Impermanence is an Identity, Too


I‘ve lived in five countries, but have never stayed in a home for more than three years. I identify—strongly—as culturally confused. I look at my cultural and national identity as the result of a series of disconnected experiences, connected solely by the fact that they are mine. I can only identify with a sense of temporality; that is, the idea that my life is inherently nomadic, shaped by an ever-shifting range of locations, people, and events.

The identity associated with temporality is almost always accompanied by notions of not belonging. I was born in a place that I have no connection to (Japan), carry a passport of a country that I did not live in until I came to college (the United States), and identify with a nation that I have no legal connection to (Singapore). I don’t know how to respond to the question “Where are you from?”; I’m still grappling with the idea that I am from many places and none. Identity politics are a very complicated thing, and my childhood experiences were shaped by the understanding that I was always a guest in a land that was not mine. Multiple facets of my identity—including race, gender, and sexuality—were subject to the land that my parents chose to move to. In London, I was clearly not white, and my parents’ accented English invited plenty of discrimination. In India, however, my lighter skin and our ability to speak English afforded us privileges that so many others did not have. The act of moving in itself was a privilege; we were occupying space in lands that were not originally ours and could afford to. My parents’ relocations to different areas of the world have been accompanied by the realization that, while their identities would not change, their experiences would. For me, however, definition through ambiguity has been more convenient and fitting, and I sought to alter my identity in order to achieve a very similar set of experiences.

When I narrate my life experiences, a lot of people have already cemented their opinion that moving from location to location is akin to traveling the world and gaining “life-changing” experiences. I abhor this term (for many reasons) because literally every experience is a life-changing one. It also glosses over the fact that many people live their lives in transit, and cannot return to a home base. This glamorized notion of travel ignores the fact that when you uproot yourself so often, sometimes out of opportunity, often times out of necessity, you lose the ability to form geographical linchpin. I find myself uncomfortably fiddly, not because I’m bored of a place, but because a core part of me firmly believes that I am a perpetually a visitor to any place I try and settle down in. Even now, when I talk about the Singapore I once called home it is with the understanding that my Singapore no longer exists. I live and define myself by a series of relics, and I have to accept that.

What is also not often understood is that behind the curtain of novelty in travel lies the hard truth that there will always come a day when I am to be pulled away from people that I love and cherish. The feeling of separation is raw and unbridled at first, but over time I have learned to harden myself. The trick was keeping just the right amount of distance between my friends and myself. It seemed that my parents planned moves almost spontaneously. I also moved around often before Facebook existed, so my departure from a home was always accompanied by the notion that I might never see my friends again. Sure, there was email, and postcards were lovely to exchange. But how long would it take for the e-mails to become less and less frequent? How long until I would stop receiving postcards in the mail? To me it was inevitable that some other presence would eventually fill the voids in my life that our departure created. I expected the same for my friends. I never put these understandings into words while I was younger, but they became more explicitly defined for me as I moved from Singapore and lost touch with my first best friend.

I made my first best friend in sixth grade. His name was Conan, and he was a kind, opinionated boy. We met in our English class, and over the course of the year I came to know him as the friend who played the same video games as me, the friend who enjoyed the same novels as me, the friend who also loved playing tennis. I was absolutely overjoyed in finding him. You see, it was my seventh year in Singapore, and while I moved homes every few years, I had stayed in the same school. My sense of not belonging was waning, held onto only by my stubborn introversion. I slowly forgot that I too was a visitor in a nation of crossroads, and Conan offered something that I had never experienced before. Our friendship was cemented when, at the end of the year he wrote “You’re my best friend” in my yearbook. It was a beacon of light in a sea of “HAGS” and “KATS”.

We did everything together. He introduced me to a world of new things, of movies I had never seen, places I had never been to, foods that I had never eaten. In Singapore, change is ever present. High-rise buildings appear in the blink of an eye, and people come and leave with the ocean tide; I slowly became desensitized to it all. Conan, however, provided both a sense of stability and novelty that was refreshing – I was the happiest I had ever been.

However, as is expected with most middle schoolers, Conan changed. Gone were those halcyon days – we were still friends, but as his friend group expanded, our friendship shrank. I slowly retreated into my shell, choosing to do things like stay in the library during lunch and sit alone on the bus back home.  I somehow felt a sense of betrayal, and I blamed myself for seeking things beyond my sphere of emotional safety. My heart broke when my parents told me that we were moving from Singapore. It was the summer of eighth grade, and I had come back from walking in East Coast Park, a strip of land next to the ocean that was the staple of my childhood. They took me, sat me down, and told me that my father no longer had a job in Singapore. I responded by bursting into tears. My sorrow was only stirred by the fact that over the past few months, Conan and I began to rekindle our friendship. A part of me felt cheated out of experiences that I would never have, but these were slowly squashed by the understanding that my move from Singapore was bound to happen. I had grown complacent, ignoring the fact that I was privileged to have stayed so long in a place that had a large population that ebbed and flowed. I had forgotten that I was still an expat, a visitor to this nation. So I stopped crying, and called Conan to tell him the news. He told me that he would send me postcards, that he would e-mail me as many times as possible. I smiled, because in my heart I knew that our shared futures would be tinged with Forget-Me-Not blue.

I haven’t seen Conan in the last seven years. The e-mails stopped coming, and slowly we stopped speaking to one another. I moved onto a different part of my life, and I assume he has as well. The belief that I was replaceable and the understanding that my friends were also replaceable informed my experiences in defining my own transnational identity. The only remembrance I have of Conan is our friendship band from nine years ago. To this day I still wear it, but not as a reminder that I should never have close friendships. Rather, it is a reminder that I can, and will, have friendships across nations.  It is the hope that I have left bits and pieces of myself behind in locations around the world and that I have left my memories etched within the walls of every home I have lived in. It is the idea that my temporality is a form of permanence, an identity that is a series of actions and feelings left behind like a trail of breadcrumbs.  That trail is ever growing, and may never lead to a single place, but in my heart that feels perfectly fine.

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