By Anita Saesing
Let’s get this out of the way: I am a stereotypical millennial—26 years old, to be exact. I believe in fulfillment and happiness over job security. I have the Internet at my fingertips, so I’m constantly learning. I love gluten-free avocado toast, brunch, and social outings. Last but not least, whether I love it or not, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat are major influences in my life.
Let’s take it a step further. Being raised by decidedly non-millennial parents was challenging. I grew up in a working-class family, with an immigrant mother from Laos who told me to bury my passions and interests, especially if I couldn’t make a living off them. So things like writing and traveling were for people who were either born wealthy or were lost in life. My mother believed work should be my North Star; I should find fulfillment and identity in a high-paying career.
What I heard was, “After I work my butt off for years, competing with Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, I will hopefully get the opportunity to be responsible for motivating and ensuring results from a team of people.” I saw what my HR bosses went through, and honestly, I didn’t think they got paid enough to handle all of that stress. Every manager or supervisor I had told me how replaceable employees were, and how they themselves feared they would be replaced by someone younger and sharper.
My last supervisor told me, “If I die tomorrow, a company will hire my replacement before the ink dries on my obituary.” That notion didn’t sit well with me. A person could give a company years of hard work and still be furloughed, laid off, or replaced.
Needless to say, my mother’s dream for me terrified me. I am a whole human being, a sum of my experiences. I’m not just an employee. As if something in the universe called out to me, I left my HR job last July and decided to take a gap year.
My first four months were spent in North America. I flew cross-country twice visiting family and friends, and even ventured across the Pacific Ocean to the hospitable island of Kauai. These memories are imprinted in my mind: all of the love and laughter that comes forth among selfless people.
Within these four months, my childhood friend and I agreed to reunite outside of the United States. We flew into Alberta, Canada. Photos on Instagram and Pinterest did not do it justice. I thought the images of the lakes were edited, but they legitimately are a vibrant blue color due to the sediment and rock flour in the water. I was in absolute awe of Alberta’s natural beauty. It truly is a utopia for nature lovers, adventurers, and wanderers yearning for serenity.
Despite the lack of sleep, I fell in love with all aspects of traveling, even staying in airports. I enjoyed waiting for my boarding group to be called, running towards baggage claim for my luggage, meeting new people and so on.
Among my many trips in 2019, I would say my favorite trip has to be Spain. I was mesmerized by the Spanish culture—the dancing, the local dishes, the general disposition of the citizens. I had studied Spanish in high school and was able to converse with some locals. I didn’t want the trip to end, so I took another plane from Barcelona to Madrid and explored the surrounding cities. My boyfriend joked that I was never coming home. Could you blame me? I finally got a taste of freedom.
When I returned to the U.S., I visited two more cities before enrolling in an Italian class. My goal was to visit Italy in the summer of 2020, a grand finale to my gap year.
Then COVID-19 happened, and all of my travel plans were derailed.
I was sitting in my class listening to my peers discuss how Italy was the epicenter of the pandemic. We didn’t think much about coronavirus, because the U.S. wasn’t actively testing yet. We said our goodbyes before spring break. Who would have guessed that it would be the last time we physically saw each other?
Jet-setting to Meal Planning
Self-isolation has been hell, especially here in Arizona. Ask any Arizonian, and we’ll all say a dry heat at 120 degrees still sucks, so don’t hit us with that “at least there’s no humidity” line. The summer weather limited our outdoor times to early mornings and late evenings. On top of that, my boyfriend and I made the decision in March to self-isolate. My boyfriend is risk-adverse and has an all-or-nothing mindset. This meant cooking all of our meals at home (so no takeout or delivery), contactless curbside pickup, and no social outings.
My iPhone was my lifeline. Besides communicating with my friends and scrolling through travel Instagram posts, I became obsessed with COVID-19 articles. I tried watching Netflix, but it was mostly background noise.
As the weeks turned into months, I watched my friends give up on social distancing. Two-thirds of my friends aren’t parents, so they didn’t feel obligated to stay home. They were traveling and renting Airbnbs. They posted their adventures all over social media.
I knew scientifically that contracting COVID-19 was dangerous, but I grew resentful of staying indoors. I was in a constant state of emotional turmoil. One minute, I was depressed and envious of my friends’ freedom, then the next minute, I was pissed at myself for being weak. This summer was not the time to travel with my friends; it would have invalidated the previous months of self-isolation.
I never hated anything so much in my life, choosing between what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. Staying home was always the safest choice. My days were filled with cooking and cleaning. Instead of going out to eat, I was a little Suzy Homemaker with my nose buried in a recipe book. Growing up, I had put learning how to cook on the back burner of my mind. Prior to COVID-19, I thought I was going to be like Lorelai Gilmore from “Gilmore Girls” or Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City,” living off takeout and food from sit-down restaurants.
Whenever I complained about my domestic duties and new lifestyle, waves of guilt crashed over me. How dare I hate staying at home? My boyfriend and his parents would say to me, “Things could be worse.” I remember crying to my best friend about how I hated myself for not finding the silver lining.
My best friend told me, “It’s acceptable to feel depressed and miss how life used to be. Only having a positive mindset is a form of toxic positivity. We shouldn’t minimize how we feel and punish ourselves. It doesn’t allow us to grieve and have authentic human emotions.”
But why grieve? My loved ones aren’t dead. I’m not ill. How could I be so depressed? How dare I yearn to travel while others have lost their jobs? How selfish am I to grieve for my old life while I sit here atop my ivory tower?
Even looking at old traveling photos made me feel like I was cheating on my COVID-19 life. It was like I was in a bad relationship with this pandemic, constantly making excuses for how great everything was, even though I felt like I was suffocating. I remember lying to my cousin in April, “Now, I have time to do all the things I wanted to do.” The reality was I never wanted to learn how to bake banana bread, I never enjoyed exercising, I fell asleep during meditation, TikTok didn’t interest me, and pretending to be “productive” during a global pandemic was not how I wanted to cope with stress. I had the time to do all of that in the beginning of my gap year, but I still chose not to. All I wanted to do was travel.
Unfortunately, I can’t break up with this pandemic. I know traveling now would be a hassle. Leaving the country is out of the question. Domestic travel would still be a nightmare. I would have to research each state and its requirements about self-quarantining upon arrival. Also, being the Type A person that I am, I would undergo some psychological stress navigating through an airport and sitting on a plane. In addition, I would have to buy cleaning supplies and personally clean my hotel room or Airbnb because I would not trust the staff cleaning my room to test COVID-negative. There are conflicting articles about COVID-19 droplets surviving on surfaces, so, of course, I would err on the side of caution. Then would come the shaming from my friends who have been staying at home with their children. I can hear them now: “How can you be so reckless and selfish?”
For now, I have benched my gap year while I try to devise a new master plan for my playbook. If there isn’t a safe vaccine by the end of 2020, I’m considering buying a van and customizing it for road trips. This type of traveling comes with its own headaches, but I’m sure I can make do. After all, I am an impatient millennial putting my adventures on hold. Hell hath no fury like a restless young woman!
Anita Saesing has always been nomadic. She was born in California,, but spent her teenage years in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Before she graduated from high school, an elderly couple from her previous apartment complex invited her to live with them in Arizona. Four days after her high school graduation, she packed her bags and joined them on their cross-country road trip. She spent her college years working at various places including a childcare center and hospital HR office. She was the first in her family to graduate debt-free from college. Anita graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Grand Canyon University. One day, she desires to live in Italy and “do as the Romans do.”