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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

It was that same place, by coincidence, and through no overt fault of its own, that Bev & I broke down. That it was in a mall offers no insight – or perhaps it does, into the maze of malls that dot the city, offering their food courts (yum), shopping (yay?) and air conditioning (hell yes) to the people.

Over a month ago, Bev & I were here house hunting – our trip was to be accompanied by not only our exploratory foray into the world of house hunting internationally, but also by a guided tour of the town before we started looking at apartments. That itinerary was switched due to conflicts, so our first two days in the city, we were on our own to explore. Beverly had heard about a location near her work, a place called HarborFront, a popular destination with access to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s resort area. We imagined it as a waterfront village, a big-city version of Bridgeway or maybe Portland’s South Waterfront. What we found was a mall – a giant mall, Singapore’s largest – Vivo City.

We walked around the mall for a good half hour looking for places to eat. The western places looked expensive and at the same time, chintzy, a pale imitation with markup prices for the tourist crowds, we wagered. It nearly broke Bev. She melted down as we reached the end of the adjoined sister mall, HarborFront Mall, faced with a dead-end and major byway & flyway near us. I tried to comfort her, but only after I tried to shock her back into toughness, into acceptance of this is what it is.

She owes me a slap to the face.

Today I took the MRT to HarborFront, in search of a $2 store, Daiso, a major Japanese brand. I wanted to look for some of the little things that a house needs – salt shakers, paper organizers, any little knick-knack I could think of.  I walked out with a handful, but at some point during my time there, it hit me – the unfamiliarity of all, the vastly foreign feeling of simply not belonging.  Stupefied by this feeling, suddenly alone and feeling forsaken, I bit back the tears, and walked in a daze towards the checkout queue.  I forgot my salt shaker – by the time I had remembered that I wanted to buy one, I had left and had no desire to re-queue.  Instead, I walked, in a daze, it felt like, past familiar brands and shops whom I could hear mocking me, along with everyone who had told me that I would fit no fit for my large frame in Singapore.  The amenities of modern day felt distant, unavailable, and price tags loomed large as my lip quavered and my eyes watered: I have no job, no income here.  I am a stranger in a strange land, my existence and legal status bound to a single person who is over a 1,000 kilometers away, my heart and my soul tucked away in her luggage with so many clothes.

And it is not fair, at the same time, to bemoan my homesickness and my unfamiliarity and my loneliness.  She has been living out of hotels now for three weeks.  She too is bereft of home and kin, her family waiting for her in a city she has barely seen, with a job in front of her for which she cannot be weakened.  I must support her, in all the ways that I possibly can, for she is truly at this point, supporting me, a position in which neither of us has experienced.


I remember vividly the first time I had ever moved in my adult life, when I moved to San Luis Obispo for college.  400 miles south on the coast, my beloved beach & college town was at first as unfamiliar to me as is Singapore.  I too felt like a stranger in a strange land, and while the concept now is laughable, at the time, I felt that disturbing feeling of not knowing where to go, where I would find food, or just basic navigation.  I stood, downtown, lost and afraid and crying, and for the first time in my life that I could remember, I couldn’t tell which direction was north.  It was profound, realizing how much I craved a sense of cardinal direction, something to ground myself, to assure myself that at least one thing in this fluid world was constant.

I feel much the same now, with Singapore’s twisting and narrow streets.  I know that the sun rises on my bedroom side, making that the east.  I know that the lift is more or less north, but I don’t feel it, can’t trust it.  The stars, ever constant from a life on the west coast, are shifted.  Orion rides high in the sky, even into April, and I have yet to find the North Star, or even the Big Dipper.  That loss of direction is so troubling to me, that I can feel it resonate within me, as if it were a metaphor for all things in my life right now.

Strong words for a week & some change of, well, change.  This first week was going to be hard.  Bev & I had recognized it when we sat in the lobby of the Hotel Monaco, waiting for Mini to be picked up for her trip.  We knew that it would the last time we were all together for weeks – our brief visits with Mini in quarantine not withstanding, tomorrow will be a reunion unlike any we’ve had.


The stove and microwave didn’t agree on the time but both agreed that it was way too early for me to be up.  I had been here before.  It wasn’t the first sleepless night I had in my parent’s house but it might be one of the last.  Goodbyes and well wishes had been said – this was our trip to say farewell to the Bay Area, and it had culminated early with a bon voyage party with my extended family.

It wasn’t the well wishes that had driven me up, however, it was the endless details of moving.  What tasks needed be done before we left the Bay? What did I want to see, want to do, before I left?  Surely it wasn’t the first time I had left the Bay for an extended time, but always there was the closeness, the ability to just get in a car and drive, either up 101 or down 5, for a few hours and just be there.  The ability would be gone in a few weeks and what then?  How would I respond if I needed to be in the Bay?  How would I still feel connected to those I loved and the area of my childhood?

The alarm clock didn’t have a counterpart in the hotel, but it too, claimed the hour to be positively unholy.  I had never been here before, in the Hotel Monaco, but the feeling was the same.  My family lay sleeping, sprawled upon the bed that was our temporary home for a week.  Mini was due to leave that afternoon, but it wasn’t her departure that jolted me awake.  Again, it was the impending ticking of the clock – had I packed enough food for her?  Had I planned for enough contingencies, enough mistakes that I could recover with aplomb once situated on Holland Hill?

Would I have the skills, the materials, planned in advance to live my life and allow those that I love the most to do so in kind?  Sobering thoughts, waking thoughts, that drove me up at those unholy hours.

One thing that I couldn’t plan for – my cell phone access during travel.  Once we left the states, my Samsung would be worthless, or at least, impossibly impractical for phone use.  Would that too haunt me in the intervening days of travel?

It would, as Bev and I got separated coming off the plane in Narita, as I waited for her, already ahead of me, and visions of her getting lost within the unfamiliar1to me, she is actually quite adept at this place by now. airport clouded my reason.  A fellow passenger saw my distress and asked what was wrong.  I smiled my best and explained I was waiting for my wife.  She smiled back and suggested that I use my cell phone. 

My first stress moment of international travel – let all that have ears listen!

I did pull out the device to email her via the gate’s free wifi.  It did not agree with the local time, not. one. bit, and its claims were so contradictory to the local mid-evening hour that panic and confusion shuddered through me.  It too, like the alarm clock and the microwave and the stove before it, brothers and sisters in digital accusation, said it was far too early for me to be awake and worried.  However, a machine knows not the moment’s crisis.

We found each other, of course, in the airline business lounge.  Our reunion brought smiles to some of our fellow passengers, including the woman I had seen before.  She smiled that same smile and said, “I’m so glad you found each other.”

Well, join the club, lady.  Join the club.

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