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Leaving Isn’t Such a Trivial Act, After All

Canada-themed mural, Chinatown, Ottawa

“Do you remember your last night in Paris?” my dad asked casually.

I looked up from my plate, puzzled. The question came out of the blue. “Which one?”

“When you got your visa for Canada.”

“Huh… which visa? I had several over the years…

“The last one, I guess. It was different. Something was changing… or had changed. You were starting a new chapter in your life.”

I put my fork down and paused. I wasn’t sure what night he was referring to. Back then, my dad was working in Paris Monday through Friday. I usually crashed on the floor of his shoebox apartment when I had an early flight from CDG airport, which happened often between 2001 and 2005.

“One of these nights when I was sleeping under the desk?”

By “shoebox apartment,” I mean that there was barely enough room for a desk, a bed and a bookshelf. My spot was under the desk, my backpack as a pillow.

“Yep.”

“But I don’t feel there was ever a last night,” I stressed.

Looking back, I never realized I was leaving until I was gone. But apparently, people around me did notice—and it never occurred to me they would.

I was 16 when my parents gave me the green light to go to Beijing alone for the summer—looking back, maybe the light was more orange than green, but I sounded so confident I fooled everybody including myself. A year later, I travelled to China again, like a junkie taking another hit. A couple of weeks after graduating from high school, I left for Hong Kong with a one-way ticket and a job offer. In the midst of the international turmoil following 9/11, I decided I didn’t like Hong Kong so much after all and I met up with Feng in Mexico, a puzzling move for my parents who had no idea who Feng was and why I was suddenly trading Asia for Latin America.

I’m a bit of an oddity in my family. We never took exotic holidays when I was a kid. My parents don’t have valid passports. My brother and sister have no interest in exploring the world. We don’t have relatives abroad. Basically, the travel bug bit only one person—me.

While they didn’t try to discourage me, my parents were still understandably not so comfortable with the thought of their young daughter backpacking solo. But I was always coming back alive and happy from my adventures—I did “edit” a few chapters, if needed…—so they got used to it. Sure, I was exploring countries that weren’t on most people’s “top holiday spots,” but hey, at least I was always coming home.

Until I didn’t.

In 2004, after yet another backpacking trip, Feng and I flew back to Canada together. This time, I stayed on this side of the pond instead of booking a flight to Paris. I even applied for a tourist visa extension. My mom was strangely quiet over the phone when I announced proudly I would spend the next six months in Ottawa.

I did come back to France in the fall, but I only stayed long enough to pick up a one-year Working Holiday Visa. I remember that day. I had taken the 6 a.m. Nantes-Paris TGV train to be at the Canadian Embassy at 9 a.m. on Avenue Montaigne. I got off at Franklin D. Roosevelt, on Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It was a quiet and chilly morning and the only people in the street were posh old ladies walking their dogs. I remember thinking they must be living nearby, and I found the idea crazy considering the price of real estate in the arrondissement.

Back then, Canada wasn’t so popular and getting a Working Holiday Visa was easy: you dropped off your application and your passport at the embassy and you could pick it up a few hours later. This is exactly what I did, before hopping on a train to Nantes in the evening.

When I proudly showed my passport with the Canadian visa to my mom that night, she did a good job of pretending to keep on ironing clothes until I heard a sob.

“Why are you crying?” I asked, confused.

“Because you’re leaving,” she replied simply.

“But… but I’m always leaving! I’ve been coming and going for the past three years!”

She knew. She knew I’ll be away longer. She knew I was unofficially moving out, but I didn’t.

Back then, there were no teary goodbyes. I was too busy focusing on packing, checking my flight schedule, looking forward to seeing Feng. Besides, in a way, I thought I was supposed to leave. I was old enough but my brother was just a kid and my sister a teen. My parents were struggling financially and the five of us were a bit squeezed in the two-bedroom apartment. I was giving them room and peace of mind—one less child to worry about.

I was so oblivious to my parents’ feelings that a year later, when I was granted permanent residence status, I FedExed my passport to my mom who picked up the visa for me in Paris before sending the document back. I feel awful about it now—she must have been conflicted and sad, as if she was handing me the key to a new world she wasn’t part of.

All these years, I never thought the fact I chose to leave France affected my relatives. Of course, we miss each other—but we would too if I lived in another French city, right? But it’s not that simple. I know my mom heard from distant relatives that she must have done something wrong for me to live so far away. And more than once, I had to specify I didn’t hate France and I didn’t run from an abusive household—I just love travelling.

Feng never asked me to live in Canada with him. My parents never begged me to stay.

Leaving, travelling, immigrating to Canada—these were all my choices. Choices I’m proud of because they were mine but also choices that affected those around me, and I have to live with this.

How about you? How did your family react when you moved abroad or travelled for extended periods of time?

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