Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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“Living abroad facilitates treating life as a spectacle.”

                                                         Susan Sontag

He gave it to me the day I landed in Singapore. “Keep it with you at all times” he said, a little sternly. It looked like a cross between a ticket for admission to a theme park and a regular credit card. It had the letters “ez link” on one side.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You’ll need it to travel here. It works on buses and trains. It has other uses too.”

He showed me how to enter the bus from the front door, tap the card on the reader, observe the $ value at entry and then again upon exit where the fare for the bus ride was mysteriously deducted.

When the weekend ended, he left for work. I put the card in my wallet. It was my constant companion from the time I got on the first bus and went for a ride. The bus went past the spiky dome of the Esplanade and the impressive towers of Marina Bay Sands. The Singapore flyer inched along in its giant orbit providing a grand view of the waterfront.

I loved my little blue card that wasn’t a debit card but had money, wasn’t a credit card but had value; the little blue card that was my ticket to independence. As I continued my forays into the corners of the city-state, the value on my card kept dropping. I worried how I would manage the next day. He noticed. He took the blue card and gave me a black and white one that had “Passion” printed in a wild font on one side.

“It’s an auto top-up card. You don’t need t worry about it running out.” And much to my amazement, each time the value dipped to less than a dollar, it once again climbed up to a reasonable number, invisibly blessed by the bank account to which it was linked. So I used it more. Like my brain, the more I used it, the more uses I found for it.

I could borrow books at the library with it – books that comforted me with their familiar heft and transported me to other worlds. Now I was literally and figuratively a traveler in a foreign country. I explored unfettered.

I could get discounts at movies with the Passion card. I signed up for classes at the community club. I bought bread from the vending machine downstairs. I earned points while shopping for groceries.

One day I realized I didn’t feel new here anymore. Or was it Singapore that wasn’t new to me? With that realization came a twinge of regret. For the gentle swoosh with which I had transitioned from seeing what was before me as “foreign” to “familiar”. For the loss of innocence that accompanies familiarity. For the disappearance of naiveté that is necessary to immerse yourself in the experience of living in a new country.

While travel is exhilarating, it takes time to learn the nuances of a new place.  Two decades ago I lived in a semi-permanent state of wonder at the magic of ATMs and automatic car washes when I moved from India to the US. The world has since then indeed become smaller. With the advent of technology and its reach, the world is more similar than different. While connectivity has given us many advantages, it has robbed us of the simple pleasure of discovering something first hand. The joy of truly widening your eyes at an unexpected scene, the delight that opening your hearts to novel experiences brings.

As I attempt to put down roots in Singapore, I hope to preserve that child-like curiosity and tell about it in my “Settling in Singapore” series of essays.

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