Defining home while living away from home

Valerie Tan takes us on her journey of finding the answer to the age-old question of “where is home?”, traveling between Singapore and America at the height of the pandemic.

How I learned to embrace the beauty and uncertainty in an ever changing definition of home

I hate being alone with my own thoughts. It’s rather annoying. I think too much about the time I had a chair pulled out from under me in primary three, or that awkward first kiss in tenth grade. And sometimes, when I’m left with my thoughts too long, I start thinking about home. Or more accurately, the lack thereof. I often feel like a traveler in my own life, weaving in and out of places that I don’t belong. A confused floating wanderer, struggling to answer the question: where is home?

At the height of the pandemic, I had chosen to return to Singapore from America. I was 14 when I left for America to attend boarding school. Now, at the age of 22, I was in a hotel room serving a 14-day quarantine and about to spend more time in Singapore than I cumulatively had over the past eight years.

Defining Home Away from home - Valerie Tan
Valerie: I took and edited this pic in the hotel room, I was very bored hahaha! Photo submitted.

Plagued with a sense of uncertainty, I thought about home and what it meant to me. I had believed returning to Singapore during a time of crisis would give me a sense of security.

Instead, I was feeling more lost than ever.

See also: Why I decided to move from Canada to Vietnam

Had I made the right decision? I was going back to my mom—my ultimate safety blanket—and a country I had known since I was born. But I was also leaving friends I had come to call family. I’d left a culture I’d grown accustomed to, and a country where I’d spent my formative years.

In that hotel room, I felt trapped in limbo. Four walls that didn’t feel like Singapore, with a view that was distinctly not America. I was in transit while concurrently being stationary. 

I wondered for the first time: where is home?

Home but wanting to go home

When I finally left the hotel, I expected to find relief. The air had to feel fresher, right? I’d no longer be trapped in a room where the grease and smells of every meal wafted off the carpet.

As I stepped out into the open air and inhaled… it was stale and heavy. I attributed 60% of that to the horrid humidity in Singapore. But the other 40% – I think that came from me. A sinking feeling came over me, telling me that where I considered to be my home may have been wrong.

I went directly to my childhood bedroom. It felt foreign and different even though I grew up in it. I’d forgotten what it was like to be home. Walking barefoot, with the soles of my feet hitting the cold marble floor made me feel strange.

See also: Reverse Culture Shock: From Vancouver to Southeast Asia and Back

I spent my time on phone calls with friends and planning birthday celebrations over Zoom. Arranging movie nights and making everyone download Netflix party. I wanted nothing more than to be back in America, and I was doing everything I could to keep my presence there alive.

I missed Los Angeles. The palm trees. The food trucks where I got my favourite breakfast burrito. The crowded beaches.

There was only one conclusion that I could come to: America was my home.

Rediscovering and reconnecting

I simmered in anger. I fought with my mother every day, thinking that she’d forced me back to Singapore while conveniently forgetting that returning was my choice. I had returned seeking her comfort. I was upset that being in Singapore was not what I thought it would be, and it was easier to be irrationally angry at my mom than deal with my feelings.

At this point, my older sister was also still in Chicago, and it felt even less like home without her in Singapore. So I ended up doing what I always do when I have a bunch of emotions and an inability to healthily process them:

I made a short film.

Wanting to divert my attention from the suffocation of being in Singapore, I poured all my energy into writing and making a film. I ended up making a film about two brothers separated by distance through a pandemic, and their playful means of connecting with one another.

And yes, I made it about two brothers instead of two sisters because while making art helps me process my emotions, I will still mask them as I choose to!

See also: Making It: Actor, writer Curtis Lum on using artistic platforms to break barriers for the Asian community

Defining Home Away from home - Valerie Tan
Valerie: I’d never verbally admit I missed my sister, but I did make a film about two brothers separated by distance, so I guess deep down I must’ve thought about her quite a bit! Photo submitted.

And at the end of that journey, I found myself reconnected with my home country. I found new friends, and a film community in Singapore. I scouted locations across the island and found new and interesting places that I hadn’t known existed before.

As I settled back into living in Singapore, I learned to appreciate all the wonderful things in Singapore once again. Going to my grandmother’s home to eat together were always the best dinners. Even when she forgot that cereal prawns are my sister’s favourite dish and not mine, I still felt the love as that humongous plate of prawns was placed on the table.

I loved that there was always a Tupperware of chicken curry bought by my mother from that one specific hawker stall. And I rediscovered loving that I could walk barefoot in my home because the floors were always clean.

Home but wanting to go home (part two)

Finally, the day came. I had been counting down, making physical marks on a calendar and digital ones on my phone. I boarded a plane with a handful of people that I could only assume were also international students like me. Our oversized sweaters bearing the logos of our respective American schools were dead giveaways.

It was September and late in the evening as the plane touched down. The air is meant to be fresher, colder, feel like that moment you breathe in right after brushing your teeth with mint toothpaste.

As I stepped out of the airport… and yet again, the air was stale and heavy. This wasn’t home. Where was the lush greenery mixed in with polished buildings? Where was the smell of laksa and kaya toast from the Ya Kun store that seemed to be in every street corner?

I was bombarded with hugs from friends and my schedule filled with socially distanced meetups. Yet somehow, after a long day of seeing familiar faces, I returned to my room and it didn’t feel like home.

See also: Why don’t we prioritize friendships?

I found myself annoying my friends with all the Singapore to Los Angeles comparisons. Singapore has better public transportation, Singapore has cheaper food, Singapore has cleaner streets, Singapore had The Masked Singer first.

One time, I said that Singapore was more humid than Los Angeles, in a tone that was meant to imply that was a good thing. It isn’t. In fact, it’s objectively not. Sweating after five minutes of just walking outdoors is not a list of pros about Singapore.

I held my friends accountable for the Asian food not being anywhere near Singapore’s standard. I tried to teach them slang, to say “shiok” after a good meal. They’d get the pronunciation right, but never the feeling.

I called my mom more often, sent her pictures of all the meals she had taught me to make in Singapore before I left. Sayur lodeh, bee hoon, pork in Chinese wine, spring roll vegetables. It made me happy to show her that I was continuing all the family meals, as if a part of Singapore was still with me in America.

I had finally rekindled a love for Singapore, even though it felt like I had said goodbye too soon.

Living in limbo, and loving it

Defining Home Away from home - Valerie Tan
Valerie: Shout out to my mom who had to spend the past nine Lunar New Years away from her daughters. Photo submitted.

See also: How to prepare for Lunar New Year: A Millennial’s Guide

Every day in Singapore I wished for nothing more than to be back in America. And yet once in America, I wished for nothing more than to be back in Singapore. I came to  a new conclusion: I will never ever truly feel at home in either country.

Sometimes I look back on that time in the hotel room. Perhaps that’s my home? In a perpetual state of limbo, in neither space, always just waiting and wondering where my home was. That hotel room smelling like last night’s fried rice, with an unmade bed and a pile of laundry building up in the corner.

It’s a weird space to be in. And you know what? I kind of love it. I kind of freaking love it.

Rather than think of it as not being fully connected to either side, I like to think of it as both sides being connected to me. There’s an immense sense of love and warmth from both countries, pulling at me, telling me that I belong. So much so, that sometimes I feel lost because I don’t know where to put all that love.

I don’t need any one country to be my home. I might never be able to say for certain which I feel is truly my place, either. But rather, I know that I belong to an ever growing floating community of people, who can’t pinpoint one physical location as their home.

And that’s okay with me. I’m perfectly happy not knowing where home is.

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