What I Didn’t Know

I’m surprised at how much I miss it.

I’m surprised at how often it is on my mind, on the tip of my tongue, a marker of how and where I spend my time.

I’m surprised at my own mentions of it (and a little embarrassed) and surprised by how much of it has shaped me.

I didn’t expect it to be everywhere.

I should have known better.

I don’t know how you can just switch things off, he said.
I shrugged. Survival mechanism.

And it is.

I’ve lived a lot.


If I had to guess, I’d say the letters started when I was in middle school and experiencing the first of what I consider my two most significant life transitions. I don’t know if I came up with the idea on my own or if the social worker suggested it, but I have always thought better on paper.

I have written dozens of letters that I will never send, letters that remain hidden away inside dozens of diaries in a box in my parents’ basement. (I’ve always said that one day I’ll burn everything.)

I’ve been thinking back a lot, back to things I should have done with the letters that I wrote. Back to things I wish I’d never lived, never known, never learned, or not in the ways that I did.

I realize now that I could have been angry, had every right to be angry, and making the choice not to be has made me who I am. The funny thing is that I didn’t know it was a choice. What was it again? Oh yes, survival mechanism.

Although it was rather darker and stormier than that.


So I ran.

I ran to, I ran back, I ran away. But you can only run so far and so fast and sooner or later, well, you’re only human, after all.


I don’t think I’m unique in having a complicated relationship with the word “home”. I’ve written about this at length and can summarize with the conclusion that has sustained me for a long time: Home is people, not places.

In this way, there are many places where I might feel at home because there are many places where I have people. In some senses, I’ve gotten used to missing them, both the people and the places. But being used to something doesn’t mean being comfortable with it; doesn’t mean being at peace with it; doesn’t mean it isn’t jarring or surprising, or soft or gentle.

Missing my homes, my people, is all of these things, and it happens all the time.

Having walked this road before, I should have known better. But even if I had, there was nothing else I would have done.


I don’t miss the weather but I miss parts of it: convenience, predictability, ease.

I miss running to the store just under the road at all hours, windows and balcony door open because I could see my apartment from there and I’d be back in a minute.

I miss bike rides on the beach and stopping, soaked, under the palm trees to drink teh halia that was sickly sweet, but not as sweet as the teh halia at the Indian place where they knew my order, chided me for not eating enough, and were worried when I didn’t turn up for a while.

I miss watching the sunset over the nearest temple (remember when they rebuilt it?) while sitting with a group of friends at plastic tables, bottles of beer and empty plates of hawker food all around us.

I miss seeing the clouds fade from their early morning footprints in the sky, miss the turquoise house on the corner as I ride up the canal on the way to school.

I miss familiar faces in the climbing gym, making jokes in the mirror at dance, running into people who I knew in places where I didn’t expect them to be.

I miss meeting friends on train platforms, wandering through neighbourhoods in search of cafés, taking photos, always stopping for something to eat.

I miss our department office full of choice words and laughter, colleagues who became friends. I miss knowing people well enough to know when someone was having a good day or a bad day or when something was, for whatever reason, just going on.

I miss the rhythm of days that were always too long, with rarely enough time to do what had to be done. I miss the camaraderie that, year after year, we built and maintained because that’s what you do when you’ve been somewhere for a while.

I miss tapping on a door, asking for a minute, spending ten or twenty.

I miss knowing where I was and who I was and how it felt to know this about myself.

I spent a long time looking.


Before the school year ended in June and before I left Singapore in July, I knew I was ready to go. And I knew that I wasn’t ready to leave. I missed the Singapore I had known before the pandemic, and I still miss it. But now I miss everything else, too, and everyone.

I didn’t know how much a part of me that world had become, or the people who were and are part of that world.

I didn’t know how much I learned there, how much I grew into myself, how important those years were for the person writing this right now.

Of course, I couldn’t have known.

Maybe if we did know, life would stagnate and we’d grow complacent, unwilling to make waves because they can hurt. Survival mechanism? Maybe.

Maybe, if we did know, we’d never change anything at all.


Most of my letters over the years have been fueled by frightening, intense emotion, but that’s not the case right now. That’s why this isn’t a letter.

Instead it’s a story, a story of the mess my life was and how I tried to rebuild it. It’s a journey in the way that walking a little slower, listening a little harder, loving a little deeper is a journey. A journey of the body, and also of the mind. And in this journey, in the knowing of people and places, perhaps we can also come to know ourselves.

I didn’t expect to miss this home as fully as I do, but that tells me something about myself that I think is worth knowing. And I am grateful for having learned it.

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