Transition in Solitude

Sometime ago, I said goodbye to school and moved out of a place that had long exhausted my curiosity and kind thoughts. After seven years of permanence, I was emotionally drained, grateful for a pause in cutting my teeth, and climbing out of a crack in a friendship whose sound still echoed. It was grief I wasn’t ready for.

Some independent forming years in a country gripped by civil unrest and deep division have changed me forever. I opted in and out of the national conversations like a ghost, learning to be both an actor and a spectator in a country that constantly swung me between feelings of inclusion and alienation. I would be swept away by its guts and diversity to then be baffled by who I was in a land bleeding in its own division to see me — beyond my skin color, gender, accent, and documentation status.

I grew up with my sense of self rooted elsewhere, with harbors of comfort to swim back to and non-negotiable parts that built my strength and resilience. When I first moved across the ocean, I was disoriented. What back then seemed to be my lifelong sense of longing to be different was displaced and replaced — by truly not belonging. I would find bits of my story scattered here and there, but never felt seen. Meanwhile, my internalized national inferiority and all the barriers weighing down on expats alienated me in most situations. And when I came home, it seemed that I had left too early to feel belonged.

In between, I coped by living with a sense of duality — loud and reserved, aggressive and respectful, oblivious to and cognizant of my identity as a guest, not someone with rights in a country that made it so easy to feel like one. I picked up habits and fought to lose them, ate alone in front of my screen and in group, adopted rage and then meditation, protested in the streets to then ignore the news for weeks.

Childhood home. My kind of place.

In a broader context, I learned to strip off my own story on the public facade to accept that my perceived identity mattered, especially when my host was a country full of contexts and nuances that I couldn’t ignore. Others were hurting in their own personal truths. Once opening the door to truly see, I was unnerved by my whole system of beliefs, my former education, and the day-to-day trenches of news. For a long time, I didn’t know what to stand for in a world swamped with perspectives about issues that played out differently in the context of my upbringing. Things gradually fell into place, but along that journey, I had developed a fear of living in only one bubble and nurtured a constant drive to burst it.

I wanted to keep moving through unfamiliar spaces, no matter whether it was work or personal life, to keep myself whole. And so I did, resisting any longing for stability and comfort.

It wasn’t simple and easy, especially when unfamiliarity also unfolded in my most intimate space — home. I lived on the third floor of a place that housed students from everywhere. I was caught in between. We were financially secure or overwhelmed with debt, taking Uber because we couldn’t navigate the subway system or working multiple jobs to afford rent or health insurance we hoped never had to be used.

Sharing a basement kitchen with almost 20 strangers year after year had me join in habits of boiling frozen dumplings dipped in soy sauce for quick dinners or making chai along with toasted bread for breakfast. I remember laughing together past midnight, spontaneous birthday celebrations, multicultural potlucks. Together, we saw a baby born. We complained about rent that kept going up. We formed smaller groups where the same languages and religions pulled us closer more easily. We asked where our stuff was in shared spaces and laughed away the inconvenience and doubt about people we lived with. We said hi, gave hugs, and fell out of friendships. We ignored our fractured relationships to continue living together. We felt like strangers once moving out.

I learned about the beauty and complexities of this world — more than from any books, lectures, or traveling. It was its own kind of joy and heartbreak.

But every heartbreak was temporary, as work and school moved at a breathless pace. College was a wonderful privilege that helped me discover my passion early in life, and gave all of myself to it from such a young age, both professionally and personally.

All I could remember was that I never rested. Once a door opened, I walked through it. I woke up at 5am to work, slept on the subway, answered texts when everyone was already asleep, went home past midnight after my part-time jobs. Because I, mostly alone, devoted time and emotional energy to aspirations that I thought would always be within to make me, sustain me. And I was so happy, diving into what I was drawn to and figuring it all out. But it also took time and courage to finally pause to breathe and see clearly that there were things that needed timing.

Meanwhile, the self-imposed rule to always break my own bubbles turned out to have left me fragmented and unfocused. After piling up a collection of random experiences, I had unintentionally found myself in a story that wasn’t cohesive or meaningful.

I was drawn to stories. I practiced listening with empathy, learning with humility, and creating with authenticity. I brought pieces of people’s lives with me, but my own story — I didn’t know how to tell it. Because, by deliberately breaking walls to find others and experience their humanities, I saw and absorbed more than what I was capable of processing.

It was no longer a seasonal drive to satisfy my own curiosity about the world. I ended up interrogating myself on how to love, in the pure, non-judgmental, and selfless way that I had struggled with all my life.

The season for something different to bloom came — a window of opportunity opened for my life to change. I went in and out of coffee meet-ups and interviews to strangely land myself at a job I had never imagined doing on my 24th birthday. My compulsive need to check my bank account whenever waking up gradually stopped. I started eating fresh cooked meals, walking slow, exercising, and sleeping more than four hours a day. I opened the door to deeper friendships and relationships.

I watered plants, played with grass, hugged pets, talked to bees. I travelled. I took a break to feel like a whole person again.

Heavy to unload luggage, but there I was, at least occasionally, anchored.

And thus, cloaked in solitude, a country stretched itself before my eyes: vast fields and diverse landscapes, floated icebergs and glorious sun. Twilight falling over lonesome roads. Wild fires and midnight sky full of stars.

Blue waves in Seattle, snowy dusk in Montana. Golden afternoon in Wisconsin, a North California that lost itself in acrylic paints. Cross Arizona, orange haze over saguaros. In New Mexico, dusty and isolated pueblos.

Seabirds and ocean breezes. Deep green forests surrounded by smoky mountains. And flaming clouds.

More photos could be found on my portfolio: nhisayshi.com

I barely remember faces of the people I met — we all went our separate ways after fleeting conversations, but their stories became mine. I wanted and needed to travel in isolation, where I could hear passengers scribbling away in aloneness, where I received a breakfast gift from a stranger, where someone told me she was on route to find a better city to be homeless in, where a mass shooting had hurt someone I just met, where a widow lost the love of her life and never came back home, where I met a toddler whose name meant falling angel.

He couldn’t speak, yet his hands reached out to touch mine. Gummy bears threaded in tiny fingers. There were moments that made me, and there were moments that rebuilt me. It turned out: I had been here before — the starting point of a recurring circle that was rolling infinitely.

And alone was I still, on a night where the train couldn’t move one centimeter forward, leaving me swallowed by a desert that rendered me small and eternal.

Whenever the New York City skyline appears over the horizon, I see a city in which I have raised myself. I have never known if I love this place or its country, or even bothered to find the answer. The word love has always seemed too simple, arbitrary, abstract, and quite irrelevant to the personal experiences I tried to capture and hold onto — before leaving them all behind.

As I look back and witness my own solitude projected onto these landscape pictures, I read the transition of a personal tale in a country found and re-found in beauty, love, loss, division, confusion, and hope.

I have bled along with it, and here I still am: keen, humble, and ready, as always, to roll, even if I know — I will always eventually come back to the same starting point.

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Nhi

Nhi

I write about people and things that move me. My photos: https://nhisayshi.com