This simple lyric from the 1975’s latest album got me thinking about a question I often ponder. And the answer is, absolutely. Where you’re born determines your whole life. Your life expectancy, income, your diet, your entire perspective and outlook. Your religion, the things you believe, the communities and collective memories that you subscribe to (willingly or not). Your entire existence is determined by where you are from. I’m fascinated by this. Because I’m not really from anywhere. Because lots of people I love also aren’t from anywhere or are from lots of places. Where you’re from is Almost Everything. I exist inside that “almost”. It sets me apart from my extended family members, from people I’ve encountered along the way.
I often wonder about what makes a TCK unique. What sets this small demographic of individuals apart from millions of other global migrants. Immigrants like my grandparents, economic migrants, first and second generation immigrants, drifters and wanderers, etc. I believe that what makes being a TCK unique isn’t what you leave behind (because humans are constantly leaving things behind). It’s in what you struggle to retain or get back.
I’ve lost a part of me, over time, after leaving Singapore at the age of 18 after graduating high school, and moving to Canada for University. I could feel myself drifting farther and farther from a culture that I loved, from a language that I missed. I’ve really struggled with how to stay connected to the Singaporean/Asian part of me. I think what I noticed first was losing language, and other elements that are easy to name: news, food, lifestyle. Some are harder to verbalize, as just the general sense of being “from” a place. For me, these elements are intrinsically connected to yes, Matty, geography. But perhaps I don’t want to be dependent on geography to be the only preservative of this cultural past and upbringing. I tried to find people that could help me maintain these cultural ties. But, I didn’t quite fit in with the Asian societies at McMaster. I wasn’t really all that Canadian either, being a recent immigrant myself.
This experience differs in an important way from other kinds of migrants. Take for example my best friend in high school, Jane. She moved to Canada for University, just like I did. She loves Canada, she has no plans to move back to Singapore. But Jane didn’t feel that same cultural loss over time that I did. Her family is Singaporean, when they WhatsApp and FaceTime, they speak the two languages she grew up speaking (English and Chinese), she can work and live legally in Singapore. Jane is racially Chinese and so naturally attracts and is attracted to people who are like her; most of her friends are Asian. Though she lived in other places growing up, and might live in others still, her roots will always be in Singapore. She didn’t experience any loss of culture, and if she did, she wouldn’t have any trouble reconnecting.
Though my parents have lived in Singapore for 15 years, they will never be really Singaporean. When they retire, they will move away, severing my last real tie to the place. When I return to Singapore to visit, there is no legal trace that I ever lived there for 10 years. I enter the country on a tourist visa, just like anyone else (I actually still remember the day my mom took away my green card).
I lost a part of me when I left Singapore. That’s not unique, we all lose things when we move (what box was that in again?). But the real challenge is how to stay connected. How to stay true and stay proud of that part of me. A culture that, as time goes on, feels farther and farther away.
I came to this abrupt realization when deciding my Christmas plans this year. I had the option of going back to Singapore, where I haven’t been in a few years now, or back to Canada. It was a hard choice. The predicament forced me to face the fact that, like it or not, my life is in Southern Ontario now. All of my closest ties, friends, and family, are there. With this being true, it didn’t feel right to be across the world for the holidays. Singapore isn’t really Home anymore. This was incredibly hard to accept. I felt I was betraying the +65 for choosing Canada over a chance to bask in its sunshine and good times. But, over time, Singapore has become less and less of Home. Slowly, people began to move away; people stopped going back. “Home” shifted, spread out, changed its name, hopped on a plane and went somewhere else, caught a tan, did something; not that its ever been one constant thing. Perhaps Home has always been on the go, like the individual it’s supposed to help define.
I guess I am me through geography. This in itself is complex, because to map me out you’d have to draw lines across five countries and three continents. But perhaps it’s even more complex than that. Because all five countries occurred in my life at very different and differently formative points along my personal timeline. Some will reoccur in my future life path precisely because of where they fell on my timeline in the past. Others, I might never return to. Not all countries are created equal. I don’t have equal cultural access to all five countries. Finally, the last piece of the dizzying puzzle is: where the people I love are situated. Because really, personal and emotional connections to people are what allows cultural access. This is why I don’t predict ever losing access to Canada, because most of the people I loved in the “Canada” chapter of life, are still there. In contrast, after I graduated highschool and left Singapore, my classmates and I were spread out across the world. As time goes on, we continue to spread further.
Maybe, it’s more accurate to say, “I’m me through complex cultural and emotional geography”. But that’s probably too many syllables for the line in the song.