Category: Traveling

Defining My Sense of Home

I tend to use Facebook statuses to dump little bits of thought here and there with an article. A couple of lines here and there selected from an essay or an article I’ve read that I think is worth sharing, a couple of lines (okay, I write more than that often). But sometimes the ideas that I have floating around won’t just be dealt with scribbling into a small Facebook textbox (“What’s on your mind?”) and that’s when I come back to here for a long attempt to deal with it.

You might have seen whatever I write about here on Facebook in various posts, piecemeal and all. This is an attempt to synthesize them and make a bit more sense about them together.

I’ve had about 3 weeks back home since I landed at Changi fresh from 3 months in the US. And the last 21 days have been a busy whirlwind time spent catching up with friends, getting into the thick of my future profession and just soaking up as much of Singapore that I can before I go off again to Japan for a year (knowing how I feel, I will probably come back every few months, just because the cost of tickets back are cheaper than the heartache I’ll feel abroad).

In these 21 days though, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what home means to me.

Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic about relationships and ambition ( It’s a nice article to read, though there are several assumptions there that need some unpacking and examination. The key bit that I took away though, was the quote at the very end of it after the protagonist in the article decided to return home to small town Louisiana after his sister’s death and in the process gave up his high-flying jetsetting career.

“Community means more than many of us realize,” he says. “It certainly means more than your job.”

My sense of home is defined by three things: the community I know, the sense of familiarity and my instinctive pride of being a Singaporean. So yes, the first part on community definitely does matter to me. The friends I’ve made here, the people I know. For me, this comes in bite-sized chunks experiences in each of the different communities that I’ve been involved in. I tell the freshmen in USP this whenever I can: “you get as much as you give, sometimes more”. That’s been my experience so far, the effort I’ve invested to get to know people and to contribute to this community has been returned in so much love and satisfaction. To have friends who I know will welcome me to crash on their couches at odd hours of the night if I need space, or others who I can always open up to and talk about anything, is a great comfort.

This applies in so many different contexts: school, church, fencing, etc. Everywhere I have invested, I have received and it’s these communities that root me here. In sum: this is home because I belong here to all the communities I have rooted myself in. This naturally leads on to the next point: sense of familiarity.

It’s a bit trickier to define though. What’s familiar, for one? Kit Chan wrote a column published on TODAY Online entitled “Home, surely, starts with what is made in Singapore” ( She talks about her decision to come home from working overseas as an artiste:

“I chose to move back home in 1998 — yes, coinciding with my debut performance of the song Home as providence would have it — because I knew that if I lived overseas for too long, I would sooner or later lose the connection I have with this place I have always called home, and along with it, all the relationships I have cultivated in my life.”

In that sense, she sums it up pretty nicely: the sense of familiarity for me is linked to the people and places I grew up and lived in. Spend too much time abroad, and you lose all that: people move on, places change. So you end up a tourist in your intended home after too long, realising that you’ve also shifted your sense of home to somewhere else you never thought you would shift it to. That’s also why I’ve been steadfastly refusing all these suggestions and hints from friends to look for love in Japan (“Japanese girls are so pretty leh!” or some variant of that line).

See the world, come home for love

I saw this line online on a Facebook Cover photo someone had. And it struck me pretty much immediately. It means two things to me: that if I do find a partner, it’ll have to be someone who is willing to build their life in Singapore with me, because that’s one thing I don’t want to compromise upon. So it’s not fair to expect a non-Singaporean to want to do that either. And the second bit that’s important though (and probably what the original writer intended) was the idea that home is where love is. That’s how I feel about Singapore, that’s where the people who love me are (not that my friends overseas suck or what, but there’s nothing like Singapore to me).

I watched this video (“Come Home” by SteadiProductions) while in Chapel Hill, yearning for home. The video is lovely, the lyrics beautiful (“when you hurt/when you burn/come back home”) and the images of the Singapore I know stirring. Heck, doesn’t hurt either the lead actress sure is pretty! But it was the sense of familiarity that did it for me: watching scenes of life that I was familiar with and hearing the song remind me that I had a Home to go back to, that there was somewhere I could always fall back on. It’s this sense of familiarity that keeps me back here. I could lose it, and go somewhere else. But it’s like when you’re in a romantic relationship: someone could objectively point out that you should break-up and find someone better, and that when you’re done, you probably will be happier and you will look back to realise that it would have been the logical choice. But while you’re in it, you don’t want to throw it away. I could go to somewhere else in the world and develop that sense of familiarity, it’s a function of time spent in a place. But I am also aware that my desire is to not lose that sense of familiarity in Singapore and get it somewhere else. So beyond just the idea that I am Singaporean and love Singapore because it’s an accidental product of birth here, I also actively desire to maintain this love, accident or not.

So we come to the last one: the sense of pride in being Singaporean. Unlike the first two though, the last one cannot really be explained. It just is: from the flushing of my cheeks as I hear Majulah Singapura played each morning at flag raising, the swelling of my chest at the National Day Parade when the Chinooks fly past with the giant Singapore flag, the excitement I feel when we win something (however small) in the sporting arena, or even when people tell me “Oh Singapore, I’ve been there! It’s a nice place.”

It can only be summed up by the quote I discovered in this video I watched while in transit at Narita Airport:

Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own.
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca

There might not be anything to shout about for Singapore on a world scale. We might be second-best, or even last in anything we compete in; our city ugly and dirty perhaps in fifty years time. But I will still love my country and be proud of it, because it is mine. Not because it is great, but it is mine, and it is all I have to love.

A Tribute To My 4 Year Love Affair with Timbuk2 Bags

So today, I bought a Timbuk2 Especial Messenger and a Timbuk2 Commute 2.0, both in Medium and black, from the Hayes Street Timbuk2 retail store. It’s a bit strange to finally come to San Francisco and visit this place, because I’ve had an unnatural obsession with messenger bags and other cycling/commuting paraphernalia from San Francisco since I got my first Timbuk2 around September 2010.

I mean, since then, I’ve owned 8 Timbuk2 bags, in messenger and backpack formats, as well as 2 bags from Rickshaw Bagworks (founded by Rob Honeycutt and Mark Dwight, the former of which founded Timbuk2 and the latter was a former CEO of the company). Oh, and a Rickshaw Folio for my Moleskine planner, which most people who work with me would have seen me using regularly. Today, my 9th and 10th bag joined me and I thought, well, time to do a small tribute.

10 is a nice number anyway. So here goes, in chronological order:

Bag #1: Timbuk2 Classic Messenger in Small size, green/yellow/green colour pattern (September 2010)

So I made my first foray into this at an Epicentre selling Apple products. Flush with vouchers from some iPod Touch gaming challenge (I had walked around various stores on Orchard Road playing Flight Control in 1 hour and setting high scores), I had $90 of vouchers that were expiring and nothing that caught my eye. Until I saw a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger. The colours weren’t what I was looking for, but it seemed alright and I had heard of the brand before, recommended by the guy who runs Bonkers Link in Queensway. Topped up about $20 for it and walked away with my first Timbuk2. It was a little too small eventually, and the colours not my type, but hey, I still have it and it’s still good.

Bag #2: Timbuk2 Mavericks Messenger in Medium size, black/grey/black colour pattern (December 2010)

I finished my military service and suddenly discovered that Timbuk2 had made a waterproof messenger that I thought was really neat. Of course, when international shipping is so expensive, you don’t think about it much. Then somewhere on an online forum, someone started a mass order of bags internationally. I jumped at the chance to pick up a Mavericks for SGD$150 and hey presto, second Timbuk2. This one went with me to Shanghai just a few days later and I spent a cold December there with this snug on my back. I sold it in June 2011 though, still on the quest for The Perfect Bag.

Bag #3: Timbuk2 Hemlock Backpack in Small size, mission6 nylon black with red logo binding (February 2011)

Timbuk2 had a sale, and I had my eyes all peeled. USD$45 for a Hemlock that was in black with a touch of red (my favourite colour combination). I took it and had a lot of fun with the rolltop. Ultimately though, small proved to be a bit too small for me and I sold it eventually. I still like the look though, it was great (though to some chagrin, I could never get it to look as good as it did in the pictures when the models carried the bags).

Bag #4: Timbuk2 Zeitgeist Backpack in Medium size, red/grey colour scheme (April 2011)

After selling the Hemlock, I was still searching for the Perfect Backpack. And this is as close as it gets. I walked into Bonkers Link one day and walked out with a SGD$125 Zeitgeist. I still think the Zeitgeist has an amazing sillhouette for a pack. It’s roomy, has the Swing-Around Access (though I have left the zip open and let my MacBook Pro swing to the floor D:). This is still in my possession and I love it, with the small problem of a small hole on the base of the pack. It doesn’t affect the usage for now, but the worry wart in me is still deciding if I can live with it. This was my workhorse for two years: went to work with it, went to school with it. This one accompanied me around Canberra in Australia when I went for the ANU-XSA Global Cross-Disciplinary Tournament in 2011. Only complaint was that it didn’t have moulded back panels, but this feature has only appeared in the newer series of backpacks. I’ll figure out what to do with this when I get back to Singapore.

Bag #5: Timbuk2 Catapult Cycling Messenger in Medium, grey/blue/grey colour scheme (December 2011)

Black Friday or Christmas sale. Or something. I saw the chance to get this new Catapult model for pretty cheap (USD$40 or so) and I figured it filled a niche that was unoccupied. Till today, it’s my go to for a quick jaunt out: holds my Folio, Kindle, pencil case and a book or my Bible. I shipped it to a friend in the US, he brought it back for me and I was all happy. Still am happy with this one.

Bag #6: Timbuk2 Lightbrite Cycling Messenger in Medium, black/grey/black with red logo (December 2011)

In the same order that I placed for the Catapult, I saw the new Lightbrite messenger. The old Mavericks had irked me a bit for some reasons, one of which was the fact that the foldover mechanism, while excellent at keeping stuff dry, also got a bit annoying when trying to stuff a pen or a something into the bag without opening it completely. So I saw the Lightbrite, with the red light stripe and logo with the black base and decided to give the fabric a go again! This one has been good: I went loads of places with it. I brought it to Iran in February 2012 and it was my load bag for school when I was lazy to empty out my Zeitgeist. Which does happen pretty often. It went along with me to Chapel Hill and I brought it with me for the trips to Dallas/Fort Worth and San Francisco. Most importantly, it was snugly on my back when I whizzed around the streets of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge despite the bone-chilling winds. I liked having the pocket feature where I could stuff my wallet or whatever in without opening the bag. Only complaint was that the waterproofing coating was a bit finicky and wore off after a year, and the fabric was too light to hold a shape (why I eventually sent it back for warranty issues), so the bag could look floppy if I didn’t fill it completely. I’ll miss this guy though.

Bag #7: Timbuk2 Yield Laptop Backpack, black/herringbone/black with red bindings (February 2013)

So errr, again, sale (I see a pattern here, guys :P). This worked out to about SGD$60 and I got it despite my misgivings about the herringbone tweed pattern (I thought it was a bit too hipster). It did grow on me eventually though, and I started using it in April 2013 for trips back home over the weekend. More importantly, this was my go-to bag for my 3 months in Chapel Hill. I carried it pretty much everywhere: classes, weekend trips to Boston, New York City, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth and to San Francisco. It had two pockets easily accessible (top loading for camera/passport/sunglasses; front panel for miscellany) and most importantly, EXTERNAL WATER BOTTLE SLOT. Drawstring toploading design meant I could stuff a lot of things inside, including clothes for my weekend trips and jackets when Chapel Hill was still chilly early summer. Only gripe was the laptop compartment was hard to reach and placing the internal pocket organiser on the part nearer the back meant the pockets kept catching on files when I stuffed files in at the back. Waterproofing gave issues though, so I got it returned for the warranty (I really like how Timbuk2 stands by their bags and is really willing to swop if issues arise).

Bag #8: Timbuk2 Showdown Backpack, green/yellow patterning (July 2013)

This screamed out for purchase. I was in Memphis, somewhere in transit on my flight back from Dallas/Fort Worth. I saw this on sale at USD$49. And the salesman told me that with any purchase (however small), he’d discount it to $25. I got myself new Comply foam tips for my Westone UM-1s and…a new bag. I’ve loving this one so far: the size is just right for class, the organisation great and it fills up nicely. Plus, laptop compartment is more like my Zeitgeist! Time will tell how this guy fares.

Bag #9: Timbuk2 Commute 2.0, black/black/black (July 2013)

This one was from the pilgrimage to Hayes. I had been planning this for a bit: I was about to start my teaching attachment in the schools, I needed a messenger that would hold my laptop (I dislike putting my laptop across my back, it’s too heavy) and yet work as a satchel-style bag. So an all black one was in line, and the annoying TSA experiences with laptops got me to choose the Commute 2.0. I’ll find out how this works in the next few weeks.

Bag #10: Timbuk2 Especial Cycling Messenger in Medium size, black/grey/black (July 2013)

After settling the warranty issues with my Yield and my Lightbrite, I had a LOT of store credit. And I had a 15% discount from the SF Bicycling Coalition tie-up with Timbuk2. I was getting the Commute 2.0 for sure, but I still had a lot of credit left. And so my eyes settled on their top of the line Especial Cycling Messenger that Shawn Quek had bought (he says he probably was the first to own it in Singapore and yes I believe him) a few months ago. Shawn and I are Timbuk2 fans, probably the only ones who are this crazy together. He’s had a few, and he was oozing all over his Especial when he first saw it online. I looked at the price and dismissed it (why the hell would I pay so much for something so high-end?!) But with a lot of credit, and a budget for a bag that wasn’t used, this caught my eye. Ah heck, just get it lah. There we went. I now have an Especial Cycling Messenger, which seems strangely appropriate to cap my crazy obsession with Timbuk2 bags. This, and the Commute 2.0 will follow me to Tokyo later this year and brave a year of travelling around Japan. Let’s see how it holds up (I’m excited already!)

So there you have it, 10 Timbuk2 bags in 4 years. What of the rest, you say?

I have two Rickshaw Bagworks bags and a Moleskine planner Folio:

Bag #1: Rickshaw Zero Messenger in Medium size, waterproof Black X-Pac fabric with red bindings and custom buckles (August 2011)

Again, Fiona was the one who brought this back for me after picking it up from the Rickshaw factory. They gave me a sweet discount, plus they threw in goodies like button badges and Smartphone Strapcase (they messed my order up the first time and were really awesome about it). Oh, and they also sent me a Simple Pocket, and a Deluxe Organiser pocket. If there’s any company that really topped my list for great customer service, it’s them. I got a very nicely tricked out bag for a very affordable price. It’s my go-to bag for walking around town when I don’t have that much to carry, only problem is well, it doesn’t fit all my school stuff AND my MacBook Pro that well. Still my favourite combination though, since I have a matching Folio with the same X-Pac fabric and red binding.

Bag #2: Rickshaw Zero Messenger in Large size, grey with custom Pivotal Labs embroidery (February 2013)

So my friend works at Pivotal Labs, who ordered these for their employees in 2012. I like the Pivotal Labs logo, and this was in grey, so when she asked me if I wanted it (she knew I liked Rickshaw Bagworks stuff, and it was too big for her), I jumped at it. I love the size (handles files and enough clothes for a weekend well) and it’s got so much canvas! Excellent for pinning all the buttons that I pick up from wherever I travel to.

Folio #1: Rickshaw Folio, black with red trimming (August 2013)

This is the constant that wraps my precious Moleskine Weekly Planner. It holds my planner, my Field Notes notebook where I scribble my thoughts, my pens, little knick knacks and my name cards. It has been EVERYWHERE with me: Canberra in Australia, Tehran in Iran, Tioman in Malaysia, Tokyo in Japan, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Chapel Hill and almost every place in the US (except when I really couldn’t squeeze it in). It’s braved a lot of stuff and still looks great. While yes, it did cost me USD$50, which was a bit on the high end. But this is one thing I never regretted buying.

So that’s my 4 year obsession there. Will there be bag #11 and #12? Maybe, maybe not. I will start getting them for friends soon, but hopefully the current compliment of the Showdown, the Commute 2.0, the Catapult and the Especial Messenger will be enough to deal with all my needs. Over and out, for now.

The two week countdown: preparing to leave.

Three months is a strange time. It’s not long enough to completely root yourself anywhere, yet it’s not short enough to transiently go without feeling a thing. 10 weekends in Chapel Hill (I arrived on a Sunday and leave on a Saturday), take away those that I was out travelling (Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth) and that’s really not a lot. I cancelled my plans to go to D.C. this coming weekend because I realised it was my last weekend in Chapel Hill. D.C. can wait, being able to just enjoy the thought of strolling down Franklin Street, walking to Carrboro (can you believe I’ve only been there once so far?!) and hanging out with the people I’ve gotten to know the past three months is probably something that will be really hard to do after this.

KJ (the guy who lives opposite the hallway) moved to Ram Village for his Fall semester rooming yesterday. I will miss dropping in on his room to talk tech stuff and just hang out, as well as Edgardo who’s there sometimes. I’ve grown used to walking by the lounge on my way to my room to see Gayatri studying there with her anatomy or organic chemistry textbooks and Zach just chilling with his humongous headphones. Sure, I’m meeting KJ in San Francisco, we’re even going to the airport together on the 27th (even though we have differing flights but to the same place). But it’s not the same, knowing that once you leave you’ll never return.

So I’m planning, of course, to come back. To be here in Spring 2014 during my two month break from Waseda University and hopefully with a slot to attend Tufts’ EPIIC 2014 (they have educational innovation as a theme this coming year zomg!) But again, with these long range plans, it’s always hard to be sure. Will I have enough money to do it? Will the stars align and schedules fit? Will it even be the same if I’m back here just for a few days? Will I do my Masters here? I fully understand now why Benjamin might want to stay on at Carnegie Mellon for his Masters instead of running off to say, Stanford. Sure, it’s nice to have a change of scenery. But your chance to interact with a specific group of people in this context only really comes once. It might be easy to decide before meeting them: “hey, I’ll go to universities around the world and broaden my experiences and network”. But then you get there and decide: “maybe leaving is really damn hard”.

I’ve been preparing for Waseda in the past few weeks: sorting out housing arrangements, flight plans, talking about visas and researching life in Tokyo. It’s almost time, and it’s strange to be almost there after, what, one and a half years of being on the double degree programme waiting for it and maybe even four years since I first heard about the programme browsing the USP website post-A-level results and saying, YES, YES, YES (what the hell was liberal arts though, I only knew then it was a nice cool term bandied around by the admissions counselors that sounded hipz). So yeah, getting there will be the end of a certain sense of anticipation. But it’ll also be the start of something new that the control freak in me worries about: will I be as comfortable as I am in USP or in UNC, what if I hate my roommate, what if I get all homesick (very real possibility, seeing how I’ve been the past three months) and what if I get so sick of studying (I’ve had two full years of overloading and summer sessions and special terms and I really want my break from all the worrying and exams and all).

The clock’s ticking. I have to start wrapping my life up here: packing my bags and figuring out how to bring back the purchases (not all are mine, I’m a Amazon mule for folks), writing my goodbye notes and making sure my last delivery purchases arrive. And then Room 117, which has “Yingjie Lan” on the door will have that piece of paper removed and a new one tacked on for the two people who will live here in Fall.

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to study here at Chapel Hill: it’s on the radar somewhere and I think it’ll be nice to be a bona fide Tar Heel, even if I’m just a Masters student. But for now, to make the most of the last two weeks and then go back to my sunny, sweaty tropical island home.

At least, if I’m sad there, I can stuff my face with the food that has always made me happy. Biscuits and gravy, Southern fried chicken and sweet tea can be dealt with another time.

The Experience of Home

So those of you who know me well would know that as of now, I’m somewhere in North Carolina, USA. To be a little more precise, I’m in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’ve been here since the 12th of May 2013, and I’m here for another two weeks or so until the 27th of July, when I fly off to San Francisco for a week’s break after my exams.

So what am I here for? I’m here for a summer lab exchange programme between NUS and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), where I spend 12 weeks in a lab of my choosing here, and take a class each in their Summer Sessions I & II. Well, I ended up taking 2 classes on top of my research in Summer II, but that’s another story that involves paperwork, bureaucracy and a lot of running around. And an awesome professor who agreed to take me individually for a independent reading class, but that’s not for today.

Instead, I sit here in Caribou Coffee off Franklin Street writing when I should really be studying for my BIOL 450 test on anatomical neurobiology, which is Monday and I’m horribly doomed for it. There’s something more important I want to pen down first though, and that’s about my conception and feelings about Home.

The past two months in Chapel Hill have been great. I’ve had an awesome reception by the Study Abroad Office at UNC, stumbled into good Christian fellowship with the Every Nation folks, live in a dorm (Lewis) with friendly people I can click with on my floor, joined the UNC fencing club where I’ve had great coaching and substantial improvement in my game. My lab experience has been interesting, I’ve learnt a lot and I’ve had excellent professors and TAs in my classes (BIOL 201, BIOL 450 and LING 296). Nothing to complain about, certainly.

And yeah, I’ve done what the usual exchange student does: buy host university merchandise, which at UNC is quite a challenge to find something you don’t like (the Daniels Student Stores has UNC logos on everything you need from birth to death, quite possibly including Tar Heel coffins). I have a UNC pin on my cap and my nice Columbia allweather jacket that I’ll be wearing for the next few years at least when I walk around in bad weather or good weather will have Carolina Blue stitching and UNC logos. Sounds good, you say.

Yet today, I remembered what Home was to me, and meant to me. I’ve been missing Singapore like crazy, much as I love the place here. Even as I await our 48th year of independence on the 9th of August and look forward to National Day back home, I know it will be hard to leave when my last two weeks are up. (I stopped writing at this point because the Every Nation folks I had been waiting for arrived and we went off to get Yopo, but coming back to it, yes, it’s going to be hard to leave without planning to come back.)

Today I stood at the Daniels Student Stores and saw a shirt that was nice. It had a picture of the North Carolina state map on it and it was in my favourite blend of American Apparel material. But well, it had the words “HOME” on it, and as I stood there contemplating buying it, it struck me that I only have two homes where that might be appropriate. As much as Chapel Hill will hold a beloved place in my heart, the physical place I call home will still be a small, sweaty tropical island in South-East Asia, and the eternal home I yearn for not defined by a physical location, but the sweet presence of my heavenly Father.

A special place in my heart, but not my home.
Chapel Hill, NC: A special place in my heart, but not home.

I may have walked out of the Student Stores emptyhanded, but I was reminded again of what Home was to me, and I am glad for that.