1991, aged eleven: The day I leave for the next seven years, my mother brings me a mug of hot chocolate in bed. We are staying at my grandma's house---my mother's mother's house---and in the afternoon the three of us leave together, three generations of daughters packed into my grandma's tiny white Ford, foreign objects (a lacrosse stick, a tuck box) jammed into the boot, everything clearly labeled with my name.
We stop on the way there and my mother takes my picture against a field---I am wearing purple---and then she puts the camera on the roof of the car while she's thinking about something else, and we drive off without it. She'll get it back later, but we don't know that yet; for now we can only worry about it, and the worry about the camera is compounded with the worry about today, because today is my first day of boarding school, my first night away from home. Everything is ending. Everything is beginning.
When my mother and grandma leave that evening---after the neverending unpacking, after the nervous meet and greets, after the polite festivities---I'm hit, powerfully and suddenly, by the understanding of how alone I am. I am surrounded, I realize, by forty other girls in the boarding house, nine other girls in my dormitory, eighty other girls in my school year, five hundred other girls in the school, and I don't know any of them yet. Devoid of any melodrama, this is the one thought that occurs to me---quite plainly and logically---in the hours and days until I see my mother again the next weekend: no-one here loves me.
I go home to Hong Kong at Christmas and my whole family is at the airport to greet me, my best friend Anna, too. My mother films me with a gargantuan camcorder as the frosted glass doors part and I push my luggage cart through the airport crowds. For the next three blissful weeks, I am cucooned within my family again, waking when I want to, sleeping when I want to, no longer at the mercy of bells or rules, mercilessly free of any semblance of institution.
But the time comes for me to leave again, and when it does, I am wearing a knitted reindeer sweater and my large purple glasses and I sit with my mother and father in a booth at the airport cafe close to midnight, and honestly, I am telling you right now, if there was something I could do this very second that would guarantee that I'd never again feel as desperately, achingly miserable as I did in that airport cafe that night---all of us tremulously trying to tell each other it would be okay, that the days would go quickly, we'd see each other soon---I would do it this minute, and if it was illegal, I wouldn't care.
As the airline chaperone leads me through another set of sliding glass doors---these ones, thankfully, not frosted---to the snaking immigration line, I wave at my parents, I wave and I wave and I wave. Tucked into my sleeve is a handkerchief sprayed with my mother's perfume---White Linen by Estee Lauder; I still can't stand to smell it, even now---and I will sleep with this handkerchief clutched in my fist every night for the next two hundred nights, well into 1992. And sometimes I will wake up and I won't be able to find the handkerchief, and I will nudge my friend Beth, sleeping in the bunk above me, and I will whisper to her, panicked, that I can't find it, and she will sigh and grunt, but she will lean over, she will climb out of bed, and she will find it for me. She will find it for me every single time.