It Hurts As Much As It’s Worth
[This piece was published in January 2015 on a now-defunct online magazine called Hello Chapalang, which featured writings from Singaporeans on topics to do with Singapore.]
It’s 2.51am on a mid-December Thursday in London. I’ll be visiting home in 3 days, after ten weeks away, and today’s the first time I’ve cried my heart out thinking of home.
People seek international work experience because they think it’ll look great on their CVs, or maybe because they just want to have a good time overseas. I signed up to spend a year each in two different countries because I wanted to grow up in a way that I knew I’d never be able to in the comforts of my home, and in the company of my loved ones.
I struggle with forging new friendships, or even just walking up to someone to introduce myself. A bubble of panic forms in my chest and restricts my breathing every time I think of a social situation where I’d know absolutely no one. In these ten weeks, I should have collapsed from the number of times I’ve had to deal with the noxious fumes of insecurity and uncertainty engulfing me.
I’ve always hated feeling uncertain. But I still have more than a hundred weeks of uncertainty to go.
Growing up in a country as small as Singapore was ideal because it was somehow large enough for me to have new experiences regularly, yet small enough for me to always have my comfort zone follow me around. It spoiled me.
Every morning, I’d board the bus to Tanah Merah MRT station, to get to work. Every day, on that bus, I’d see the same few people. I’ve no idea who they are or what they do, but they were a part of my routine, and I theirs. Our eyes shone with recognition every time we would notice one another. If I ever realised that one of them wasn’t on that bus, I’d feel a little unsettled but would look forward to seeing them with much more eager the next day, when undoubtedly my routine would be complete once again.
Singapore was small enough to make me feel comfortable even amongst strangers.
However, the world is vast, and opportunities abundant. There is little room for comforts of this sort when dreams and ambitions seek to propel you towards unforgettable adventures. I have those dreams and I want those adventures but I had trouble starting my life all over again, on a blank slate.
It’s only just struck me how difficult these 10 weeks have been for me. It’s the small things that build up over time, into a huge and ugly boulder of negativity that I’m guilty of shouldering in silence.
I’m all alone in this new city. My friends who were once here moved back home even before I arrived. I’ve never lived independently before. I’ve never been the odd one out, at work or in school. I’ve never set off the mercilessly thunderous fire alarm while attempting to use the oven. I’ve never shrunk my not-that-inexpensive clothes by accident, by setting the washing machine at the wrong temperature. I’ve never had hot oil splatter painfully on my face, right between my eyes, while attempting to quickly cook a meal. I’ve never dealt with a high fever for days, without my mum near me. I’ve never doubted my ability to survive in an intense industry in a foreign culture to such a sickening degree. I’ve never come so close to calling it quits and packing up and returning home, never to be able to look at those who’re proud of me in the eye again. I’ve never done all of those, until now.
I’ve also never hidden the depths of my loneliness and misery from those at home, before.
I’ve tried my hardest to prove to myself that I can do anything — throw me a curveball and I’ll catch it. My ego refused to let me believe otherwise, which is why I kept persisting and refused to let myself think about homesickness, and why I refused to let those at home know how much I’ve been struggling.
But I am homesick. I’ve been homesick every single day and I’m only admitting it to myself now.
I miss the sudden contrast between the bustle of the main road and the serenity of the by-lane towards my house, as I walked home. I miss the salty smell of the sea wafting along the East Coast Park Connector. I miss sitting in the middle of the empty playground in Siglap at 10pm on a Saturday, holding a melting Oreo McFlurry, as my closest friends and I talked about people and places and thoughts and hopes. I miss seeing that adorable 4 year-old-boy on his way to kindergarten every morning, skipping between his parents, holding both their hands. I miss hating my wait for a train at City Hall during rush hour, and while ceaselessly tweeting rants about those who refused to understand the unforgivable sin that is to Jump The Queue. I miss walking past Bedok Food Centre, only to be immersed in the sumptuous scents of my favourite local fare. I miss the stillness and the smell of the humid air, right after a heavy downpour. I miss Singapore’s beautiful waterside skyline, glittering in the night.
I’m 3 days away from home and I’m still homesick because it’s forced me to think about how much I’ve grown — in the midst of all the alienation — in such a short period of time, in an unfamiliar place.
For the first time in my life, I’m financially independent. Without realising it, I’ve fulfilled my mother’s biggest dream for her only daughter.
This has been a lesson in discipline and responsibility; keeping and managing budgets, paying my rent and bills on time, prioritising my wellness over indulgence, stepping further out of my comfort zone even with no one pushing
me to do so. I’m cooking for myself daily without fail no matter how long or tiring my day is and keeping myself fit by regularly going to the gym to condition myself into a routine — one that’s for a conscientious adult. I’ve already started sticking to my promise of exploring as much of the UK and its stunning countryside as I possibly can. I’ve grown more comfortable doing things on my own and learning to enjoy my company outside the confines of my apartment, without my music plugged in.
Living abroad, and knowing that I will be living abroad for at least the rest of the next two years, has made me appreciate home a lot more.
When I was younger, I used to whine about how absolutely boring and suffocating it was to be living in such an ‘uncool’ country like Singapore. All of that changed 3 years ago, when I spent a semester abroad in Europe. People say that you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone. Thankfully, I didn’t have to lose it permanently to realise how undeniably lucky I am to be from a country as impressive as mine. It’s the smallest things we take for granted — ease, convenience, warmth, love, protection. After returning home that year, I remember watching the live broadcast of the National Day Parade. I had a total Bollywood moment when I teared up (and am pretty confident that I actually felt my heart swell with pride) as the national anthem was played. That was the first time I realised how lucky I was to have a home like mine, how proud I was to be a Singaporean; how thankful I was that my parents chose to raise 5-year-old me and my new-born brother in this country and how much love I have for it.
It was with this love that I embarked on my two-year stint overseas.
This love kept me comfortable and, in a strange way, complacent of my place in this world back home, where I was self-assured and clear-headed. I just didn’t realise it. I didn’t realise that home made me feel that way; I assumed that was who I was and always had been.
And then I moved away from home and had my sense of self shaken in a myriad of ways.
Who’d have thought that someone from an English-speaking home, who’d visited London multiple times over the years and who’d had numerous British friends would feel so alienated after just a short while here?
I’ve felt my social awkwardness become more pronounced over here. Small talk is exactly that — small talk. Sometimes, it feels like it rarely ever goes beyond that. After a point in time, politeness can come across as rudeness if it means you’re being shut out of more meaningful conversations.
Suddenly, everyone here seems so confident, focused, loud and articulate. In contrast, I feel so unsure of myself. My confidence has been brought down to near-negligibility. I was once someone with a strong mind and strong opinions that I could defend in an instant. Now, I doubt my every step, my every thought. This suffocating lack of confidence has snowballed into other issues — greater
misery over my situation, increasing internal debates on whether I truly deserve this amazing opportunity to work abroad, and whether I’m capable of fulfilling this opportunity.
In the midst of my homesickness, my home has been my perennial, undying strength. I think of my life, and my identity, back home and work towards replicating as much of it over here, while knowing that I’ll never be able to actually duplicate it. My home is my happiness and my peace, the balm for many of my anxieties. Knowing that those at home will always be my support gives me the resolve to push myself further. The love I have for it has the strength to possibly break my heart but that hasn’t made me live in the past. It’s helped me focus on my present and work on piecing together my future.
I’ve always been a very black-and-white person; always a case of either/or. London has turned me as grey as its weather. A few months ago, I would have said, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would return to Singapore the very instant these two years were up. It was the safest option, in terms of my happiness. The only thing is that I didn’t think of it as a safe option — I thought of it as loyalty to my country. Today, I am no longer sure of such a decision. I now refuse to limit myself on the basis of my discomfort. It’s unlike a regular love story — the recognition of the place my home, my country has in my heart hasn’t shed light on my unfettered path back to it. It has simply made me realise that knowing that I’ll always call it my home, that I will always place it on the highest of pedestals, that it will always be my fortitude, will constantly provide me with the courage to take up terrifying challenges in unknown situations. It will drive in me the conviction to thrive and succeed in circumstances as far as possible from those my home could possibly offer.
Because apart from simply being my strength, my home is my pride and I hope to one day be its pride in return.