A Place That Will Stay Within Me

Flying between SIN and JFK takes 21 to 24 hours, depending on which direction you're flying in and which airport — LHR, FRA, DXB — you stop over at. In this dead time zone I would transform myself from a Singaporean to a New Yorker, from a New Yorker to a Singaporean.

I am typing this at Changi Airport, IATA code SIN. I am not flying anywhere. I am just overnighting at the airport for peace and quiet, to have some time and space to think and write and work. I've done this for years, since before flights were a regular part of my life. In those times, I would look at the departure board and feel in my flesh the poisonous malaise of unfulfilled wanderlust.

One of my first breaks home from New York, I remember telling a friend that Singapore felt different. Not that it was different or that I was different, but that Singapore felt different -- the humid tropical air no longer felt so oppressive, the mass of people no longer felt so soulless, the daily routine no longer felt so tinged with quiet desperation.

This, I decided, was because I now knew I had somewhere else to go. I had another city waiting for me.

I was afraid of coming here to overnight. I remembered what it was like the last time I came to the airport to do work without knowing when I would next leave Singapore. I remembered the peculiar hopelessness of feeling stranded on my own island, the urgent need to be somewhere else, the sensation that my destiny lay elsewhere and that it was slipping away from me.

My misgivings are unfounded. The despair does not grip me anew. I ask myself why.

After four years of shuttling between Singapore and New York, I thought I had mastered the art of keeping the minutiae of my Singapore and New York lives separate. I had a Singapore wallet and a New York wallet. I had a Singapore phone and a New York phone. I had a set of New York keys and a set of Singapore keys. I had a Singapore accent and a New York accent. 25 June, June 25. Colour, anodise, grey. Color, anodize, gray. Pavement, traffic light, pedestrian crossing, road. Sidewalk, stoplight, crosswalk, street. Lift, toilet, dustbin. Elevator, bathroom, trash can.

Every time I flew back and forth, I played a little game: how quickly could I rid myself of the appearance of having just stepped off a plane? How soon could I settle into the rhythm of each city? How easily could I begin to behave as if I had never left?

If you're flying to SIN on SQ, the transformation back to Singaporean happens prematurely, whether you mean for it to or not.

It begins at the gate, when you glimpse a fellow red passport, and then another, and another. Stepping on the plane, the flight crew greets you in the unmistakable lilt of Singlish, the first shock to the system. You greet them back, the unaspirated obstruents and shortened vowels feeling at once foreign and familiar.

Settling into your seat, you open the duty-free catalogue and find yourself looking at a watch with the words "kan cheong" and a spider on the watch face. At mealtime, you ask for the roast pork and get a tray with the main dish labelled "char siew".

Some habits seep through the insulating barrier of space and time. I have developed a brazen willingness to fling limbs at closing lift doors, and it takes an inordinate amount of discipline not to waltz across an empty road when the traffic light is against me. I walk aggressively close to cars, stationary or otherwise. Koping seats with my bag now feels like an unnatural act of trust in the universe — when I remember to do it at all.

Then there are the habits of mind that no one knows but me. I notice myself adding time instead of subtracting it, wondering if 7-11 does cashback, reaching for $20 bills that don't exist.

I have a confession to make. I have yet to eat bak kut teh in Singapore. The first time I had bak kut teh was in Penang, and all the other times were in New York.

I can't explain why, but bak kut teh became my comfort food in New York. I would order it from Nyonya whenever I was sick, upset, or plain meh — a large bowl’s worth delivered to my New York apartment would last two meals.

The strange thing, of course, is that now, all bak kut teh reminds me of are cold winter nights in New York City, nursing sniffles and a warm bowl of home.

"How's home?" asks my friend.

"Home is strange, it feels really familiar, and then the littlest things jump out at me, like the fact we don't have $20 notes," I say.

"Huh. $20 for - oh, like bills," says my friend.

Four years suddenly stretch to infinity in my mind as I try to remember if I have ever referred to a bill as a note to my American friends.

One day, on a too-crowded MRT train, a thought imposes itself on my consciousness.

I miss the subway.

I told my mother that if she wanted chilli sauce in New York, she would have to bring it from Singapore. Sriracha is an inexact substitute.

Two mornings ago, I stumbled out of bed and asked for a comfort-food lunch of instant noodles with egg and chilli sauce.

"We don't have any chilli. Left it all in New York," my mother said.

At Books Actually I spot the book for John Clang's exhibition, Being Together. John Clang is a New York-based photographer and — as tends to happen with Singaporeans, what with being a small country and all — an acquaintance of my ex-roommate. In Being Together, he shot photos of Singaporean families divided by landmasses and oceans, projecting Skype video calls with geographically distant family members to form family portraits.

I rifle through the pages looking for one photo -- just one. It has to be here. I can't find it. I look at the index and I see that it's in the book, somewhere, but it doesn't tell me where.

I flip through it again and this time, right on cue, the book falls open to the photo I'm looking for.

It's not my photo. It's a photo of another family, one I don't know. I study the photograph and notice the window blinds look similar to mine, even though they weren't the same — the tenant in the photo took the blinds with her when she moved out. I see she had an AC — an aircon — and I remember her telling me that there was no AC in the room. She took that with her, too. I look at the bed pushed into the corner, the desk with the flatscreen TV, the laundry basket by the heater. It's configured completely differently, but I recognise it; I know every dusty corner of it, the way the window doesn’t completely shut, the sharpness of the sunlight that filters in on summer mornings.

This is my room.

This was my room.

On the train, I am engrossed in some news item or another on my phone, earphones in my ears, tuned out from everything around me. One word pierces my personal bubble and by a four-year-old reflex, I pull my earphones out, look up, and search for the voice that said the word "Singapore".

Then I realise where I am. I'm on the MRT, not the subway. It was just some random college student talking about local current affairs.

I spent much of the lead up to my O Levels in 2005 camping at the Funan McDonald's mugging away, eight hours or more a day, with my friends. When the A Levels rolled around, we returned to that spot and saw out those exams there too. When I worked in the MICA building, I would go to that McDonald's and wait out rush hour before heading home. During winter and summer breaks home from school, as if for old times' sake, my friends and I would often end up there to chill, hang out, get some work done.

This time, upon returning, I do my rounds as I usually do, making a mental note of everything that's changed. At Funan, the realisation doesn't hit me immediately — it sinks in slowly, washes over me like a wave, emerges in a chuckle.

McDonald's is gone.

In its place stands — of all things — a bak kut teh restaurant.

Whenever I am feeling low I look around me and I know There’s a place that will stay within me Wherever I may choose to go…

At the airport, I look at all the people going to other places, leaving, travelling, passing through.

Something clicks. I get it.

Once, New York was a place I needed to go to. It was a place that existed in the distance, and it was something I desperately needed to be a part of. I wanna be a part of it…

Now, New York is a part of me. It is in my feet as I weave through a crowd, it is the momentary wish to dabao a meal I cannot finish, it is the way I pull out my earphones to listen when the muzak of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York comes on over the speakers at Changi Airport.

I left New York, but I didn't leave New York behind. It came home with me.

First published on POSKOD.SG.