Second time around
By Ranjani Rao
The office of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore (ICA) thrums with the muted hum of a hundred conversations. A palpable buzz encapsulates hopes and words in multiple languages as couples and families wait in the crowded room. Every time the bell rings, I look up at one of the screens that displays token numbers and corresponding service counters. Women with headscarves, old men in wheelchairs and infants in strollers mill around the tall counters which shield uniformed staff members. I sit stiffly beside my new husband, wondering if he is upset. This is not the first time he has had to take time off from work to attend to my visa paperwork.
As a divorced mother with custody of a teenage daughter, I had thought long and hard about the implications of my decision to marry a widower with a little daughter. Over late night Skype calls, we decided that, by moving to Singapore where he worked, we could give our fledgling family a clean slate to start afresh, away from the curious eyes of family members. What I had overlooked was the fact that, in addition to becoming a wife and mother, with this move I would once again become an immigrant.
The immigrant experience is always an adventure – ask anyone who has chosen to move to another country for any length of time. Travel has the capacity to rejuvenate our jaded senses by transporting us from a familiar place. Moving, on the other hand, is an opportunity to grow. Immersive experience in a different culture forces us to re-examine our behaviours and motives, questions our ingrained biases and, most importantly, pushes us to adapt, adjust and ultimately appreciate another way of living. Travel is exhilarating with its sense of novelty, while learning the nuances of living in a new place can quickly become tedious. There are language and cultural barriers, food and festival differences, disparities in work ethic and social ethos.
By choosing to make my home in another country, I have also chosen to expose myself to the wonder and angst that I had experienced on another continent almost half a lifetime ago.
Wrapped in a new but inadequate shawl that I had bought in Bombay (as it was known then) after a rigorous search for "winter clothing" on a warm afternoon, I landed in Washington Dulles International Airport on a cold December evening. George Bush Sr was in the Oval Office, India was known primarily for the Taj Mahal, and I was the first member of my family to step on foreign shores. As a 22-year-old bride, I had much to look forward to and learn. Headlights of cars inching along the Capital Beltway in the evening rush hour looked like a two-strand necklace of rubies and diamonds. The Washington Monument stood watch, a solitary sentinel guarding the capital of the country which would be my home for the next several years.
Within a week of my arrival, I bought snow boots, a winter coat, gloves and hat – clothes and accessories that I had only seen in magazines. With the oversized coat hanging loosely over my cotton salwar kameez, I would step out to explore my new neighbourhood. In my youthful enthusiasm, unaware that I looked different and spoke with an "accent", I enquired about admission criteria at the university, sporting green glass bangles and a red bindi on my forehead. At $4 a minute, international phone calls were a rare treat. I longed to hear my mother's voice and missed the incessant teasing of my brothers. Tests for a driving license, for English proficiency, and a standardised test to qualify for admission into graduate school didn't faze me. Every step towards self-sufficiency, no matter how arduous, was a welcome one. Waves of homesickness washed over me at times, providing a stark contrast to the days when I stared in wide-eyed wonder at eight-lane highways and 18-wheeler trucks.
Within a decade, I obtained a PhD, secured a job, became a mother. I was comfortable driving on freeways in America and bargaining with street vendors on my trips back to India. Preoccupied with charting the course of my life, I moved ahead believing that identity and belonging were personal matters, not to be measured in the context of society.
One Halloween afternoon, I waited in the eerie silence of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service office in San Francisco, while holding the terse letter asking me to report to the office to sort out some paperwork related to my green card. I had left early from my workplace and taken the commuter train to the city. Carved pumpkins on window ledges, crisscrossing orange ribbons of decorations and posters announcing weekend costume parties, lightened up the city encased in its characteristic fog. In the colourless immigration office, I worried about the progress of the experiment that I had left midway, my toddler in day care and what to cook for dinner. The necessity of having to prove the legitimacy of my residence permit, after spending years in America – first as a student and later as a scientist at a reputed company – bothered me. The paperwork was eventually resolved, but I learned unequivocally that my belief in my right to belong was only my opinion. I made a promise to myself never to deal with immigration officials again.
I moved back to India the following year. Keeping the promise while living in the country of my birth was easy. By moving to Singapore, I have broken that promise.
Arun handed me an EZ-Link card the day I landed.
"You'll need it to travel around here. It works on buses and trains. It has other uses too," he said. He showed me how to enter the bus from the front door, tap the card on the reader, observe the money value at entry and then again upon exit where the fare for the bus ride was mysteriously deducted. When the weekend ended, he left for work. I put the card in my wallet and went for a ride.
Tiny kids in uniforms carrying bulging backpacks, teenagers with purple hair and young women with flashy phones filled the comfortably air-conditioned bus. An auntie with grocery bags sat next to a young man who dozed intermittently, miraculously stopping short of placing his drooping head onto her lap. A young woman tried to hold on to her foldable bicycle. A baby in his mother's arms looked around observantly, as if preparing for his own turn to ride the bus independently.
In the morning rush hour, cars stood still while the bus zipped across, secure in its own lane. As we passed the spiky dome of the Esplanade and the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, a sudden wave of nostalgia gripped me. Being allowed to independently ride the public bus to school had marked a coming-of-age milestone for me in Bombay. In a strange turn of events, this move has offered a similar opportunity to our daughters.
Transitioning into this multicultural and multilingual country that is geographically closer to India has turned out to be much easier than the move to the US. Is it the technology that lets me email friends in other countries, FaceTime conversations with family and smartphone apps that help me ease into a new life? Or is it because I hear familiar words in casual conversations and formal announcements at train stations? Amidst saris and cheongsams, noodles and roti pratas, temples and mosques, I do not feel "foreign" or miss home as I did during my first stint.
But I still suffer from immigrant angst.
Angst that stems from the paperwork I need to do. Before I can adapt to my adopted country, I must first navigate the immigration system, its rules, nuances and idiosyncrasies. With youthful exuberance, eager for new experiences, I had coasted through these obstacles before. At midlife, faced with the probability that I have fewer years ahead compared to the ones I have left behind, I feel an urgency to settle, to put roots, to leave a mark.
This is our third trip to ICA where I am hoping to prove my "desirable" qualities by producing certificates of my credentials. The constant reiteration of my relationship to my husband, who has the required permit to live here, is an unwelcome reminder of my dependence on him.
There is comfort in living in your own country – a place where everyone looks like you, the language is familiar and life seems simpler somehow. In reality, life in India requires adjustment to unpredictable power cuts, unmanageable traffic woes, lack of personal space and adequate air-conditioning. But I didn't need to justify my presence or produce documents to prove that I deserved to stay there. There was a feeling of ease and sense of belonging (or was it entitlement?) conferred by my citizenship. Like a family name that I could claim by the mere fact of my birth, my passport allowed me certain privileges in my home country "jus soli".
I wince at the memory of the pledge I made to myself that October afternoon in San Francisco. I had envisioned my life as a linear series of events, assuming that certain milestones like marriage and immigration were once-in-a-lifetime events.
I look around and see my husband seated patiently besides me. "Think of this as a date," he jokes. His light-hearted take reminds me of the reason why I chose to move here. To be with him; to build a family; to create a new life together. We are doing all that. And it's alright if I need to wait here a little longer to enable the dreams we share.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017