It is that time of the semester.
Gone are the picturesque red and orange hues of fall, the delicate interplay between the crisp autumn breeze and the warm touch of sunlight. Winter has pulled no punches in asserting its arrival with desolate, gray skies that only seem to fade into darkness earlier and earlier with each passing day. The earnest voices in our heads imploring us to press on just a little longer have lost their vigor, with the current cycle of midterms still underway despite finals already looming dangerously close. Battling burnout from the constant socialization and sleep deprivation, most of us scramble to pull ourselves together for the impending final sprint as we struggle to chew what we bit off a little too enthusiastically at the outset.
“I can’t wait to go home.”
The prevailing sentiment finds no better expression, and it could not be more palpable at this time of the semester. Across a campus battered by cold and exhaustion, the warmth of home beckons with the promise of sanctuary.
Yet, unfathomable as it might seem, part of me used to dread going back home to Singapore.
For me, home was a tight leash after months of unbridled autonomy. It meant relinquishing my hard-earned freedom, even if only temporarily, and enduring incessant nagging, relentless scrutiny and an unreasonably strict curfew. It was a manner that bordered on sheer infantilization. It meant having to reaccustom myself to coexisting with family members in a shared living space all the time — a thought I didn’t particularly relish, having grown too comfortable in the privacy of my single room.
Going home for no more than a couple of weeks entailed a schedule packed to the brim with back-to-back meetings, biannual affairs with dear friends that were almost impossible to call off or postpone. Every encounter was heartwarmingly reminiscent of our schooling days, but left me feeling torn between a yearning for extended company and the need to preserve my personal time and sanity. Amidst the intense socialization, what was intended as much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of college life often ended up devolving into a trial of emotions and endurance, with hardly any time for proper rest and recuperation.
But perhaps, above all, home was a place I had worked tirelessly and pleaded fervently to leave as soon as I was old enough to realize the option existed. It was a place where I had spent years slogging away in a stressful academic environment that bred an unhealthy obsession with paper qualifications and grades. I was tired of being surrounded by people who seemed to be living out predetermined fates and conforming to conventional archetypes. I eschewed these prescribed and predictable choices, and the way they threatened to pigeonhole me into neat categories, leaving me feeling helpless and insignificant. Quintessentially conservative and ruthlessly pragmatic, home was too small to contain my ambition, too sterile to nurture my creativity and too unforgiving for self-exploration.
I feared that re-immersing myself in this environment would unravel the delicate tapestry of individuality I had painstakingly woven in college. I did not want to be relegated to just another brick in the wall once again, my self worth reduced to a volatile game of metrics. I recoiled at not-so-subtle attempts by friends, family and even strangers to impose an expiry date on my life abroad. The looks of disappointment or disapproval that my bold intentions for the future garnered ate away at my conscience. They were discomfiting reminders of the glaring disparity between my individualistic pursuit of self-fulfillment and the collectivist Asian ideals that most people back home subscribed to — a discrepancy I will always struggle to reconcile.
However, as the time I spent away from home steadily increased over the past two years, resistance gradually melted into longing.
I’ve grown weary of living up to the new persona I’ve created for myself, no longer fuelled by the novelty of starting afresh in a foreign environment. I miss communicating effortlessly in the colloquial tongue, Singlish, after conditioning myself to speak proper English in America. There is something perversely satisfying about expressing certain nuances with a combination of sing-song intonations, ridiculous grammar, jarringly inaccurate phonetics and elusive discourse particles, in a manner that only a fellow Singaporean would be able to fully comprehend. I miss having limited and clearly delineated pathways to pick from now that I am mired in a complicated web of career choices and plagued by the added uncertainty that comes with being an international student. Being pigeonholed into a pre-existing category, as it turns out, is a lot easier than carving out a niche for myself.
Going back to living under the watchful eyes of my mother is certainly stressful. But nestled somewhere between the incessant nagging and relentless scrutiny are little nuggets of wisdom and a parent’s enduring love for her grown-up child, which I am slowly learning to embrace and appreciate. I pine for the company of old friends, who share the same understanding of cultural references and high school anecdotes, sparing me the trouble of giving verbose rundowns that don’t quite capture the same essence. I always wonder how they’ve changed in the time we’ve been apart, having only followed their lives through screens from afar.
As much as my perspectives on life are diverging from the prevailing ideologies at home, I’ve realized that I still cling firmly, albeit subconsciously, onto core beliefs, values and living habits that I had been inculcated with or exposed to while growing up. No matter how much I reconstruct and renew my identity as I learn more about myself and the world around me, there will always be pieces of home ingrained deeply within me that I carry with me wherever I go.
So, here we are again, at that time of the semester, when the frigid breath of winter ushers in the stress of finals season, and the comforting warmth of home lures with the assurance of refuge.
I, too, can’t wait to go home.
Valerie Tan is a Pratt junior. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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Valerie Tan is a Pratt junior and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.