I remember the feeling I had when I first thought about the possibility of not being able to go back home in the summer. It was the feeling you get when you start falling while dreaming, or when your stomach drops and you feel like something is about to go terribly, terribly wrong.
In March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Although there were few cases in Vancouver, people had already started buying masks and stocking toilet paper. It was a weirdly sunny Sunday and I was in my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend’s basement suite, sitting on the living room couch surrounded by plants, watching the news. He started talking about what would happen if everything shut down and I started thinking about worst-case scenarios.
I remember laying down on his bed afterward and feeling the panic rising up in me.
What if I can’t go back home? What if I can’t see my parents?
At the time, I told myself not to think about it. It was only March; of course I could go home over the summer, or in December. But that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t be able to return to Istanbul until December 2021, almost two years later.
It’s weird being away from your hometown for so long. After a while, you forget you had a life before moving to the city you’re currently living in. You start forgetting that there is a whole other city with different streets, shops, weather and people in it that used to be your home. It happens slowly but surely as you build yourself a new life somewhere else.
I think it has to do with the fact that you replace things.
You get a new favorite coffee shop, you learn new streets and you make new friends. The whole process changes who you are as well. Not in a rigid ‘before and after’ way, but you start to lose a version of yourself who existed in the ‘before,’ a version that maybe smiled differently or woke up a little earlier. But beyond the small things, you build yourself a new support system. You start thinking about who you’re going to call if you get sick, who can help you out with your move to a new apartment or who you’re going to call after your breakup.
That’s what I tried to do after moving to Vancouver, and I think I did alright. I know I did alright because my community kept me sane during the pandemic. Take all of 2021, for example: I was a mess, having emotional outbursts on the street every other day. I would be listening to a song and it would bring up some memory and I would instantly be hit by an overwhelming wave of sadness and grief, missing my family, the feeling of hugging my mother or laughing with my dad. After a while, I avoided watching any sort of happy family movie because it would trigger a wave of tears followed by a sense of despair and tiredness that would stick around for days. I spent my time cooking more Turkish food than ever before and rewatching movies I had already seen back home to remember the look of Istanbul, to hear the humour and sound of my city. And let me tell you, some of those movies are really not that good. If it weren’t for my friends watching those movies next to me, holding me close and sharing my pain, I don’t know what I would have done.
When I look back at 2020, I think being broken-hearted when the pandemic first hit was actually a blessing. It was gut-wrenching, but it also allowed me to mistakenly believe that my main problem was my bleeding heart and not the ongoing pandemic.
Things changed once my parents developed some health problems. I started thinking about death — both about the fact that they would die one day but also about the fact that if I got sick, I would be so far away from my family. Far away from home. I felt angry that I couldn’t be with them. I was incredibly privileged and yet not. I was so lucky to be able to make the choice to come to Canada, but not lucky enough to be born here. There’s privilege embedded in that sentiment as well, and my own pandemic experience was amplified by my anxiety, but none of it changes the way I feel.
That’s the thing about leaving your community behind. You do it because it’s probably better for you in the long run. It might give you a better education, a better job and who knows, better rights? The small stuff. But it takes a lot away from you as well. It means you’re going to miss family dinners, birthdays and trips. You’ll grow up and your family will get older.
By the time I was able to go back to Turkey, my whole country — let alone my family — had experienced so much collective trauma that it was significantly different from what I had left behind. My peers were now unsure if they would find a job after graduation and pay their bills. People were converting their salaries to whatever asset they could afford the day they got paid because of high inflation. Food prices overtook my Twitter feed for a whole month. After years of hushed whispers, everyone was now openly talking about this cloud of anxiety they had been carrying around.
What’s going to happen to us?
What’s going to happen to our country?
I believe that happiness has a sound. In Istanbul, it’s the sound of a Friday evening with the city buzzing from excitement, a walk by the sea watching the seagulls, a concert at an underground dive bar or drinking tea with your friends while the sun is setting. Laughter. My city used to sound like laughter against all odds. I found out unhappiness also has a sound, and it’s amplified by the masses.
You could say I moved across the world to get more opportunities in life, and at first I absolutely loved it. I reveled at the sense of freedom I got from moving out and being independent in my first year.
To my disappointment, 18-year-olds at UBC weren’t any wiser or more passionate about anything than I was. Being alone in a new country on a different continent was scary, but little things like going to the movies or grabbing dinner with my small group of friends made life seem okay. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that group of friends became the core of my community in Vancouver.
When my broken heart needed to be picked up at the start of the pandemic, it was the friends I made here that did that. I didn’t have an easy time creating my community, but I’m beyond lucky that I ended up with the chosen family I have.
Now, two years later, both my parents and I are doing better. My anxiety subsided a little after finally being able to see them and they’re working on taking better care of themselves. My anger towards the world still comes out sometimes; occasionally my stomach still drops and I feel something is about to go terribly, terribly wrong. But when I came back to Vancouver after my visit home, what do you know? Landing at YVR felt like coming home, too.