By Daryl Li
I am at the airport, travelling to Europe, when I am stopped by the immigration officer who reviews my passport. He stares at the passport incredulously, and then he says: Are you sure this is you? I want to tell him: Well, what do you mean? Of course it is. But I don't. I just nod sheepishly. I feel embarrassed, or perhaps humiliated, even if I don't understand why. I feel as if I had been found out. Perhaps he too knows that passports are nothing more than a convenient fiction. He looks at me not so much in suspicion but more in comic disbelief, as though I've just played a practical joke that has failed to come off. You're really sure? He asks. I'm not any longer, no, but with my trip to Europe at stake, I just give him my most earnest expression and say yes. What is it that he suspects? Is it my name? Is it my face? Or is it my Singaporean-ness? I can't tell. In the instant, I am no one. Instead I am a name, a few numbers and a photo. I am a number of stamps and several blank pages. I am my passport: a collection of personal details, a travel history and a potential detainment. It's all I'm left with, and thus I realise that as he holds onto to my documentation, as he doubts my identity, he wields an unnatural, severe power over my momentary existence. He relents eventually and lets me through, pushing the passport back to me across the counter. I receive it gratefully, as though accepting a red packet.
Sometimes I think that there is no trust at the airport. I suppose it's unfair to say so since the stakes are so high, but I always get the strange twist in my gut whenever I am leaving or entering a country. This shouldn't be surprising as I am a notoriously nervous person, but it is curiously similar to the feeling that I get when I leave a store or a library and am worried about hearing the alarm go off. I've never got into any trouble, no, but the incidents are always embarrassing to me humiliating, even. Oh, look what you've done. The airport is a friendly, welcoming place, and yet the threat of humiliation always looms over me as I cross the border.
Do you know that Kafka story about the watchman?
Mysterious and terse, this story has troubled me for years. Today the story comes back to me as I think about travel. Permissions, after all, give shape to travel. Each time before leaving the country, I have to log onto the SAF's web portal to notify the Army that I'll be abroad. My passport expires every five years and I have to ensure that it complies with all associated regulations. Each time I leave the country, I nervously check and double-check that I haven't left anything illegal in the luggage. Let me through, I think, as I hand my passport over to the immigration officer. Let me through, I want to tell the customs officer. Let me through, I proclaim once more across the ocean. In a perhaps perverse way, these processes are satisfying to me. They represent travel to me, and more generally, also places.
Today I think that that might be the point of this story, that we cannot resist the idea of permissions. This should not be so surprising since this offers us the possibility of authentication and vindication, as well as the potential for transgression. Without it, freedom, and total freedom, simply throws us into despair. So we build our world on this conceit, permissions upon permissions. We give nations geographical shape by guarding our borders. In a place such as Singapore, where prohibitions and regulations abound, it is also easy to see that we define interior societies with the force of law. Permissions are not the limits to my world but the shape of it.
I'm on my way back from Europe. It's been a long trip and a long flight and I'm exhausted. I step up to the turnstile and the screen invites me to have my passport scanned. Then the gate parts and I am invited to provide my thumbprint as identification. My mother always has problems with these machines. They won't accept her thumbprint. In a way, it is possible to say that her biology denies my mother her citizenship. She used to get worked up at these things but these days offers little more than sighs of resignation. These gates are baffling. Get used to it.
The machine greets me. I press my thumb down on the scanner. Please wait. Oh no, something's wrong. I look up at the immigration officers, afraid that I've come all this way only to be foiled at my own airport. The screen gives me instructions. Please push your thumb down harder. Something like that. I feel a little stupid. I've come back from the trip with new stories to tell, new things to share, and here I am waiting for a machine to authenticate my identity. I once heard a story about a professor who knew his students by their IC numbers. Here I am being judged by a booklet and a thumbprint.
It lets me pass eventually. Permission granted. I try to keep the self-satisfied smirk on my face to myself. You never know what Immigration might think of it. But I'm looking at my passport, at the photograph; I can't help myself. I'm back home and yet I cannot shake the feeling that I am in fact elsewhere.
Sometimes I think about Singapore and I think: So many people trying to get in. So many people trying to get out. No one stops. We keep moving, keep travelling, as if in search of the spaces once inhabited by others. Yet we too leave voids behind with each journey. We too leave echoes. And each country, every place, is little more than an assemblage of echoes, signalling from the past and from the future.
The last time that we are on good terms, X picks me up in a cab at a bus stop. It's December 2013 and I'm feeling good about our relationship. We've had ups and downs, to borrow a familiar expression, but the dust seems to have settled, and the imminent turn of the year suggests to me new beginnings. She's not from these parts, but for the time being, she calls the island home except when she doesn't. She's flying home this afternoon. She gives her mother a call while we're on the expressway. She's speaking in a dialect that I cannot understand. I look out of the window and watch as the outside world passes by silenced. I think about holding her hand. I don't.
When we arrive, she realises that she's running a bit late and I'm left to watch over her luggage as she checks in. I've been quite ill for a couple of days now, and I have to work hard not to fall asleep over it. I'm seated next to a weighing machine and I watch as people fret over suitcases. One or two also worry about their body-mass indices. For a brief moment, I wonder how much luggage makes it in and out of Singapore each day. Then she comes back and apologises about the time. I was hoping that we would be able to have a meal together before I head off, she says. It's okay, I tell her. Plenty of days ahead of us.
She returns shortly after New Year's Day, and then the breakup happens as breakups happen, and a goodbye that I believed was temporary reveals itself to me. I don't ask why, although in the days to come I will sometimes think back to the day at the airport, trying to tease out some kind of secret meaning. I will remember most vividly her expression in the departure hall, her arm raised high up into the air as she waved goodbye. I will come to realise that I was wrong when I read bliss in her face, when I imagined then that it was a sign that she too was ready for our future together. The only meaning I will be left with is that something changed that day. It is a facile meaning, that is, one that occupies the surface of things, but it will be all I have. Maybe this is simply the nature of all departures. Nothing ever stays the same. It's January 2014. She returns, but somehow I've been left behind.
I am in the office hearing my colleagues discuss their latest trips abroad. It irritates me, perhaps because, personally, I've never quite been able to muster the same excitement for travel. I find plenty of excitement in Singapore already. Or perhaps it is jealousy. I too want to get out of this country, with its familiar language and familiar people. I too want to be a tourist, a stranger on foreign soil, at once powerless and anonymous. Self-erasure is the prime product of travel, after all. Being on a flight is sometimes terrifying to me. There in that confined space, without the internet, without any mobile network, and no sign of life outside the window, things lose their shape. Back home, down on the ground, I have a well-established identity, genuine or not. I'm Singaporean and proud to be. Up in the air? Sometimes I'm embarrassed about it. And sometimes they say I'm from Hong Kong, China, Korea, Malaysia, anywhere but the sunny island set in the sea. In being many faces, I have no face at all. Anonymous.
Now and then I think back to the incident with the passport and I wonder why I expend so much effort pretending to be a self that isn't me, just so that I can get out of Singapore in order to be no one. I need to get the hell out of here. If only so that I can begin to miss this place. I need to leave to know what home can mean to me. I need change so that I understand my love of stability. But perhaps most of all, I need to become no one in order to deal with being someone. Here, I am so well-defined, so well-understood. Like this country, there is no element of danger to me. I need to leave to become nobody, and as in the lesson of Odysseus, the greatest of all travellers, Nobody can be mighty dangerous.
I look around and I find that it's not hard to find things that I am supposed to miss. I get reminders every National Day. I know I live in a stable and prosperous country that I shouldn't take for granted. I know about the struggle that it took to build this nation. I love the food, the people, the language. This is my country and I like it here. And if I choose to leave it momentarily, it is only with the understanding that without this place, I am no one. That is, when I leave it, I become insubstantial and faceless, little more than a sound.
Recently, C told me that she will be returning to Malaysia after spending the last six years or so here in Singapore. I guess I could say that I always knew that this day was coming. Nonetheless, it still manages to get me down. It's not that it spells the end of a friendship, but departures always herald some irremediable change, some irretrievable loss. I mourn for a friendship irreversibly changed, each secret shared, every incident, every story now awash with the tint of yesterday, deeply pressed under the weight of a chapter closed. Every goodbye is irreversible, a permanent scarring of our delicate histories and futures. We will see each other, we will keep talking, we will fight the good fight. But all goodbyes are permanently carved into our lives. Time shifts. One can never return to the same point. You leave and you never come back. Echoes, echoes.
We live in different times. W is two and a half hours removed from my time zone, less elsewhere and more elsewhen. We stay in touch, electronic connections providing us with the illusion of simultaneity. The displacement appears to contract, or perhaps it is concealed, and briefly, it can seem as though we are inhabitants of the same world, the same reality. This is, of course, a lie. No one shares the same time. Our moments are individualised, isolated and infinitesimal. They do not overlap.
Now and then, I think that this is true of every one of us. After all, it is only time that separates us. Our planet is segmented by time, each position corresponding to a time of day, always shifting, shifting. No two people can inhabit the same space and time together. Time divides us all. In this sense, all distances are but differences in time, and all travel is time travel. Let me be facetious and say that the world is a map of moments, and in each moment is a world. We inhabit it as immaterial shapes, always moving, always in transit from one time to another, permanently out of sync. Travel is merely a mode in which this displacement is magnified. Perhaps this is why we travel, to remind ourselves of the persistent distance that exists between all of us. Perhaps we travel in search of lost time to seek the moments and spaces once inhabited by others. Or perhaps it is so that in the headlong rush of return, we find it possible to believe that we do not have to be apart.
Between us there is a great distance, and a mutual longing to overthrow it. We exist in our individual series of moments, each pulse is its own clock, each breath a marker along the indices of our lives they cannot be shared. And even if our hearts beat synchronised, it is only in conspiracy of the lie that we can share the same days and the same nights. Between us there is a persistent separation, and we go in search of elsewhere in order to create the chance of return and the illusion that we may overcome this final distance between us. And thus we pit ourselves against the grotesque turning of the world. If I miss you, I am mourning our mismatched moments. If I see you, I know that it is little more than an electric ghost that travels down cables, down nerves, a projection of the mind. And if I speak to you, it is not my voice, only an echo, and if touch you, if I hold your hand, reality taunts us with this insurmountable distance between all souls. I imagine the two of us standing in the rain. You look at me with a faint bewilderment. There is a deep silence between us. The tragedy of it all is not the rain but that we do not share it under the same sky. But I refuse to go quietly. Let me go, let me go to you, give me your last permission. For if we cannot share the moments, then at least we can share our departures, neither times nor locations, just points in a complicated tangle of determinants. Each encounter is a gesture towards the next departure, each meeting framed by our next goodbye, our next acute displacement. Each relationship awaits the final parting of ways. So grant me farewell, grant me facelessness. Let us share our goodbyes, and in doing so, overcome the impossible distance. Let us depart and return, in this strange play of push and pull, of lost and found, of comings and goings. Time and again, we leave one another in order to find each other.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014