First developed in the 1820s, Singapore's Chinatown, pictured above, retains much of its traditional and cultural history. Diego Cagara / Spotlight News
People have long asked me this question and although they may just be prolonging small talk or feigning interest in me, I would typically pause and mentally wonder how to exactly answer.
Home. It’s a simple four-letter word and yet a concept that I had struggled with for over a decade now.
I was born in 1996 in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines but in early 1998, my family — comprising of my parents, my older sister, my younger brother and I — moved to the tiny Southeast-Asian island city-state of Singapore since my parents, who are engineers, were able to find increased salaries and a higher standard of living there.
Singapore is situated at the southern tip of Malaysia, is surrounded by Indonesian islands and is just 85 miles north of the equator; it has a hot and tropical climate, with temperatures staying at around 88º F all year long. Since gaining independence in 1965, it has transitioned from a third world to first world nation within a generation, thanks partly to its strategic geographical location for trade and business between the East and West.
As I was still too young when we moved there though, I have no memory of living in the Philippines which, unfortunately, caused me to not feel a strong emotional connection to my birth country — my extended family still resides there.
Settling into the petite town of Choa Chu Kang (pronounced Choo-wah Choo K-ah-ng) in Singapore, this was where I spent my early formative years and attended school up until fifth grade in 2007. Due to my parents’ desire to travel the world, they were able to score jobs in Dresden, Germany and we moved there in 2008; we later relocated again to upstate New York in mid-2011, where we have been living since then. I eventually became an American citizen just this past March.
However, since moving away from Singapore, one of my goals has long been to return for a visit, and reconnect with my old friends and the country I consider my true homeland. This was not possible for over a decade though as I was still too young to comprehend how expensive and far Singapore was from both Germany and the United States, and I needed to earn enough to afford a flight back — flights are generally more than $1,000 per person.
From Bethlehem, Singapore is 9,389 miles away. To further get a sense of that sheer distance, a flight would take around a full day, depending on stopovers or the airline.
That goal finally became a reality in May 2019, 12 years since moving away, when my family discovered cheaper-than-usual flights and were able to return for a week. But before diving into my experience of ultimately coming home, I would need to discuss my childhood years in Singapore first for context.
As I reminisce, my childhood felt like a safety bubble where everything felt rosy and easygoing. This was also the time before social media took off, when Motorola and Nokia were the most popular cellphone brands, when Britney Spears was at her career prime, and when Singapore, as a country, was not well-known worldwide yet as it is today.
Some of my best memories then were rooted in the strong connections I forged with several of my classmates.
The following was one such example.
“Why don’t you sit in the back there beside her? There’s the last empty seat,” my teacher gestured to the classroom’s last row on my first day of fourth grade in 2006. Heading over, I saw an unassuming and shy Chinese-looking girl seated beside the one I was directed to.
Her name was Jodie.
Our introvertedness prevented us from initially introducing ourselves and conversing that day but as the semester went on, we grew more comfortable around each other and our friendship took form. It was further solidified when we learned that we lived in the same apartment block across the street from our elementary school; I lived on the fourth floor while her family was in the sixth. This made it natural for us to walk and take the elevator up home together everyday, and we would get ice cream along the way and talk about our days.
Classmates used to also tease us about being like a couple but our friendship grew stronger as we would continue hanging out without caring for the swirling rumors throughout school about us.
Unfortunately, Jodie and I never had a proper goodbye when my family moved to Germany in 2008 since I naively did not realize just how far Europe was from Singapore then. I had assumed that we would be able to visit often but it was not the case. We also lost contact immediately as we did not use social media at the time — Facebook was still relatively in its infancy usage-wise, for instance.
My memories of Singapore then grew bittersweet through the years since we left as it represented a time of unadulterated joy, and I felt that I lost a major part of my life from there.
Upon landing in Singapore in May 2019 after a 25-hour flight, the first familiar sensation I experienced was the genuine humid climate and the 90º F temperature once I exited the airport. There were aspects that have remained the same since I left, like the roads, the dialects, the foods, the public transport, the neighborhood malls, and the wet markets.
But much has changed too.
The country has seen a boost in tourism and business in the past year alone, due to being the setting of the critically – acclaimed 2018 film, “Crazy Rich Asians.” It was based on the same-named 2013 novel about a Chinese-American woman who flies to Singapore to discover that her boyfriend’s family is wealthy, much to her shock. I had also watched the film five times in the cinema last year and I would invite friends to watch with me, so I could show them where I came from.
The media buzz and public excitement surrounding that film, for being the first mainstream Hollywood film to have a whole-Asian cast in 25 years, further placed Singapore under an international spotlight. In the years prior when I lived there and also right after I moved away, I had discovered that many people I interacted with either did not know where Singapore was or know it even exists. Since 2018 though, people I’ve met knew more of Singapore due to the film.
I was also surprised at how the country has rapidly been more urbanized since I lived there, with more skyscrapers and developments dominating the tropical landscape, especially the iconic Marina Bay Sands integrated resort.
While tourists flooded the metropolitan area of the island which was also where my family’s hotel was, I took a one-hour morning train ride out to Choa Chu Kang, my hometown, to see my old apartment, elementary school, and also reunite with Jodie.
Jodie and I had actually been able to first reconnect over social media and initially catch up back in fall 2018 — she had messaged me when she saw a post I made about watching “Crazy Rich Asians” five times. When I told her I was coming to visit in the spring, we began planning our much-awaited reunion.
As the train neared Choa Chu Kang, my anticipation grew as it passed familiar apartment buildings, playground parks and neighborhood malls. It continued to balloon as I got off and waited beyond the train station’s exit turnstiles, which was our designated meeting point.
Minutes later, my body stiffened as my eyes fell upon a specific face through the immense crowd. That face, which had long resided in my vault of childhood memories, looked a bit different now and yet it also was so familiar. It also no longer belonged to a girl, but rather a slightly-taller young woman now. A rare type of smile then formed on that face, a visible mix of recognition, surprise and after a few milliseconds, euphoria.
“Diego?” The young lady asked, her eyebrows raised above her glasses. Verbal communication was no longer necessary afterwards though.
Embracing each other in a tight hug, it took me a moment to reorient myself as I realized that “home,” as a concept, does not necessarily mean a physical house or a location. It could also mean a person, with whom you have a strong connection. We also had not seen each other in person in 12 years.
As we caught up over what we had each been up to, Jodie and I walked a comfortable 15-minute walk from the train station to our apartment block, as if I had entered a time portal into the mid-2000s. We went up to my former apartment door, although a bit disheartened that we could not enter. We got a couple of our childhood snacks from the neighborhood store and we even went up to our elementary school’s entrance — a kind security guard told us we had to make an appointment with a teacher first to visit inside.
But peering up at the school’s fourth floor, I saw the door of the very room where our fourth-grade teacher had first sat us together back in 2006.
With every step around, nostalgic memories, most of which had been long forgotten in my mind, resurfaced as I saw that the town had remained largely unchanged, albeit with a few new developments. A sense of humility also overcame me as I acknowledged just how far I have come since moving away from here.
After spending the whole day catching up more, further exploring our hometown and then traveling back to the city area, we lost track of time together as we continued reminiscing about our childhoods and discussing our desires for the future.
It was just past midnight now and the two of us were aimlessly walking through the streets of Chinatown, near where my hotel was. The night sky looked peaceful above while the formerly-iridescent and decorative lights had turned off, and the shophouses had just closed its doors. Chinatown, usually known for its booming tourist scene, was now an empty landscape. The only audible sounds were the rustling Chinese paper lanterns above and the distant roaring of vehicles.
Enjoying each other’s silent company, a sense of all-encompassing tranquility enveloped me. I was comforted by the familiar humid climate, the rich Southeast Asian culture around me, and the chance I had to reconnect with my long-lost childhood friend.
This was home to me. It felt right. And I was grateful.
After joking that it should not take us another 12 years to reunite once more and promising that we will stay in touch, we had to part ways and we hugged before Jodie took a taxi back. I was left standing alone by the desolate Chinatown street, a bittersweet smile etched on my face.
“So where are you from?”
Whenever I got asked this question, I used to take a brief pause to think.
On paper, I was born in the Philippines and I am now an American citizen. I am also grateful to be living in this amazing, free-thinking country where I have acclimated easily and welcomed the opportunities it has offered my family and I. In fact, during my American naturalization oath ceremony this past March, the judge called me up as “Diego Cagara, formerly of the Philippines,” which felt weird to hear.
However, my true home lies on the other side of the world in the Far East, in a miniscule town on an island city-state, where I used to grow up. Not only do the culture and physical landmarks there feel homely, it is the people and the bonds I made that remain irreplaceable, Jodie being just one of them. Years of yearning for my home turned into a week spent there that was filled with life lessons like reconciliation and bridging long-lost connections.
“I’m American, but I’m originally from Singapore,” is how I have begun answering since my May trip.