When I left New York and moved away to Singapore the first time in July, I told my office coworkers not to be sad, it wasn’t as if I were leaving the family (which is to say, it wasn’t as if I were leaving the company); rather, it was more as if I were heading off to college. It was a convenient analogy then, and it’s kind of a convenient analogy now that I can use to describe how odd it is for me to be back here in Singapore, finally, after four months away. Imagine that, after the first month in your freshman year at university that you had to slip back and do four more months in high school.
“I took a cab from the airport home. Geez, all these condos kind of all look the same. Which one was mine again?”
Of course, the analogy is unfair to the people and friends that I left behind in New York. If anything, New York is an intellectually tougher climate than Singapore, so it’s not quite right to compare the life I led back there to high school. But you get my meaning.
The strangeness of that situation is enough to throw anyone for a loop, but imagine how disjointed you might feel upon rejoining your freshman year. That’s exactly — well, if not exactly, then very closely — the situation I find myself in right now.
Absent-Minded Stranger in a Strange Land
On Friday morning, I took a cab from Singapore Changi Airport to River Place, actually feeling quite proud of myself that I more or less remembered where it was. But then the cab pulled up to the actual complex, and I began to scratch my head. I’d been away far longer than even I’d realized. Geez, these condos kind of all look the same; which one was mine again? I narrowed it down to a likely building, towed my unwieldy luggage to the lift and stood inside the elevator car for a moment, standing in front of a panel of floor numbers, with only a vague idea of the one on which my apartment might be located. Not the first floor — I remembered that much, and not the top floor either. This is so embarrassing, I scolded myself. After a minute, I was able to reach back far into my memory and guess (correctly) the third floor.
That pretty much set the tone for the next few days; a strangeness that accompanied resuming an unfamiliar life. On the one hand, there was no shortage of familiar cues. After all, the majority of the possessions that I own on this Earth were here in Singapore, waiting for me — my books, compact discs, wardrobe, dishes etc. But the way that they’d been arranged, the systems into which they’d been placed, was only vaguely familiar to me. And, as I rediscovered these things I admit that there were times when I came across some mildly clever bit of logic I’d used to set up the apartment. When I went to unpack my suitcase, for example, I’d realized that I’d split up my hanging clothes among two closets — one for pants and suits, the other for dress shirts and jackets. Wow, I thought to myself, that was kind of smart of me. Life is lived in the minutiae.
Out of, um, Asia
It wasn’t all Andy Rooney-style oddness. After a shower, shave and change of clothes on Friday, I decided to go to the office. I walked down to the banking district, near Clarke Quay where my company’s offices are located, and sensed a formless unfamiliarity there as well.
Before I left for New York in August, I felt a kind of kinship with the Singaporean population — this based mostly on the idea that, being of Southeast Asian ethnicity myself, I could generally pass for one of them. Now, returning months later, I don’t know where that feeling’s gone, exactly.
I stood at a street corner and watched the crowds wash by: a shockingly dense population of young people under twenty-one, a parade of incredibly slim and often slight men and women in business attire, a smattering of working class Singaporeans, laboring away anonymously. That scene used to sing to my soul, used to make me feel inextricably Asian, rooted in the world in a way that was possible only in Southeast Asia — admittedly, I’d romanticized this perception, but there was something vital about it that I won’t defer to pure fancy. This time though, l watched the scene with unexpected neutrality, even a kind of detachment. That singing in my soul was gone; maybe not gone, but it had quieted.
“While back in New York, did I cross over some line, become one of those cranky New Yorkers who’s incapable of living elsewhere?”
There’s a point that New Yorkers reach when they can either no longer bear the city’s unyielding demands, or they become so inured to the city that they’re effectively indoctrinated — they can’t imagine ever going to live anywhere else. As I stood there in Singapore feeling newly detached, I thought to myself, geez, during those four months I spent back in New York, did I cross over some line from eager newcomer to intolerant provincial? Had I become one of those cranky New Yorkers who’s incapable of living elsewhere? And if that were the case, was it irreversible? Which is to say, what if I do have to go back — simply because I can’t stand to live my life without the availability of all night delicatessens and a limitless corridor of bars and cafés?
I suppose it’s fair to put those somewhat irrational thoughts down to first-day-back culture shock, exacerbated by an awful case of jet lag. Over the next few days, I’ve calmed down a lot, begun to readjust to my surroundings and rediscovered more of the cultural affinity I once felt so strongly. It’s just about a week that I’ve been here now, and I’m realizing that this is a process. Changes this drastic — and odd in circumstance — don’t happen effortlessly or seamlessly. At the end of the day, I’m happy to be back, for the most part. If nothing else, it’s warmer here than back in New York.