It has been a year since I left the US to return to Singapore. There have been times within the past year when I would find myself in surreal moments of confusion — did I really voluntarily return to this country, the country I had spent my entire life trying to run away from?
Yet despite the confusion over the shift in my identity, I have finally begun to love my country in jagged little pieces. I started to understand and appreciate multidimensionality — that love can exist alongside deep wounds.
Perhaps I could only start to see an entity in its entirety only when I slowly learned to see myself in my entirety. To not just focus wholly on flaws, but to find tiny fragments of grace wedged in between.
As I unfolded in the US, Singapore did her own unfolding too. Three years away, and I find myself utterly surprised by her progress. When I left I thought it was unthinkable to have prime street closures or government-commissioned experiential art exhibits.
There were enterprises which demonstrated a rising consciousness and creativity, something that was already bubbling when I left, but flourished while I was gone.
I had never appreciated how much intention has gone into urban planning here until I lived in other cities. I thought “garden city” was this gimmicky term we use to promote tourism. Only now, I am capable of possessing a profound gratitude for our green spaces.
“Apart from finance and defence, it’s a sense of equalness in this society. You can’t have this sense without giving all Singaporeans a clean and green Singapore…You don’t live equally, but you are not excluded from the public spaces for everybody.” — Lee Kuan Yew
Before moving away, all I could see and feel was pain. Living abroad gave me the breathing space I desperately needed to raise my head above the pain I was drowning in. I used to get migraines each time I visited Singapore, assuming I visited at all. I would schedule these visits as far apart as possible while trying to manage my family obligations. Each visit would be done in haste, because I couldn’t wait to get back to my breathing space, a place which represented a clean slate to my psyche.
One day, a few weeks after such a visit, my grandmother passed away. Grief, whether consciously felt or not, changes a person.
At that point I was in the green card process, determined to permanently live in a place where I can be. Her passing away snapped me back to the awareness of my roots — everything I was trying to run away from and the person I was not. It was then when I realised, even all the parts of me which I deemed un-Singaporean was a response to my upbringing here.
I faced a choice: uproot, or re-root. Uprooting comes with unrepairable damage but brings new hope of life; re-rooting requires a risk of facing death again but presents an opportunity to heal the wound that was killing me in the first place. Uprooting would mean I would choose to bury that wound at the expense of possibly completely detaching from my old self — a self bound to people here.
I expected a long period of grief, coming back to Singapore. That I would deeply miss the place I called home and the new self I could have been, to return to a place I had never felt at home and an old self I disliked. But I didn’t. I thought I was still in shock, so I waited.
Meanwhile, I had found myself smiling at tiny vignettes of life here, something I wouldn’t have noticed previously, because I was too busy drowning in my own pain.
I started visiting places I never did when I lived here. I wanted to truly get to know my country better — I realised I didn’t know enough of her, beyond what I resented.
“You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” You don’t have to like the story, or even the person telling you their story. But listening creates a relationship. We move closer to one another. source
Some gifts can only be felt present in their absence.
Away from Singapore, I started to feel the gift of having a shared history with people. A common vocabulary, a repository of stories, a timeline of symbolic events, an identification with the same artefacts. We are shaped by our stories — I found it amusing, comforting and disturbing at the same time when friends here share the same set of neuroses because we have been told the same stories.
Out of that arose a certain resilience. Despite being told to zig, some of us have chosen to zag anyway. It is a beautiful defiance: easy to romanticise but it comes with a silent acknowledgement of what it takes to keep it alive.
This is what it means to have roots, to feel rooted. To be surrounded by people who grew with the same qualities of soil — both light and dark — and to witness the different manifestations of their journeys, to wish to be rooted alongside these people to co-create a new repository of stories together.
Someone once asked me what was my definition of home. This question would make me uncomfortable, because I had never felt at home for most of my life. I thought San Francisco was my home, but a cocoon is not a home, and they are not meant to be lived in forever.
One night in March this year, I was sharing my story in front of an audience, and this question came up again. What is home?
Then as I contemplated the question, I realised I had found my answer. Home is where my community is. It is not a de facto place simply because I am physically here, but an ongoing spiritual sentiment and aspiration.
A community is commonly considered a social unit (a group of three or more people) who share something in common, such as norms, values, identity, and often a sense of place that is situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a village, town, or neighborhood). Durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties also define a sense of community. People tend to define those social ties as important to their identity, practice, and roles in social institutions like family, home, work, government, society, or humanity, at large. — Wikipedia
I waited to miss the US, but I did not. Maybe one day I will. I do definitely miss friends and bits of the life I had, but it occurred to me that I am simply no longer the same person I was, the person whom needed to be a refugee away from the place of my wounds. I have become a person who is aware of a self enriched by being part of a community bound together by a common narrative, the willingness to deepen our roots to each other, the shared commitment to nurture the soil that surrounds us.
It turns out that human beings are beautiful, complex creatures. You could tell a group of people the same story repeatedly, and they insist on having different trajectories to that story. I return at the cusp of five decades in our independent history, wondering what is the story we are capable of collectively imagining and intricately navigating, while contemplating my own role in it.