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.)

Exercise Flash Thunder

When asked if I wanted to go for exercise flash thunder, like many of us who went, I was unsure. The overall intent was of the trip was (obviously) the promotion of bilateral relations. But somehow we knew there would be a good amount of hard training, a load of safety risks and in addition to that, the reputation of our army to uphold. With reference to past army overseas trips, we neither dreaded not looked forward to flash thunder. We just didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t know what these two weeks would mean.

The C130 landed in the tarmac of the military airport and after a bumpy, uncomfortable ride, the heat that greeted us was of little relief. A three hour bus ride through country roads brought us to Lopburi camp, home of the Thai rangers. At first glance it is a simple camp; the buildings were no taller than 2 storeys, and the roads were bumpy and unpaved. But what seemed like a far cry from our own camp back home soon revealed itself to have a homely and comfortable aura about it. Our bunks were simple but spotlessly clean, and the same could be said of the shower facilities and dining hall. The soccer fields, tchoukball courts and outdoor gym made it clear that the rangers had made this camp their home.

We were paired up with our Royal Thai Army (RTA) Ranger buddies soon after the opening ceremony, and from our first attempts at interaction we knew there was a monumental task ahead. Differences in culture aside, the sheer language barrier seemed insurmountable. Phones were whipped up and Google translate was (humourously) abused. Comical attempts at sign language tried and tested, our lips twisted and vocals stretched to portray sounds of the battlefield. There was awkward silences and nervous laughter, both parties clueless as to what was being said yet fully understanding each others dilemma.

The activities soon started and we had no time to ponder upon our differences. Things kicked off with a quick weapon introduction, the RTA trying out our weapons and vice versa. We loosened up to them through our weapon handling and hand actions and soon discovered that they were quite the cheerful bunch. They often laughed along to fill the silence and smiled at us reassuringly.

The live firings soon commenced, each army trying out the others’ respective weapons. It was an eye opening experience. For one the weapons were vastly different, firing the RTA’s assault rifle was a novel experience for up till then we were only limited to the SAR 21. The manner in which the RTA conducted these live firings also caught our attention. The vast land space meant our range was casually located at a mountainside. We also observed that their numbers largely consisted of regulars who had much more experience so it was apparent how quick and proficient they were at engaging targets and clearing ammo. We marveled at their skills while they simply smiled at us in return.

In many ways the same attitude and proficiency could be observed for our fast roping experience. We had to slide down a rope from a 5 storey height; first from a building and then from a live helicopter. We were excited to demonstrate our abilities for we had a few days of practice prior to the trip. We were cautious at first and many safety regulations were put into place while it was chaotic at times with shouting and exaggerated hand gestures. Everyone, even the Thais, seemed to be on edge as we roped down one by one. The Thais put things into perspective when it was their turn to demonstrate. They sped down the ropes and each man descended in quick succession to the next. It was like watching a coordinated circus troupe. What seemed to be a lack in safety at first turned out to be a well practiced routine that the Thai rangers have been working on for years. We realised this level of familiarity and comfort with height elements wasn’t something easily achievable as NSFs.

With the Thais proficiency in mind we soon tackled live tasks, every one of us excitedly boarding the Thai Air force black hawk and roping down. The deafening sound of the helicopter rotors and turbulent wind made it a truly memorable experience. We even had time for a joyride around the province later on, ending in yet another fast rope session. It turned out to be a tremendously tiring but exhilarating experience.

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With both army’s bilateral interests at heart, this trip wasn’t all work and no play. There were vast pockets of time in between activities where we had the chance to have games sessions and nights outs. Soccer games were especially fun, with both sides a mix of Singaporean and Thai, with each soldier slowly beginning to recognise the other with a pass of the ball and a pat on the back. There was a generous provision of snacks and drinks at the side; their hospitality smashing our expectations. Most of us had Thai buddies bring us for nights out, and we soon got acquainted with their obsession of eating and drinking. Many of us savoured the famous Mookata, a Thai grill and steamboat and downed glasses of Hong Thong, their home brand whiskey which claimed a few over enthusiastic drinkers every night. It was during these pockets of fun that our Thai buddies laughed and joked with us as we added each other on Facebook. The initial awkwardness of the first few days quickly dissolved in the volume of our shared experiences. It was a comfort to know that somewhere else on earth there were people we could laugh along and easily associate with. People going through the same journey with us as a soldier.

With the end of the trip on the horizon, we headed into the final mission profile where we would fight alongside our Thai buddies. At 7 am four black hawks appeared over enemy skies as detachments of Thai rangers and Singapore commandos fast roped down to kill the common enemy and secure the objective. Smoke grenades were thrown and commands shouted as the plan of attack unfolded. It was over before we knew it and the enemy was brought down. Soon it was all high fives and hugs. We exchanged with our buddies simple Thai complimentary phrases we had learnt and they smiled and nodded in appreciation. We had finished our last activity together.

The closing ceremony was bittersweet. We were glad to have accomplished what we came to do, and looked forward to returning home. We were glad for the new experiences and the friendships fostered. What had seemed so uncertain at first turned out to be such a rewarding experience. We exchanged airborne wings, formation tabs and shirts. The royal red and gold of the Thai airborne wing stood out on our dull green uniforms like how this trip stood out amidst the monotony of army life. And so with all good experiences, there is always a reluctance for things to end. After both commanders spoke to us, the Thai national anthem drew the ceremony to a close. We watched as the soldiers sang loud and proud, a glimmer in their eyes left no doubt that they believed with all their heart in the country they protected. The patriotic tune plays on in the background.

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Amidst all our experiences that scene had always stuck with me. Upon returning to Singapore I realised the best thing I’d learnt from the Thais was to approach the challenge of army with a big heart. I still remember their cheerful ways, the helpful gestures, the thousand smiles that did in fact greet us. Many of us may have entered this trip thinking  that these benign elements could never exist in the army, but fortunately these two weeks had shown us otherwise.