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Singapore Baby

This past weekend we celebrated my birthday in Singapore. It was my childhood home, but it had been 35 years since I was there last. My family moved to Singapore shortly after my birth for my dad’s new job as a pilot for Singapore Airlines. 12 years later we had to leave because the airline furloughed all of their foreign pilots. My parents said we were coming “home” to Virginia. We had never actually lived in the U.S., but it was where we spent every summer visiting family. I was excited about the move because “American” was how I had always identified myself, and America was our land of summer fun. It wasn’t until our plane lifted off the ground in Singapore that it hit me: Singapore was the only home I had ever known. I shed a few silent tears as the landscape of my childhood disappeared below me. Every birthday memory, every school memory, every Christmas, every everything except vacations were Singapore. I can’t imagine my angst if I had known it would be 35 years until I returned. I can’t imagine my sadness had I known we were leaving behind the healthiest and quite likely the best years of my father’s life. He had brought us there, to that island city filled with diversity and culture. He was the captain, not just for the airline, but for our life of travel and adventure.

When we land in Singapore it is a bittersweet moment. I feel the pain of my dad’s absence more than I have since his death over 5 years ago. We take a taxi straight from the airport to see my old home. As we drive there the sights are mostly unfamiliar. Changi prison, just across the street from our neighborhood, is still there. But it’s World War 2 era buildings, coconut groves and palm trees have been replaced by groves of multi-story concrete cell blocks. We turn into our neighborhood, past the corner where the local market once stood. I remember running down there as a kid to buy fresh pineapple to eat after school. There used to be a bus stop on that corner where my best friend and I as 9 year olds would go to ride the double decker buses with our roller skates on! The market, the bus stop and the dirt lot where they once stood are all gone, replaced by nondescript office buildings now.

As we pull in front of our old house I am drawn to the bikes lying in the grass out front, the same corner that we used to toss our bikes so many years ago. The wall and front gate are similar, the lot lines are the same, but now a 3 story house sits where our tiny bungalow used to be. There is a koi pond in the front corner and a lovely open air dining room where our carport once stood. As I approach the gate an older Chinese gentleman stands up. “Hello” I say, “I used to live here”. His family looks over at me with doubt in their eyes as he says “The pilot’s family? You are so big now. You looked like her when I saw you last.”. As he points to Elena I hardly believe his words. He approaches us with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren in tow and explains that they have lived here since we moved out in 1984, 3 generations now. They remember us and ask about my father. My heart breaks just a bit more as I tell them he has passed, and I show them a photo taken some months before he died. The grandson has Dengue right now so we are not invited in. We drive to our hotel and nothing else is familiar. I was always a foreigner in Singapore, an expatriate, but Singapore never felt foreign until now.

Singapore is magnificent. It is one of the safest and cleanest cities in the world. It is efficient and easy and polite. Some might say sterile, but it is still my comfort zone. There are no Kampungs anymore (small villages in the jungle) and no dirt roads in sight, but there is still so much green. The patches of jungle are still there, but highrises now dominate the horizon. There is air pollution right now, a result of the slashing and burning of the jungles of Indonesia. It hides the sun during our visit and makes it look like a 1980s LA sky. Palm oil production is the culprit, but greed and consumerism are the real criminals. They have invaded the skies of my beautiful childhood home.

We are awed by the feeling of safety. As parents we don’t realize how much we are weighed down by fear for our children, until it is lifted. In America, my heart skips a beat every time I hear an ambulance or police siren. Working next to the hospital and across from the kid’s school was a constant stressor. So many sirens, so many guns, so many victims. “Not in my neighborhood” is something I can say today but will that be true tomorrow? In movie theaters, airports, concerts, festivals…my eyes are always scanning the crowd, always looking for an exit. In Singapore I can breathe, no American guns or divisive politics. I am happy to give up some “freedom” for this.

As we board the plane to return to our home in Bali I feel the loss again: the loss of my childhood, the loss of my father, the loss of what could have been. But then I look at my sweet family and our beautiful life and I am filled with gratitude. America gave me my family. And my parents, with their endless love and bravery, never let us know what they gave up for us. It was the best option. I watch the landscape of my childhood fade away once again, but this time I know… I will see you soon old friend. 

Singapore Zoo. Choosing our spirit animals.