"I walked around Pembroke, and was reminded of how I thought this place was like a fairy-tale garden the first time I walked through the college..."Jiayu Qiu

During my time in Cambridge, I’ve thought a lot about how I might leave this place. There was a part of me, through second year to third year, that couldn’t wait to graduate and leave - so there is something tragically ironic in being brutally uprooted from the place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cambridge gets a bit too much, too punishing, too exhausting at times, and I have always thought – and still think – that three years of it would have been enough for me. But even so, I don’t think anyone would have wished for a final departure that was more like a panic-driven emergency evacuation than a gradual, bittersweet process of bidding farewell.

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!

I pitched a series of articles to the Varsity team on 11th March, wishing to write about my thoughts as a finalist.I thought I had the full Easter break and Easter term in Cambridge to slowly reflect on both the beautiful and the ugly parts of Cambridge that made the place what it is. Barely a week later, I am sat back at home in Singapore, serving out a mandatory 14-day stay-at-home notice, trying to overcome my jetlag. It feels like I have left behind an entire lifetime in the three days it took me from deciding to fly home and actually flying home.

I am keenly aware that, as an international student, it is highly unlikely that I will return to Cambridge in the foreseeable future. And, even if I do, it will likely not be a student but as some sort of alumni-tourist mix. I will likely never see so many friends, teachers, professors, whom I didn’t even think to say goodbye to because no one had realised that this could be the last time we would ever meet in person.

My last few days in Cambridge were blessed in that they were some of the most beautiful days of spring. In between the madness of packing and crying over old belongings I had to discard, I took one last walk and one last cycle to some of the places in Cambridge that meant something to me: the Law Library, where I studied for my first Tripos in the midst of great confusion and heartbreak; my usual running route, where I knew the exact locations of the 1km, 2km, 3km marks; the playground on Lammas Land, where I had once sat down during Easter term to watch the children play to get away from the world of Tripos; the Boat Houses and the River Cam, where I had my small share of cold, early mornings during my (very) brief incarnation as a college rower; Jack’s Gelato, where I remember having enjoying a congratulatory ice-cream together with friends after I had finished my first ever Tripos exams.

“...I want to take some time out to love and mourn this place, and to acknowledge frankly that the time I have spent in Cambridge has been nothing short of a privilege.”

I walked around Pembroke, and was reminded of how I thought this place was like a fairy-tale garden the first time I walked through the college; how I watched the tree opposite my room in First Year turn to a beautiful orange through autumn, lose all of its leaves through winter, and then grow all of its leaves back slowly through spring. I photographed each of these places, but there will always be something about them that escapes capture: the rustling of trees in Pembroke; the vast expanse of fields in Grantchester Meadows; the smell of old books and wood in the Haddon Library; the feeling of blades on the water while rowing on the River Cam.

Cambridge isn’t perfect, not by a far mile. There are many things deeply problematic about the place and the University as an institution, and these are some of the things that I wanted to think about originally. But, in this moment, I want to take some time out to love and mourn this place, and to acknowledge frankly that the time I have spent in Cambridge has been nothing short of a privilege.

A friend once wisely quipped that “现实太残酷,都只是因回忆太美” (Reality is often too cruel only because memories are too beautiful). I am reminded, courtesy of Winne the Pooh and A.A. Milne, that I am indeed very lucky to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard. But it is something which my 88-year old grandfather shared with me before I came to Cambridge which best encapsulates this particular moment of feeling: the poem 《再别康桥》 (Goodbye Again, Cambridge) by the Chinese poet 徐志摩 (Xu Zhimo).

The memorial stone of Xu Zhimo's poem can be found in King's College.Jiayu Qiu

The first two and last two lines of this poem are found on a memorial stone in Kings’ College: I have always thought that since my grandparents are too old and frail to travel to Cambridge themselves, the least that I could do would be to take a photo of myself in my graduation gown next to that particular stone and share that with my grandparents. But even though that particular dream has now become impossible in the foreseeable future, I return to the poem to find solace in the bittersweet sentiment of farewell that it expresses, especially the lines: “Quietly I am leaving, / Just as quietly as I came; / Gently waving my sleeve, / I am not taking away a single cloud.”


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Mountain View

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On the drive from the Singapore airport back to my home, the car suddenly drove straight into a downpour while on the expressway. That’s the way the weather is in Singapore: tropical rainforest climate, even though there are fewer and fewer rainforests left in the country and in the region. You don’t get these storms in the UK and you definitely don’t get them in Cambridge. I think that was the moment when it sunk in for me that I had left Cambridge for good, and that for all that I may try to do to capture, remember and memorialise, the skies, the sunsets, the clouds of Cambridge are some of the things that I would have to leave behind.

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