Wheels up…and it’s over.
Our plane loses the last millimeter of contact with the runway, and I’m irrevocably in the air. There’s nowhere to look but forward and yet, so appropriately for this particular trip, the view out my window is inky black. I can’t see the glittering skyline of Marina Bay, the lights of high-rise housing blocks receding into the distance, or even the beacons marking the endless line of ships waiting to gain access to the port at Tanjong Pagar. After almost two months of getting ready to repatriate to the United States, we’re actually leaving. I can’t see Singapore anymore. All I can do is imagine it.
Life on the Other Side of the World
When I was little, I’d lie in bed at night and try to wrap my mind around the idea that while it was dark outside, the sun was shining on the other side of the world. I could summon images of the sunshine, but that other side of the world didn’t have details or people. It was just a place other than the place where I was.
It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to imagine the other side of the world from America, but I’m doing it again. This time, I can feel the blazing Singapore sun blasting down from above and the drag on my feet as I wade through heavy, humid air. I can see Buddhist and Hindu temples alongside mosques, collectively juxtaposed against Singapore’s “architecture of tomorrow.” I can hear elderly uncles shout-talking to one another in Mandarin (or is it Hokkien?) as they feed pigeons next to a sign reminding them not to feed the pigeons. I can smell night blooming jasmine you smell but never see, and spiky-shelled durians you smell long before they come into view.
Back on the ground again half a world away, in a haze of disorientation only partly attributable to jet lag, it takes me a few days to consider that the sun doesn’t shine in Singapore alone. For a good part of every day, the sun shines on this side of the world, too.
A Piece of Singapore
It also turns out that I don’t have to be in Singapore to find a bit of Singapore around me. Here, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places, I have found some Singapore. (Check out the photos in this gallery, for example.)
Same but Different
On one level, it’s easy to pass this off as silly, but there’s some substance behind it. Actually, there’s nothing I’ve seen since we’ve been back that I haven’t seen before. The things I’ve seen haven’t changed. I have.
The scientific basis for all this is called neuroplasticity – the way our brains are wired. Studies have shown that exposing your brain to new experiences and environments leads it to form new connections as it tries to make sense of all those unexpected inputs. Change your environment, how you do things, what you see, do, taste, smell, hear and feel, and your brain is forever changed as well. You simply don’t experience things in the same way. You can’t.
I returned to the United States just before Hungry Ghost Month, when Chinese Buddhists and Taoists burn paper offerings to ensure the spirits of the dead have what they need to enjoy the afterlife in comfort. In Singapore, I’d seen those paper offerings mimic everything from money to cars to mahjong sets, often packaged for convenience in brightly-colored boxes. Here, I saw a boy carrying a colorful carton. At first glance, I saw a Hungry Ghost offering. But it was just a pack of potato chips. Don’t tell me my brain hasn’t been rewired.
Just Keep Swimming
All of this got my mind swirling, so I sought some clarity in an Adirondack chair, at the edge of a pond. That’s when I saw the ducks, working like crazy to paddle through the water but making it look effortless (an expat skill if ever there was one). Then they decided to hop onto dry land, where they did just fine, if a bit less gracefully.
Watching them waddle around in that very different environment, I wondered if they spend their time on land thinking about how good it feels to be in the water. Or whether their time in one environment enhances their appreciation of the other. Or whether they just accept the fact that if they want to live their best duck lives, there will be times when they paddle and times when they waddle. Most likely, the ducks themselves weren’t thinking too much about any of this. But I am. At least I’ve gotten to the point where I know a duck is still a duck – no matter where it is – and that’s not a bad start to figuring out this repatriation thing.
So I think we’ve got the neuroplasticity aspects of repatriation sorted, or at least identified, which is a decent start. Still, if you’re reading this and you’re in Singapore, please do me a favor. Keep an eye out for a piece of my heart. Because I think I left it behind when I got on the plane.
By Amanda Jaffe, October 2020
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