Arriving with a scaffold of expectations doesn’t help if you’re setting sail on an ocean of possibilities. I learned that lesson the hard way when I moved abroad the first time in 2006. Moving to Singapore in 2012 was different. I went without expectations and maybe that’s why it turned out the way it did.
I pushed my forehead to the airplane window and marveled at all the ships lining up to enter the port. The sunlight radiated off the water with searing, unfamiliar intensity. I landed, collected a mountain of luggage and walked out of the terminal into the hot, steamy embrace of Singapore.
Life was different at first — far different than life in the mountains where I had spent the previous six years and much of the rest of my life. I never expected that I’d live in The Tropics. It demanded a new approach. I traded my hiking boots for flipflops, hung up my jacket for the next three and a half years, and accepted that air conditioning would be an important part of my new life.
The heat and humidity were like Bonnie & Clyde. They sabotaged my outfits and hairdos on a daily basis with terrific inverse correlation. The more I tried to control my hair, the bigger and frizzier it got. The harder I tried not to sweat, the more likely I’d have to shower a second or third time in a day. Note to self: There’s a reason why Singaporeans walk so slowly.
The food took a lot of getting used to. There was confusion about pork floss, durian, century eggs and carrot cake — not the kind with yummy cream cheese frosting. Popiah was like Asia’s worst attempt at making a burrito and everything in the hawker centers smelled and tasted of Chinese Five Spice. There were infinite kinds of jiggly kueh, and glutinous rice presented a weird new texture to chew on. But coconuts and mangoes? Okay, that was a good place to start getting to know the cuisine and, thank Buddha, I eventually found laksa and thunder tea rice.
As I interacted with people I adopted a few local customs. Our household became a shoeless household. I used two hands when exchanging business cards and money. I learned to call the older cabbies “Uncle” and came to understand the brilliance of simple Singlish phrases: Can, lah! No, sorry cannot, lah. Sometimes can but sometimes also cannot.
My curiosity guided me all over Singapore. Arab street became a favorite outing with shop after shop of exquisite fabrics and Persian rugs, and I was soon on a first-name basis with a few of the rug sellers … Bobby Singh, Mehdi, Ibrahim. Little India fascinated me too, mostly with the rich decorum of Deepavali and the haunting occasion of Thaipusam. And of course, Chinatown. I never tired of walking through the heart of it. The mid-autumn festival introduced me to mooncakes and the irresistible frenzy leading up to Chinese New Year affected me so much that now I relish celebrating the new year twice, every year. Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Year of the Fire Monkey.
I ventured beyond Singapore to explore cultural and geographic treasures within a plane ride from the Little Red Dot. I saw the richness of history at Angkor Wat, Bagan, Borobodur and Tiger’s Nest. I viewed the force of the earth manifested in the Himalayas and the Saiq Plateau. I savored the biodiversity of Borneo, with Proboscis monkeys and Orangutans found nowhere else on the planet. I dove below the surface in Sulawesi to see the brilliant, exotic results of what happens when we protect our oceans. I saw elephants and a leopard. I received a name for a child (I don’t have) from a monk in Bhutan and got a lesson in living off the jungle from a wise woman named Saloma. The diversity of Asia enchanted me.
But as some “expats” will tell you, living abroad can be a fast track to an education about the darker sides of life, too. I experienced gender discrimination and ang mo discrimination, and saw the difficult conditions women and minorities face throughout Asia. I witnessed the inhumane treatment of animals and saw the horrific byproducts of shark finning. I felt the sad reality of a nation still recovering from the bloody hands of a dictator, and struggled to understand the antiquated laws in several countries still dictating personal identity and lifestyle. I saw the appalling amount of trash affecting our rivers and oceans, and lived with the hazardous seasonal “haze” from the burning destruction of rainforests caused by the world’s demand for palm oil.
The world is a beautiful, terrible place.
In the midst of all the coming and going and learning and exploring, time passed and I lost myself. Asia became a part of me and I became a part of Asia. I was no longer the person who had arrived in Singapore three and a half years earlier. Putting that into words would take far more than a blog post but at the very least I can say my definition of “home” had changed and expanded. I felt at home in a world where everything was foreign, everything was Asian.
I left Asia seven months ago. To have enjoyed that experience — good and bad — so completely … I realize now that the opportunity came at a time when I was old enough and wise enough to embrace it, adapt to it and learn from it. I had seen enough of the world to dive in head first with the confidence that no matter what … I could swim. I could find my way.
Through it all, I carried with me the most important lesson my mother ever taught me: treat all people equally. Without this lesson my experience in Asia would have been vastly different, or perhaps I wouldn’t have wanted to live abroad at all (so thanks, Mom). I found that people are mostly good, rarely bad, and the amazing kindness and hospitality of strangers is ubiquitous. The basic desires of life — food, love and a place to call home — are pretty much universal, and the struggles that people everywhere are dealing with often exist in the common context of seeking a better life.
My experience living in Asia also taught me to be present, be here, be now, soak up everything happening around me. There is no need to dwell in the past or look too far into the future. Today is enough. I’ve come to believe that THIS is what creates that crazy, insatiable yearning to travel. Leading up to our vacations we plot, we plan, we imagine. Returning home from our vacations we tell stories, we remember, we even lament that life as we know it has returned. But in the midst of traveling we live moment to moment, hour to hour. We are present. We mindfully create our experience.
And finding a place to call home while you’re out there traveling? Sometimes can but sometimes also cannot.
I was lucky. I did, and I have nothing but gratitude for the most wonderful, enlightening years of my life (so far). To call Asia home feels natural and implies that someday I’ll probably return.
I can’t wait.