The first thing people notice when they begin a conversation with me is my distinctly Californian accent. The animated tones, the shifted vowels, the “TOtally” and “AWEsome” and “whatEVer.” Yet if one listened closely, one could also detect hints of an immigrant background. That’s because I spent most of my childhood in Taiwan, where my mom is from. I attended elementary school in the old Wanhua District in Taipei, enjoyed bubble tea with breakfast and listened to 90’s Mandapop. At age 11, I was sent to live with distant relatives in Los Angeles so I could pursue an American education. I became what is known as a “parachute kid”, a common phenomenon in Chinese communities across major coastal cities from LA to San Francisco to New York City.
But it gets more complicated than that. Whenever anyone in the US asked me where I’m from, I’d always hesitate to say that I’m from Taiwan. You see, I wasn’t actually born in Taiwan but in Malaysia, where my dad is from. I spent my infant and toddler years in a small town close to Muar, where I acquired a taste for durian and roti canai (better known in Singapore as roti prata). I spent Chinese New Year with my aunt’s family, playing firecrackers with my cousins and watching Stephen Chow movies with Malay subtitles on television.
I’m proud that I was raised as a global citizen. My mixed cultural heritage was always an interesting conversation starter. Yet at the same time, I’ve always had this feeling of rootlessness. I often wondered where my real home is. Even though I identified myself as a Malaysian/Taiwanese, the truth is, I didn’t know either of these cultures well at all. So when I graduated from college after spending a decade in the US, I decided to return to Taiwan to be with my family again.
I packed everything into storage and flew back to Taipei, intending to reconnect with my Asian roots. I was filled with excitement and expectations of being at “home” again. I thought I would finally fit in and not have to answer questions like “So where are you from?” or “What kind of Asian are you?” What I didn’t expect was the reverse culture shock that hit me like a brick wall.
I found myself surprisingly handicapped as I struggled to adapt to speaking and writing in Chinese. Even though I spoke Mandarin in the US with my Taiwanese friends and frequently read Chinese books my mom mailed me, I found my grasp of the language insufficient for the workplace. I often mixed English words into my conversations with colleagues, at the risk of sounding arrogant, and often had to look up how to write certain Chinese characters on my phone.
I also had to get used to living with my parents again, reporting to them my every move, spending time with them on weekends and helping them with computer problems. And then, there was the extended family — the extravagant dim sum brunches that ended with fights over who should foot the bill, and the endless questions from my aunts who showed keen interest in who I was dating and what my salary was.
Seeking escape from this strange feeling of foreignness in what I thought was my home, I went online and found comfort in the forums where Western expats, many of them English teachers, chatted about their experience living in Taiwan. It was also here that I met an interesting guy from Singapore. We bonded over the sitcom Friends and together seeked out Mexican food in the alleys near the local universities. We conversed in English on the MRT, convinced that no one else could understand us. We watched Before Sunrise on a laptop and identified with the transatlantic romance between a young Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Eventually, like in the movie, we had to say goodbye when he had to move back to Singapore. He tried to convince me to move with him. After a period of intense hesitation, where I weighed the pros and cons over and over again, I decided to do it.
And so once again, I packed everything and moved to Singapore, a place I’d only visited once as a tourist. On my first morning in Singapore, he brought me to have roti prata at the kopitiam downstairs. I took one bite of it and immediately felt a sense of familiarity.
It’s been another decade since I moved to Singapore. In that time, we got married, bought a place and had two beautiful children. I still speak with a Californian accent though I am just as adept at ordering a cup of teh C siew dai in perfect kopitiam lingo. And sometimes, out of the blue, I still get this strange out-of-body feeling, like I was watching myself in a strange environment. In those moments, I often wondered what it would be like to move back to the US, or to Taiwan, or even to another country. Will I face another bout of culture shock? Or will I have grown resilient to such changes?
We are now in the midst of a pandemic, with travel restrictions and closed national borders, but when this is over, the world will no doubt once again be a global village, with people migrating across its surface every single day. The definition of “home” is perhaps no longer determined by where we are from or where we were born. I know it’s a terrible cliche, but to me, home really is where the heart is.
And for now at least, home is Singapore.
Bonnie Chia lives in Singapore with her husband and two children and is currently Head of Brand for WWF International (World Wildlife Fund for Nature). She is a passionate storyteller currently leads branding for the world’s largest grassroots movement, Earth Hour, as well as for the world’s most iconic international conservation organisation, WWF (and its iconic panda). Follow her IG @earthbonnie and see her profile at www.bonniechia.weebly.com.
Illustrations by Chao, a filmmaker, media educator and Instagram cartoonist who also happens to be the interesting guy from Singapore whom Bonnie met in Taiwan and later married. His cartoons can be seen on Instagram at @doodlesinabox.
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