There And Back Again

Traveling abroad, especially for extended periods, is such an odd experience. It’s amazing how quickly you get caught up in a swirl of airplanes, trains, and automobiles, cultural dips, tourist sites and family activities, but before you know it, you suddenly find yourself back at home again, the adventures simply a collection of memories. Great ones, of course, but incredibly surreal.

I kicked off 2014 by visiting my other homes: India, where my family is from, and Singapore, which was my home for two years during the 1990s. Even though I have lived in Canada for most of my life, I feel like I have a strong affinity for each of these places that have evolved out of completely different sources.

It’s easier to describe this for Singapore. There is a part that is rooted in the physical experiences involved in moving from one side of the world to the other. These are mainly the obvious elements, like climate, where I went from frigid winters to year-round sticky humidity, and the differences in our homes, a townhouse in Toronto and an apartment in a condo complex in Singapore. Yet, the real reasons why I hold Singapore near and dear to my heart is because of the experiences that, in retrospect, were really major building blocks to my interests and approach to life today. I think this is particularly true when it comes to my desire to travel and learn more about different cultures, given that I was uprooted from my home to a new one where I was exposed to so many not only by just living in Singapore, but by visiting surrounding countries whenever we could. Living in Singapore was such a significant chapter for my entire family. I was so happy that I got to revisit it for a few days in January.

Of course, it has changed a lot since we left. Gone are the days of green patches on Orchard Road, which has become a sprawling paradise for nearly every high-end brand out there, including Céline, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu, and DvF. It’s not like I could shop at these showrooms, but it was an interesting indication of Singapore’s consumer market. I did make a few purchases at Tang’s, Lucky Plaza and Far East Plaza, some of my family’s favourite places to frequent back in the 90s. Most of my shopping was done in Chinatown, which, like many other parts of downtown, was decorated with colourful displays to celebrate Chinese New Year. There were tons of great deals there, so much so that I made two trips to the area in less than twenty-four hours.

A view of Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

A view of Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Another notable addition to Singapore’s attractions is Marina Bay. I did not get a chance to walk around the area, but I did go to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel to check out the gorgeous view of downtown at sunset. It’s really spectacular and something I would recommend for anyone visiting Singapore. Warning: it’s quite windy up there, and you may freak out over the fact that you are 58 stories up from the ground. BUT. Totally worth it.

This was my old elementary school in Singapore.

This was my old elementary school in Singapore.

The highlight of my trip came when I revisited my old apartment complex located in Bukit Timah. Everything about this part of the trip caused waves upon waves of nostalgia [ultra]. We drove by a strip of stores where my brother’s barbershop used to be, gawked at Beauty World Plaza, which to our surprise had not been torn down, and took a peek at my old school through the chain-linked fences. The outdoor gymnasium is still there. The cafeteria, a place of safety during the endless rainstorms, is still there. And my home, unlike majority of that area, did not get a fresh paint job or a fancy new security system. It looks exactly the same, down to the swing set that I used to go to after school. My childhood is held in these places, and these sights triggered so many memories that I will hold onto forever. If I ever get a chance to return in the future, I will fondly remember this experience, which I got to have with my parents. I wonder if they feel similarly every time they go past their old hangouts in New Delhi.

I’ve been to Delhi quite a few times, but I only started to truly value my experiences there during my recent trips. I think it’s partially because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more conscious of the influence that my heritage has had on me and will likely continue to have on me. When I was younger, I sometimes resented its place in my life because there were some moments where I really struggled with having to uphold traditions and values rooted in our Indian culture while growing up within a Western environment. It was difficult to navigate this cultural convergence for myself, my parents and even my peers and friends, who experienced similar challenges during our adolescence. It took all of us a while to understand it and strike a balance, but we eventually found our way.

My parents were always keen on our family embracing the Canadian lifestyle, and they did so pretty much from the moment that they decided to settle in Canada. Any hiccups and cultural confrontations were a necessary and natural part in our relationship, and I think it made our environment even more liberal and open than it was to begin with. It’s because of these discussions and arguments that my home was not a place where talks about arranged marriages were common or where I felt pressure to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer or where hanging out with a group of male and female friends was frowned upon (to be fair, this only became okay in high school, but you get the picture). As we grew up, things like adopting aspects of our culture, determining our relationship with faith, learning Hindi and even traveling to India were presented to us as choices, not obligations.  I’ve made many decisions in favour of these options because I wanted to maintain some ties to my heritage, traditions and values so that they would still be a part of my identity.

The fun thing about identity is that it can change and evolve. The last few years spent living away from home at university have played a significant role in shaping who I am and the kind of life I want for myself. Now, I’ve reached a point where I want to pay more attention to my ethnic heritage and build deeper connections with it than I have in the past. I realized this when I was in India last month. Maybe it’s because of how easily I slipped into life in Delhi, finding the sounds of endless honking oddly comforting, floating around the markets, eating toast in the morning and roti and potatoes in the evening, and developing an unhealthy obsession with melodramatic soap operas.  Maybe it’s because I was able to spend more time with my family there, including my grandparents, one of whom is 91. Maybe it’s because of all the essays I wrote and the class discussions that I had during my undergraduate career on India’s economic and social development. Maybe it’s because of my newfound fascination with India’s history that developed after touring some of the historical sights in Delhi and Agra. Maybe it’s because of how much I relate to the country’s current cultural convergence. Maybe it’s because my family comes from opposite ends of the country and I want to have a better understanding of these subcultures. I think these are all contributing factors, but generally speaking, I just appreciate having ties to a completely different world that I have barely tapped into.

Unlike my relationship with Singapore, which is an important part of my past, I truly believe that my relationship with India will become more of a cornerstone to the person that I will become in the years to come. I’m not comfortable with letting my connections to this home slip from my hands. I owe it to myself the chance to explore that aspect of my identity further. I am pretty sure I won’t do so in an Eat Pray Love-esque way, but it’s definitely something I want to actively pursue in the years to come.

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