I’ve written about absence making the heart fonder and while that is indeed true when it comes to relating with people whom we know and love, absence can do stranger things to one’s relationship to particular spaces. Before my return, many asked me if I missed home and the more I considered my response, the more I realised that I missed the people back home but not quite the place. I was happy to come back to catch up with friends and family for the few weeks but the relationship with the space as a whole was a little more fraught. To misuse the title of a Robert Heinlein novel, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
It all began with me realising that the urban landscape in Singapore has changed considerably in a relatively short period of time. Landmarks that used to guide me are no longer present and the constant shifting and renovation of buildings can be quite bewildering. I got a little disorientated in town a few days ago while trying to find a building that I used to be able to find very easily. The feeling of wandering around in my own country, feeling like a tourist was novel but a little discomfiting at the same time. I was surprised at how easily a place that used to be familiar can become so unfamiliar and how I reacted to that. Its helped me look at the place with new eyes but more than that, I realise that being away means that we cannot take what used to be familiar for granted any more.
Someone is a stranger in one’s own home when the sense of connection with the land is reduced. The urban nature of Singapore means that the landscape changes much more suddenly than the organic changes that occur in nature and because of this, the changes can be more jarring for one who was not on hand to witness the changes. Hence the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, feeling a sense of disconnection with a place that I grew up in even though I’ve only been away for relatively short time. Overdramatic, some might say, but significant because it made me truly consider, what home is and what it means to be on mission away from one’s home.
While one can blame urban renewal for my own sense of feeling disassociated with the place, I think it goes deeper than that. The past years away might have changed me in more ways that I realise and although I’m still very much a child of this country, there may be certain mindsets or orientations that I don’t quite subscribe to any more. I was a little shocked at the crowds that seem to be everywhere. The city is in constant motion and the neverending drive forward, both metaphorically as well as literally, all contribute to a place that gives a vibe of overachievement and anxiety. In many ways, I feel that I’ve stepped away from that. Not that I don’t experience anxiety anymore but I feel that something’s changed within me that drives me towards less tangible and, dare I say it, more spiritual goals.
Lest everyone begins to think that I’m becoming a monk, a real one to suit my normal hairstyle (or the apparent lack of it), I’m not thinking of a retreat from the world or from the big city but I do notice a subtle realignment of what I feel is important within me. Coming from Kuching where I felt a greater sense of connectedness between people, possibly due to it being geographically smaller, I realise that we’re in need of greater connections of the human variety. Our virtual connections have reduced the apparent need for direct human connection and that has led to our retreating into ourselves and our virtual sense of the world. It’s very obvious when one rides the MRT and sees practically everyone engrossed with their mobile devices, happy in their own world. I went running the other day and was quite surprised that very few people look up and smile at fellow runners anymore.
Comparisons between cities and places may not be useful but the recognition of where one is in relation with what used to be familiar can be. Growth can come with its own pains and perhaps the discomfort that one feels is part of growth. Or perhaps it’s just part of being a person of the world – we cannot expect the world to be the same as we grow in our own life and faith. As we acknowledge the Lord as our one truth and stable point within our radically turning world (apologies to T.S. Eliot again), we keep that and journey into this wildly disorientating and dynamic thing that we call life. I’m feeling like a stranger in a strange land but I expect that the land that I’m to go to next will feel a little stranger still. And that, my friends, shall be the subject of another story.