For all I whined about wanting to go to Disneyland, my parents would have thrown their own fit to find out that I didn’t really actually care about Space Mountain or Mickey Mouse’s house. They probably thought my polite refusal when they tried to buy me Itzakadoozie popsicles was simply evidence of well-instilled frugality. Sure, my Asian mama taught me right and I didn’t want to waste, but the real deal was that, once there in the “happiest place on earth,” what I really looked forward to was the trip back.
When you’re going someplace, someplace is never the place to be. You discover that Sleeping Beauty’s castle has shrunk since last time. You realize that you spend 80 percent of your vacation standing in line under the one broken mist machine. You find yourself thinking about Goofy’s minimum wage and about how Disneyland is an ingenious, super-lucrative enterprise for the Walt Disney Corporation. You’re cynical, but you’re right to be so.
The dirty secret is that my favorite part of our trips is the trip itself, the long expedition we have to take in our silver Honda Pilot (my dad’s manly upgrade from our powder-blue minivan) to get anywhere officially distant and exciting enough to be a vacation destination. I love the forced family time, the temporary acceptability of junk food, the rediscovery of Cantonese pop CDs, the vague stench of library books in heat. I love the impossibility of doing anything productive, the lack of internet connection and cell service, the miles and miles of nothing-time where you’re nowhere but in between.
For the same reasons, every word I bitch about my flights between San Francisco and Boston is hyperbolic. It’s usually too hard to explain quickly how great a transcontinental flight can be, how it’s an experience worth having despite the eau de flatulence that slams you upon boarding, the still nerve-wracking take-offs, and the conflicting desires to pee and not to pee. Even this year’s three-legged red-eye hurricane-evading journey back to school was just as fun to embark upon as to complain about. The nothing time of traveling alone is rife with possibility: oh yes, I had McDonald’s for dinner—and I told my dad about it.
The best part is the strangers. (New Yorkers, I know you won’t relate to this, but really, what is the deal with that?) The passengers on these long-haul flights all seem to be in on this collective limbo; seat-mates are veritable Easter eggs of opportunity. It’s a sociological experiment—and remember, if they ever look too predatory, you can either pretend to read Hemispheres magazine or ring the flight attendant.
There’s something lovely about befriending people you’ll never see again. I’m left with apocryphal trivia—an old Bain guy told me that the Annenbergs made their fortune mining silver in Nevada—and life stories. Who cares if they’re true or false? I had a good time hearing about Dyan the middle-aged-Jewish-lesbian’s participation in pro-choice protests in college. I liked listening to Messias, the Brazilian businessman, describe the antics of his wily toddler David and his love-struck teenager Ana Carolina. Miles above an irrelevant fly-over state, there’s a connection being made, and this new person will be only what they’ve been to you. The stakes are zero and there’s no future to ruin what you had.
As you’re suspended in the air, the year ahead of you is fat with possibility. New classes, new dorm rooms, new friends, new challenges—the picture in your head is shiny with giant Sleeping Beauty castles, fireworks with no risk of burning children, and a Mickey furry who’s really just a wealthy doctor trying to make kids smile on the weekend. When you’re in between, the past consists of nostalgic memories, selectively curated, and the future holds your as-of-yet unchallenged expectations. When you’re in between, you’re always in motion, progressing steadily toward Xanadu.
Here’s to hoping my guaranteed unemployment come summer will be this kind of glorious in-between. As a VES concentrator, I recognize my doom. But isn’t it great that Harvard’s equipped me with the tools to theorize my potential homelessness—or bohemian peripatetic joie de vivre?—into my own “happiest place on earth”? Fellow unemployable seniors (to everyone else: reconsider I-banking), see you in the in-between. At least in my head, it doesn’t seem so bad at all.
—Melissa C. Wong ’12, a VES concentrator in Cabot House, is looking forward to her time in purgatory.