I am always a piece away

Exploring how stamps have inspired me to do things that define me right now

Rachel Jiang

He took out a wrinkled Quickbook binder, pointed to it and said, “This can be where you store them.” I nodded as I took out a box filled with my stamps and carefully placed them into the binder. Never did I realize this binder was something I would reminisce about 10 years later. I have never viewed them as anything more than colorful squares until recently; as I grew out of my innocence, I have come to realize that these colorful squares are puzzle pieces — each is from a different country. Together, they create one of the world’s most breath-taking pictures.

My grandfather and I live approximately 7,000 miles away from each other, yet I feel as close to him as ever. When I first moved to

Visual for Stamp Column
A page of my favorite stamps from my stamp collection. Photo by Rachel Jiang

Cupertino in 2010, my grandpa visited us to help my mom with some housework. He was the person who introduced me to stamp collections and artifacts. 

My grandpa was a man who valued art and life. Although he is quite old, you would always see him walking around our city and socializing with his friends.  

One day, he came home from a garage sale with an old, brown packet in his hands. The packet contained old postcards and letters that were tinted brown-yellow and torn apart. On the right corner of each item, there was a stamp. I was quite surprised that these letters, which dated back to the 1800s, were preserved until now. 

I dumped all the papers in water and left them there until the stamps were wet enough to be pulled off from the papers. Then, I stuck the front side of each stamp against the windows and let them rest until the sun dried up the water.

As I peeled off a stamp, I felt as if I was unraveling the entire history and culture of where the image came from. When I stuck them onto the window, I could listen to them tell me their story. Every story was different from the others, and that’s why I would spend multiple hours just watching them dry.

I peeled off a stamp from Egypt that illustrated the great pyramids in the country and was mesmerized by its unique structure. Before, I thought my hometown was the best place on Earth even though everyone — including me — was too isolated and stressed to care about travel. We were too distracted with technology to leave the house and explore what’s around us.

However, the moment I saw this stamp, I noticed that these pyramids were far more intriguing than the Apple buildings next to my house, which made me wonder what the world outside my hometown was like. The world outside my hometown seemed like a mystery, but I knew it connected with me. To find the connections I started with baby steps: taking walks to the park frequently and hiking in new areas. I found appreciation for the simplest things near me like the clouds, the hills, and the sunset. This resulted in my curiosity to travel to other cities and states. 

Everywhere I went, I formed connections with the culture and values of that area, which inspired me to pursue new interests. These places taught me that I am not as isolated from the world as I thought, and that the tiny details in the world would shape my passions and personality. 

After a few hours, my grandpa and I had stored more than 100 stamps into the same Quickbook binder. From that day on, my endless days of hoarding letters and postcards began. Each new stamp was a missing chain in the world that would come to me; the only thing left to do was to link them together. 

Even after nine long years of snatching my parents’ mail, I have yet to complete this endless jigsaw puzzle as there is still so much of the world I haven’t discovered. But with every new part of my puzzle, I begin to understand the true complexity of the world and how it has shaped me. The picture I see now may be very different from what I will see in the future, but I have already seen myself change throughout my life. I began to take bigger risks in hopes of discovering new things. Instead of staying home, I would run to places I never usually run to. Instead of reading U.S. news, I would read world news because I am not a representation of a certain country, but rather the entire nation; thus, I should pay attention to the world that I have understood through looking at my stamps. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I could not disagree. I was able to understand a much broader interpretation of the world that many will never know in their lives. It amazes me to imagine that all these areas are so culturally different yet are connected together like a web at the same time.

Collecting stamps has made me realize that I am a puzzle piece lost in a pile of other pieces, waiting to be placed in an area where I will find acceptance. And when that day comes, I will discover that every other piece in my jigsaw determined where I would be placed — just like how every small part of the world contains some characteristic that defines who I am today. 

I should not have tried to carve myself into society because that’s not how puzzles work. By pursuing my passions and finding what makes me stand out from the rest, I know I will eventually fill that one hole in the jigsaw which can only be filled in with me, and no one else.