*Today I’m speaking at The Hilton on Orchard Road in Singapore. It’s our very first big fat expat meetup. Here’s a copy of today’s talk.*
It’s after midnight and I’m sitting in a restaurant at the airport. I have all of my familiar airport paraphernalia with me: a neck pillow, a long scarf that will later serve as an additional blanket on the plane, my laptop, and a samsonite computer bag with eleven different hidden compartments. The blinking cursor is making its way from left to right as I type each letter into the familiar rectangle that frames a new blog post – except it’s not a blog post. It’s today’s speech. Yes, at 1am, and with 25 minutes to get to the gate in preparation for boarding my flight to Singapore, I am beginning my speech.
Earlier this evening I sat at rugby training with three out of my four children. With both boys on the field it was my daughter and I who shared a table. As we discussed her latest obsession “the outsiders” a novel she’s been reading as part of her year 8 curriculum, a novel which has completely captured her attention, I feel someone approaching me from behind my right shoulder. It is Jo. Jo and I have never met. Jo looks nervous but determined and says as much, with a quiver in her voice she says “excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt but I’ve seen you here before and I just had to tell you about my daughter. I told her to read your blog. She needed some help with satirical writing and I said ‘read this lady’s blog, it’s perfect for satire with a warm voice’ and do you know what? She did. And her grades are up here now” she motioned up above her shoulder. After I thanked Jo with the complete sincerity of a writer with crippling self -doubt I turned back to face my daughter expecting some sort of acknowledgement. My daughter is 14, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a high five, but maybe a nod of agreement or even an enthusiastic smile in my direction. Perhaps some sort of acknowledgement that there was more than one person in the world (other than Granny Max) who reads the blog. She was looking down at her phone and when she eventually looked up she was not only expressionless but deeply disinterested.
“What?” she said with a blank stare
“Did you hear that?” I teased her, grinning “Her daughter read my blog and now her grades are up here” I motioned towards the sky.
“Oh no Mum, don’t you dare make me read your blog” said my daughter, as if I was threatening her with the task of getting through Dostoyevsky in a day. “I am not reading your blog” she reiterated incase there was any doubt.
“Don’t worry darling. I promise – I promise I will never ever MAKE you read my blog”.
The truth is, I hope one day, I don’t know, maybe in ten or fifteen years, she will read the blog. I hope that one day she will see how I saw her. How we all were together. I hope that this blinking cursor has provided the space for all four of them to return to revisit our lives through my eyes. Is it not the wish of every mother? Have we not all looked at a heartbroken child with quiet desperation… “I wish you could see yourself how I see you”.
We had taken two cars to rugby. Greg is currently driving a very small rented Peugeot sedan, it is ridiculously close to the ground for his 6 foot 2 frame but we can’t decide what to buy and it’s cheap to rent and serves a purpose. I am driving our other car which I often describe as a living room on wheels. I have one child in the front with me, it’s Fred. At eight years old, Fred’s teacher broke the news to us that while his every day results appeared to be at the same level as his peers he had tested “off the charts” in being able to discuss “adult concepts”. So while he fiddled with his mouth guard and wiped the sweat from his brow using his rugby shirt he chose death, funerals, the after life, and Donald Trump as the topic of conversation as we made our way home. As we pulled up at the traffic lights closest to our house I realized we were right next door to the other half of our family. There was my husband Greg, then Annie in the front seat next to him scrolling through her music selection, the standard one ear bud dangling from her ear. Henry Hotdog was in the back, staring into space. G looks tired, he hasn’t been sleeping, he glances right, as if he can feel my presence, he smiles a soft worn out smile. It has been perhaps the longest weekend of his life and he is emotionally spent.
My husband lost his father to cancer on Friday night.
I know, this is not where you were thinking this talk was going to go right? And trust me, neither did I. But it would be so so strange to stand here with so much stuff going on in the background and not mention it. You’re the people I’ve been writing to for over six years, you’re the people who understand what it means to be away from home when something like this happens. You’re my tribe. I couldn’t come here today and pretend. But, let me take you back to last week before our world changed.
I had an idea for today. I’d stumbled across a photo from 16 years ago. February 2000. The pic is our family’s first ever digital image. I know this because it was taken here in Singapore, about one hundred metres from the front of this building, not far from where we’d purchased our very first digital camera. The video camera had a flash card where we could snap moments in time while taking video. In the shot, which is incredibly grainy and hard to decipher I’m standing on Orchard Road, out the front of Starbucks. G and I had come to Singapore, from Jakarta, for our very first ever visa run. We were so so young and green and we really thought we’d struck expat gold. After our first six weeks in Jakarta getting a weekend in Singapore? In a hotel room paid for by the company? And they were making us go? Insisting we went?!
A number of things happened that weekend. We had to move hotel room three times due to different drama’s; leaking ceilings, cigarette smoke-stained walls, and a party in the room next door. But the biggest thing I remember from that weekend was a pair of pink shoes. Hot pink shoes. They were slip ons with a soft sole that almost gave you a bounce with each step, and they were the most comfortable slip on shoes a six month pregnant woman could have dreamt of. I loved those shoes. So in that very grainy shot outside of Starbucks you can see me, glowing with a mixture of pregnancy and tropical humidity, so excited to be travelling, so loving my new shoes.
So the plan for today was to share the photo with you and chat about our former expat selves. What would we say if we had a chance to meet our former expat self? If I was to walk outside now and see that Kirsty from February 2000 standing out the front of Starbucks, six weeks into her first posting – what would I say to her?
I asked you all on the Facebook page and there were some fantastic answers.
Ann-Maree who is here today and will kill me for pointing that out.
“walk away from negative people – watch and listen for awhile”
Kristie who lives in Doha and is my new companion at the Rugby club.
“take photos – photos of the everyday stuff – lots and lots of photos”
“No matter how long or how short your stay may be, make it home.”
“Take care of your pension, because you won’t be an expat forever…”
“Spend more time to get to know the locals and less time in your comfort zone”
But it was Catherine Wallwork who had me on the floor, this is bang on…
“Train to become a hairdresser and specialise in blonde highlights. You’ll make a fortune wherever you live. Can’t even begin to tell you how I looked after having ‘blonde’ highlights in HCMC in Vietnam!”
So that’s what was going to happen. That’s what we were going to talk about. But of course expat life got in the way.
When we got home from rugby the every day banal weaved itself within the grief. The organization and the reality of what we had happening in the next few days amongst homework, teeth brushing and clarinet practice. I needed to get on a plane to Singapore. G and the kids had to confirm their flights to Australia. My daughter in Australia would have to miss a couple of days of school to come to Brisbane for the funeral. Flights needed to be re-routed, accommodation found. Teachers were emailed and while everyone got ready for bed I began packing.
G was in his pyjamas, eyes barely open, when I made my way towards what must be one of the most often discussed expat conversations.
“How do I find the photos from 16 years ago when we were living in….”
Is everyone else as digitally disorganized as we are?
I wanted the shot outside Starbucks to use today. I wanted to see those pink shoes. And as I loaded my suitcase with clothes for two countries with vastly different weather I watched my husband fossil though the safe for a hard drive. He then looked for a different computer, circa 2009.
“Don’t worry about it darls – I don’t really need the photo, it doesn’t really matter” I knew I could survive without it.
He continued searching.
I was walking back from the bathroom with my toiletries when I heard what sounded like chipmunks. It was Annie, age 3 and Fred age 2, a snippet of film that G had found, our life in Canada. He was making his way through the archives. They were wearing brand new jumpers that Grandma had handmade and sent in the mail.
“Say thankyou to Grandma” I heard the voice of my younger self.
Two blonde headed toddlers pushed their faces towards the screen an in unison said “tank you Granmaaaaaa”
“Kiss?” I heard myself ask them.
Fred turned towards Annie with his lips puckered.
“Uh, na na naaaa” she says backing away from her brother. It was the same look, don’t make me read your blog.
The video stopped abruptly.
By now I had completely given up on packing and was almost sitting on top of G’s computer, trying to get a closer view of my babies, it was like mother’s crack.
“Play it again, play it again” I urged
G pushed play.
I turned to look at G’s face as he watched them, it was the same as mine. Complete wonder tinged with sadness. Did that really happen? Is that part over?
So what would I tell my younger expat self?
I would tell her…
You are so so lucky. You in your pink shoes. You don’t know it yet, but those pink shoes will walk you into a baby clinic in Jakarta in about 5 months time, where a Scottish woman will take one look at those shoes and decide you must be okay. She’ll befriend you and you’ll discover later that half of her wardrobe is bright pink. She will become your best buddy and life line for the next few years. Her husband will become the godfather of your first born. Right now this sounds ridiculous because you’ve got life long friends at home, how could someone so new become so important? This is expat life.
What would I tell my younger expat self?
I’d say you are so so lucky. Just imagine if you hadn’t gone? There will be so many trips like this, where you and G will wander into a new country and stumble your way through it. This is your last trip as just the two of you – you are about to buy seven different baby strollers. Take every set of stairs you can find right now, they are about to become the enemy.
What would I tell my younger expat self?
Would I tell the truth? That it’s really hard sometimes. That it’s lonely and often unfair. That you have now made yourself different because once you see this life you can never unsee it. That geographical schizophrenia is now an everyday event. You will long for one location while dreaming of another.
Would I tell her that she will miss her Grandmother’s funeral because we just can’t make every trip home that we want to. Would I tell her that her heart will feel permanently scarred from goodbyes, that she will be forced to leave tiny parts of it behind, that she will see pictures from past cities and faintly feel it ache as something stirs within.
Would I tell her that she will continue to build, grow and then break apart again, having to constantly reinvent, and reconstruct.
Those pink shoes will get left in a cupboard. She’ll never know what really happened. They were lost in the pack. They just never make it to the next country. She didn’t realize immediately, it just happened one day, kind of like the little silver figurine from under the coffee table. It just didn’t make it. No-one but she will understand why she cried when she realized they were lost. What those pink shoes really meant.
So, if I walked outside and saw her now. February 2000 Kirsty. I would tell her to jump in with both feet. To maybe listen more, speak less, and to write it all down. To take pictures of every bathroom, every kitchen, every new office, and every car purchased (or rented). And I would remind her that for every article she reads about whether you’ve been an expat for too long, to then ask herself, would she really want the alternative? Would it have been better if she’d just stayed at home?
Of course not.