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Personal Reflections

An idiot abroad examines his tiny tendrils of guilt

On most days, I’d reserve these thoughts for my private blog. I have been vacillating since New Year’s Eve whether to publish this publicly or not. Maybe you’ll understand why as you read on. This is a disjointed, admittedly incoherent account of my state of emotions at the close of 2010. Maybe it’ll mean something, to at least a few who read this.

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My stay outside India came to define 2010 for me. Sifting through my blog archives, I would say it is a continuation of what I mentioned towards the end of last year – but saying that would be undermining, in a way, what I have learned in 2010.

My decision to go to Singapore for a study exchange had a greater impact than I ever signed up for. The first half of 2010 – the second half of my first year at University of Surrey – had moments I am going to cherish throughout my life. I’m not saying this for the sake of saying it. This is not like those misused cases of using the word ‘literally’. I made friends at Surrey who are the sort who stick around for life – and with whom you’d want to stick around for life.

And then, I gave it all up to go Singapore.

Mind you, I don’t regret that decision. It showed me the value of what I had. What I walked away from. Singapore is that milestone I will look back to, as the place that made me fundamentally rethink friendships and relationships in my life. While I have enjoyed my cultural experience and made good friends in Singapore too, it made me realize how it isn’t the same.

I was sad in 2009 that I wasn’t as frequently in touch with my Indian friends as I would have liked to. In 2010, I found myself out of touch with my Indian friends as well as the friends I made in my first year at Surrey. I have looked on with a certain despondency as friendships that mattered a lot to me get reduced to Facebook’s loose definition of a ‘friend’. I have had relationships strained as meaningful communication lost its hold, stretched by space and time displacement.

Sometimes, I wonder how different things would have been had I not made the choices that I did.

Sometimes, I wonder how things will turn out to be once I am back in the UK – or even India. When I meet my friends there again, maybe in 2011 or in 2012 when we’re back in university after placement year, I wonder whether things will be same.

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…every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.”

– Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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I realize for the past half-decade, I have behaved as a social nomad. Changing school, taking a gap year, going to university and then deciding to do a year abroad – at each stage I had memorable experiences, but I know realize every time I did so, I wanted more. Many a kid who had parents with transferable jobs might have faced the same, but then, you sort of grow up knowing your primary school friends will drift apart, you are with family, and even then the displacements are a few years apart. I, on the other hand, have become part of vastly differing social circles in a span of less than five years.

(Someone suggested I do this because I am an only child; that an only child of a parent fishes for independence and uniqueness. I thought…it’d be the other way round? I don’t know. Freud probably has written about this.)

I fear that this urge to immerse myself in a new environment has come to define my way of living now. I assume this is what happens once you’ve learned BASE jumping or freehand rock climbing. After a while, it becomes the only way you get excited about life. After a while, it becomes the only way you can dream.

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Most of my friends in Singapore were exchange students; exchange students who usually stay for semester. I am not, I am one of the handful who chose to stay for the whole year. In addition to the obvious bonding among exchange students, I also made great Singaporean friends through my work at the TV station. All people who are excellent company to hang around with. Yet, the fleeting nature of our acquaintance came as a rude jolt to remind me at the end of the year that this really isn’t the same.

Singapore itself is diversely multi-ethnic; this is especially true of Nanyang Technological University. You’ll find native Singaporeans, Malays, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, citizens of other neighbouring countries; then you have exchange students from every country imaginable – the UK, USA, practically every country of the European Union, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, Africa. And yet, despite all this diversity, there is no unity. I don’t know why, but everyone just defaults to staying in their comfort zone of hanging around with folks of the same background. Walk into any canteen, any library (we have seven), any lecture theatre – look up the composition of any group of students, and you will hardly ever find a mix of different ethnicities.

It isn’t for the lack of trying. My roommates in hostel – both exchange students from Scotland – mentioned how left-out they felt during lab sessions; their lab team consisted of Singaporeans who would reply in English when asked a question, but would default to Mandarin when conversing amongst themselves. I’m not singling out Singaporeans here because this is a behaviour I have seen repeated across the campus. When there’s a social gathering, you’ll only find Indians hanging around with Indians, Malays having a barbecue in the hostel lawns, and so on. This was a big change for me from Surrey; the composition of student population is very diverse there, still, people do not exclusively restrict their social circle to ‘their own kind’.

As the calendar flips to 2011, I find myself back to square one – (practically) with no friends. All my exchange friends are gone, most of my Singaporean are off on exchange themselves on exchange, and even among the Indian community there I am somewhat of an oddity. I don’t have the luxury of being a fresher, who are forced by circumstances to get together, and at the same time as year 2 or 3 student I find myself faced with peers who’ve already defined their friend circle.

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For most people, year-in reviews are an opportunity to look back at treasured and defining moments of the year gone by. These usually are memorable days – for good or bad reasons – like parties, events, funerals, get-togethers, achievements, speeches…but every time I look back at a year, the defining moments are always conversations. Conversations, conversations, conversations.

Standing around the university mailroom trying to find the worst movie trailer ever.

Conversations over takeaway dinners ranging from life in the UK to gossip from part-time jobs.

Spending four hours on a roadside near the Esplanade waterfront, ignoring thirst and an increasing mobilization of an ant colony…because at the time, only that chat was what seemed to matter.

Staying awake till 4am in the library preparing for an exam, and discussing crazy stuff we did when we were children. (The winner was a friend who dressed up as Superman, almost jumped off his balcony, and made his babysitter have a nervous breakdown in the process.)

Turning up 15 minutes late to a meeting with my work manager for a meeting, trying to forget I hadn’t even brushed my teeth.

Talking to people you have never met in real life over Twitter – and yet, feeling that you know more about each other than people you’ve met in real life.

Discussing the ridiculousness of the behaviour of ghosts in Thai soaps and somehow ending with the conversation steered onto the topic of psychiatric care.

All those times on Skype and phone grasping on to every syllable. Pretending as if distance didn’t really matter. And at one time, finding it impressive that Skype added typewriter sound effects to their software.

Arguing about Catholic faith, traffic shaping by ISPs to prevent file-sharing, and whether the US was justified in going to war in Afghanistan in the same conversation thread…while waiting for a pizza delivery.

(For someone whom conversations define so much, I’m bad at the technicalities of it. I always misjudge conversational pauses, perpetually stepping over other people’s words; I am mortified every time it happens, and I panic and screw up even more.)

To every single person mentioned (you know who you are!) and not mentioned here (only because of lack of space!): I know I can be a difficult friend at the best of times. I am as narcissistic, shy, arrogant, introverted as people can get. I take a long time to understand and trust people, and then let them into my inner social circle. But once I do get to know you, you mean a lot to me. More than I possibly ever let on. Each and every single conversation in 2010 – and earlier and beyond – I can replay in  memory. Each and every single conversation is what makes the journey worthwhile.

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They say travel broadens the mind. I think, however, that a friend I had a chat with recently put it the best: travel does broaden the mind, but only if you go in expecting it to be broadened. When you visit a country as a tourist or live abroad, it is deceptively easy to insulate yourself.

There was a TV series running for the past few months on Sky1 called An Idiot Abroad. The premise of the show is they send a British everyman Karl Pilkington around the globe to see the New Seven Wonders of World. It is a travel documentary like no other – because it doesn’t try to be a travel documentary. You don’t have an enthusiastic Lonely Planet traveller gung-ho about exploring new cultures. Instead, you have Pilkington, who thoroughly hates travelling and doesn’t bother much beyond his next lunch at a pub.

I realize that Karl Pilkington is a comedian / radio jockey by profession, and many of the situations in the show were specifically cooked up to cause his discomfort. But then…something changed. It isn’t scripted into the show nor is it ever explicitly announced, but as Pilkington progresses on his journey something is different. You can sense that he is a new man – not his cynical old self any more.

I plan to go backpacking in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam (and a few other countries, if I can) later this year. (I’ve ‘done’ Indonesia; want to go back there again though.) Somehow this came up during a conversation with an employee at our hostel office; I was nodding along, smiling politely to what he was saying – because I didn’t really understand what he was saying – when I realized he was talking about a relative whose leg got blown off by a landmine in Cambodia. Honestly, how do you react to situations like that?

These past few days I have been reading a book titled Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. It is an account told through diary entries of Andrew Thomson, Ken Cain, and Heidi Postlewait – a narrative that spanning from 1993 to 2003 – as they work for the UN in Cambodia, Mogadishu (Somalia), Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Liberia. (The title of the book and its tagline is an exploitative ploy by the publisher, I guess, but content isn’t.) It’s a coming-of-age story of three Westerners as they see the good work they can and can’t do, working in some of the most impoverished and conflict-stricken parts of the world. Rich vacationers paying off macoutes, just so that they can have a merry time on ‘pristine’ beaches. Stories of faces half-chopped apart by an axe and thrown into the sea, just for speaking out against a dictatorial government. It makes for grim reading…but every once in a while, they recount an incident that truly makes you believe in altruism amongst the human race.

I feel as if I am walking towards a precipice – a precipice that allows a view of a thousand epiphanies. All I can see on the horizon now is the edge of precipice, and a tantalising glimpse of the enlightenment that awaits.

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When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.

– From Black Hawk Down

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I don’t have a new year resolution, merely a desire: to learn at least basic conversational Mandarin by the end of my stay in Singapore.

Wish you a happy new year, everyone. 🙂

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