The Absurd and Amazing Adventures of Cafe Girl: Adventures In A Foreign Land

December 17, 2006

Adventures In A Foreign Land

After a trip that began in a cab in Chicago, then a plane, then another plane, then another cab, I am finally back in Singapore, the land of my birth. This land is, literally, night and day from Chicago. Singapore is 14 hours ahead of Chicago. So yeah, I am living in your tomorrow.

I am greeted by mom and dad, sister and brother-in-law, two nephews (seven and three) and a brand new, two-month old niece. And I'm struck that everything has changed.

Our little nuclear family of four has doubled into a rowdy bunch of eight. The family I grew up in, once predominantly women (mom, sis and me vs. dad), now has boys, lots of them, jumping on couches, throwing me silly putty, showing me their Lego guns, their spy gear, playing soccer, asking that I play with them.

Dad has found his own kind. After years of girls, there are suddenly boys around. And, like a man that has found the small island of natives that also speak his language, the father of my youth whom we've only known through my mother, the interpreter, now speaks.

"Listen," my sister says, two nights ago when we were all gathered at her home for a family dinner, "They're actually having a conversation."

I turn to look. My awkward, once frightening father, is talking to the seven-year-old, the oldest grandchild. I don't know what they are talking about, but it's an actual conversation. Dad says something, and my nephew replies, my nephew tells him something, Dad replies.

I'm also struck by how nothing has changed. My parents don't look that much older. Which is a great relief. There's nothing more sobering than seeing the years you've been away etched on the faces of your parents. But the signs of aging for my parents are far more subtle--they are moving slower. They need more rest. My father is on high-blood pressure medication.

My mother still talks my ear off. There are years of stories to be told. They come in episodes now, flashes of narration when I least expect it. While I'm brushing my teeth, while I'm trying to find a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. I never know what kind of a story is coming--a benign one about their latest vacation, or a tale about a relative that has died horribly while I've been gone (usually cancer, although sometimes they also mysteriously collapse).

The stories, however, are never chronological, so I can never tell if we are nearing the end of the volume (i.e the episodes of 2005) or if we have more to go. Two days ago, my mother told me a story and at the end of it, I asked, "When was this?" Her reply: 1980. 1980??? I was still in the country in 1980. Apparently we are now re-visiting stories.

And this morning, I realized that the stories may also be repeated. I was just re-told a story that I was told yesterday. Perhaps we will never get through the volumes 2003-2006.

But in the end, I am here. And like my home and my family, I am changed and unchanged. I have been changed by years away from home, forming who I am, deciding what needs to be the same from my family (hospitality, humor, determination), and what must be different (no more shame, no more cynicism, no more criticism). I bring home with me my other home Chicago, my church family, my own stories from 2003 - 2006.

Yet at the core, I am unchanged. I have not left Singapore only to return a strange, pseudo American, unrecognizable to family. I am still me, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. Funny, sad, ridiculous, insightful. In the words of my sister, "You are you. Only better."

I am still me. Only better.

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