You can also listen to this on Spotify on my podcast Landed in Asia.
I would like to think I’m gritty. Throw me into a new environment—I would happily adjust or find the answers to the hard questions that couldn’t be answered and I could revel in it. It was like a game for me. Find and buy a new sim card in Chiang Mai, roam the streets in Seoul alone, haggle with the street shop owner in Beijing, and navigate my way through the chaotic traffic that is Hanoi.
But reverse culture shock is something else. It creeps up on you when you get a chance to breathe and then it suffocates you.
In the past three years, I’ve built up a social identity and tight knitted community for myself in Singapore. Now I’m back in the states and this strange reality of truth has settled. I’m no longer the Emily I am in Singapore and all her characteristics are melting away—there were certain freedoms I look fondly back, like having my own apartment in the city fringe and being able to afford it, sliding into a Grab to find my friends in Redhill, easily hopping on and off MRT lines, and having social activities packed per weekend, with the occasional “hey-let’s-go-to-Bali-next-week.”
The never ending humidity and warm weather made it easy to go out; it elevated my spirits and the amount of socialization I spent outside. I felt invincible at times. The concrete jungle of Singapore was my playground and I lived my life without any timelines or external pressures.
I now sit typing all of this at a friend’s place in the San Lorenzo burbs, seated in front of a beautifully curved LG monitor with a logitech keyboard. “It feels nice to have an in-home office,” I gushed to her this morning. There was a lot of things in her life that I wanted: a smart home, a tesla, a husband, a dog, and the list goes on. Many of my friends’ income levels range from $145-300K now and I can’t help but feel a bit behind since I’m doing my own thing now and made significantly less when I was in Asia—I had chosen a different kind of life to stay in Singapore.
But a part of me isn’t ready for all of it and the two lives are coinciding; I’m not sure who I want to be or where I want to go. That terrifies me.
All I know is that I want a very niche kind of freedom, the kind that only entrepreneurship brings, which is working on projects I want to focus on full-time, but it also brings along a type of loneliness and places a hold on certain “things.” Those things include stability and finding a good partner—at least, in my mind it does.
When I realized the dating scene was complete crap in Singapore and was unhappy at the current role I was in, it was also a big factor in moving back to San Francisco to increase my income level and to find a life partner. Ideally in my head, I’d like to build various businesses, find a wonderful man, and get to travel between Asia and America for work.
Could I have it all? I am the kind of person who will try to have it all.
But ultimately, I remind myself that I made the right decision leaving Singapore because I wanted to be closer with family, start thinking about laying roots, and moving away from distractions to build Asian Wander Women. By quitting my job, I was leaving stability, but giving myself the space and freedoms to go and build like I said I would.
I have a lot more time on my hand these days because my weeks aren’t crowded socially. I feel more rested and mentally stable, but sometimes it feels like I’ve reverted back into someone with no identity and no place here in the Bay Area. I felt like I had left a garden unwatered, and was suddenly dropped off in front of it to take care of it…years later.
In the Bay Area, my friends here lovingly open their homes to me and it’s comforting. Some have bought new spaces, made their apartments high tech and automated, others have bought Dyson products that don each room, and photos of weddings and birth cluster around the refrigerator door.
The reverse culture shock comes in soft waves, and sometimes all at once, like a tsunami crashing over me when I was sitting on a hard subway chair in New York surrounded by loud chatter, rap music from the neighboring passenger, and the heat trapped in the F line cart. It hits me when I’m sitting on the hard wooden floors of my friend’s home in suburbia, while we watch Kdrama on her TV and eat pork belly and rice. Sometimes, I’ll be FaceTiming with my sister and nephew, scrunching my lips in an o to teach him how to say “Woo!” and it hits me that my sister birthed a child and he’s almost two years old now. It hits me hard, waking me up and screaming at me that this is my new reality and it’s time to grow up.
I repeat the same travel stories to friends who want to catch up, as well as explaining where the hell I’ve been these past years to new friends of friends. I feel sullen and want to withdraw into myself for a bit.
Sometimes, I panic in my own mind and it’s chaos, complete chaos. I’m thrust into my own future. I feel like a child in a Costco store sometimes; the adults are all pushing their carts with a determined destination, narrowly missing me as I frantically look around for a feeling of attachment or familiarity.
I think, in a daze, about if and why I should continue this nomadic life and not having any ties to people or places. No community, no deeply rooted friendships, and no real home. And I ask myself why I seem to like coming and going, so that I don’t have to be the one that deals with the emptiness of someone else leaving?
It’s been three weeks so far back in the states and my integration back into society seems natural to some. But there’s a force of resistance deep inside, which refuses to comply and take back this old life of mine. She’s distraught and she’s stubborn. Her heels dig into the ground and she’s resistant to believe there’s nothing else beyond the norms of life.
“Why can’t we build what we want? What if we don’t want what everyone has? Or we just want a different version of it?”
It is not just my environments that have drastically changed, but the conflicting ideals with my identity that are changing. Everything is always evolving; I tell myself that I am a different person every day and that it’s okay to give myself the grace to change my decisions when ready.