The oldest story in the world starts with a fortress, a dreamer, and an elusive idea: “a better life.” Pack your bags, little dreamer, spread your wings and go! Fly over the fortress to chase that map, that blank spot, that finger-pointed “there.”
I wanted adventure. Wanted it, believed in it until it ate into my sleep and slithered into my dreams, a restless hunger never appeased. Where I grew up isn’t like those photos you sometimes see in the news, on TV. My life was a middle-class life in developed Asia. No farms or fieldwork, but gleaming towers that scraped the sky at 70 stories, incredible infrastructure, and a city that ran like clockwork.
I guess that was my problem, the clockwork.
Singapore calls itself a “little red dot,” and much like the nation-city-state, you start your life as a dot. A blip on the radar, birthed and weighed and measured, then put in an appropriate kindergarten with your dual-language teachers. Then, at the age of seven, you’re shipped to a school — probably one that your parents fought for your place in — and your clockwork life begins.
Wake up at 6:00. Get the 6.30 bus, stand at assembly at 7:00, sing the national song. Recite the pledge, then file to class at 8:00. Classes till 1:00, then a short break, then extracurricular activities till 5:00. Go home, eat dinner with your parents. At 7:00 in the evening your private tutors come, because classes are hard, because what else do you expect? Your country is a little red dot and its national resource is people and your life began as a dot and will forever be a dot of labour filed into the clockwork system and you must be the best dot you can possibly be and look here: Singapore is top in math and science now. There, be a good dot and finish your homework and do your practice exams and what are you thinking of? Adventure? Will adventure feed you or your parents? How will you get money with adventure? Will adventure put a roof over your head? Why are you so ungrateful?
You do it all because you’re a good girl, and good girls behave. Sit properly. Close your legs. Don’t chew your nails. Sit up straight. Stop sulking. Smile. Girls should smile. What did you say? Don’t mumble, speak up! Don’t talk back to me, don’t act smart. I am right and you’re wrong and you’re only a girl. Keep quiet and do your work.
Fast forward twelve years; now you’re on the cusp of puberty. You’ve got bits of body that don’t fit right, bumps in areas that used to be smooth, and lumps where there were none. Even as your body changes in fits and starts, your mind is still that of a child — with flights of fancy and a restlessness that never went away. Always hungry, you search for books, you eat them with your eyes, you love the words that roll around your mouth. You read swashbuckling novels, detective tales, and epic myths until your belly feels fizzy and fiery from all the gods’ stories you swallowed. You’re young, with epic eyes, and you think the whole world is at your feet and you can do it all, have it all, grow up to be anything.
The first “no” you faced was when your dad told you that you couldn’t go into the engineering room, but your brother could — because he’s a boy and you’re a girl and only boys are allowed into the machine room to watch water cut metal. It wasn’t a huge, profound realization for you at the time. It just led to childish feelings of hurt and confusion, a growing sense of wrongness, in this body, in this growing self. You were wrong to ask, you shouldn’t ask questions, even though all you wanted to do was to see what was going on.
I was regulated to receptionist duties, like all good girls. I answered calls. I sorted mail. One day my brother sneaked me into the room where water cut metal and told me: “See? There’s nothing in here. It’s so boring. At least you see people and talk to them.” He didn’t understand; he didn’t see that he was special because he could get in and I couldn’t. That even if it was nothing to him, the room was special because I wasn’t allowed in.
True realization finally hit one day as I was reciting the national pledge. Everyone was enshrined in it, I thought, except for women: “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion…” Women had no place. Our gender was a mark against our abilities, and therefore we were unworthy of mention in the national pledge.
I wanted to be considered worthy, to be considered valuable, to have those swashbuckling adventures that always starred boys and young men as heroes. I wanted to be able to speak loudly, not stay quiet. To sulk and throw tantrums and be angry and not smile. I didn’t know where I could find all of this at the age of sixteen. All I knew was that somewhere else, that elusive idea might exist.
It’s better to be a second-class citizen in a country that isn’t yours than a second-class citizen in your own home. That was my idea of a better life. And so I left.
We come in waves, from soft small tides that barely breach the shore to large white-tipped surf clouds that race upon the edges of the coast; eroding a little, adding more, we, emigrants, land on shore.
I left the gilded cage of my home in Singapore, the prosperity, the serenity, the future. I left a life laid out for me, a well-trod destiny that my friends were well on their way toward, the assurance that I would be treated well and loved and nothing like guns or violence or poverty or racism would touch me. I traded it all because what I wanted, what I dreamed of, was a place where all the doors were open to me and all the rooms were free to explore.
We come in waves, from soft small tides that barely breach the shore to large white-tipped surf clouds that race upon the edges of the coast; eroding a little, adding more, we, emigrants, land on shore. We come by plane, by foot, by boat, by bus, by crawling under fences and being packed like sardines in a trundling truck, past these borders, these walls, flimsy obstacles to our dreams. We scrunch down and close our eyes and cross our fingers and hope for the best, pray that we land — and, on landing, seed a new life.
Loneliness blooms when it’s 8:00 at night in the full dark of winter and you’ve finally stopped battling with the bathroom, and you’re bone-sick and body-weary and you drag yourself downstairs to stir porridge because, whatever you do, you cannot fall sick again. The life of the emigrant: There’s no one to call, there’s no one to cry with except yourself, no one else to blame for your voluntary exile. Messages left by your mother almost send you into tears: you miss the sunshine, you miss the warmth, you miss the security, you miss the home that is familiar and safe to you. You stir the porridge and for the life of you, you still don’t know why you’re doing this, except…
Except for the dream. The “better” dream. You came here knowing what you left behind, trading it all for this startup that you can barely grasp with your own hands, this product you’re making, and you know — deep in your heart, your bones, your soul — that this will change the world like that childlike dream of the internet you had when you opened your first window. You know that if you left this soil, the startup would die even before it left your hands because you could never bring it back with you — you’re a girl running a company, of all the ludicrous things. So you stay and cling to it the way a mother clings to her child and cradle it in your hands and pray for it to be strong and healthy, wise and intelligent, graced by all the gods whose stories you swallowed, all the dreams that ate up your mind.
You and the other emigrants, all scrabbling for an existence on this hardy soil: America! The New World! 美国! “Beautiful Country”! How many dreams have started from this soil, to travel across the seas to so many dreamers? How many dreamers have caught this feverish dream, felt it across miles and miles of longing, until we reached this same spot of earth?
No one prepares you for the loneliness that eats you up from inside, the language that no one knows you speak, the skin colour and accent that give you away, the tiny insignificant things that make you “exotic.” You pray that somehow this dream will not break you in the end. Now you know why some emigrants simply get married at the first paycheck. Just hold fast, the successful ones say (but they know, too, it’s also the luck of the draw); be strong and stay positive. Love and advice from 9,000 miles away. Get married on Craigslist, says M. We laugh but we both know it’s no joke, holding our student visas and praying for O visas and sponsorship with fear.
It’s the fear that keeps you up at night, anxiety that eats away all of the accomplishments, because if you get sent back, everything evaporates and you have nothing to show for it. You’re another one who couldn’t make it, couldn’t survive, back again at your mother’s home.
The water bubbles. Stir and then pour in a bowl of rice. Just a bit. Just enough to get through the night. The taste of the porridge is bland and watery, and you eat it in spoonfuls, slowly, forcing your body to keep the gruel down. If you close your eyes you can smell the rice, just rice, a particular sweet-savoury fragrance like freshly rained leaves or grass; you’re aware of the smell of each grain as you swallow it down, each grain full, soaked with itself, a pure sense of riceness. You never liked rice as a child, preferring noodles — but this taste, made so many times before, is familiar, bringing memories of bubbling pots and the smell of sizzling sunshine-baked roads, hot cast iron and charcoal burned low mingled with a hazy whiff of gasoline. Your mother spooning porridge on a plate to make it cool down faster.
You made the porridge when you were taking your final exams and too lazy to cook every day; you’d leave a crockpot bubbling with porridge that you ate day and night. You made it when your friends were sick and this was the only way you knew how to make them better as they looked blearily at you, and you forced them to eat it, eat all of it, eat it down. You made it when your mother was ill and got back from the hospital, when she was bedridden and you had to tend to her by day: change the sheets, clean the house, manage her medications, work through the night. And then on the day when she didn’t listen to you and tried to get up, and had to be rushed to the ER, you sat outside the ward at 2:30 in the morning, half-dead from exhaustion, holding a thermos flask of the same porridge until the doctor gave you the all-clear.
It’s the fear that keeps you up at night, anxiety that eats away all of the accomplishments, because if you get sent back, everything evaporates.
Sometimes every mouthful of porridge tastes like tears — tears from loneliness, from feeling torn between the people you love and the country you loathe, from the emigrant life. From the rice you soak overnight to the porridge you eat by yourself, this watery gruel is a testament to some long history, or all the histories: the history of how a dream was tossed across seas, of a dreamer who caught it and left behind the fortress of home for “a better life.”
The porridge is the easiest and cheapest thing to cook, one cup of washed rice to four cups of water, and it fills your belly even on the coldest nights and gives you enough, just enough, for tomorrow. You’ll eat it several times on several tomorrows, again and again when life hits you hard and beats you down, when there’s no money left or when you’re too weak for anything else. You’ll eat it and eat it because the taste of it will remind you that you’re still here, still fighting, regardless — the first of your family, the first of your generation, to find this hardy soil and plant the seed of a life in a new home.
Rachel Law is the founder of Kip, a search engine for finding items in shops around you. She likes cakes, cats and neural networks, and can be reached at @serial_milk.