day retired, I felt myself missing home. But my mind was craving Locust Walk. My brain sought comfort in the dorm I had lived in for two months. The flashing “PHILADELPHIA” light on the bus evoked a sense of security. I was taken aback. Did something change within me?

Home is not a place. It’s a pocket of your brain that travels with you, collecting the nuances of places to preserve.

Fellow columnist Amy Chan rejected the notion of comfort associated with home, writing that it is any place that defines us. But in order for a place to become part of who we are, we must find comfort in it. And that process is silent and unhurried.

Credit: Lulu Wang

Penn’s nuances were the newest addition to my pocket of home. Slowly, but surely, the loose bricks of Locust institutionalized themselves in my mind.

The United States, which contained my newest experiences of “home,” was becoming a part of me. When I recently went back to New Zealand for winter break, the first thing I was told was that I “sounded so American.” Fixated on my new accent, my friends couldn’t concentrate on what I was saying. My view of home evolved as I swapped every hard “e” for an American one.

I had spent the last few semesters feeling like an alien in America. But once I got back to my “origin,” I realized that Philadelphia had strikingly infiltrated my conception of home. It had become part of who I was — I didn’t just sound like a weird American-New Zealand hybrid, but I felt like one too.

Facing a tough situation over break, I found myself wanting nothing but Mott’s Apple Sauce. Instead of picking a New Zealand comfort food, my brain reached into my reservoir of “home experiences” and selected an American item to crave.

Like my accent, my home is blended. Instead of a bundle of discrete experiences in one city, home subconsciously grew into a collection of dynamic nuances in multiple places.

It’s important that Penn take seriously helping students develop a sensation of home. The Assembly of International Students lobbied for an extra day for International Student Orientation. International Student and Scholar Services organizes workshops on acclimating to American life. But ultimately, the process is individual and cognitive. If we start thinking about home as a reservoir of experiences, it might be easier to leave that one place we love, but that holds us back.

So, throw yourself into the deep end, allow yourself to feel homesick, and don’t go running back. Because it was precisely the 14,000 kilometers of distance that was the last ingredient in my new favorite cereal recipe.

What’s next? Maybe I should try mixing Weet-Bix with apple sauce.

LUCY HU is a College sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is “Fresh Take” usually appears every other Sunday.