I have never lived overseas before. Not independently at least. I have gone for a while but that was with my parents. Surely that wouldn’t count.
So, why would I, of all people, write about this topic? I’ve been backpacking through Europe with a friend for almost a month now. This sort of travelling is fast paced and almost hectic. There’s a lot to learn on the way, a lot to experience and a lot to understand about the different places and cultures. It is a time to get lost.
So get lost I did. For twenty odd days, we walked around old towns, castles, parks, museums. Finding our elusive selves within all that history and beauty that is Europe. We got so lost one day we only caught our cross-border train by a 20-second margin.
Then one day, an encounter with a random stranger pulled me straight back to Earth.
This happened in the most unlikeliest of places, in the huge KaDaWe Department stall in Berlin, Germany (the branded goods here are really cheap by the way). We were walking around the top level, where all the food was sold and were hunting for chocolates when we walked past this Asian food stall. A middle-aged Chinese man was behind the counter and at first he just looked at us. He looked to be in his forties, with a bald patch and generous smile. I smiled back at him, because, you know, both of us were the same race in a foreign country.
Later as we were about to walk down the escalator, he got our attention by waving at us to come over. I was surprised and a little suspicious at first, but we walked up to his store anyway. He looked at us in earnest and asked in fluent Mandarin, “are you both from China?” We chuckled and answered that we were in fact from Singapore. He looked pleasantly surprised and the amazingly high numbers that surround our weather took up the first part of the conversation. He smiled the whole way.
I was never a fluent at Mandarin, so I could only answer him in the most basic ways, and the conversation couldn’t carry very far. All I found out was, that he was from ShangHai, and loved the weather in Germany. I never did appreciate Mandarin back home. I dreaded it, and always failed my mother tongue. But then, speaking Mandarin with this man suddenly felt like the most natural thing to do. It was certainly better than repeating your english slowly and trying to mix in some German words.
It just felt right after a while, like the perfect Chinese Oral Exam.
He suddenly paused as two customers walked over. They were probably German, so he told us in Mandarin that he had to serve them first. He told us to feel free to stay, that he would cook something up just for us. Our eyes opened wide and I paused before replying, because after all, this was an expensive shopping district. He was offering us food despite the expensive rental, despite just meeting us five minutes ago and enduring our poor Mandarin.
We declined the offer because it just wouldn’t feel right to take this opportunity to have a free dinner. But this was the single most heartwarming and interesting incident of our trip. The image of the lone Chinese man cooking up Asian food in a fully western department stall is almost symbolic of his culture shock and the struggle for identity. How did most of his customers view the food he cooked? Would they feel for this culture the same way that he does? That, at the end of the day, is what i believe led him to offer us some food. He knew we would appreciate it in a way only the three of us could truly understand.
I see a lot of my friends going overseas for their studies or flying off for exchange. They show their eagerness beforehand, and upon touchdown they share a lot of photos and seem to have the time of their lives.
But after that phase is over, a lot of them start to miss home. There are the birthday dedications, the “sorry I couldn’t be there” posts, throwbacks to a time long gone and countdowns to the next time they’ll land in Singapore again.
In our eager bid to get lost and quench our wanderlust, we often forget that there is a place thousands of miles away that already has everything we need. It is the place you think about at 2 am on a sleepless night, scrolling through past photos, past messages and farewell letters. And then you end up smiling to yourself. It is the place that made you who you are today. It is about the people, the places and the past experiences. It is a place you’ll never forget even if you tried.
This is about a place called home.
(I believe the Chinese man in his Chef’s apron would understand this so well if only he could read this. If only he could.)