Summer camps spark transition into adulthood

This weekend, I flew across the country to my favorite city in the continental US: Boston. Say it with me now, “Baawston.” There, I did a few of my favorite things: I devoured some lobster bisque, spent a few hours at Newbury Comics and even enjoyed some of the best crab cakes I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Then, in between a tropical storm and a malfunctioning subway system I helped my little sister move into college.

It’s strange to think that my little sister, the girl I have come to associate with home, is off somewhere growing up. As we moved boxes and plastic bins into her room and transferred all of her clothes from weary suitcases to pristine closets, I thought about my own memorable afternoon — the broken elevators, the paranoid parents and trips to Target so often that the person working at the cash register could differentiate us from all the other Asian families.

As a restless, somewhat rebellious teen, I craved separation. Every year, I left the house for an extended vacation disguised as an enriching educational experience — no, no, I’m not talking about college. It was a glorious thing I knew as freedom; you might recognize it as summer camp. My parents helped me pack, bought me necessities like bear repellent and cried when I said my goodbyes. Then I was off — off to meet people, find myself and return with a slightly more balanced character. They were excited for the social awareness and newfound appreciation for nature I would gain; I was excited for the campfires and the s’mores, the canoes and the boys, the three-hour hikes and — the best part — being away from home.

During the few short weeks I was off being an independent woman, I learned a fair amount of things. I learned some new sing-alongs and camp cheers and I dabbled in the art of watercoloring and finger painting. I even managed to do the splits one summer, although I can’t say this was because of any sort of diligence, patience or even flexibility on my part. Important advice: Never go down a dangerously inclined gravel road with broken roller skates. More important than any of these lessons, however, was the realization that I was off on my own. Detached from my parents, from my family, from home-cooked meals and warm soup when I was sick, I had to learn to fend for myself — amid the bears and mountain lions and bloodthirsty wasps, yes, but also amid the realities of a world that would never take care of me.

But that’s not to say I was alone. I had camp counselors — mentors who were sometimes a little too eager but were always, at the end of the day, wonderfully supportive. I had my friends and cabinmates, I had small woodland creatures and I had the occasional letter with a return address I could recognize. But I had to keep the bear repellent on me for only a few short weeks. No matter what I said or thought about leaving home, coming back was always a windswept relief — nothing feels as good as a parent’s open arms or your bed and its perfect, slight body indentations meant just for you.

When I first went to college, I was a little terrified. Weren’t you? I prepared myself in the same way I prepared for summer camp — my parents even supplied the pepper spray, since, according to them, “There are worse things than bears on the streets of LA.” There were tears and goodbyes and freedom and, hidden underneath the excited frenzy of freshman year, the familiar ache for home. But I also found comforts in similar ways, in RA.s and hallmates and friends, in Facebook messages and letters and phone conversations. And I did learn things, like quantum mechanics and the definition of literature and the present pluperfect Spanish. But the best part? The best part was when I came home for Thanksgiving and realized that during the few short months I was off being an independent woman, I had somehow become, miraculously and suddenly, an independent woman.

So I propose a toast: To all the mentors, handwritten letters and bear repellents. To you, an independent person. And to my little sister, who will return home this Thanksgiving with eyes a little wiser, just as beautiful as she’s always been.

Tiffany Yang is a junior majoring in comparative literature. Her column, “Alphabet Soup,” runs Wednesdays.