Category: Thoughts

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 (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/relationships-are-more-important-than-ambition/275025/). 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” (http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/home-surely-starts-what-made-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.

The 4-week reaffirmation of where I’m going

So my last post was a while ago, before I got back from Chapel Hill and San Francisco. Then I blinked and three weeks of my MOE Teaching Attachment flashed by.

It’s been a blast, of course. The first couple of days were incredibly jetlagged, no doubt due to my usual “hit the ground running and die later” approach to being home. But I got a great mentor, and I’ve been fortunate to get a pretty thorough exposure to Beatty Secondary School in the past three weeks. I’ve sat through staff meetings, professional development exercises, school assemblies and various lessons. I’ve hovered at the back of the various classes that my mentor takes: 1E2, 1T1, 4T1. I’ve been exposed to others as well: PE  lessons with the Secondary 2 and 3 students (where I learnt that I suck at wushu), Thinking Skills and English lessons with 2E4. I got to celebrate National Day, teach a lesson package I developed by myself from scratch on answering skills for Biology essays. I got to work with a range of standards in classes: from the top class that takes the heaviest combination possible to those who are struggling to pass their N-levels in two weeks.

Conclusion? I love this my job.

I love the days when I drag myself into school all sleepy but cheer up when my students wave to me. I love the moments when I swoop down on an unsuspecting student who has been guilty of multitasking and then sheepishly stuffs his storybook into his bag sufficiently chastened to focus on the lesson at hand. I love giving my individual attention to the Secondary 4 Technical students and bantering with them in whatever Mandarin and Hokkien I can muster to reduce the distance, and then cajoling them to follow my instructions. I love squatting down at the side of a struggling student who is all quiet in class and lost trying to catch up with what’s going on in the main lesson, then slowly going through the material until he gets up to speed. I love watching them develop their own confidence to attempt questions they left blank in their preliminary exams: “you see, you did it all by yourself and that wasn’t hard right?” Especially when they break into a smile after hitting the final calculation and getting the same answer that’s on the board. I love challenging the Secondary 3 triple science students to think a little beyond the textbook: “so based on what you know, what do you think might be the reason?” Befuddled looks, then that “ah-hah” moment as everything pieces together in their minds.

I love sitting in the library getting some work done and then having students come up to ask me questions. I love it even more when it devolves into stuff out of curriculum, and then even further when a bunch of them come and we talk about their dreams and aspirations, the choices that they soon have to make: JC/poly, what to study, where to study and what they want for their life. I love walking by students at the canteen and then getting to chat with them and hear stuff they won’t ever say in a classroom, knowing that they’re comfortable with me. I love sitting in the main staffroom and hearing my colleagues talk about their students, each worrying about the weaker ones and yet taking pride in their achievements. I love being around students, if only because their struggles remind me of my struggles when I was a student, and their worries my worries.

This attachment has been the most tiring time I’ve had in a long while, but also the most satisfying. I have a week left. I will miss these students when I leave, and I will miss the experiences I’ve had in this attachment. But it’s not forever, and I can now look forward to the years I have after I graduate from university, knowing full well that for me, things can only get better (even though uni already is pretty awesome).

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.