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Straddling the fence

The familiar accent caught me off guard. It had been a while since I had heard those singsong intonations and jarringly imprecise pronunciations. Having been conditioned to adjust the way I speak to suit a different culture, I had to make a conscious effort to retrieve my native tongue from a dusty corner in my mind. It still sounded natural. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Sentiments ebbed and flowed throughout the grueling eighteen-hour-long flight, my mind perpetually torn between two extremes of euphoria and despondency. My heart was already aching from missing campus and college friends. I mourned the impending loss of freedom. But the thought of reuniting with childhood friends and family sent my heart palpitating and adrenaline coursing through my veins. 

You would think that eighteen hours would be ample time for me to process my emotions and collect my thoughts. But it was with blurred vision and moist cheeks that I peered through the glass at the gentle glow of city lights as the plane gradually kissed the tarmac.

I was besieged with all manner of sights and sounds as I made my way out of the aircraft, across the sea of travelators and through the arrival gates, my head spinning from sensory overload and jet lag-induced delirium. None of it felt real, just as flying 9844 miles away from home seven months ago felt like a dreamlike fantasy. Everything had occurred in such quick succession that my mind was still reeling from the mania of moving out and traveling through three cities to a different continent in five days. Some parts of me were still presenting my neurobiology poster at the Huang Fellows Symposium; some were still navigating the maze of New York City’s subway; yet others were still basking in the neon glare of a bustling Times Square from the comfort of a rooftop bar.

I rode home in silence in the backseat of a taxi, the driver having surrendered all attempts to make small talk after realizing that he could not compete for my attention with the moving scenery outside the window. It felt strange to be greeted by familiar sights after getting used to seeing foreign landscapes wherever I went. I surprised my directionally challenged self with my ability to recall the way home. Not too bad for a start

Anticipation rose within me as the floor numbers illuminated in the ascending elevator. It bubbled as I stood in suspense before the metal gate, hastened footsteps within earshot. A warm smile broke across my mother’s face the moment she saw me. The crippling fatigue from the painstakingly long journey melted away as she pulled me into a tight embrace. 

It did not matter that I had just called home right before boarding the plane, or that I made it a point to call at least once a week while abroad. Nothing could emulate the comfort and familiarity of home. By and large, everything seemed exactly as I had left it, though time had certainly left its subtle traces. Daily routines had been modified in response to the pandemic. The air-conditioning unit had been moved to an adjacent wall. The kitchen pantry now boasted a different snack collection. The laundry detergent bore a more flowery scent. 

Catching up with friends revealed changes that social media updates had failed to capture. The issues we talked about had evolved and taken on a more serious tone. These were typical of the late-night conversations I had in college all the time. But discussing them with people I had spent my childhood and adolescence with felt strange and unsettling. It was a sobering reminder of the reality that my friends and I were growing up separately, and apart from each other.

I feared that many more changes would unfold in the future, as prolonged periods away from home became the new normal. Something else would surely be different the next time I returned, and I would once again be struggling to piece together disparate snapshots to form coherent narratives. I quietly clung onto the selfish hope that everything could be frozen in time so that leaving could be as simple as hitting pause and returning, as effortless as picking up from where I left off. 

Amidst it all, I could not help noticing that an invisible barrier had been erected between myself and everyone. Being pampered at home made me realize that I was now treated like a passing visitor with an imminent departure. Friends and family perceived me in a different light because my “exotic” life abroad was so vastly different from theirs. I recounted stories as vividly as possible in a bid to bridge the distance, to draw them vicariously into my world even if only for a fleeting moment, but some experiences and sentiments simply begged for description. 

As much as going home enabled me to reacquaint myself with my Singaporean roots, I didn’t feel complete. I missed sauntering to class along the tree-lined gravel paths behind the chapel, being crammed like sardines in the C1 can, napping on the worn-out Bostock couches, and soaking up the crisp autumn breeze on the steps of BC plaza. I longed to engage in intellectual debates with my mentor, go on spontaneous drives to Cook Out and H-Mart runs with friends, and have thought-provoking conversations over dinner with people whose cultural backgrounds, interests and belief systems differed from mine. 

Every day, I question if I made the right choice to venture so far from home, but every time I return, I’m reminded that I chose to leave for reasons I still stand by—self-actualization and a better future—albeit at the expense of precious time with loved ones that can never be reclaimed. There is both pain and beauty in this double life that I have taken on, one with no clear end in sight, if any at all.

Perhaps, as one of my favorite artists, NIKI, aptly put it, I’ll be forever caught between two worlds, always wishing I were on either side of the foreign wall.

Valerie Tan is a Pratt second-year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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