Returning to Singapore

How could I return, you ask, when I never left (except for some holidays) in twenty-one years? Well like Meimei says, for many years I was not here. In fact, I don’t think I was even on this planet. I was away where I had to be, to keep the demons at bay.

Physically I was here of course. I ate the same food everyone else ate. I went to the same places. I even did some very Southeast Asian things, like try to read Chinese wuxia novels. One of my chief regrets about never learning Chinese was that I could never read them because they were just too hard – I had trouble with gradeschool texts and kungfu novels had language like Shakespeare. I knew some of the customs and traditions but they always had proven alien to me – like something you read in a book but had little to no practical experience with.

I had sort of adjusted back but in many ways I hadn’t. My thoughts were always with the two other countries that I knew and loved so well. For the better part of a decade I had I felt trapped, angry, upset, frustrated. Not the best of spaces with which to let go.

But somewhere (and somewhen) in between all the therapy I think my thoughts and feeling regarding Singapore had changed profoundly. The most vivid instance I can recall was sometime when was twenty-eight or so. I was musing on the fact that people here seemed to divide everyone into two sets of people – you were either Alright or you were Sick. So if you were Sick you either had to become Alright or remain a disgrace to the family forever.

When suddenly it hit me that most people who were Sick were actually just pretending to be Alright, and that the entire reason that they said that others were Sick was so that they could maintain that illusion. Of course I can’t be Sick! I’m fine! I’m doing well, I have a job and two kids, I’m not like all those other crazy people that need medication.

That broke the hatred most profoundly. I don’t think I could ever really hate with the same vitriol and intensity after I realized that.

In the intervening years another truth came to light. The greatest lie that I had been told was that the world was a scary place to be feared and hidden from. The second was that Singapore was a First World country.

It was anything but! As a child and as a young teenager I bought a lot of the bullshit that the government dished out (and all governments are to some extent full of misinformation – even those that are not North Korea.) Singapore wasn’t a technologically advanced liberal minded society – it was a highly conservative and somewhat insular country that had modernized rapidly in the early 1980s at the price of certain social freedoms. I (and others) had probably paid a lot of that price. But was that reason to hate it?

My anger, grief and hatred (not all of which was mine in the first place) prevented me from making a clean break and seeing everything differently. But even as I was forced to stay here by circumstances, I tried to understand. I tried to learn. I tried to forgive.

The world was bigger than just me. There was so many reasons why people did the things they did. To me America and Japan had always occupied the biggest places in my heart, but what about everywhere else? I had met people from literally all over the world through my travels through the Internet (though I was physically still Stuck in Singapore) and over time I believe that I had grown bigger than whatever used to pain me so much. I just hadn’t realized it yet.

I thought anew about all that I had learnt about Singapore through Japan, comparing one insular and hidebound nation with another. Things that seemed ridiculous before made perfect sense now. Why and how and where people did the things they did – once impenetrable mysteries that to my newfound knowledge were laid open.

And so I returned, a traveler from a far off land. I began to feel as though I had just come back from the US. The things, the people, the streets…everything was awash with memory. Everything looked different. Everything WAS different. The people spoke the same languages, but this time, I actually understood them.

What would have happened had I stayed? Had I gone to school like a normal kid? I allowed myself the luxury of jealousy, of admitting to myself that I too wished that I could have been one of the crowd, a normal kid going to normal school and leading a normal life. Not because I really wanted to, but because I desired the comfort and safety of it. And even in these days in which I already had that which was missing from my earlier years, I just allowed myself to think of the what ifs.

Would I have become a computer programmer? Worked in the government sector (like my parents?) What if I had never gone to America? What if I had completed the goddamned ‘O’ levels so many years before?

It all began to look the same. The same as the fields as I played in when I was younger, when my family was still intact, when I was younger and happier. The buildings looked the same. So did the roads. I remember looking at the trees and the grass and thinking “they do not judge.”

There were days I would look up at the evening sky and see the blueness among the casuarinas and it was the same again…the same as when we came back from America the first time for our holiday. And indeed it did look the same, though it could never be.

Sometimes it was hard to not hate, even though a large part of me had given up hating quite a while ago. Once again it was the little things. I remember having a conversation with Onizuka (you remember him?) many years ago in which he was showing me a website with photos of the Tokyo skyline. I remember saying that I thought the Singapore skyline looked nicer and he was all like “no way!”

I still experienced resistance. Things happened and I got angry. People still acted in the way I used to hate so fiercely as a teenager – repeating answers by rote, nodding or shaking their heads without a shred of personal initiative. I asked questions and all I got were blank stares and “because. Why because? Because.”

As I wrote this I could feel the hate and forgiveness warring in me, the two wolves of the Native American legend snapping and biting at each others’ heels. It’s a foregone conclusion, of course (the white wolf has already won) but it still needed to be fought. And that’s not to say that the black wolf doesn’t have its place in the world either.

It wasn’t my fault what had happened. I was too young to understand that I had conflated the injustice that had been done to me at school and in other things with Singapore itself. Just like when I went to the States, I didn’t actually hate it! I just missed my friends, my home. Children don’t know these things, so parents had to explain them…but I had no parents who could do that. I should have been held so that I could have let go of my grief, my anger, my frustration and rage…but that never happened. And so the grudge grew and grew and nearly choked me to death until the day came that I could hold everything in my own two hands.

I thought back to my childhood even before I had left for the States. We always went around in taxis and not public transport. My life was surrounded by books and outside of my family I didn’t interact with many people. I was raised as an “ang moh” (red hair, what most Singaporeans called Caucasians) and taught their ways. And when I came back things just got worse – thrown to the dogs and left to fend for myself in an unfamiliar land where people assumed things about you just because of the color of your eyes and skin and hair. Another kind of racism, just in disguise this time.

And always the question of language. If I had spoken the real language of Singapore (which was most definitely NOT English) how much more at home would I have been? If Chinese (and to a lesser extent, Hokkien) had been used not as a whip and a scourge on my flesh, how much less might I have had to suffer? From my study of Japanese I realized that language really Does Matter, and it matters greatly. Even when young, I had been an outsider from what my identity card said. Coming back didn’t make it any easier – it made it worse.
But things change. And a place can indeed change a lot in twenty-one years.

Our mind creates the world, and that is true. But at the same time, things WERE different. It wasn’t simply a trick of the light, or completely a matter of changed perspectives. People actually danced in the streets now – well, by that I mean like two out of a hundred people. (this was still Singapore) There were some funky cafes now. People actually knew what mental illness was. Even during one of my angry moments, I saw two young gay men dating near the beach and I smiled more than I had in a long time.

I looked up at the laundry poles and the blue sky and the white clouds and somehow it was like the Singapore of my youth once more, when there was nothing to do after you had finished your homework except laze around and play Nintendo and Sega games. The warm, balmy days that as a child you expected to go on forever. The grass was the same, the trees were the same – only I was different. Or was I?

There was a time where I just got off the bus and I saw three visions at the same time – the innocence of my youth, the rage of my teenager, and the wisdom of my adult self. I tried to piece them all together into a coherent whole and I realized that it wasn’t possible…and that I didn’t need to. They all were what they were, then and now.

There was no use thinking about it so much. I began to take pictures of Singapore – the same pictures that I wanted to take when I was eighteen, when I realized that the palm trees and storm drains and nighttime city lights were all beautiful in their own way. I wrote a book of poems – also something that I had wanted to do while younger. I even wrote a musical. (appropriately titled Singapore : The Musical) Stay or go there were some issues to be settled, and I was settling them.

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