In Between Places

In transit at Chicago airport.

In transit at Chicago airport.

Every time I make a trip back to Singapore, I will inevitably feel a sense of displacement. Many things can change in a year. Buildings get torn down, new infrastructures raised. Places I used to frequent no longer look the same or, worse, are no longer there. My church has moved and its old space has been demolished. My parents are not living in the same neighborhood. Old favorite restaurants or hawkers have closed down. Even when I meet up with friends, there is always a little dissonance — as if everyone has moved on in the one year when I was absent.

When I told this to a friend, she quickly replied, “But you have also moved on!”

While that is true, I guess the difference is that I wasn’t around to witness the happenings (new engagements, weddings, pregnancies, job promotions) and even though I was updated while living overseas, it can still feel a little overwhelming and sudden whenever I meet relatives or friends face-to-face. It makes me feel like we are all really growing up, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.

Not that growing up is a bad thing, but with that also comes a longing for the past. Which brings me back to my first point. I find it harder and harder to hold on to the ever changing Singapore, where I am not around to make new memories, and old ones are constantly being torn down.

This time around, my trip back to Singapore was very short, because it was a stopover en route to Ireland where my husband was going for a conference. Nevertheless, I was glad to be able to spend time with my family and meet up with some friends. I was the one who had bugged my husband for weeks to make a trip back to Singapore, and I was so excited to return that I couldn’t sleep the night before my flight. But less than a week after landing, I began to miss LA.

And that is my problem.

When I am in LA, I would long for Singapore. But when I am in Singapore, I would long for LA (#firstworldproblems). And while that may sound like a privilege (and on most days, it is) what also happens in actuality is that I end up feeling like I am always between two places, never belonging to one. Life in LA is much more relaxed, and I must admit that there is a certain appeal, and a certain kind of freedom and liberation, that comes with going to a place where no one knows you. Suddenly, I find myself having all the time in the world without any obligation to anyone. Yet, the flip side is that it can get lonely, especially in the beginning (you will be surprised at how disconcerting it can be to not know simple things like where to get a haircut or buy groceries) and at the end of the day, I am still a foreigner in the States. And believe me, that truth becomes particularly stark when say, you are stopped by a traffic police officer or are in sudden need of urgent care at a clinic. Those were the times when my husband and I wished we were back in Singapore where we were familiar with such procedures.

Many people have asked us (very often, in fact, and understandably so) when my husband and I will be coming back, and if we are coming back at all. Our response is always that Singapore holds our family and friends and that makes it home for us. But at the same time, we cannot deny that living overseas has its perks (lower cost of living, for one!) and ultimately, it depends on what opportunities we will have when the time comes. As for now, I guess the challenge of being in between places is learning to make a third place out of it: to make it as homely and personal as possible, wherever I may be.

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