Somewhere In Between

Arch Ramesh

© Copyright 2021 by Arch Ramesh

Photo by Bna Ignacio on Unsplash
                                                    Photo by Bna Ignacio on Unsplash

It was a sweltering morning like many, where my iced latte was the reprieve from the overbearing equatorial sun making its appearance between sky-dusting buildings. I was parked at my favorite coffee shop in the island city-state I had made my home right in time for the pandemic. Despite their overpriced latte and avocado toast menu that overtly catered to the expatriate crowd, I kept returning to this coffee shop for people-watching on Monday mornings when the world woke up groggily from the weekend. I’d sit on the front patio facing the street and onto another coffee shop, one catering to locals who could live without the ambiance generated by Helvetica lettering and an acoustic pop playlist. The sun would beat fire down the street between us, and unlike other tropical milieu, the air in Singapore would always smell scrubbed. As the seats around me started filling up, I would sit among faces, mostly white, and look onto faces across the street, not white. We sipped on our iced Americanas washing down forkfuls of banana bread. Across the street, they sipped their scalding Kopis between bites of sweet kaya toast and runny peppered eggs.

Walking down streets like these, debating between the two-dollar fresh juice at the local hawker center or the eight-dollar bottled juice at the retro-chic juice shack, I always found myself in between these Singaporean contrasts. Unfazed, I swerved down the scrubbed alleyways in search of something that fit. Indian by origin, American by design, I had always found myself trapped in the space in between the two words...and worlds. I had immigrated to America as a teenager, just in time to start my junior year at a small preparatory school in the South, clueless of how vastly different it would be from the New York City images that limn America in the movies. When I finally became a naturalized citizen and filled out job applications by checking the Asian-American box, I felt a gnaw in my stomach knowing that square never felt like home. Perhaps a return to Asia was the answer, I told myself, now away from the South, and watching Trump get elected into office from my San Francisco blue bubble. And so I packed my bags, and as the Kincaid fire screamed into the skies through Northern California in late October of 2019, I left, momentarily lightened off my identity wars in a way you only can when you hold your breath between an inhale and exhale. That moment in between letting go of the old and taking in the new.

Little did I know what newness was in store for me. I hardly expected to work from my dining table for the better part of 2020. I wasn’t planning to spend my birthday that year on Zoom or use my studio apartment as my dance studio. I certainly didn’t expect to find out how Singapore would handle a global pandemic. In April of 2020, the Singaporean government, renowned for banning chewing gum, declared a lockdown that made it a fineable offense for me to meet anyone for almost three months. After my flirtation with solitary confinement, I was set free with government mandates on masks, and edicts on how many people we could interact with. It started with groups of five in late June, getting to eight in December only to go back down to two in June of 2021. I would learn how specific Singaporean rules could be, as they modulated music amplitude in dining establishments as a virus mitigation tactic.

To be fair, I didn’t expect to find out how America would handle a global pandemic either. I laughed at the memes in March of 2020 that downplayed the virus as nothing to sneeze about and then watched as armed lockdown protestors stormed the governor’s building in Michigan. I scrolled through more memes, as masking and vaccines became politicized, in part leading to the storming of the Capitol building on January sixth. My reaction was something in between embarrassment - try explaining this behavior to non-Americans - and bewilderment. I was perplexed at the vast divide, physical and ideological, across the ocean. Craving the American freedoms so obsessively protected by the Constitution swirled with the Singaporean meticulousness that strove for harmony, I found myself floating somewhere in that ocean.

On May 26 of 2020, six months into living in Singapore, and four weeks into my social deprivation experiment, I scrolled through devastating videos of a police knee on George Floyd’s neck and felt my breath catch in my own. I felt the entirety of my own immigrant struggles to belong from the minute I set foot in the American South rise in my throat. I watched George flail and felt my heart harden against the country that treated people with the wrong skin color like unwelcome guests. “This,” I told myself as I sat on my isolation couch, “is why I left.” Even under the government’s watchful eye, I felt so righteous being in this 280-square-mile country where commingled ethnic Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities avoided civil strife. Down the street from the expat-swarming high-rise I occupied, was an opulent Hokkein temple, striking in tangerine lanterns celebrating fifteen days of Chinese New Year. Adjacent to the incense-laden temple was an unassuming mosque, easy to miss from the peeling walls outside, but for signs that say “Women here” and “Men here”. Across from the holy place was a barbeque joint, popular with locals and foreigners alike, who sat awaiting their pork rib orders sipping yellow beer from glasses bedazzled with condensation. The juxtaposition of rituals on this one street, echoed in the alleyways of the country you could walk across in a day, and was perhaps why, despite being an outsider, I felt like I made sense here. Somewhere in between the contrasts, my hyphenated identity found a home.

Around the time American streets were choking with pain, fists raised in the air, no longer willing to expend black lives, and Trump was tear-gassing protesters to hold an upside-down Bible, the Singapore Prime Minister gave an impassioned speech about migrant workers who lived in overstuffed dorms where COVID was rampaging. Speaking on television to their families back home, he said “It is our duty to take care of our brothers who have built the Singapore we live in.” He took a drink from a cup that was mirthfully called the magic cup because he would switch between English, Chinese, and Malay in between sips. “I want their families back home to know we are taking good care of them.” His words pierced me like he was talking about my own family. Maybe because I did feel a kinship with the workers I often saw squatting in the shape of the back of a pickup truck on route to construction sites, where they formed lunch circles, speaking the language I recognized from summers with my grandparents in India. I felt a bond only engendered by a common tongue in a foreign land. But I knew they felt no kinship with me. I felt the burden of my tech job that afforded me a downtown apartment, within minutes of the Singapore marina where glittering buildings reflected in the bay. The workers who built those glasshouses were then taken back to the island’s eastern corner, tucked away from sight so visitors would never know where to find them. Dozens of them were packed into dormitories, colorful from the outside, but bursting with deprivation on the inside, where viruses wedged in crevices between bunk beds, rejoicing in the closeness of human flesh that money can opt you out of. I knew these men didn’t feel a kinship with me because my skin was a few shades lighter than theirs that toiled in the sun, and yet, I harbored the solidarity in my head as I walked past them and eavesdropped on their conversations.

My unrequited relationship with these workers attuned me to imperceptible grime, because in Singapore when you scratch the glimmering surfaces, you see the rust. Over a drink with a Malay-Indian friend who worked at a bar I frequented, he said, “I see lah, people will move away from me on the train when I sit next to them,” he paused, “Am I dirty or what?” His genuine question broke something in me as I looked into his eyes the color of chestnuts, so open, on skin the color of sand after the rain. In these eyes, I saw the pain of so many black men murdered on the streets of America burdened by the wrong skin color, a burden I skirted because I was somewhere in between. I was an acceptable shade of brown that didn’t offend the White-American majority or the Chinese-Singaporean one.

On July tenth last year, when I got my daily Whatsapp notification from the Singapore Ministry of Health letting us know we had 191 new COVID cases, of which the majority were in the foreign worker dormitories, the country held national elections. There were murmurs that there was enough dissatisfaction with the ruling party, the People’s Action Party, that would warrant an unimaginable outcome. The party that had been in power since independence in 1965 might not retain its hold. I readied myself for a reality-TV-worthy showdown, having successfully survived the pandemic thus far without succumbing to watching a show about tiger owners or soundproof-pod-dating. I was to be disappointed. That year the opposition party did gain more seats than ever before (ten out of 93 to be precise) but it was hardly international news, which the American election four months later certainly was. I re-entered America in time to turn in my ballot in person, praying for an outcome that was less devastating than four years ago, and even less dramatic than the Singaporean election. As far as I wanted to run from Trump’s America in search of a land where I belonged, I couldn’t outrace my hope for a better America where black boys in hoodies wouldn’t be hunted down, and where I just might feel at home someday.

Perhaps it was because, by the time that California’s worst fire season to date was well underway, stories of exclusion fanned flames around me in the new home I had fled to in an attempt to belong. My fellow expatriate friend who loved bachata, and had moved from India with her husband who had a curious obsession with aquariums, recounted her search for a Singaporean apartment within walking distance to her dance studio but big enough to hold the aquarium gear her husband wanted. “You know Chinese landlords just refuse to rent out to Indian people or say we can’t cook our food in the house; I mean how can we not cook our food?!”

I shook my head, feigning shock but well aware of this situation which I had been warned about by a well-intentioned friend over pancakes when I first arrived. This friend, a Japanese passport holder, who I had met at university in North Carolina, and had recently immigrated to Singapore with her French boyfriend had said, “It might take you a while to find a place. Chinese landlords won’t rent to Indians.” Since that conversation, we had many more, reconciling our Asian origins with our rearing in western societies with fanciful notions of liberty and justice for all, that seemed out of reach no matter where in the world we were. I had escaped the fate of overt racism and signed a lease because of my American passport. The irony that I never felt accepted as an American where my passport was issued, but became a shield for me half a world away was not lost on me. Over the next few months, I would lean into my American-isms, sounding even more Californian amidst British and French expats, complaining about the Singaporean martial laws when we got sick of it, even as we disdainfully looked at our emigrant countries from afar as they struggled to keep order amidst the crisis.

No one questioned my identity in Singapore, as I was so used to in America (“But, where are you really from?”), I think because they saw me as clearly different from Indians, the darker ones, who toiled on construction sites or wandered around the Little India neighborhood. And while I, albeit guiltily, wore my American identity closer to myself than ever before, there would be days I would wander into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Little India, smother steamed rice cakes (idli) with lentil soup (sambar) and eat it with my hands off a banana leaf. The waiter would wander over, asking me in English, “You want more?” to which I would respond, “Amam, rendu idli kudinge,” holding up two fingers to signal I wanted two more idlis. The waiter would unblinkingly refill my banana leaf and walk away, and I would smile at the lack of follow-up questions. In that moment, I would feel like I was in the right box, the shape of a banana leaf, where I was accepted as I was. I hoped for just this feeling for the migrant worker toiling at the construction site across the street from me, and for black men walking the streets of America.

Arch is an Indian-American writer who loves combining her zest for exploration of the world, and of the self. Growing up across four countries, and immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager, Arch is especially interested in exploring issues around identity and belonging, trying to answer questions she has been plagued by all her life. Arch calls San Francisco her current home and works in the tech industry when she’s not writing (and traveling).

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