After less than a month in Singapore, my company is calling me back to the States. It’s a temporary situation, but I could be back on the East Coast for as long as six to eight weeks, after which time I’ll return to Singapore. The reasons are complicated, but not all bad: changes are afoot in our organization, and my old boss has asked me to return and help him as he transitions his group through the process. It will likely be a fun challenge.
At first the idea of returning to New York made me happy, especially given how sorely I miss it sometimes. I’ll be anxious to see all of my old friends, though I’ll no doubt have to endure some good-natured ribbing along the lines of, “Back so soon? Thought you could get away, didn’t you? Ha!” etc.
Moreover, tackling the challenge of creating a new life in Singapore doesn’t scare me so much if I’m able to maintain some kind of tangible connection to the States. Since coming to Singapore, I’ve felt a bit stranded, with little hope of being able to return any time soon (whether that’s rational or not is debatable). That anxiety is assuaged somewhat if there are business matters or real purposes that will allow me to travel home once in a while. It’s a way of easing into it, you could say.
Geography possesses a certain magic. Latitudes and longitudes can become more than just maths for dividing up the globe.
As much as I pine for home though, I quickly realized that I’ve already mentally moved on; going back isn’t necessarily the best thing for me right now. I have an instinctual conviction that my future lies in Asia, and I want to move forward and towards that future. Despite all of the loneliness and tribulations facing me in Singapore, I’m slowly forging ahead with my new life. I want to continue learning to negotiate my way through Singaporean society, and making new friends and finding new activities with which to occupy my time. I want to establish my career in Asia and find out what’s waiting for me ahead. This stint back in the States seems like it would just delay all of that.
Even more surprising is the realization of how much I like it in Singapore, or in Southeast Asia anyway. Being here agrees with me. There’s the terrific, delicious and cheap food, and the favorable exchange rate. Admittedly there’s also the fact that expatriates are a kind of privileged class here. But deeper than that, there’s a comforting sensation that runs deep into my soul while I’m in Southeast Asia. It helps that Singapore is less than two hours’ plane ride from Vietnam, the country of my birth, and also from Thailand, a country for which I have great affection. It’s the magic of geography, I suppose; the ability that latitudes and longitudes have to become more than just maths for dividing up the globe.
Another part of why I like it so much here stems from growing up Asian American. While there were worse decades to do that than the Eighties, the pre-teen and teen experiences for Asian American kids during that time still weren’t exactly idyllic. American culture has never featured Asians with particular prominence, and that endowed an alienation upon us, forbade us from feeling like true participants in the mainstream of society. On top of that, it was the Reagan-era, which foisted upon us a litany of cultural insecurities. It’s too heavy a topic to go into here, but suffice it to say something inside of me always felt wrong while I lived in the States.
It’s that same part of me that somehow feels right when I’m in Asia. I draw a certain solace from being able to pass as one of the demographic majority. In casual social and commercial situations, I’ve often been mistaken for being ethnic Chinese by Singaporean locals, which is a kind of validation in itself. After over two decades of being an other,’ feeling somehow non-standard in spite of any efforts I could make, people here assume that I’m a member of the native population
wow! It’s a profound sensation. Not like a dramatic epiphany, exactly, but like a tremendous relief, as if a muscle that’s been clenched for years and years has finally relaxed.
There’s other things too, like the commonalties of Asian customs. It’s true that the Chinese and Malay customs found here in Singapore are pretty far afield from the transplanted Vietnamese customs I knew growing up in America. Still, they vaguely share a set of values, e.g. deference to elders, a propensity towards group or family rather than individual dynamics, peculiarly Eastern attitudes towards spirituality and consumerism. Mind you, I’m not saying that dealing with these values in practice always makes my heart sing with joy. Sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s a definite down side when these values are the prevalent way of thinking about life. I still wouldn’t take complain too much though, down side and all. As I said, I like it in Singapore, on the whole. There is a familiar, grounding quality to being here for me, and I’ll be anxious to return.