*Spoiler Alerts for Dragonflies, which you should totally watch if you are in Singapore, and for The Village, which you should watch if you catch them on their tour
Watched The Village (宝岛一村) on Saturday and Dragonflies today. Reminded me of A Man of Good Hope. Currently reading a book, Arrival City by Doug Sanders. Listened to a podcast episode titled “Virtual Mothering” by BBC Documentary. And of course, coming back to the work we do at Cassia Resettlement Team. Chats with Ella about Ethnic minorities in China. Meeting people from different nationalities in HKU. Learning how Sungei Road Market and the Sham Shui Po market are examples of low-end globalisation. Amidst all the news about immigration, refugees, identities in Singapore, Hong Kong and all around the world.
Amidst moving between homes and countries in my personal life having flown back to Singapore after spending a year in Hong Kong and moving from Serangoon to Yishun.
Migration. Relocation. Resettlement. Movement. Change.
In one way or another, we are all migrants, moving to different places or different stages of our lives. In The Village, soldiers and their family were driven by circumstances of war to move to Taiwan. In “Virtual Mothering”, Filipino women are driven by economic reasons to find work in the developed world. In Arrival City, Doug describes how rural-urban migration is happening all over the world, within or beyond national boundaries. What sets me apart from a ‘migrant worker’ or a ‘transient worker’ is that I chose to go to Hong Kong out of my own volition. I moved to Yishun because my parents wanted (I suppose) a newer living environment. My basic needs are more than well-cared for, even as I complain of having to travel to and from Yishun, even as I sometimes wallow in self-pity while staying alone in Hong Kong.
But while I don’t lay claims to the dire conditions that refugees and economic migrants are subject to, I can share a little about how I felt each time I had to move or face change. The fact that my move(s) were supposedly for a different experience, rather than for survival, doesn’t take away from the fears, the uncertainties and the dissonance that came along with a migrant. Dragonflies, where the main character compared himself to an economic migrant, to the protest of his friend. He insisted that he was an economic migrant in the heat of the moment, not because he truly believed that he needed to ‘flee’ to the UK, but because he identified with being made to feel like he didn’t belong.
Us. Them. Others.
I remember crying in my dorm when my classmates would speak Cantonese in class and with the Professors. Wholly irrational because I could understand Cantonese almost perfectly. It was instead, perhaps a kind of fury that, fury that on the symbolic level I have been shut out. It reminded me that I dislike the bland and expensive food, the untidy and crowded streets and most importantly of all, the conversations I could not join because I simply did not go through DSE, had similar experiences or even values as these people I was supposed to face for four years.
I remember crying on the way back to Yishun, as I miss not just my house in Serangoon, but every part of the journey home, a path I never had to take again. Heck, I even remember crying when I was leaving Hanoi, the first out of 9 cities/towns I would visit in my 28 day backpacking trip.
But perhaps a childhood anecdote could sum up this cycle of change, adaptation and change again. When I was younger, I would have to visit Tanjung Pinang, my mother’s kampung in Indonesia. I would resist it because I have all my friends in Singapore, and I live in a modern HDB flat with my computer etc. But going back to Indonesia means playing with the kampung kids whom I would have to speak mandarin with (which they would also barely understand because they are more conversant in Bahasa), get bitten by mosquitoes, bathe using cold water and sleep without air-con. But by the end of 3 or 4 days, I would have had so much fun that I literally cried when I had to take the car to the jetty. And my mother would laugh at me “Haha and you said you didn’t want to come!!!” Similarly, I was sad to leave my friends in Hong Kong, even as I came back to my other life in Singapore.
This anecdote also reveals another thing about this constant state of change. It’s about the people, not the place. While relationships with ‘people of the same kind’ is without a doubt easier, I am reminded time and again that there is always common ground to be found between any two individuals. And the deepest connections are rarely based on ethnicity/ nationality/ language. I found friends I connected with on a deeper level in Hong Kong, just as I had managed to overcome the language barrier in my kampung, to play with other kids. And so even though Dragonflies acknowledges that society and countries perpetuate xenophobia, it doesn’t imagine a utopian scenario whereby the former becomes completely embracing of diversity or the latter lifting all rules on immigration and identity. Instead, hopes of a more integrated world is exemplified by individuals choosing to be open, striking up unlikely relationships including a blended marriage, father-daughter relationship not by blood and filipino maid and chinese grandma friendship.
I had assumed that the soldiers who escaped to Taiwan were well, at least of the same nationality. But I learnt in The Village that they had come from different parts of China and also spoke different tongues. In Dragonflies, a scene that particularly struck me was when the old Chinese grandmother shared stories of her ancestors’ migration with the filipino maid. Their experiences are similar and very much both of hopes of a better life, though lived generations apart. We should all be reminded that our high quality of life today is built on the same act of migration of our forefathers, based upon the same capacity of all humans to hope and dream, and to work hard for a better future.
So there it is, the messy world that we live in. I had grown up with uncomfortable questions about my own identity as an Indo-Chinese with ancestors from China, especially with my trips back to Indonesia, with increasing number of mainlanders in Singapore, with my increasing awareness and knowledge about the Chinese privilege and the overall sentiments against foreigners amidst growing immigration. It is now complicated by me studying in Hong Kong. There are moments when I foreground certain aspects of my identity when it suits my purposes. I am Singaporean Chinese, not Chinese. But I speak English in an entirely different accent in Hong Kong. I sometimes even get the cheap thrill when I am mistaken as a local in Hong Kong.
But I guess I am all of it. And while I admit that much of this fluidity is built on insecurity, I am learning to embrace these different parts of me as no less authentic than the other. Characters in the shows switched between languages and pick up new ones so that they could connect with people. In an extreme case for humour effect, a man in The Village was included in the community even as nobody understood him at all.
We are taught that home is where we ‘belong’. Home is where we can always return to.
But where is home if where one is situated physically is always changing? What if home is whatever, in the words of one of the characters of Dragonflies, “What we have to pack into a suitcase?” To me, home is a mosaic of my experiences and the people I love. And while I cannot physically pack them into a suitcase, I can keep them in my memories and my hearts, as mushy as it sounds. Thanks to the power of telecommunications, I can Skype my parents and my friends whenever I want to, just like how Filipino mothers can watch their children grow up even as they take care of other people’s children. My house is now at Yishun, but my home is not something that can be written as an address. My home is an amalgamation of emotional geographies, places with meanings that are part of the person I am, whether in the mountains of Nepal or the Macdonalds I always study with my friends in Secondary School. These are also not really just places, but rather impactful, if perhaps fleeting moments, comforting routines or trying phases.
And so relocation for me is beyond the physical. Moving between UK and Singapore, the characters in Dragonflies were clearly less impacted by the physical dislocation than the pain of loving a loved one and the distress of having to care for another.So this is also what I found in the Dakota Crescent Relocation.We had emphasised the narrative of the differences between Dakota Crescent and Cassia Crescent. Between Two Homes. But upon talking to the residents I start to see their stories as individual, complex journeys as compared to this particular move between two estates. Their stories, and my story, is beyond a physical relocation. Physical relocation is symbolic of, but not necessarily THE problem. I see it as being at the intersection of different issues involving socio-economic inequality, and perhaps exacerbating it.
And just as the soldiers and their families in The Village grew into their lives in Taiwan without forgetting their past in Mainland China entirely, it’s not one or the other. But just as they did not expect to have to settle down in Taiwan permanently, thinking they would “fight back to Mainland China” after a few months, there is perhaps really no point trying to predict where one’s future takes one. And which is why I pen this down to take heart even as I struggle with constantly moving, both literally and metaphorically.
But of course, this already extremely lengthy post only dives into my personal story and I have only briefly touched upon some of the more real issues, which will include migrant worker treatment, intersectional feminism and rural-urban migration etc.
Would love to have more conversations and share more in-depth about such issues. I am always grateful to have the luxury of learning more through what I read/ see/ listen to whether in school or outside of school and through the conversations I have. I do believe that it all comes together. So please share with me your thoughts, if you actually read through this post haha.
Cringey title I know (but well, it’s already been a cringey, TMI post), but I guess it does a good job of encapsulating and thereby embracing this new found notion of myself always being on the move, an identity that is static but not inauthentic and and of course, the incredibly long transit from anywhere in Singapore back to Yishun which I sorely hate.