They say it’s going to be especially cold these coming months. You’re squeezed into an aisle seat, the buffer between the walkway and an overly cozy couple. The time that follows is full of the woman climbing over her boyfriend and shaking you awake every time she needs to use the restroom. You count fourteen. How is that even physically possible? Why does she have such a small bladder? And why can’t she climb over you too? By the third time, you start giving her your signature death glare. She makes sure to flick her hair in your face the next time she passes by. A part of you would like to yank it out of her head. As you step off the plane after twenty-one hours of travel, an immediate, sticky greeting pushes itself towards you, as if reminding you yet again that you are no longer at home.
Your first few days are a whirlwind full of meeting people and trying to be as pleasant as you can stand but relying too heavily on things that shouldn’t necessarily be as involved in the opening stages of the one-act play that is this experience. It seems that you’re all just people who are doing things to convince themselves that they’re adjusted and fun when really you’re all sitting together hoping your phones might buzz. You have not been so alone in years. You’re much older than you were then, and though they say experience is a good thing, you’ve found that age often clamps down on social adaptability and constricts it with barriers of many kinds. It is difficult to be approachable and interesting and friendly all at once, especially when all you can think about is whether your sweat has actually formed a puddle in your seat.
Boston, the fickle mistress of sun and snow, has made you obsessed with the weather, not something Californians or Singaporeans understand. You attempt to soothe your discomfort by telling yourself you’ll grow used to it eventually, but you learn soon enough that not even the locals can pretend they don’t feel it every single day. Singapore is very different from Boston, bustling but pristine, orderly, oddly quiet. You find yourself longing for grime. On the escalators and the streets, there’s a strange tension that begs you to break from the leftward cringe that seems to be followed wherever you go. It almost feels like the future, a society where a woman will drop a crumb of what she is eating and turn around to pick it up and throw it away. You wanted to step on it, to mold it with the ground and allow it to become a part of the city. Instead it’s immediately cleaned up and dealt with. This efficiency unsettles you.
You can feel yourself clinging to familiarity, defaulting like a broken machine. You’re awake at 2 in the morning, lying in bed willing yourself not to text or call anyone you know because then you won’t be able to keep sleeping. You do it anyway. A few days later, your jet lag is turning around but you still wake up every three hours and you sit up in bed shaking from your strange dreams. They are almost all about Boston. You never knew you loved it so. You never knew you loved it at all.
You walked away from it a month ago, and you willed yourself not to turn back and look at it one last time before you left. You wish you had. You don’t know when you became so sentimental. It disgusts you a little. You are repulsed by your own yearning. Your head pounds a painful rhythm, promising without providing, much as you are, but you grow tired of being afraid, and you refuse to pine. As your sleeping schedule normalizes, you meet more people. You explore more of the city. It is fascinating, both small and somehow very large. Its colors are absent in architecture but vibrant in humans. There’s a remarkable sense of safety within the country, of trust. You are briefly enchanted. You grow accustomed to hearing the whirring of your overhead fan and the frequent use of clause-final discourse particles. They’re adaptable, polysemic, a unique representation of their users. The identity of the place seems so deeply intertwined with the identities of its people. You remember why you chose it—for its extraordinary demonstration of discipline and development, of recovery and rebuilding. You are in awe of their ability to rise, to reclaim themselves, to renew who they were to themselves and to others.
It is still hot, but you take a lot of showers, which are strangely soothing, water running down your skin, carving out its own paths. It’s vastly preferable to blubbering sloppily in bed, which grows rather tiresome after a few. It is raining here and at home. You stick your head out of your twentieth story window, tongue reaching for drops, and taste relief.
This is the first in a collection of writing about my time in Singapore. For visual documentation of my adventures here, follow me on Instagram @mayisrad.