A couple of months ago, The Young Master started asking us why we decided to move back to Singapore. First he asked me, and I answered him as fully as I could. I explained about his father's job, the attractions of Singapore itself, the benefits of experiencing new people and places, and so on and so forth, until at last he seemed satisfied. But then I heard him ask the same question to his father, so obviously he wasn't. After a pause of several weeks, we repeated the process again, and finally, on the third round, I realised it was time for a different response.

"What is it you're really trying to ask?" I said, answering his question with a question. Of course, he didn't know - if he had, he would have asked it already. "Do you think we made a good choice?" I tried again. This seemed to get him thinking properly, so I waited.

And finally, he said it: "I wish you'd decided to stay in Brisbane."

"Why's that?" I responded.

"It's quieter there."

I remember the first time I came back to London. It was the start of November 2011, and I had just spent a month travelling around Egypt, almost completely by myself. (The usual horde of tourists had stayed away that year, for some reason.) The Earl came to meet me at the tube station, wearing a long, black coat he'd acquired, in my absence, off a friend who was leaving, and as I walked towards him I sniffed the cold, crisp air - slightly sooty, a little damp - and all of a sudden it smelled like home. Since then I have learned to savour those subtle signals. London smells like cold, damp soot and sounds like buses and mumbled small talk. Brisbane smells like fresh cut grass and sounds like birdsong and motorised gardening tools. And Singapore smells like humidity and lightly rotting vegetation, and sounds like a bustling expressway. So when Master said it was quieter at home, I knew exactly what he meant, at least about the noise, and discounting, of course, the motarised gardening tools.

Over the next few weeks I asked a series of followup questions, many of them hypothetical. If we moved somewhere quiet, but it wasn't Brisbane, would that be ok? What if we went to live in a ger on the steppes of Mongolia, and we didn't even have broadband? At last I felt as if I had a handle on his perspective, and I let it drop, for a while.


Soon after we moved back to Singapore last year, before we'd unpacked, there was a day when I was trying to organise fifteen things at once, plus a newborn baby and a demanding three year old. On his fiftieth impossible request, I turned to Master in frustration and growled, "That's what you want, is it? Well do you know what I want? I want donuts to fall from the sky!" He giggled. I stopped short. "You thought that was funny?" I asked him, surprised.

"Donuts falling from the sky!" he cackled, and his laughter caused me to step back a little and calm down, and I was able to agree. Nowadays (if I remember to) I use this phrase to let him know his request is unreasonable, and vice versa, and instead of having meldowns and arguments, we have laughter and conversations*.

One day, several weeks after our talk about the quiet virtue of Brisbane, we were having afternoon tea at a toast shop. Singapore has these little coffee, tea and toast shops and I am quite addicted to them. You get the local style of caffeinated beverage or milo, some description of toast - maybe with kaya butter, a slab of icecream or a dusting of pork floss - and two very soft-boiled eggs. "You know," I said wistfully, stirring the condensed milk into my tarry, black drink, "if we move away from Singapore, I am really going to miss this." With appalling table manners, Master deconstructed his kaya butter toast and bit in. A thought occurred to me. "What would you miss about Singapore?"

"My toys," he said promptly.

"Well, we could probably bring those with us. I'm talking about things you can't bring with you. Like toast shops. They don't have toast shops like this in Brisbane, do they? What about the MRT system?" He didn't seem convinced. In fact, he seemed stumped. "Think about being in Brisbane, what you might feel like."

"Ice cream at Grandma's house?" he offered.

"Well, you could have that in Brisbane, though," I explained desperately. "What would you want that you couldn't have?" I was beginning to feel as if the point was lost on him.

"Do you know what I would want, if I was in Brisbane?" he replied with sudden conviction. "I would want... donuts to fall from the sky!" And he laughed, and he ate some more toast.

They do say wise words can come from the mouths of babes. The thing about living as an expat is you not only see the good things out there that you don't have at home, which is bad enough, but you also get used to them. At the same time, you long for the good things of home that aren't everywhere else. Expat life can easily become a recipe for dissatisfaction. Probably the best thing we can do is simply acknowledge that, though it may be our heart's desire, no place on earth has donuts for hailstones, or rains of chocolate drops. Then, having done so, we should laugh and get on with our toast.

*We still have plenty of meltdowns and arguments, but not on those specific occasions.

One Comment

Lollipop Goldstein said...

Oooh, this additionally raises an interesting question: what if your kids don't want to live where you want to live? Meaning; adults can see all the benefits of a space that perhaps are lost on kids. It's sometimes hard for two adults to agree on living in a single space; what if the kids get in on the decision of where to live?

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