I Found Home Half a World Away
I am part Indonesian, part German; in other words, I am Eurasian.
I grew up in Singapore, living there for most of my life. I walked the same streets every other day, met the same friends out by the park and ate the same food at hawker centres as cravings hit. I became familiar and comfortable within the only country I ever knew. Singapore was my home.
I talked as the locals did, acted as the locals did, did life as the locals did. The very essence of Singapore is its “melting-pot culture” – one which came about thanks to the immigration of people from all over the world, one which made an amalgamation of lifestyles the norm, and one which greatly helped me assimilate into its way of life. Singapore is a great place for a person of mixed heritage to feel welcome and accepted. But as much as the country is home, I am only a permanent resident, with plans to return to either my father or mother’s birth country one day.
Growing up, my parents never really made a conscious effort to make sure their mother tongues were spoken within the household. English, the language that initially made it possible for them to communicate with each other all those years back, was preferred. The only time I would hear them speak their native languages were when they communicated with family and friends back home.
In addition to a lack of proficiency in either language, I also lacked in exposure to either country’s customs. I didn’t grow up in communities that embraced the strong cultures of Indonesia or Germany. I have never worn the traditional costumes, nor did I take part in any traditional celebrations. I also never joined any societies or clubs that allowed me to meet people in the same situation.
My upbringing, as much as I loved it, left me in a place where I could call myself neither this nor that; where I couldn’t say I belonged here, nor there.
Travelling is something I have always loved, but every visit to Germany brings back feelings of anxiety.
“Machst du hier einen Urlaub (Are you coming here on holiday)?” the German immigration officers ask.
“Entschuldigung, ich kann nicht gut Deutsch sprechen (Sorry, I can’t speak good German),” I sheepishly reply,
“But you’re from Germany – you have a German passport. You should be able to speak German,” comes the response, accompanied with a judgmental look.
Facing this, with no good reason for my language inadequacy, I remain silent, smile, and say a simple, “Danke (thank you),” before leaving.
I don’t blame anyone for judging me for the said language inadequacy – they have their reasons, and I have mine. Regardless, being treated this way does make me feel different and anything but at home.
In Indonesia, I don’t get discriminated quite as much for my language abilities as I do for the way I look (read: fairer skin tone, Caucasian features). Strangers insult me in Indonesian without the knowledge that I can understand; I pay a different price to locals for general entrance fees because I am classified as a foreigner; neighbours take unwanted interest in me because they deem me different.
I moved to Melbourne last year for university and, being used to some form of discrimination and alienation in most places I visit, I half expected to experience the same there. Acknowledging the differences between Singapore and Australia’s cultures and lifestyles, I was convinced it would be harder to fit in. This preconceived notion was compounded by the fact that I was moving into a college dorm, where I would essentially plunge into the close proximity of students from all over the world.
To my surprise, this mingling panned out wonderfully. Four months in, and I already have a sense of belonging I’ve failed to ever experience, even in Singapore. Opportunities, challenges, education, triumphs, self-discovery, the honing of skills and pursuance of my passions have come naturally.
The openness of Melbourne’s culture allows for the freedom of speech, of expression, and to simply be – all within the constraints of the law of course. One can, for example, participate in political rallies to support causes that call out to them, or showcase their creative pieces in the many art shows being held.
As with anywhere else in the world, adjusting to life in Melbourne took a while, but it was not trying. There were no expectations of who I was supposed to be, how I had to speak or how I had to portray myself.
I felt liberated. The great openness, lack of judgements made and willing acceptance of the community around me made me feel comfortable with myself. Being surrounded by international friends in the same boat as I was buoyed my journey and helped me tide through the adjustment and adaptation phase. Strangers welcomed with open arms and friends reciprocated my efforts to maintain involvement in each other’s lives. They celebrated my victories with me and transformed into Aunt Agony when I faced rougher patches. They even brought me to meet their friends, just so I could further assimilate myself into their culture.
These little moments together led to my realisation that home does not need to be in your birth country, or your parents’ birth country, or some place you grew up in. Home is any place where you are able to spread my wings.
And for me? That’s now Melbourne. This is where I fly.
Photos provided by the author