Starting Over

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


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Making sense of living in “misery city”

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The city I live in has been in the news for the last two weeks. First came the survey that pegged Singapore as the most expensive city to live in, more expensive than Paris! This week it has been tagged “misery city” by BBC freelance writer Charlotte Ashton for her experience on the Singapore metro where she wasn’t offered a seat or asked about her wellbeing as she struggled with pregnancy-related nausea. Both times, there has been public debate, several inches of newspaper columns devoted to discussions about reasons for and actions against such incidents respectively.

My reaction on both occasions began with a roll of the eyes and “What kind of a place have I come to?” I am still figuring out bus routes and the business district. Hawker centers and hang baos are terms I have newly added to my vocabulary. My Singlish stinks, so does durian. Such news doesn’t help quell my settling-down jitters. Its tough enough to plan for an impending college education while living in the most expensive city without feeling that we are inhabiting a society that suffers from a massive “compassion deficit” as the BBC article says.

The first time I left my home in urban India to move to the USA, I remember feeling forlorn. For one, I could hardly see people in suburban Washington DC, when compared to the millions I had grown up with Mumbai. The sheer vastness of the country made me feel trivial even though the density of the Mumbai population should have made me feel insignificant. But I was the outsider, looking in. My eyes were accustomed to the dust and haze of city life in a developing country. The expressways and cleanliness didn’t bring comfort; they only highlighted the differences. I worried about safety in deserted train compartments during the day and taking a cab alone at night. In Mumbai I roamed free, safe in the anonymity and presence of many strangers who milled around at all times of the day and night.

The few I encountered in America seemed pleasant, mouthing a “hello” as they walked past. A kind lady once dropped me home from the train station when my ride did not show up. The train conductor consoled me another evening when I woke up right after the train left my station. A young woman offered to pay for me at Taco Bell when I ordered a meal only to find out that I had left my wallet at home. But there was also the grumpy old man who loudly proclaimed, “we walk on the right side of the path in this country” to my mother and me as we pushed the stroller with DQ around the park in California. And the attendant at the gas station who saw me every week but spoke to me only once, the week after Sep 11, 2001, to ask where I was from.

Growing up in Mumbai, taking the public transport everywhere, I experienced fear when pushed into and out of crowded trains, shame when groped by strangers and anger when people boarded buses without standing in line. A benevolent man once brought my 11-year-old brother home after taking him to a doctor for first aid when he fell from a public bus. He refused to take money either for the medical treatment or taxi fare for returning him home safely. I have taken shelter under the umbrellas of strangers when caught in an unexpected downpour during the monsoons.  I have relied on fellow travelers to guide me to the correct bus routes when traveling to unfamiliar parts of the metropolis.

I didn’t think poorly of Indians when I lived there because that was my milieu. I didn’t jump to conclusions about Americans just because I was in an unfamiliar environment. The sum total of my experiences was merely a collective recollection of individual episodes, governed by random situations with a distinctive set of people in each instance. Perhaps if the people involved were different, I would have different stories to tell. No matter how accepting  we consider ourselves, how open we think we are to new people and places, we hold biases which may ride on the surface like a leaf on water or lurk beneath like a stingray. And depending on the stimulus, our belief surfaces, clouding our reading of a one-off situation, making us paint the rest of our stay with the same brush.

The value of an immersive experience in another country depends on our ability and the ease with which we see the people around us, not as representatives of preconceived stereotypes or statistical data to be verified but for what they are, fellow humans. We may not share the same skin color and racial characteristics but we are all united in humanness. And that includes the errors in judgment that we make, whether it is in not offering a seat to a fellow passenger on a train or in labeling every person in the country as lacking compassion for doing so. To set this right, someone has to take the higher moral ground. Who will rise first?

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Tap for entry

“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.