Image taken from here b/c I don't possess such fancy luggage, sadly.
“Why don’t you want to stay home and, you know, understand your own culture?”
In front of me lay the piles of fabric and electronic appliances, spewed forth by my luggage, and my father’s perplexed face. The luggage was brand new from the supermarket; our previous luggage had finally succumbed to the constant beating by conveyor belts and its other larger, hard-shell comrades. My father’s expression was not new though.
I sighed, too.
My father had spent most of his life in China and Hong Kong for the past decade to run his own business, specializing in piping systems. He’d spent more time in a foreign land whose extended history of emperors and empresses he’d studied as a schoolboy than in his own country. Here was a man who could be considered a connoisseur of Chinese culture, a multilingual speaker who could discern a Chinese man’s original region based on their skin tone and accent or dialect, a ‘lao wai’ who knew how to make use of Chinese texting abbreviations.
How was it that he could think to ask such a question? Every single cell in my body was bristling and ready to refute him the way one would defend their loved ones at all costs.
I wanted to preach to this man the oft-quoted but ever-pertinent Proust line about seeing with new eyes as the real voyage of discovery instead of seeking alien landscapes of Gothic architecture and Khmer temples. I wanted to let him know how looking at these alien landscapes had transformed my previous indifference into renewed interest and curiosity in local Hindu temples and the Laughing Buddha at Waterloo Street. I wanted to tell him how the Italian Renaissance paintings in Florence made me seek out more local art installations and film festivals. The irony was that I was more interested in exploring my culture after I’d travelled.
How could I begin to tell him about my critical reflection on my cultural identity and race after finding myself vehemently resenting catcalls of ‘Ni hao’ on the streets of Paris even though I am technically classified as a Chinese on my Identification Card in Singapore? Given his time spent in China, did he not understand that travel inevitably made us the unofficial ambassadors of our country and its culture and national values? Did he not realize that the task of enlightening other people about our 42-square-kilometers island had been involuntarily entrusted to us the moment we crossed the customs and entered foreign cafes?
No, I’d begun in the past. Singapore broke off from Malaysia in 1965.
Or: Yeah, Malay is kind of our national language and our national anthem is in Malay but majority of us are Chinese, and I speak better English than I speak Mandarin because our classes are taught in English. I don’t speak Malay though. Yeah, I know, it’s complicated!
And every single time: You should come. The food is the best EVER!
If only it were possible, I would let him experience the organised Metro strike that I’d experienced in Rome, so that he might just have the slightest inkling on the impact it made on a young, impressionable teenager from a strike-and-riot-free country where public demonstrations are generally illegal. It must be highly possible that he witnessed the same abject poverty in China that I’d witnessed in Thailand, so he must be able to wholly comprehend the amount of privilege I had felt I’d unjustly wielded simply by virtue of being born into a corruption-intolerant and meritocratic incumbent government.
I’d started seeing things with new eyes, and like the eminent travel writer Pico Iyer, I was bringing new eyes to these people who would never even dream of stepping foot into Southeast Asia. And he hadn’t realised that?
I was angry, but I was also speechless. The piles of clothing at my feet lay all over the living room floor, tangled twistedly into each other like the ravel of angry thoughts struggling to free themselves from my tongue.
But then, he urged, “If you still want to cancel your trip, I don’t mind.”
I laughed, forgetting that I was angry.