Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Leaving

So here it is: all good things must come to an end. Our time in Singapore is almost up, and soon we’ll be on to bigger and better things back in New Jersey. People have asked us how we feel about leaving: sad? excited? But truthfully, all we have time to feel is...busy. Two weeks from today, our cat leaves for his first journey across the world. (He’ll fly west, through Amsterdam.) Five days later, we’ll follow him (although we’ll fly east). We’ve taken this 19-hour flight before, but this time our tickets are one-way.

The company tells us movers will pack us, move us, and cause our stuff to appear magically on the other side—so what do we have to worry about? Clearly they don’t know what it’s like to undertake an international move. Sure, there’s the usual closing of accounts and sorting of stuff that accompanies any move. But running interference on logistics with two countries—while trying to say goodbye to our current “home” country, and hello to a home country that no longer feels exactly like home—we’re essentially living two lives at the same time. (Three, if you count our rapidly accelerating work life.)

This pressure cooker has gotten to us in various ways; Joey’s pulling regular all-nighters, and I’ve already had a nasty run-in with a parking pillar. (I swear, it moved.) To be sure, that last one was just waiting to happen, what with Singapore’s narrow and curvy basement car parks. But still.

Among the loose ends to tie up, what will happen to the blog? I’m not sure. If other expats’ reports are to be believed, once we return to the States, our time abroad is socially expected to become a hazy dream we remember only to each other. Once we’re back, we’ve heard, people in our home country won’t want to hear about the amazing people we met in Singapore or our trips to inspiring places. Instead, apparently, we’d do better to confine our conversation to our state, our hometown, preferably our neighborhood. Something everyday. Something “relatable.” Which makes sense, of course.

And yet, having spent the last two years fitting the whole world into our heads, how can we shut it out?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Harborside in Sydney

We went to Sydney at the height of the swine flu panic. I’d gotten the (regular) flu in Singapore, like everyone else, and though my raging fever had passed, I was still miserably clutching piles of Kleenex and mugs of hot tea. We called Qantas: surely with the flu scare, they’d allow us to cancel? But it seems that even with an international health crisis, nonrefundable tickets are nonrefundable tickets.

So we flew to Sydney, expecting that at any moment some nervous health official would take me off to quarantine, never to be seen again. But apparently I set off neither the infrared sensors in the airports nor the suspicions of the flight attendants (I did run them completely out of herbal tea), and we arrived without incident.

I have only hazy memories of our first day in Sydney, and I didn’t make it out into the streets until dinnertime. But I did sit up in bed and watch the day breaking over the harbor, with the iconic bridge and opera house slowly highlighted by the sun as it crossed the bracing blue sky.

After that I was well enough to do some exploring in the harborside neighborhoods, so we went out to immerse ourselves in life along the water. We wandered in the cobblestone laneways of The Rocks, once home to rowdy sailors’ taverns and now filled with quiet cafes. We took a ferry past marinas filled with huge white sailboats and gorgeous glass-walled lofts. We walked along the wharfs and ducked into the aquarium (where we greeted the dugongs). At the stunning maritime museum, we climbed aboard a replica of Captain Cook’s ship that still plies the same waters as Cook did in his original voyages.

One night we attended a magical performance of (appropriately enough) Debussy’s symphony The Sea at the opera house, which quietly glowed in the darkness. In the music we heard an echo of centuries of life on Sydney’s waterfronts: the longing for the sea, for exploration and adventure, the freedom of being out on the open ocean, and the satisfaction of returning to the safety of the harbor after a journey well sailed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Second Time Around

Everything in Singapore is easy - if you’ve already done it once before. That’s how life is here. Like today, when I went to the industrial estate of Ubi to pick up a water filter for the fridge.

The first time I needed a water filter, sometime last year, I had no idea where to start. Rather than end up in a scary Alice-in-Wonderland environment (like that time I bought a sprinkler), I went to a few appliance stores to see if they had the part. But we have an American-brand fridge that’s far from common in Singapore. After several fruitless trips, I finally found a salesperson that would give me the address of a wholesale parts store. They sold only to contractors, she said, and they might or might not have my brand. But it was my only option, and that’s how I found myself heading to Ubi.

Still new to driving in Singapore, I felt like I’d reached the end of the earth. I dropped off the highway at a practically unknown exit, panicking as I glanced at the street directory and found I’d missed a turn. In the pouring rain, the gray buildings seemed hopelessly confusing, each looking exactly like the next. The workers seemed grim and dour, the security guards suspicious and unhelpful. I parked at a coupon lot a block or two away, still unsure if I was in a legal parking lot. Walking along the street, I felt utterly out of place. People stared at me curiously from under their umbrellas; what was an ang moh (and a tai tai, at that) doing here, in the blue-collar industrial park?

Today, though, I casually swung by Ubi on my way home from a pleasant lunch downtown. Now I easily recognized the exit as one of the ways to Joey’s workplace - not exactly the end of the earth! The sun shone in the blue sky as I entered what now seemed a cheerful, bustling neighborhood. Sure, I did miss the street on the first go-round, but in a matter of minutes, I’d found the right building, had a friendly chat with the grinning security guard, and parked my car right outside the door.

The dealer had the part in stock. Only cash accepted? No problem; I followed his directions to the mysterious
“canteen” where the ATM was. Last year, I might have felt out of place, but the Chinese and Malay faces were the type I’m used to seeing every day. A businessman helpfully showed me the canteen, where I’m sure I was the only ang moh for miles around. But all I thought was, “Hey, I should come back someday to try that new mee goreng stall!”

Minutes later, paid-for part in hand, I began to navigate my way out of Ubi. Only one thing hadn’t changed since my previous visit: the cars with a giant L on the back and the painted line, “Please be patient and let me learn!” In Singapore, only certified instructors can give driving lessons, and one of the major driving schools is right in the heart of Ubi. If there’s a worse place to learn to drive, I’d like to see it; parked cars on the side of the road reduce two lanes to one and a half, and orange cones and construction barriers block the rest. The L drivers wobble hesitantly around corners, hoping against hope there’s not a giant bulldozer blocking the path.

But as a driver in Singapore myself, I sympathize. I learned to drive from my dad, in mostly empty parking lots and broad, quiet streets. That’s how it is the US. In Singapore, though, for driving or navigating or finding the part you need, you’re thrown in the deep end. As I said, everything here is easy - except the first time.