An article I wrote for Reach to Teach Recruiting, on the concept of home while traveling abroad:
“For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil, than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”– Pico Iyer
Travellers, vagabonds, backpackers, migrants, nomads, ex-pats, English teachers; whatever you want to call us – those of us for whom the urge to wander is an imperative itching of the soul – number in the thousands, millions even. People living abroad are now the equivalent of the fifth largest nation in the world. The concept of home, then, as it must, becomes transient, too; it is no longer a brick and mortar structure or a flag stuck in the dirt. Rather, we carry it within us and it evolves as we do.
I am Canadian but I was born in Singapore. My parents lived there for a year in 1983-1984, while my father held a post in the oil and gas sector. We moved back to Canada before I was old enough to form memories, but I grew up with a vibrant picture of Singapore in my head. For as long as I can remember, my mother has told me stories of my birthplace: undulating anarchy in the markets, cockroaches the size of dinner plates, and a long standing battle between her and a toucan over the ripening mangoes, jack fruit and papayas in our orchard. My favourite stories are about when she’d take me out shopping. Barely one month old, I’d be sleeping snugly in my stroller, unperturbed by the chaos, and the old Chinese ladies would gather around, and pinch and tickle my feet so that I would open my blue eyes. And they’d coo and laugh over the bald-headed, blue-eyed, white baby.
Twenty-eight years later, luck and years of dreaming and scheming, brought my mother and I to Singapore, together, again. Finally, she could show me my birthplace, and the country that shaped her when she was young and pregnant and newly married.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the “Father of Singapore,” transformed the country during his three decades in power. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and embarked on modernization and urbanization on a large and very successful scale. From 1970 to 1990, Singapore metamorphosed from abandoned colonial outpost to “First World Asian Tiger”.
He did such a good job that when we stepped out of the Changi airport and into the sweet heavy air, my mother found Singapore unrecognizable. It was, she said, like she’d never been to the country before. It’s progressive, expensive, sanitized and generic; it’s the Dubai of Asia. That which had made us unique, our shared history, had been erased and replaced with something too-familiar.
Determined to unearth some vestige of the past, we took a taxi to the neighbourhood we used to live in, in search of our old house. The taxi twisted and looped through the suburban streets like a butterfly dancing with the breeze. The space where she thought our house might have been was now a pristine and behemoth mansion. We got out of the taxi and she peered up and down the streets, searching for something, anything familiar. Unsuccessful, she threw her hands in the air and slumped back into the taxi. Her sadness was my sadness and the whole world’s sadness over lost treasures; a deluge of futile nostalgia. Tom Wolfe was, indeed, correct:“You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except for in the mothballs of memory.” Deep in mothball country, my mother looked out of the taxi’s window at her crushed memories, struggling to integrate this new Singapore in her mind.
We had our patient taxi driver drop us off at Changi Point for lunch at the hawker stands. I walked over to a stall to buy a bottle of water, and was greeted by an ancient gnarled and wiry old Chinese woman, who didn’t speak English – a relic of Singapore’s past. As I handed her the money, she stared at me, boring her rheumy eyes into mine, as though I piqued a long forgotten memory. She reached out and grabbed my chin between her thumb and forefinger, and pulled my face within inches of hers. Our eyes locked for a few pregnant seconds. She smiled, wide and toothless, and her smile radiated through her cloudy eyes. She released my chin, patted my cheek, and I was dismissed. I cradled that moment, and knew that our Singapore still and will always have a place within my soul.