As I flew towards Portland, the dense cloud cover below us spoke well of our location. No longer were the sun-lit skies of California on the horizon but rather the cold rain clouds of the Pacific Northwest. I was seated next to a woman headed towards Eugene to visit family and friends alike; she would leave our plane to board another a few hundred feet away and fly from whence we came, a literal up and down to Oregon’s third largest city. We spoke of much, I had mentioned early in the flight that I live in Singapore, that the trip to Portland was only a single night, thirty-six hours in the city I love. The question she asked was obvious;
“Why just the night?”
So I told the whole story, as I will tell it to you. My sister was pregnant and due the second week of my trip. I wanted to go to Portland, but I definitely did not want to miss the arrival of my niece. I opted for just one night in Portland, the day after her due date. At 1:10 AM the day before I left for Portland, fortune smiled on us all, and Mia Anne entered our lives, precisely on schedule. I had the fortune of not only holding my niece but also watching, with the unbridled joy of family, my nephew meet his sister for the first time, a special moment that words will likely never do justice. And the day after, with this in my heart, I woke up at five-thirty in the morning and drove an hour down to Oakland International, where I found myself sitting next to a delightful travel companion, telling this story with an unsuppressed grin on my face.
“You are,” she laughed, “higher than those clouds right now.”
Well, of course literally she was right, but I took the words to heart. Life was good. My family had a new member join us, I had just spent a wonderful week and a half with both family and friends. I played Lovecraft-inspired card games in sunny Noe Valley, had beer and schnitzel while overlooking Ocean Beach with my cousins. I got to drive my old car on the famous Bay Area Backroads, letting good sense take a back seat from time to time as I reached speeds unfathomable to the average Singaporean driver1fret not, the highest speed limit on the island is 90kph, or approximately 55mph. In the immortal words of Sammy Haggar, I can’t drive… well you know the rest. I had boozy evenings in Petaluma, the Queen of American Small Cities, and now I was going back to Oregon, to spend time with dear friends and the city I love.
Yeah, life is good, and, in the fine traditions of Catholics ahead of me, I began to feel guilty about that.
Well, of course that’s stupid. You don’t need to tell me that. I learned that years ago, but yet, it doesn’t stop the guilt from rising – do I deserve such largess of life? Was I making the most of it? Should I not speak of it, lest I reveal myself as an indulgent or flaunting my privilege? Such thoughts rocketed through my head as my traveling companion laughed again, not out of cruelty or spite, just the joy of a good conversation and the sharing of a life flush in the good times.
They were good times. As I sit here, back in the familiar coffee shop that I jokingly call my office, I reflect on the week and a half spent in the country of my birth, of the hometown I left, the city of my birth that I idolize, and everything connected to being an American. I constantly compare between Singapore, the adjustments in thinking I’ve made since landing on the island, and what I still dimly perceive as normal in the United States. Somehow, in my head, I’ve been trying to keep a final tally, a sum of my experiences to measure against the return to the new normal.
Somehow, I find everything I loved falling a bit short in the final tally.
Don’t look at me like that. I walked off a plane onto the tarmac at PDX and threw my arms wide, trying to take in the enormity of the Pacific Northwest as if I were able to wrap my arms around the entire region. I drew in fresh rain and the unique smell of the wet pines and the Columbia river and breathed out “I’m home” like a prayer. My soul was never so complete until I walked along the dirty streets of a tiny little city on the Willamette, dodging tourists laden with pink boxes of awful donuts and Tourettes-suffering homeless uttering little blasphemies to the devils that hounded their steps. I took lunch and spoke of liberal, progressive politics, the schemes of raising taxes and providing social services, the status of transgender citizens and the fights ahead that I had abandoned.
Oh, I’m coming back. Saints bear witness and if the devil himself dares to hold me fast, I will be back.
But as I sat in a bar in SFO, watching NFL propaganda videos of fans and former players of my beloved Niners learning how to shoot guns and wage war in the manner of our decorated special forces, I realized with sheer pleasure that in only a few hours I would be getting on a plane and putting all this fucking bullshit gun culture and the asinine self-delusion behind me for a few more months. That I would once again immerse myself into a multi-national culture and expose myself to people that value different things that I was taught to value. That not an hour after touching down I was listening to a taxi uncle gleefully profess his love for Barack Obama and in a heartbeat talk about Vietnamese development with a small hint of regional pride.
Listen, I love my country, but I’m someone that feels that every experience offers something to learn from; only fools fail to take what’s offered freely.
But those are the dark spots, the little debates, the undercurrent of unrest within the fractured states that ultimately bear little on the time spent with family and friends. That joy nearly puts the ledger in the positive, giving me to make posts that make my Singaporean2expat and local alike friends wonder if I’m even coming back.
I look at this ledger in its length and marvel at all I’ve taken in these weeks.
Beverly mentioned to me that she wondered what the first impression of her arrival would be. What would stand out to her as she deplaned in Portland, coworkers in tow? Her answer: that there were a lot of rednecks in Portland. I too, stood on the arrivals platform in SFO and wondered what I would take away as SUV after SUV drove past me, their drivers craning their heads for loved ones, friends, family or … whoever, standing fresh from their trip. I chuckled as I thought of the scene in Singapore, countless taxis and sports cars with unholy price tags and trunks barely able to fit a duffel bag.
The cold of fifty degree weather and the hint of rain. The pleasure of Bay Area Italian food, soul food to me. The simple, strange pleasure of familiar roads, even as a passenger, the rises and turns and even the potholes that remain unchanged from the previous year and the year before that and the year, you get it. The automatic patterns of familiar visits to my hometown, the joy in driving my old car.
The feeling of an inebriated Portland night where I thought I might just be dreaming and I wanted to reach out and pinch my friend and then myself to convince myself that this was real, that I wasn’t going to wake up sweating in the hot Singaporean night. That we were really sitting in a bar I only learned of before I left town, hearing her gush about the beauty of the bartender and finding myself only agreeing and deciding to try the mystery booze in the baby blue bottle on the top shelf because, fuck it, you only live once and we were both going to enjoy watching her reach for it.
The relatively low cost of alcohol and the invincible, dangerous feeling of “just one more” as crowds of drunken pedestrians stroll out of Old Town bars or Kentucky Street nightclubs, their intoxicated breath visible in the early morning hours as the temperature around me drops below freezing for the first time in over a year.
The euphoria of watching my nephew hold his newborn sister for the first time, wonder and love and the timid fear of “am I doing this right” on his face, naked and plain as only a child can show. The absurdity of my entire family photographing the moment and calling his name to look at their phones/cameras like so many paparazzi as the scene fades from mere memory and solidifies into an eternal moment. The joy of holding my niece, only hours old, so new to the world and its boundless possibility.
The simple pleasures of coffee and brunch with an old friend, talking of frustrations past and challenges ahead, as time slips minute by minute, leaving me wanting for more.
The wanting of time and its inevitable march past you as you try to hold your grip on the present and past simultaneously.
This ledger is full of cherished memories and wanting of moments that may yet come around once again. It bleeds black and red on both sides, the ups and downs of any location, any home, any experience. In the end, it comes out nearly equal, balanced by amazing friendships which seem miraculous to me and the opportunity of living abroad that has no price tag. It’s that opportunity, the remainder of our time here that tips the scales of my heart back towards Singapore.
Well, I must admit, there’s one more factor that sped my return back, as our plane raced dawn towards Asia, towards my new home; There in the sleepy hours of East Asia’s Tuesday morning, as I rode the edge of Monday west, lay the love of my life, and the little pooch we call our child, eagerly awaiting my return. It goes without saying, perhaps, but I’ll type it regardless, in sappy words along a digital medium, that I go where Beverly goes, along with heart and half of my soul.
Home, the status of it, the current entry in all the forms and the websites and the minds of those concerned will likely always be exactly described in cliched reference to my heart. For the moment, that’s the “little red dot” at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, the Lion City. My hometown will always be the small town on a sluggish brown river, the erstwhile Egg Basket of the Word, the Queen of Small Towns, a relatively short drive3by Californian standards from one of the most famous cities in the world. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that while the ledger currently leans to the East, towards the center of our world’s surface, that my soul would never be complete if I didn’t return – at some point – to my adopted home, Portland, the City of Roses, where beer is made and soccer is loved, and the rain falls on green trees with the promise of summer’s return as soon as the last light fades.
I will keep the beer brewing and ready for your return.
Well I guess I’m just going to have to learn fantastic new bbq techniques to have something to eat with that beer. 😀