Bawling at Birdsong

From a late night Mastodon thread about homesickness.

Two years before I moved to the United States, I wrote something called ‘things I will miss when I have to leave Southeast Asia (because I am queer)’. I predicted that I would be deeply homesick, not for Singapore specifically, but for the entire region.

Even though I was born in Singapore, I lived many years in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

What I could not predict: that even watching videos of people in YouTube documentaries about Southeast Asia, the birdsong is enough to make me bawl.

I have such a deep affection for and attachment to that part of the world. The weather makes sense to me. The languages make sense to me. And oh my god I miss the food.

I’ve been lucky to have such a deep familiarity with so much of it. I went to a hippie run shop in SF the other day and they played ‘mor lam’ on their record player.

It instantly brought me back to long overnight bus rides through Thailand with my mother.

In San Francisco, there’s a neighborhood called the Tenderloin. Looking it up on the Internet will tell you it’s the worst place in the world; apparently a literal war zone.

I live there. There are Thai people, Lao people, Vietnamese people. I walk my dog in my batik pajamas and sandals, just like I would back home. There’s fresh galangal in the grocery store. Sometimes a Vietnamese uncle goes fishing and I’m invited to pick some fish, with other Vietnamese aunties.

Sometimes people ask me why I don’t live in a nicer neighborhood. But I struggle to think of how any neighborhood where I can’t buy fresh galangal, speak my languages, get free soy milk, buy the only tofu I find acceptably good, is possibly nicer in any conceivable way

But mostly I am afraid that if I move, my yearning for home will give way to a bigger hole in my soul. Leaving Southeast Asia is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

My neighbors go to the food pantry every day. They don’t have money. They came here on a scary boat ride, all those decades ago. The trauma of war and that journey still haunts them in many visible ways. They also insist on giving me vegetables that they get from the food pantry. I tell them I am not poor and I feel bad about taking free food. They laugh and say, they just want to give me something. I am the only young person who still speaks to them in their language. They like that about me.

With the benefits of community also comes the downsides. My neighbors nag at me as though they are my relatives. Don’t order food. It’s expensive. Get a house in Hayward. It’s cheaper. I help them set alarms on their phones so they can wake up to get into a shuttle to go to a temple in San Jose for Tết. They are surprised that I don’t know many traditions, like being vegetarian on the 1st day of lunar new year.

I don’t know how to say, ‘my evangelical Christian upbringing robbed me of my cultural traditions’, in either Vietnamese or Teochew or Cantonese.

Every Vietnamese American old person who speaks to me asks me, ‘why did you come here? Isn’t your country better? Cleaner?’

I also don’t know how to say ‘my country doesn’t accept me because of who I love, so I am here’. In any of the languages that I know. Which is, quite a few.

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