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Looks like it is time to say goodbye.
It was thirteen years ago that I set foot on your shores, as a starry-eyed, newly married, first-time expat.
I vividly remember my first walk to the East Coast Park. I made an animated call to my family back home to tell them how unbelievably clean the city was. There was no litter and no stray dogs. Even the dried leaves fell from the trees gracefully and carpeted the ground in a beautiful pattern.
I remember standing at a pedestrian crossing at a quiet road, feeling silly waiting for the man to green. I fought the urge to jaywalk, a skill mastered back home, in the face of streaming traffic from all directions. These roads were shining in their emptiness and yet people waited patiently. The only traffic was a Sembcorp garbage truck that ambled by. For all the many differences, the stench of your rubbish was the same as ours.
The people were impeccable too. The women walked purposefully, with their svelte figures balanced expertly on their high heels. I stared at their painstaking makeup and pedicured feet. In comparison, I felt sloppy, with nothing more to do than rearrange furniture in the high-rise, sea-facing apartment that was far too big for the two of us. I had nowhere to get to and no one to speak to.
The first conversation I had was with a taxi driver, who mistook me for a tourist.
“You visit here how long?” he asks.
“I live here,” I reply, a touch defiantly.
I fell in love with the National Library on Victoria Street. I admired the automated borrowing system, but what tickled me no end was the book drop. I went there every other day. Over months, however, the icy blast of the aircon in the lobby and the smell of books began to reek of aimless afternoons and a series of job rejections, and my visits whittled.
Holidays back home filled the heart with nostalgia and regret. Every time I came back, the cold clinical precision of Changi airport made my heart sink.
But just when it could not sink any deeper, things began to look up. There came a job, and with it, new friends. Over time, some old friends moved here and our application for PR was approved.
The taxi driver asks, “Singaporean, ah?”
“PR,” I say, hesitantly, not sure if that qualifies.
“Then Singaporean, lah!” he confirms.
Life rolled on. Promotion at the job, birth of our first child, change of job, birth of our second child, a crushing surrender to the role of stay-at-home-mother, albeit temporary, and tentative steps towards writing filled up the years. An invitation to apply for citizenship opened an emotionally charged discussion about the propriety of trading one’s nationality for a passport that offered travel expediency. New friendships blossomed even as the old ones withered. Returning to Singapore from home trips became less painful. The display board at Immigration read my mind and said “Citizens and PRs, Welcome home”.
Now, a new place beckons us with promises of new experiences, new opportunities, snow in winter and thank goodness, proper English. But with all that, I shudder at the prospect of running a household sans a live-in helper. My eyes well up thinking of leaving dear friends behind and my heart groans at the thought of going through the cycle of making new friends, all over again.
The taxi uncle asks me how long I have been here.
“Wah, thirteen years very long. Applied for citizen ready?”
I wonder. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday and sometimes, like a lifetime. But it is neither long nor short. It is the sum total of my existence here, through isolation and friendships, through failure and success, through marriage and raising third-culture kids, through an identity crisis to accepting the realization that home can be more than one place.
As I begin to pack, I will take one last walk on ECP and steal a handful of your sand to take away with me, in a carton labelled ”Memories”. I will take a bit of you with me, dear Singapore, and I will leave these years of my life behind, for you to keep.
Perhaps one day we will come back to visit. And when the taxi uncle asks if I am tourist, I will smile and say, “I’m a Singaporean, coming back home.”