Inca the furkid gave me her most disapproving stare when I was talking to the missus last night about when I should fly to Singapore for the Lunar New Year.
“Wah lao, but if I go back with you on Jan 21 that means I have one entire week of doing absolutely nothing,” I lamented (The missus is heading back a week earlier to work from the Singapore office).
Well, not exactly. I’ll probably be stuffing my face silly with hawker food around the island, contemplating about whether I should brave the queue to try that Michelin-starred soya sauce chicken and catching up with friends over lots of beers. Well, kopitiam beers, to be exact – the rest are too expensive.
“Do you want to use up so much of your leave?” replied the missus.
I only have 10 days of annual leave. Yes, I work for China company. I’m on local terms, not expat terms.
“Well, I just have to take 5 days I guess. That leaves me with another 5 till July,” I said.
Inca squinted at me menacingly, as if saying “You goddamn humans are leaving me behind again? And during winter??”
To be honest, I can’t bear to leave Inca behind.
To be honest, I’m not entirely looking forward to heading “home”.
I’ve got to buy an air ticket that’ll cost me close to a grand. I have to spend money to stay in a hotel because my home in Singapore is being rented out. I have to spend considerably more on food, drinks and transport (hello midnight surcharge!). I have to send my furkid for “boarding school” at the vet in Shanghai. And I have to give ang baos.
The kind of money I’ll be spending on this one trip along is enough to take me on a nice holiday somewhere else in the world.
But I told the missus that we are going back. For sure. No question about it.
Because I believe it is important for family to get together during Chinese New Year. If it’s one good thing I’ve learned from my time in China, it’s that tradition matters.
No, it’s not because Singapore is “home”.
I mean, what is home?
I’ve never considered the premise of home to be the place where one is born. Or where one grew up. Or where one spent most of his life in.
It irritates me when people judge me and say, “You better come back to Singapore at the end of the day hor. You are a Singaporean leh. Singapore is home.”
A fellow compatriot who left Shanghai earlier this year is hating life back in Singapore. Because of the same reasons that drove me to leave. He wants to migrate somewhere else. Probably London or Australia.
An Iraqi ex-colleague who now lives in the Netherlands shared with me that he’ll never return to Iraq even though he was born there.
A German friend who has been living in Sydney for many years still considers Germany home. Because his family and closest friends are there. Not because he was born there.
Physical space, evidently, has no bearing on the definition of home.
We recently came back from a week-long glamping trip to Norden Camp in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province. The camp we stayed at was manned almost entirely by Tibetan nomads.
I was very intrigued to find out more their lifestyle and what it meant to be on the move throughout the year. But what captivated me more were the foreign employees of the camp.
In a nutshell, local nomads move about the Tibetan Plateau every season in order to allow the pastures that their animals are currently grazing to regenerate. Most of them have never left the country, so i wouldn’t expect them to know any other place as home.
The foreigners, however, seem even more nomadic.
Bill, the American dude from Seattle who took us on a hike up the nearby hill (wah lan eh, hiking at 3,200m above sea level is sibei xiong) is one interesting character.
An MIT graduate who used to play pro basketball for a bunch of clubs in Europe and Latin America, he’s now helping out with the operations at Norden Camp and at Norlha, a textile workshop in Zorge Ritoma. He’s also helping train the team of basketballers from Norlha. He told us that he comes from a military family – his grandfather used to command a freaking fleet of nuclear subs and his father was a fighter jet pilot.
Why would he then want to travel the world to play and coach basketball?
New perspectives. An experience that money can’t buy.
Another American at the camp, chef Andy, has made his rounds around the globe as well. After working at Aman Resorts in Bhutan, he took a break and spent a few months in Vietnam before joining Norden in 2014.
He hardly ever has a permanent home. When he was working in Bhutan, he would stay in the hotel rooms. At Norden, he would at times stay in the cabins during low season. If the camp was full, he’d move to another camp site about 20 minutes away. When the camp closes during the winter, he returns to Florida to care for his ageing parents.
He appears to like this lifestyle.
I had a quick chat with him a day before he flew back to the States. I asked if he had much to pack and he simply went: “Well, just two bags. All clothes, actually. I’ve learned not to have too many things on hand.”
“You’re a nomad yourself,” I chuckled.
“Yeah, I guess I am,” he laughed.
It got me thinking. Are we born to be nomads? After all, humans do have the proclivity to migrate. It’s survival instinct.
Of course, I didn’t leave Singapore for Shanghai because my life was in danger. It was my mind leading the way. It needed to feel alive. It needed to be free of the bubble. It needed to survive.
Two years ago, the plan was to return to Singapore after three, maybe four years in Shanghai. You know, grab some overseas working experience and GTFO of here. Shanghai was but a stepping stone to future career progression back in Singapore.
Now, it’s a completely different story. My wife and I have realized that we don’t need to return to Singapore.
Why? Because my furkid is here. Because we are both comfortable and happy here. Because most of our good friends from Singapore are here.
Home, to me, is a transient thing. It changes constantly, according to your ideals, your goals, your state of mind.
Will Shanghai still be home in a couple of years? Maybe not. I don’t know. She doesn’t know. Nobody knows.
For now, we’ll probably return to Singapore if we have a kid. For all the pragmatic reasons. Education. Safer milk powder. The ability to dump the kid at his or her grandparents’ homes.
Not because we were born in Singapore.
Of course, some would criticise us for biting the hand that fed us. Well, we didn’t ask to be born in Singapore. Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed grateful of my birth right. This is something that I discovered when interviewing a fellow Singaporean who gave up everything to work for an NGO in Cambodia where the living conditions aren’t great.
Like she said, we Singaporeans are privileged as compared to millions of others in the world, simply because of our birth right. The Singapore passport, as most people already know, is sibei tok kong. We get visa-free access to about 170 countries around the world.
Singapore is safe. It’s clean. It’s got good infrastructure (not referring to you MRT). It’s got a stable government. It’s got kickass hawker food.
But all these factors aren’t necessarily that important to everyone. Not everyone needs home to be clean, safe and well-tuned.
Yes, I was born in Singapore. Yes, I am a Singaporean. But no, Singapore is not necessarily my home.
Home is where the things that mean most to you are.
So, where is home for you?