And so 2011 ends. But my year of being in-between homes is hardly over.
I started this year on a plane (literally) from home in New York to home in Singapore. And it is perhaps fitting that I end this year being at home in New York, thinking I’m in Singapore imagining myself in New York.
Let me explain this convoluted state of mind.
Just two days ago, I finished reading a book by (Egyptian-)American writer André Aciman, titled Alibis – Essays on Elsewhere. A friend in New York had recommended it to me because he thought the book’s themes of place, home, wandering and exile would resonate with me. He was not wrong. I have been just floating for most of my life and I’m trying to understand why I can’t seem to anchor myself.
I thought I’d extract my favorite paragraph in the book (occurring in the “Afterword”), which, I felt, contained the seed of the answer to my question.
“When, a few months later, the time came for me to go to Paris, I called her again and said that much as I loved Paris I did not enjoy traveling. Besides, I never found Paris relaxing, I would much rather stay in New York and imagine having wonderful dinners in Paris. ‘Yes, of course,’ she agreed, already annoyed. ‘Since you’re going to Paris, you don’t want to go to Paris. But if you were staying in New York, you’d want to be in Paris. But since you’re not staying, but going, just do me a favor.’ Exasperation bristled in her voice. ‘When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.” (pg. 193)
It’s funny how our imaginations and desires are often so much more real than the real thing. In the three years leading up to my move to London / New York, I had created a rather unique (and idiosyncratic) persona and lifestyle for myself in Singapore. If you had stepped into my apartment, and spent a couple of days with me, you would have probably thought you were in some kind of recreation-Italian country house in a New York brownstone.
I remember the wonderful dinner parties I would conjure up for American and European friends and neighbours on weekend evenings. I remember the American-style brunches the next morning, when I would dive into my two eggs sunny-side up with a splitting hangover. I remember listening to the latest Broadway and Off-Broadway musical soundtracks (courtesy of Amazon.com) and being “in the know” about the big art exhibitions in New York (courtesy of TimeOut.com). I remember Christmas dinners with turkey, brussels sprouts and jazz standards by Louis, Billie, Ella.
In all respects, I could have been an American in New York. Except I was a Singaporean in Singapore imagining myself leading what I thought was a New York lifestyle in an ersatz New York within the hermetically-sealed confines of my apartment, my social circle, and my deluded mind.
But why this elaborate charade? Because Singapore was so spiritually and creatively bankrupt, I convinced myself. Because it was boring. Because there was no space for individual expression, and people didn’t have opinions. That was harsh and uncalled for. Where I should have been looking within, I tried to justify my own inactivity by blaming my environment.
When I made the decision to move away from Singapore, it was with a fierce determination and optimism. In London and New York, I could finally fulfill my potential! They would welcome me with open arms!
I found out, naturally – and this is perhaps the most significant learning point this year – that the reality in New York (and in London) paled in comparison to my distorted imaginings. For one, the kind of lifestyle that I used to have in Singapore I could only imagine having in New York due to the immense difference in costs of living and tax regimes. I was also quickly disabused of the notion that skillsets acquired at my previous job were transferable, halfway across the globe.
I realised, inevitably, that the life I had led in Singapore was not New York Living at all, but really Singapore Living, unique and unreproducible elsewhere. And that it had been a charmed way of living akin to a beautiful dream!
Which brings me back to the extract and how it cradles the answer to my perennial floating…
This dreaming of elsewhere is, I believe, a variation on the proverbial “grass is always greener.” While in Place A, one dreams of Place B because one believes in its inherent better-ness. This dream becomes so vivid as to be irresistible: one travels to the real place. But when at Place B, one realises the truth, that the Place B in one’s dreams, is really Place B1 – an alternative Place B existing in a parallel universe, having nothing whatsoever to do with Place B at all. One then realises that the aspects one appreciated the most in Place B1, were really aspects of Place A, after all.
So yeah… forget New York, for now. Give me my evenings in Singapore dreaming of and even simulating New York. If, or when, I do eventually return to Singapore, I shall make sure that whenever I feel like complaining, I’ll remember myself this evening in New York, imagining myself in Singapore pretending to be in New York.
Happy 2012 to all!
Kitty in New York, dreaming of being in Singapore imagining being in New York.
Hey Kennie – thanks much for posting this; it certainly resonates a lot with me. In fact, I’m heading to London next year to spend some time immersed in the theatre world there and possibly do my Masters in either acting or theatre production. I’m scared to death, but it’s a step I need to take. Even though NY and London were not what you imagined, I’m sure you know that you had to go down that road… the worst thing is when we just dream away our lives.
So after nearly 3 years in Shanghai (very good and productive years), I feel I need to take a leap and push myself to discover what will really nurture and feed my hunger to learn and grow. And really — is it not the height of luxury to be able to do this in the first place?? At least we have the freedom to do this. What an incredible blessing!!
I’d love to talk to you about your experiences in London — can we skype some time? Wishing you and Joe a really fulfilling, happy and fun 2012!
It’s great to hear from you! I think it’s very cool that you are heading to London. I actually really liked my time there. I think you’ll enjoy it too. Yeah, let’s skype! What’s yr skype add? Or maybe I already have it. I’m heading back to London on the 10th by the way…
Hi! Happy New Year! My skype ID is sugar_plumme. Let’s talk soon 🙂 E
Maybe home is really the best place after all. I dreamt of Paris and Tokyo too in Kuala Lumpur. Maybe it’s better that way.
Well… I think home is really contained within you. I can more somewhere else expecting to start a new life there, but in the end, I realise that I start doing exactly the same things I did in SG!! Funny that.
Loved your entry. Not often that I read myself in someone else’s prose. This was just “on the money.” Write back if you wish.
having lived in Melbourne as an undergrad, i sorta, kinda dread going back to Singapore, and in fact, am dreaming about moving to New York. And what you said about home certainly resonates with me, and to be fair, its more so a mind over matter issue. But, everyone says that the moment you reach singapore, you’re stuck here, how did you pluck yourself out of your comfort zone and make the great leap?
Hi Jessie, thanks for the comment. New York is great to visit but not to stay in, for many reasons. I just moved home to SG last October. I focus on what’s good in SG – which includes the ability to travel easily and cheaply in the region (I did my entire Grand Tour of Southeast Asia using SG as my base and taking long and short weekends). In NY, you’re kinda stuck. So, yeah… it is a mind over matter issue. Figure out what makes you tick, and you can do that anywhere really. Cheers!
Interesting post and blog!
Having lived in NY for almost 9 years, I think it may be time for me to move back. But the prospect scares me….How did you make the transition from NY to SG?
I’m still transitioning… I started a photography project called Manhattan in 12 Streets, and took all the photos before I left. I’m currently posting shots for my 12th and final street. Which means its been a year. I decided that what’s important is finding out what you like to do and just doing more of it. Where you are then just becomes more of a backdrop.