Making My Way Home

Making My Way Home

Story by Anonymous. Illustration by Yumeng Fan ’19.

Like many other Singaporean families, mine headed to Suzhou in the 90s when one of my parents took up a job at the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park. Like many other children of expatriate parents, I spent my formative years in international schools, oddly comfortable with my foreignness, and blissfully unaware of my poor mother’s struggle to develop a swagger that would hide her obvious inexperience with haggling in Mandarin.

Moving home after spending most of our lives in a foreign land was a strange experience. My two sisters and I accepted the vaguely terrifying permanence of being in our country of birth. We busied ourselves with schoolwork, library books, and playground adventures. The days melted quietly into years. Despite our uneventful and largely happy integration into ordinary Singaporean life, there was always the uneasy sense that ending up in Singapore was largely an accident of fate, rather than a fateful return. As children in Suzhou, we were free to make what we wished out of our foreign playground. We had grown complacent in those years, and indifferent to the existence of a country we would fly home to someday, potentially for good. It didn’t help that my parents were both immigrants from neighboring Southeast Asian nations, so we had nearly no family history on this particular tropical island. Settling down was, so to speak, not in our blood.

This gnawing discomfort with Singapore as a definite “home” was something we never learned how to discuss, and so, like most untreated maladies, it manifested itself in odd and unexpected ways. My younger sister would sometimes bring up how Dad had joked that we were just taking another brief work gig in Singapore before heading elsewhere. She grew infatuated with the idea of continuing the journey born out of Dad’s silly lie, and driven by this itch at the age of ten, had researched the basics of gaining permanent residency in other lands. Our awkward childhood identity issues sometimes verged on the comical.

I more recently performed my own version of this futile resistance. While friends and professors congratulated me on landing a long term job “back home”, I spent nights studying Google Maps for familiar structures in my neighborhood in Suzhou, of which there were few remaining. On one particularly odd evening, I called my mother and melodramatically implored to know why we ever moved to Singapore in the first place. (She was not at all insulted, and very amused.) It’s hard to explain why I increasingly feel bursts of animosity towards a place I lived in for the majority of my life. Everything points to the contrary: I love my friends there, get appropriately sentimental about the food, and feel a touch of pride whenever it shows up positively in textbooks or the international news.

I highly suspect that this recent resentment is not caused by my weird childhood estrangement from Singapore, but my frustration at having to play along with the international student cliche of having your identity tied to a foreign land. When you are an international student, people are quick to assume that you feel like an outsider in this country, and belong in heart and soul to another. The truth is that your passport home can also occasionally feel unfamiliar, and you can spend your whole life wondering if you may never sincerely bind your sense of belonging to a spot on a map.

I am trying to describe something that afflicts more than just my foolish, sentimental self. Senior year is a time of interrogation, and none of us are spared questions of identity. There is hardly anything special about living abroad or out of state for periods of time, and finding your heart split between several places at the end of it all. I am grasping at the broader phenomenon of poorly defined geographic/cultural identity that is latent within most of us. I do believe that home can be a nebulous concept even among those who move from Newport to Providence, and we can feel the lonely pang of some indiscernible emptiness even as we speak joyfully of going home for the summer. Perhaps I simply feel this more keenly as a homebound international student struggling to find that sweet relief people expect me to feel on returning “home”. Perhaps it’s the guilt of having repeated this line, “I accepted a job back home”, on innumerable social occasions, as though the concept of home was clear cut to me. I had somehow hoped that the magic of repetition could once and for all numb my ambivalence towards Singapore and turn it into the solid, sacred “home” all these other people pictured it was.

But home is not just an island in the tropics. It is sometimes the nostalgia for a Chinese city with emerald green canals. It is sometimes the could-have-beens I dreamed of as a child — What if Mom and Dad had joined their siblings in Canada? What if they had decided to stay in Suzhou after all those years? It is sometimes the ironic familiarity of living in an unfamiliar place. And to some small extent, it is sometimes College Hill, a place that is always ebbing and flowing with new faces, and so never immutable yet somehow always the same. With absolutely no way to resolve this adolescent crisis of identity, I take comfort in the knowledge that so many of us may never find that romantic ideal of home sweet home, but we’ll keep making our way through.