The HKS Bubble of Detachment

Tayo Koonprasert
Tayo Koonprasert is a second-year MPA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School from Bangkok, Thailand. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the column are personal and belong solely to the author.

HKS has become home to most of us, but let us not forget our actual families

In early October, I received a text from my mom in Thailand:

“Ong won’t be with us much longer.”

Ong was my cousin. She was in her early-40s, a breast-cancer survivor. The cancer was back and had spread through her entire body, from her lungs to her brain.

The next day, my mom texted again:

“Ong’s gone. She rests in peace now.”

I was in the middle of packing for a long-weekend trip to Chicago. My flight was to leave that night. I squeezed my eyes shut, gave myself ten seconds to absorb the news, and then resumed packing.

And off I went, to Chicago. I never told my friends who were traveling with me that I had just lost someone dear to me. I didn’t want to put a damper on the trip. Instead, I went sightseeing, laughing and partying with them as if nothing had happened. As if I hadn’t just lost my favorite cousin who showered me with encouragement when I was applying to graduate schools, who wanted to help with my application essays even though she couldn’t speak English, who was thinning and missing more hair each time I FaceTimed her as she underwent chemotherapy.

I told myself that once I got back to Cambridge, I would allow myself to grieve. But I never did.

Back at school, I quickly became preoccupied with the parade of educational, social, and professional programming available at HKS. From attending classes to listening to talks, there was always something to keep me busy.

As students, we tend to think that we can put our home lives on “pause” to focus on the community at school. The fast-paced rhythm of HKS compels us to take advantage of opportunities coming at us left and right. But that also makes it easy to fall out of touch with our actual families. Some of us have learned the hard way that a lot can happen back home while we are caught up in this bubble.

In February, my grandmother passed away from a stroke. I got the call while I was at a friend’s house party. When I told my grandma I was coming to Harvard half a year earlier, she was proud of me even though she didn’t know what Harvard was.

“It’s only the best school in the world,” joked my dad.

“Really? Well, I would’ve expected nothing less from my larn. Go get them!”

She then reached into her tattered wallet and patted a 100-baht bill into my hand. Worth $3, it was barely enough to buy a coffee in America. But my eyes watered as I carefully tucked the crinkled bill away. This was her way of showing me her support, by giving me what little she had.

Khun Ya was my last living grandparent. I won’t see her when I go home after graduation.

From my grandmother’s death to Ong’s, the HKS bubble sheltered me from the sadness my family was going through in Thailand. I couldn’t hear the sobs of my relatives. I didn’t have to take part in the seven-day funeral rituals. Whenever I called home to ask how things were going, my mom would say, “Don’t worry about us. You just focus on school.” So, I did. But in doing so, I felt guilty and helpless.

But finally, when I decided to write about these losses, I broke down. All the tears I had ignored over the past year finally burst out, down my cheeks, spilling onto my keyboard. Yet I continued to type, almost with a frantic madness. I was scared that if I were to stop typing, I’d go back to being the cold, emotionless person I felt I’d become.

I’ve realized that while our time at HKS is short, so is life. Some of us come to HKS seeking quality education, some a career shift, and some the Harvard brand name. Yet we should never forget those who have supported us to be where we are today—our families. We forget that in the eyes of our relatives and friends back home, our presence here is really something. They would rather have us prioritize our studies than deal with issues back at home. They saw the efforts we took to get here, and they eagerly await to hear our stories and experiences. We have both the gift and burden of carrying our families’ hopes with us.

After graduation, we will leave HKS knowing that we’ll have made friends from every corner of the world. But it’s important to put as much effort into maintaining the relationships with our families and loved ones back home, those who have given us the opportunities to be here.

The crinkled 100-baht bill that I still carry in my wallet today is my reminder of this.

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