The house at the end of Colchester Grove looks over an angular cul-de-sac shrouded in old, gangly trees. In 1994, my father drove his Toyota down this street for the first time. He claims that the moment he saw those trees arching their branches towards the house, he knew this was where he would raise his family.
For years, the house had more rooms than we needed. As kids, my sister, brother and I crowded onto a single mattress in the master bedroom with my mother, who slept with her arms tucked close to her body like a small bird. My father hunkered in after the lights went out and collapsed, large and snoring, on the King-sized bed several feet away. In the day, I wandered into one room or the other, threw open the curtains and made myself sick on dust.
The house was renovated in 2014. When I close my eyes though, it’s still the old version I’m standing in. The metal fence was low and punctured with holes. Every evening, for about half an hour, light flooded into the house, spilling warm, golden, sticky liquid into every room. After running around outside, my sister and I would fling ourselves onto the floor of our living room, hair tangled, feet stained with dirt. When I close my eyes and hold my breath, I can still feel the marble cooling on the small of my back. I can still smell hot oil puffing out from the kitchen; can still hear my father turning on the light in his study, the bulb flickering like a dying bug.
I tried to explain all this to an old boyfriend once. One winter morning, sitting in his dorm room, I tried to tell him what I meant by homesick.
I’m not just lonely, I said. I’m not just pining for my family, and this isn’t some desperate assertion of nationhood. I’m tied to that thing, I whispered, touching his palm. That material, unmoving thing lodged into the ground by two rows of trees. He smiled and nodded. Two years later, we broke up. He wanted to be free and it dawned on him almost as clearly as it dawned on me that I was moored to that cul-de-sac.
Winter in Philadelphia was long in 2017, with snowfall as late as March. When the rain finally came, those of us from the tropics were grateful. I spent one of those wet nights splashing on a muddy field to some EDM artist I didn’t know. At some point, I was ushered into the center of a mosh pit, surrounded by drunk and careless boys. When the rain grew heavy, I ducked underneath the tangle of naked arms, and broke free into an empty corner. It was the tequila or a contact-high, or maybe it was the rain – god, it hadn’t rained in so long – but standing in that field, my chest tightened with a familiar grip.
Near the center of Singapore, there’s one square kilometer of forest that surrounds the island’s oldest reservoir, called MacRitchie. For four years in my teenagehood, I went to MacRitchie once a week with the girls of my track and field team. Each time, we ran three to four miles into the forest where we practiced with drills, sprints and races. The uneven trails were good for training balance, our coach said. And anyway, wasn’t it nicer to be around nature for these long runs?
Over four years, I grew to dread those afternoons at MacRitchie. I realized midway through my track “career” that the potential I showed as an 11-year-old 400m runner had been severely overestimated, and that my blind doggedness – my greatest, and arguably only notable quality as an athlete – was limited. One Wednesday, in the middle of a particularly brutal workout, it started to rain. My training partner Magdalene and I cut down on our breaks to finish our set of six sprints. And when everyone else was done, we didn’t slow jog out of the forest like we usually did; we ran. I strode in the middle of the pack, soil and dead leaves dribbling down my calves. I thought about tripping myself against a tree root so I could stop, but just before I could, we turned a corner. The exit was just ahead.
As we flew into the cool, open air, the grip around my chest loosened, and I dropped to the ground. Mag, looking over at my white socks soaked in mud, started to laugh. We stayed like this for a long time, laughing, massaging our legs and listening to the thunder shake through the forest. That night, I wrote in my journal that “for some reason,” training had been fun.
I wouldn’t understand until three years later, legs muddy with the soil of a different ground, that what I was luxuriating in that Wednesday was something quite particular. I wouldn’t realize until later that moments of joy are not made the same; that when your life is linear and contained, when you are where you belong, feelings flow through you in ways rich and real. When those straight lines splinter, nothing feels as simple – as satisfying – again.
In his 1919 essay Das Unheimlich, Sigmund Freud introduces the concept of the uncanny as the feeling of being “robbed of one’s eye” — the eerie sense of discomfort we get when we look at ordinary things. Later, the French philosopher Jacques Lacan refers to this as “L’angoisse,” a state of anxiety. In the story “Le Horla,” he writes about a man seeing his own back in the mirror. For a moment, the back is an object without a subject because the man cannot recognize it as his own. This is the uncanny, Lacan writes, the anxiety we feel when we’re unable to make meaningful distinctions in what we perceive; when we’re unable to grasp what is real.
Being perpetually homesick will acquaint you with this feeling. Do you know what I mean? You’re in a Trader Joe’s picking peaches from a crate when suddenly it feels like this is the most ridiculous place you could be. The tall, blonde woman who helped you grab a box of cereal flashes you a smile and you freeze because you cannot get over the idea that she is here, in this grocery store in southeast D.C., and so are you. It makes no sense. I mean, you have the words to explain why you’re here: you came for school, you stayed for work, yada, yada, but if you really think about it, if you really look at the facts of this situation, none of it makes any fucking sense.
It’s like acting, I imagine. While you’re performing, you’re genuinely implicated in the life of your character; you’re crying real tears and laughing real laughs. But at the corner of your eye, you can see the stage wings where your fake life ends, and your real life begins. Mostly, you’re focused on your lines. But at the most random moments – on the metro, at a rave, in the dried foods aisle of a Trader Joe’s –, you will feel so clearly, so intensely, like a clown.
Edward Said, the Palestinian American father of post-colonialism, gave form to this feeling before I knew what it was. “Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that—to borrow a phrase from music—is contrapuntal,” he wrote in his 2000 essay, “Reflections on Exile.”
“For an exile, habits of life, expression, or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment. Thus both the new and the old environments are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally,” he continued.
“The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural. And its unreality resembles fiction.”
As of 2018, there are more than 220,000 Singaporeans living outside the country. That’s six percent of our population. Many leave because they find something unsatisfactory. They feel stifled by the technocratic style of government or by the pungent mix of Chinese and Christian conservatism that sets the parameters for public discourse. They find the economy too small, the cars too expensive and the malls too mind-numbingly alike. They’re gay or brown or socialist or otherwise marginalized in this fake utopian city-state. When I left for college in Philadelphia, I made a friend who was born in India but studied for six years in Singapore. He told me that he felt more welcomed in the United States than he did back home. I understood because our country’s problems with xenophobia and racism are well-documented, but I didn’t – couldn’t – say I empathized.
For Chinese Singaporeans who go abroad and sample the lived experiences of being a racial minority, it’s easy to conflate homesickness with what is actually a desire to re-possess institutionalized power. Every year like clockwork, young, economically mobile Chinese Singaporeans land in the U.S. and start building new identities with scrapped pieces of Asian America. They take good jobs and write long treatises on race, taking full advantage of a white gaze too lazy to pick them out from an amorphous, global glob of POC. And when they’ve had enough, when they start growing homesick, they retreat, safe and unscathed, to their perches at the top of Singapore’s socio-political ecosystem.
I note this not to suggest that I am an exception, but to make clear that I am not. I was born into a middle-class Chinese Singaporean family. So even though I find Said’s “Reflections on Exile” comforting, I am not an exile by any measure. Nothing about my story has been inevitable. There are systems bigger than I am – global markets, national histories, advancements in air travel – that shape the path I’m on, but like others born into the ease of privilege, I have taken each step on my own.
So the disclaimer I should have included before citing Said is that my life was never made to splinter. With my own hands, I took two fraying threads and pulled them apart.
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents speak Teochew, a dialect of Mandarin Chinese that I don’t speak. At home, my family eats with my grandparents once a week. While my parents give them brief updates on my life, I sit and smile.
When you don’t share a language, you cannot share stories, but you can share space. You can eat together; drink from the same blue-white porcelain bowl of soup, share plates of watermelon, lychee, mangosteen. You can hum happy birthday and take turns cooing at pink, wrinkly babies. You can touch fabric, feel heat. Mark time in the presence of the other.
This is why I’m skeptical of the hipster home decor stores in Adams Morgan or Brooklyn declaring that home is an idea, not a place. I’m skeptical of the spoken word poet at this dim, crowded dive bar in northeast D.C. testifying that immigrants walk heavy because they carry their homes with them. I want to say: no, actually, you cannot take a place with you because places do not move. What you wake up to, who you eat dinner with, where you are when it starts to rain – these don’t change no matter the yarns you spin. Real life hangs off the hooks of immovable things like space, time, jobs, plane tickets. I want to shake this wide-eyed, shaggy-fringed immigrant by the shoulders and scream so she understands: This. Shit. Doesn’t. Matter.
Writing about the rain will not make it pour.
Last May, I went to Singapore for three weeks, my last visit for a long time. One afternoon, after lunch with an old friend, I took the bus home. The double-decker 147 bound north of the island. I sat on the second floor, curled up against the window. At some point, passing by a train station, I realized I was crying. My eyes stung, but I found it hard to blink so I just stared out like a camera. My stop came and went. Later that day, after dinner at home, I fell asleep with my t-shirt pulled up past my belly button and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time opened across my midriff. My mother told me later that when I was a kid, this was how she would find me at the end of most nights.
“Just like that,” she said. “Just the same.”
Around three that morning, something nudged me gently up. I drew my curtains, pushed open the windows, and breathed in. The fat droplets beating onto the trees were soft and steady. Staring again, I found the words that remained, waiting for me.
They dissolved in the water, quiet and useless.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Rebecca Tan is a writer and journalist based in Washington D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Vox.com, and Longreads Magazine. She was born and raised in Singapore.