The Pain of Growing Roots
My first life abroad smelled of humidity, frangipani flowers and chlorine.
We moved to South-East Asia when I was seven. When we arrived, I was rendered mute, as I could only speak my mother tongue. My French vocabulary allowed me to talk about skipping rope and what I'd like to eat for dinner. When we left, my parting gift was a childhood lived in novel languages, a big world and a nagging feeling that there were thousands of lives to be lived around it.
First home abroad, early 2000s
Today, I can order three scoops of ice-cream in eight languages and haggle down the price of a hand-made ceramic bowl in five. I can live a full life in three languages, and I can throw small, dagger-like insults in two. Yet, the languages my tongue can twist into haven’t given me a place I belong to. In English, I blossom. In Finnish, I fumble and never know what to do with my hands. In French, I'm bit chichi. I don't belong in any of the three.
Returning to Singapore 15 years later, July 2017
I have a permanent itch nestled somewhere between my ribcage and my stomach that never lets me forget about the lives I could live somewhere else than here. I've tried on cities like a teary-eyed bride-to-be tries wedding dresses; always hopeful, often gently let down.
I've dreamed of a life as a human rights lawyer working for the United Nations, a romantically rootless poet, and a historian based in Cambridge; of researching and writing a book at the Senate House Library in London, travelling around the world as a foreign correspondent, living in Seoul, going to Columbia Journalism School, setting up a life making ceramics in Copenhagen, and writing screenplays in New York. Acknowledging that it is a beautiful privilege to even be able to dream about these lives doesn't make it easier.
First home in Helsinki, December 2017
I constantly bank on impermanence. I avoid committing to anything for more than a month at a time. I have a distinct aversion to settling down, growing roots and establishing routines because they symbolise settling, full stop. My first home in Helsinki stood empty for months because I didn't want to admit to the sin of choosing continuity.
First summer in Helsinki after London
On bright Saturday mornings, I sometimes stumble into a panic; a sour cocktail of fear, pride, hope and excitement. I see old friends falling in love, refurbishing homes, taking care of newborn puppies and spending summers in Italy. I often wonder whether it will ever happen to me. It's a curious sadness mixed with swell after swell of excitement.
And with every new city, I can't help but look for it: a reason to forget the 999 unfilled lives and just choose one.