I wrote about identity, belonging, and home for Chapalang, a now-defunct magazine about identity and culture in Singapore. Here’s the essay in full.
It is January 1994, and the first few hours of my first morning of school in Singapore pass in a blur. Before I know it, my mother has handed me over to the teacher, and left. I find myself sitting at a cluster of six tables, three girls in each row facing one another.
Five curious faces turn towards me; I shift awkwardly in my seat until the girl across from me breaks the silence.
Hi, I’m Meixin. Where are you from?
I don’t quite catch that the first time, so I glance at the worksheet on her desk for a glimpse of her name.
Hi Mecksin, I’m from India.
This mispronunciation causes five curious faces to snap into cold masks of annoyance. My new classmates turn back to their worksheets, away from this newcomer who can’t even get a simple name right.
In secondary school, my mother insists that I buy a blouse and pinafore that is two sizes too large, because apparently I’ll grow into it. I have little say in the matter, and spend the next four years wearing the identity of a misfit in the most literal sense possible.
The politics of belonging manifest themselves in the most banal places. Having never eaten with both a fork and spoon at the same time (chopsticks and a soup spoon are an even bigger puzzle), it takes me a long time to muster up the confidence to order the simplest things, such as mixed rice and bee hoon.
Eventually, in a sea of over a thousand teenage girls dressed in identical bright green smocks, I make friends with classmates whose sense of humour, love for sarcasm and hatred for PE class matches mine. We sit in the back of the class, finish our english worksheets faster than everyone else, and snicker over random snippets from our favourite books and websites. We go for recess together, and sometimes hang out after school at places that need to be friendly to both vegetarian and halal dietary requirements.
It is the early days of blogging then, and we stake out little corners of the internet for ourselves – following each other’s lives outside school and getting to know friends of friends through linked blogs. Some of us read each others’ words for years before we finally meet in person. But when we do, it is wonderful.
In junior college, I put my foot down and insist on buying a size appropriate uniform. I step confidently into my new junior college in a blouse that fits just right, tucked into a skirt that hugs my hips and ends neatly two inches above my knees.
I appear to be one of the few students that did not receive the memo that the cool way to dress in JC is unbelievably baggy shirts cinched closed with drawstrings sewn into the hems.
It is the dead of winter in the United Kingdom, and I am freezing. I have been studying for my postgraduate degree in the country for about three months, and the cold has inexorably made its way into my bones.
I’d kill for a bowl of laksa with extra chilli right about now, I think to myself as I trudge through the snow back to my hostel. Or some sambal kangkong. Or some hot kopi with kaya toast. This litany continues until I get back into the room and huddle up against the radiator.
Later, on Skype, my parents ask me if I miss home-cooked Indian food. I say yes, and it’s true, I do. But not with the same fervent preoccupation with which I long for Singaporean food.
It is twenty one years to the day we left India. I am on my way back to the office after an afternoon meeting in the city. The taxi is stuck in a traffic jam on Lornie Road that has no business being there at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon.
As we eventually crawl past a broken down vehicle and tow truck, the taxi driver exclaims that he knew it had to be either an accident or vehicle breakdown.
“Actually it is okay,” he says. “People can still drive. But they must be kaypohand slow down to see. That is what causes the jam.”
“Ya lor uncle! And then must take down numbers for 4D some more,” I chime in.
He looks back at me in surprise.
“Wah, you know our local culture so well!”
“But uncle, I am local,” I say in my totally non-Singaporean accent – a weird blend of a predominantly Indian accent with some Singlish inflections creeping in around the edges. “This is now my culture too,” I want to add, but don’t.
He turns back to the road with a non-committal nod.
This is not the first discussion I have had with taxi drivers about my nationality or roots. This little dance of “Are you Singaporean? Yes. But it doesn’t sound like it. But I have lived here for more than twenty years and grown up here.” has played out more times than I care to remember.
One of my favourite renditions of this conversation has ended with the taxi driver serenading me with popular Bollywood hits for the entire ride.
Another time, a taxi ride back from the airport during peak hour ended with the driver berating me about stingy “India people” who didn’t tip extra as I dug for exact change to pay the cab fare and exorbitant surcharges.
This is not the first, nor the worst conversation with cabbies about where I am from, but it gets under my skin.
I realise I am upset because this conversation has reinforced that nowhere will ever be home in the sense of the word that brings with it a certain confidence and unflinching entitlement.
There will never be a point when this work in progress will be complete, when I am able to pull a tarpaulin off my identity with a flourish and announce, “this is where I am from, and this is who I am”.
India occupies my consciousness as the repository of a few hazy childhood memories, and the destination of yearly visits back to meet relatives. I love it, but cannot call it home.
Neither do I feel like I have made it past the gatekeepers of that ever-elusive Singaporeanness, even though it has been for my formative years and adult life. My passport is red now, but my birthplace, my accent, the colour of my skin – they form a thin boundary that seems impossible to cross.
But maybe I don’t want to cross it. So what if I will never be able to pinpoint a specific country as home? My home is in the feeling of glee when I locate a vegetarian hawker stall and their daily special is laksa, and my home is also having a plate of Bombay’s best pani puri set in front of me when I visit Bombay.
My home is in my memories of hopping across a longkang to get to my primary school, and playing five stones, zero point, and tick-tock with my friends. My home is also in the fact that my grandparents’ house in Bombay, where I spent my early years, is my absolute favourite place in the world.
My home is in my memories of spending endless hours at beloved spots all over the island with my best friends – the NUS arts canteen and Forum, random hawker centres serving up too-sweet kopi, the stairs by the Singapore River, East Coast Parkway.
But my home is also in the feeling of unquestioning affection and love I feel for friends I have known since we were in diapers, even though we are too different to have been friends if we met as we were today.
My home is in the fact that my brain automatically reaches for the word shiok to describe things that are awesome, and Hokkien profanities are the first to spring to mind in moments of rage, but the fact that nothing motivates me to exercise like Bollywood music – the cheesier the better.
My home is not a place. It is not a country, it is not the colour of my passport, and it is not made up of years of unshakeable belonging. It is a messy, piecemeal, colourful, and transnational web of love, memories, languages, and cuisines that is growing and changing every day.
And that’s perfectly okay. No need anything else already, lah.