And the walls (in my head) came tumbling down

And the walls (in my head) came tumbling downMy first day in Singapore was a game-changer. Honestly, I didn’t see it coming.

I arrived yesterday morning, a day late (thanks to a 10-hour delay at Pearson Airport that made me miss my connecting flight at Heathrow), but that didn’t matter — despite sleeping only four hours out of the previous 36 (or perhaps because of it), I was giddy with anticipation as the plane made its final approach. It passed through cotton candy clouds and made its descent just as the sun was rising over the water. And then — I know it’s a cliché but I swear I’m not making this up — a rainbow appeared. Hollywood itself couldn’t have scripted a better opening scene.

The first omen for what was to follow came before I’d even left the airport. Because we travelled a lot when we lived in Singapore, I used to spend quite a bit of time in Changi (the best damn airport in the world.) Every time we got off a plane, I would pause for a minute at the top of the stairs overlooking Immigration. Seeing the tidy lines of travellers waiting to get their passports stamped told me I was back in Singapore, and I always took a moment to savour the delicious feeling of coming home that would wash over me. I don’t know whether I arrived in a different terminal or my memory was playing tricks on me, but this time it didn’t look quite the same as I remembered. It certainly didn’t feel the same.

Once I’d stowed my luggage at my friend Kate’s house, I headed out to become reacquainted with my city. It quickly became apparent that I’d forgotten some of the basic rules I learned in Singapore Life 101: Don’t bother blow-drying your hair; it’ll only frizz up in the humidity. Don’t bother putting on makeup; it’ll slide off your face within five minutes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t look to the left before crossing the road unless you want to get pulverized by a Rolls Royce (a fate I managed to avoid, but just barely.)

Our first house in Singapore.

I decided to visit my old house and get the nostalgia trip out of the way, but getting lost en route wasn’t part of the plan. Who gets lost going home? When I finally stood in front of the house where I’d raised my kids, made great friends and was as happy as I’ve ever been, I was shocked to discover I felt no emotional attachment whatsoever. It was just a place where I once lived, nothing more.

I trudged back to Orchard Road, trying to make sense of what was happening. By this time I’d been outside maybe half an hour. My tank top was soaked, my hair was plastered to the back of my neck, and my throat was parched. My body was giving me a clear message: it was no longer able to cope with the heat and humidity it once handled with ease.

The weirdness continued. My very first purchase in Singapore was a bottle of water — pretty hard to mess that up, right? Wrong! I promptly broke the left-hand rule, handing the money — to a Malay girl in a hijab, to add insult to injury — with my “unclean” left hand. And then, not twenty minutes later, I did it again. I’m blaming that one on jet lag.

It was a strange day, but an illuminating one. I’d been thinking of this trip as a sort of reverse home leave, but clearly, the country has relinquished that role in my life. It has moved on, and so have I. Yesterday I finally understood that while you can revisit a place, there’s no revisiting a time — those days are gone forever. So although I will cherish till my dying day the time I spent here, Singapore no longer has a hold on me. I’m just a tourist now.

That little epiphany released me from the tyranny of regret and made me free to enjoy the rest of my holiday. And now that I’ve stopped looking backwards and can concentrate on the future, I’m free to enjoy the rest of my life as well.

Unless this is just the jet lag talking. In which case, scratch that.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Adjustment, Identity, Singapore and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to And the walls (in my head) came tumbling down

  1. I know what you mean… I’ve had similar feelings revisiting the places we lived as expats too. You can go back, but not home. You can only ‘go home’ to where you live now, and where you originally come from.

    • Maria says:

      Agreed! And at the moment where I live now and where I originally came from are the same place. So now there’s no ambiguity about where home is.

  2. mkbanin says:

    Thanks for sharing! I was thrilled last year when I got to move back to Japan – even if it was to big-city life instead of rural idyll. But as soon as I’d got here (seriously – 48 hrs after arrival), I headed “back home” to my old town in the mountains…and was shocked to feel like an outsider in a place that (in my head) was more of a home than home in the US had ever felt. FWIW, though, I went back at Christmas, too, and that it time felt more like I remembered. I think because I’d begun to get back into the rhythm of Japanese life, and also because more friends knew I was coming and there was time to plan get togethers and just to be involved in the local holiday celebrations. So I guess what I’m saying is that you actually can go back to an extent. I just had to acknowledge that 5 years had passed, and we’d all – me, my friends and the town – progressed to a new place in the interim.

    I look forward to your next update! Enjoy Singapore!

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for understanding, Margie. I didn’t want to sound as though I’m whining, because I’m really not. It’s such a relief to know that others know exactly what I mean. I suppose it’s the same adjustment we have to make when we repatriate, right? Everything and everyone are the same, but not really.

  3. Love, love, love this!! Especially ‘you can revisit a place, there’s no revisiting a time’. I stand in awe of your talent. (Plus I like your little disclaimer at the end.) Have a wonderful time in Singapore.

    • Maria says:

      Ha! The disclaimer is there because I know better than to trust my judgement fresh off the boat. But yesterday I returned to another of my favourite haunts, and I felt exactly the same. Thanks Linda.

  4. Hey Maria,
    I felt the same way when I went back to Dubai for my book launch. It was so surreal and, even though I only lived there for 4 years I still thought it would be more of a ‘homecoming’ feeling (it hadn’t been that long since I had moved). I stayed right across the street from the house I lived in and, like you, I didn’t feel the slightest twinge. It was… well… different. I was a visitor.
    Enjoy the rest of your trip!
    P.S. Maggie, I think you’re right. I’ll be going ‘home’ to Halifax next month!

  5. expateyes says:

    This is simply beautiful. Period. I enjoy your blog…

  6. jilldomschot says:

    Great post! I know what you mean about the emotional attachment lacking when you go back to an old home. The attachment is the mind and heart. It becomes a really weird physical place–like an alternative reality of the mind.

    • Maria says:

      Alternative reality is the perfect way to put it. Even the things that are the same aren’t really the same, and although I’m still me I don’t feel the same either. (Cue the Twilight Zone theme music.)

  7. Sine says:

    I guess I felt some of that going back to Singapore. A tinge of deja vu and remembrance, and sadness that those days are now past and the world (including me) has moved on. But it didn’t really bother me. BTW, we also got lost, couldn’t even remember our house number, and for the unclean hand, I never even knew that rule while we lived there! I guess I’m much more of a cultural klutz than you:-) Now for the important question: Did you ever do the chocolate bar at the top of the Marina Bay Sands?

    • Maria says:

      The chocolate bar is on the list! I hear the one at the Fullerton is better (and I looove the Fullerton) but I’m dying to see the view from the 57th floor. I’ll let you know when I recover from my chocolate coma. 🙂

  8. Judy says:

    Sarah Janney Stoner posted this on the FIGT Facebook wall, I think it’s fabulous and describes exactly what you’re experiencing ‎”Parts of me exist only in a particular country at a particular moment in time. Truth is, I haven’t found a way to connect the pieces.”

  9. Giri Fox says:

    Beautifully worded. I know that feeling too.

  10. naomihattaway says:

    Love …

  11. Annette says:

    I am heading back to my old home in two weeks and wonder if I will feel the same. Lovely post.

  12. Corine says:

    Maria, without trying to sound snarky but your entire blog is about holding on to your past in Singapore. Being an expat myself, the years spent in different countries shaped me and impacted how I see the world, but it doesn’t define me. Perhaps it is time to let go of what you once were and rather see what you are today.

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