I recently finished reading Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place (he wrote the seminal book, Orientalism, on Western conceptions of the Middle East). His main theme – how being out of place can be a defining factor in one’s life – resonated with me very strongly.
As a Singaporean speaking English as his mother tongue, I have always grown up feeling rather out of place in my home country. I could not communicate with my grandparents, who spoke a Chinese dialect that we were not allowed to learn in school; and I found myself often ostracised by classmates who thought me weirdly affected and snobbish because I couldn’t speak Chinese well (if at all).
Weirdly enough, when I went abroad (to Berkeley) to study, I found myself wanting to be “out of place.” I very consciously did things that upped my Chinese quotient – hung out with the Chinese (Mainland & Taiwanese) crowd in the dorms; spoke lots of Mandarin; listened to tons of Canto and Mando-pop that I would not have been caught dead listening to in Singapore. All so I could present myself as different, ethnic, read: interesting to the Americans.
Later on in my travels I also often unwittingly subjected myself to “out of place” situations – scenarios where a young man Singaporean-Chinese descent would look very incongruous: whistling and cycling through apple, plum and cherry orchards in Altes Land (the countryside around Hamburg); chumming it up with a pair of giggling Japanese girls in the lounge car of the Wagon-Lits to Luxor as they pile on the make-up; taking an evening stroll on my own along the Corniche in Beirut just after it was bombed by the Israelis; buying a whole rabbit from the Indian butcher in Deptford, London, to grill with heaps of rosemary in my tiny dorm room.
And then in the past year, I realise I’ve perversely and irrevocably adopted “out of place” as a personal philosophy, traveling constantly, and maintaining homes in 3 cities such that I’m never really at home anywhere. When I’m in a city, I pretend not to be from the city, in order to come across as special, exotic, exciting; in order not to invest too much time and emotion in it, and not be too hurt if nobody likes me.
I hate being an Outsider. And yet I crave being an Outsider. I must be insane.
Perhaps I too shall create my own memoir – that nobody will ever read because nobody reads memoirs – about me being Out of Place. Except, of course, I’ll have to choose a more original title: Somewhere Between Here And Now, I suppose. That rolls off nicely enough on the tongue, and captures how I often feel physically here in a place, but not really here.
The Chinese title of the memoir shall be 错综复杂 – Lost, Confused and Unhinged. I wonder…