We Know What You Did Last Summer
Updated: Jul 12
B&W Staffers bring back tales from the real world.
While I was studying abroad last semester, I tutored English so that I could earn enough to travel during the summer. It had been a goal of mine to travel alone—a New Year’s resolution, in fact. And I did: Five weeks farming in rural France, three weeks backpacking in Crete.
With no obligation to work, study, or please anyone at all, I got to constantly ask myself what I wanted to do. What did it mean to me to make valuable use of my time?
It’s a complicated question and I don’t give it the thought it deserves during the semester, when I’m ricocheting from one commitment to the next. But traveling alone pushed me to think about that question. Answering it over and over not only made me more independent, but taught me to respect my own judgement. (That made it much easier to decide it was okay to wear one pair of shorts for three weeks and wash them with shampoo.)
I don’t think making valuable use of your time necessarily means having an amazing time. The way we idealize travel is unrealistic, and social media makes it easy. You don’t step directly from the plane into a Lonely Planet slideshow. It’s not all waterfalls/ beaches/mountains at sunrise/sunset/midnight. Traveling alone can be thrilling, depressing, and much more often on the spectrum in between. It’s just that no one Instagrams the last two.
On a sunny day in July, I spent eight hours at JFK Airport holding up a 2 by 3 foot sign that read in big block letters: COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL.
I had first heard about the job a few days earlier. A good friend had texted me saying “need some money? I know someone who needs people .” In want of some extra dough and perhaps an adventure, I bit.
The mystery employer turned out to be a man running a special high school program for Chinese students at Columbia. They bring them in by the lots and charge them ghastly sums for the privilege of sitting in on classes at our esteemed Ivy League Institution. It’s a craze among the affluent Chinese.
My employer tasked me with a fairly simple job. He gave me a list of flights and the students who’d be on them. I was to go to the airport, locate the students as they got off their flights and shepherd them to chartered cars. He also gave me the big sign.
With or without big sign, it was no mean task. My job was to locate someone who I’d never seen and who’d never seen me in a very crowded room without being able to text them. I positioned myself in front of each flight’s respective gate and desperately made eye contact with each unaccompanied high school aged East Asian who passed.
Often, more than an hour would pass between the time a plane landed and the time the person I was picking up got out of customs. It was then that the job became utterly stressful. I imagined that some poor little girl had gotten past me and was now wandering JFK confused and lost.
Most of the students had never been to America before. I, a short bespectacled scrawny boy hired for the day, was their first experience of this country.
Somehow, everyone came and ended up in the right cars. I spent a lot of time on campus the two weeks the program was on, but never ran into any of them again.