Finding Your Roots in a Foreign Land

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.)

Mid-flight Movies, Meteorology and a Mother’s Tears

I remember this clearly, because it was my first overseas business trip. I was 25, fresh off the blocks, and in a considerably fortunate position. The job was well paying and this first overseas trip was like a child’s first handphone. It probably meant a lot back then because it felt like a milestone in any young man’s career.

The flight was delayed by an hour due to the weather. Raindrops the size of ginko nuts struck the glass panel of the viewing gallery and I just sat there, suitcase in hand, wearing a black suit and tie, feeling sharp and probably looking sharp too. My colleagues were alongside and we discussed a few important matters before delving into more friendly topics that guys normally talk about. We were a suave looking bunch, and we felt like the entire airport owed their existence to us. We had just started on our jobs, and along with that seemed to follow the rest of our lives. We had a lot to look forward to.

We boarded shortly after they made the announcement that the weather was clearing. It was the sort of flight that was long enough for a meal to be served, but short enough so that your in-flight movie would be mercilessly cut short. I remember being ushered into an aisle seat in the center row. I stowed my suitcase under the seat in front of me and dealt with some last minute messaging and emails on my smart phone. My colleagues chatted comfortably amongst themselves as the flight attendants gave out hot towels and complimentary earphones. The rain still pelted the windows of the plane, but it had waned in ferocity.

There were no issues with the take off. I put my phone away and closed my eyes. Most of the people around me scrambled for the in-flight movies but I knew that the flight time was limited. It was an early morning flight, so I had no trouble feeling the lethargy creep in, and before long I was in a deep sleep.

I was awokened when the flight attendant asked me for my meal choice. I couldn’t remember what was served on that flight, but all I knew was that right after I received my tray, the plane jerked violently. It wasn’t the sort of turbulence that allowed the aircrew to settle back to their stations. The plane jerked one way, then the other, rising and falling with no particular pattern or purpose. The colleague closest to me held on tight to the hand rest, and I observed some of the passengers holding on to the seat in front of them, muffling their screams as the plane jerked. I had flown quite a bit when i was younger, but this particular episode of mid-flight turbulence was a bit much for me to handle. Some of my apple juice had found it’s way onto my lap, staining my freshly ironed pants.

The pilot was frantic in his announcement at first, raising his voice so that he could be heard over the clamour. It was terrifying. Every time the plane dipped you felt light and formless, but when it climbed you felt suddenly heavy and sluggish. It was as if your entire self; every molecule that contributed to your existence; depended on the rise and climb of this machine. It was the reminder that your very being, like it or not, was always controlled by something greater than yourself. That was a truly harrowing thought.

It was then that I noticed something strange to my right. At the window seat sat a mother and son. The boy was about five years old and the mother probably in her late thirties. I couldn’t tell for sure because I didn’t make it a habit to guess a woman’s age. Not surprisingly, the boy was crying; eyes red with fear and holding on tightly to his mother’s arm. He buried his face in the hollow of her shoulder and his dark, curly hair brushed the tip of her chin. He trembled lightly in her arms as the plane made its erratic manoeuvres.

What I felt was strage was, that the mother was sobbing as well. She put her arms around the boy’s small build and held him tight; her eyes red with tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Even through her eyes were red and puffy, I could tell she was an attractive woman. Her cheekbones were high, and her hair was straight and charcoal black. There were signs of age on her face, the occasional wrinkle that prophesised the impending effects of aging. But above all there were her eyes; they sparkled despite her fear, revealing the latent yet indelible strength within. Why I had such an impression of her, I cannot tell you for sure even now.

The plane landed safely in the end, and the severe turbulence stopped after a good five minutes. It left most of us shaken, but the pilot explained to us later that it was a rare occurrence, citing meteorological terms as if we already knew them. They had it well under control, and the plane was designed to withstand much more than just a severe storm. At least that was what they told us. Most of us forgot about this incident after a few more flights, but something about those five minutes of turbulence will continue to stick with me.

The image of a crying mother holding her crying child was forever etched into my mind after that flight. What could they be feeling? I knew it to be none of my business, but I couldn’t help but come up with my own theories. I questioned my self worth as the plane rocked about violently that day, and to see mother and son hold each other like they did touched me deeper and pushed me further than anything that I had experienced in a while.

You could form the simple theory that the mother was also afraid; that she saw the turbulence as a threat to her life, and so she sobbed in fear. I, however, would like to think it was much more than that. I don’t know for sure what went through their minds, but it was heartfelt and genuine. They had more than just themselves to lose. All I knew was, that I felt something from that incident, something that I can’t understand even now.

At that moment, she thought of what she told him at the airport. “We’re leaving now, leaving papa behind. He has gone somewhere far away, and he is never coming back.” She paused for a while, before his son reached out his tiny hand towards her. They walked hand in hand into the plane and she managed to stifle a sob. What she wanted so badly to tell him was, that they were leaving so that he could never find them again. They could finally be happy together. “Don’t worry, son, about what will happen next,” she should have said. “I have a plan for us. It may just be the two of us now, but when you grow up, you will understand everything. I love you, I love you more than anything in this world. Life may not be easy after this, but with me, everything will be ok. I make you this one promise.”