Photo: Sally Freeman
A few weeks after my college graduation, I moved to Beijing on a whim. This was the first move of many – in the last five years, I’ve packed my entire life in a suitcase and moved to three different countries (China, Australia and England). For my first few days in Beijing, I gazed in wonder at the busy traffic and motorbikes, the crowded streets full of people speaking such an exotic language, and the strange street food. The novelty of everything was overwhelming, but exciting.
Then everyday life started to take hold. The electricity was shut off in my apartment, and I had no idea how to pay the bill. I struggled to get a Chinese bank account, ran into trouble with my visa, and often found myself very lost – both literally and metaphorically. One week in, my new Chinese phone number wouldn’t work for me, no one in any restaurant understood what I wanted to order, and my bank card was rejected.
At that moment, standing in the middle of a crowded plaza, I felt more alone than I ever had in my entire life.
Oh God, I thought, nearly in tears. Why am I here? What have I done?
That night, when I finally made it back to my apartment (after running into another American who let me use her phone so a friend could come rescue me), I decided to stop putting on a brave face for everyone back home. When you set off on a new adventure, you don’t want to admit failure. You don’t want to admit that it can be exhausting, confusing, or scary. But that night, I emailed my college friend Rachel – who was 7,000 miles and 12 hours behind in New York City – and I told her everything. It felt cathartic to be honest; and while I was writing, it also made me see some of the humor in the struggle.
The next morning, I woke up to her own very honest, funny and raw email about what it was really like to move to New York as a single girl and try to make it in the art world.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
Rachel and I met at Brown University during our freshman year. We’d bonded over reading the same books, being from the “middle” of the country (rather than the coasts) and a secret love for Gilmore Girls. Four years later, the night before our college graduation, we made a pact to write each other no holds barred, honest accounts of our lives once a week. We’d seen how our mothers had lost touch with their college friends and we didn’t want that to happen to us.
We made this pact without ever realizing what those emails would mean – or how much they would mean to us in a few years. When we both happened to end up in London, five years after our college graduation, we realized that,whenever we were trying to pinpoint something – a moment when everything had changed, the anniversary of the first kiss with a boyfriend, even a guy’s name – we would turn to our emails to remind us. Our correspondence had become a record of our lives.
Rereading our messages took us right back to the giddy highs and the devastating lows of how we felt when we were writing them. Eventually, our correspondence became the basis for our book, Graduates in Wonderland. It’s the story of our twenties, of the impossible twists and turns that led me to Australia and then London, the story of my mistakes and my search for a meaningful career – it’s all in there. For Rachel, it’s the story of how she ended up in Paris and finally found her true calling.
I struggled for my few months in Beijing, but I didn’t leave when things got tough. It’s now my favorite place in the world and my time there led me to my current career and the love of my life.
When you take that first step to living a bigger life – to travel abroad or take a risk or challenge yourself in a new way – something magical happens. It creates a domino effect that leads you to places you never imagined you’d go.
Sometimes it’s just not feasible to move abroad. But if you’ve always thought about doing it and have been too scared to leave, or stayed at a dead-end job just because it’s easy, we get that. We’ve had those feelings, and we know hard it is to leave that behind as well. The first step is always going to be scary until you actually take it, as are most things in life.
But you have to try. You never know where it will take you.
Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s book GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND is out now. Both authors live in London.