Jiayu Qiu

“Tells a story, doesn’t it? They left the island so quickly, couldn’t decide what to take, what to leave, what was important.” As I desperately tried to pack 3 years’ worth of physical stuff in a span of three days, I couldn’t get this particular line from the James Bond movie Skyfall out of my head. 

Love Letters to Cambridge

These are tough and uncertain times for us all, and a lot of us are left with little closure. Varsity are launching this series to give a platform to students reflecting on the parts of Cambridge they'll miss the most, and to gain some closure through writing. Just email our Features team with a 150-word pitch with your idea!

There’s no question that I couldn’t take everything with me: there was so much stuff that I had intended to either resell or to donate, recycle or discard when the time came to it, but these were decisions I simply didn’t have the time for after making an urgent decision to leave Cambridge for home in Singapore.

There were the things I knew I was definitely going to take back: letters, postcards written by friends or by myself and sent to me from around the world; posters of various films or plays that I loved; stash from various societies that I was proud to have been part of. But there were also some items which I had been consciously collecting since the start of my time in Cambridge.

First: all the airplane boarding passes that have taken me between Cambridge and home. The carbon footprint that these tickets entail isn’t something I’m particularly proud of, but I thought they served as neat bookends and milestones of my time in Cambridge. I remember getting tickets to go home after my very first Michaelmas Term because I had been surprised by my own homesickness. As the homesickness gradually abated, more and more time elapsed between each visit home. I had always wondered what my last ticket out of Cambridge and back home would look like, but I didn’t expect that I would see it so soon.

"neat bookends and milestones of my time in Cambridge"Jiayu Qiu

Second: tickets to all the theatre shows I have watched, and posters of all the shows I have worked on in Cambridge. The Cambridge theatre scene really radically redefined what I thought student theatre can achieve; I have seen some of the best shows I have ever watched during my time here, and I truly consider it a humbling experience to have worked with and to have been in the presence of such talented and passionate people. 

Doing theatre isn’t always easy, and some of my most stressful moments in Cambridge came from working on shows. The Cambridge theatre space isn’t necessarily the most welcoming to BME and non-British voices all the time, but from my time in first year to third, I am thankful that more BME stories and spaces have opened for people who like theatre but don’t necessarily feel that they belong to the typical thespy crowd. 

In this vein, I am particularly grateful that my friends and I have been able to keep the annual Singaporean/Malaysian production going, as a way for us to connect home and to share our stories with a broader audience. As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted so much of the academic year, I am thankful that we were able to complete a successful run of this year’s show, Pan-Island Expressway, before the outbreak properly began in the UK.

"The Cambridge theatre scene really radically redefined what I thought student theatre can achieve"Jiayu Qiu

Third: a series of scribbled thoughts that I pasted on my walls and table. I started these scribbles under the title “What is Cambridge?” sometime in first year, because I realised that my experience of the city was really made up of these small, insignificant moments of happiness, sadness and silliness that somehow added together to form a sum greater than its parts. 

I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led me to scribble down each of these thoughts, but reading them always reminds me of Rilke: “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final”. A scribble about crying in my room alone is immediately followed by an excited scribble proclaiming “DAYS IN THE SUN” in all caps: a testament, perhaps, to both the extent of my excitement and the typical dreariness of English weather that warrants an exclamation when it is not its usual dreary self.

"my experience of the city was really made up of these small, insignificant moments of happiness, sadness and silliness"Jiayu Qiu

But if these physical artefacts of my time in Cambridge were obviously meaningful and consciously collected and curated by myself, the real surprise that struck me as I was packing came from things that had somehow taken on a lot of significance, even though I never intended for them to do so. The sheer shock and stress of packing meant that I got through most of it numb and jacked-up on a potent mix of adrenaline and anxiety. But a breaking point came when I looked at the old shoes I had to leave behind, shoes I had first brought from home and had seen me through my entirety of my time in Cambridge. 

About a week earlier, I had just washed all of them and sewed together the holes in them because they frankly aren’t in the best condition, but I thought I could make them last until graduation. These are shoes that have gone through a lot with me, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would have to leave them behind so soon and so suddenly. My running shoes saw me go from someone who never ran to completing my first ever 10k race during Cambridge’s annual Town and Gown run. I picked up running to cope with the devastating fallout of my first proper romantic relationship in my first year of university – these shoes are pain and determination all mixed into one. 

"My running shoes saw me go from someone who never ran to completing my first ever 10k race"Jiayu Qiu

I think I would have had eventually discarded or recycled these shoes in any case, but I always thought that I’d have more time to figure out what to do with them. I think this encapsulates the sentiment shared by most graduating students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic: that, as much as we always knew that this would be the year in which we leave our university campuses for good, we all thought we’d have just a little bit more time to figure out what that meant to each of us.


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Mountain View

I’ve left Cambridge, but I’m not going home – not really

I titled this piece after Seasons of Love from the musical Rent. There’s a part of this song that I particularly love: “In diapers, report cards, in spoked wheels, in speeding tickets, in contracts, in dollars, in funerals, in births, in five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes: how do you figure a last year on Earth?” I love how the mundane and the meaningful are put alongside each other. We tend to remember and commemorate time through significant milestones and memorabilia, but it’s equally the small everyday banalities that have made my time in Cambridge larger than what any single keepsake can capture. 

And yet, I hold on to each of these individual keepsakes in the hopes that collectively they might be able to do what none of them could do individually: to serve as an approximation – a measurement – of the time I have spent in Cambridge.

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