Catherine Peng

Most days, I feel affection for America. Some days, though, I look around at these strange trees, at these buildings, at these people and feel so alienated. It’s like, I’m seeing the world, but there’s a lack of correlation between me and my surroundings. I’m looking at a place that doesn’t belong to me.

Of course, this is a choice I made. I want to be here. I feel smug when I’m talking comfortably with my American friends, laughing with them, because it’s like: you made it. You transcended your country and suddenly, your foreignness is a good thing, a cool thing, a forgettable thing. When you fit in, you can’t feel foreign, right?

* * *

In freshman year, I used to imagine scenes from Singapore, especially when the leaves were turning and the air grew cold.

Scenes I imagined:

i. My sister, my dad and I sitting in a coffee shop. The table was decked with small plates: braised tofu, steamed egg custard, stir-fried vegetables, sambal fish. You’d pick a bit of food with your chopsticks and eat it with steamed rice. There was such abundance.

ii. Dad and I having Korean food near Telok Ayer. He was giving me a 45-minute “lecture” about life and ways to live. I felt a little antsy about the whole thing. I would give a lot to go back to that moment now.

iii. The neighborhood where I grew up. We don’t even live there anymore. I think about jogging along the canal in the evening. There’s something so unique to a Singaporean sunset. The light is constant, and the blue slowly fades into orange. The traffic dies down. The buzz of the city retreats. It’s just you and the evening. I think of one night when I was 18. A boy and I were walking back from the playground along the canal. He was flying off to college in a few hours. I felt so at peace. There was nothing but pure rest in my heart. It didn’t even matter that he was leaving. It’s like my soul had found solace in the company of another. Before that, I didn’t know ache. Not really.

iv. My sister and I sitting in NUS U-Town. We were looking out to the huge patch of greenery. We were talking about our futures. I was raving about Yale, this land of possibility.

v. My best friend and I in Botanics train station, on those chilly marble benches, talking about boys. And then a December day in London, sitting with her on a park bench, watching birds on the lake and in the sky. Our future stretched out in front of us. Everything was possible. Everything was around the corner for us.

* * *

In Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” every character has a defining moment. A moment that distills everything. For Prince Andrei, the moment occurs when he hears Natasha at her window. She’s looking at the moon with tears in her voice. She says, “There’s never, never been such a lovely night.”

Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s the kind of moment that resolves everything in you. It’s a moment of alchemy. You will look back years later and you will know that moment was special. You will know that it was a pivot for you. Your life will continue to orbit around it. Time suspended, it touched your soul and changed you.

It isn’t clear to me which moments will survive and which will fade. Do I remember yesterday’s lunch? Do I remember what my roommate talked about last night? Sometimes I wish I could look at the present retrospectively, so I know what is important and what isn’t.

But there are moments: sprinklers on old campus at 1 a.m., lying on wet grass beside a loved one, a swing-set at dawn, cherry blossoms blooming, a first conversation, an unguarded meeting of eyes. Moments that restore all kinds of faith. All purity, all real. * * *

I guess that’s what I’m looking for: something real. Are people receptive to human connection? Am I a child looking at the world hoping for something that doesn’t exist?

Maybe my hope is a luxury. Maybe I let myself hope because I haven’t experienced real pain. But sometimes I feel a kind of pain that is agonizing, it screams at me inside my head and makes me both desire to consume the world and shut everything out. Will you be kind if I show you my humanity?

Earlier this week, I walked back to my dorm from JE at 4 a.m. in slippers, and my feet felt so cold. It was a brisk kind of coldness. The sprinklers were on, and I got slightly damp. I looked up at the trees, saw the sky from the spaces between leaves. The sky isn’t all dark at night. There’s light in it. It was so late, but I felt this hope when I gazed upwards. This vague intimation that life was greater than I am. That I’m just this small thing. It was like I could look at the sky and she’d wink back. Like the moon had a reason. Like there was a space for me. Like there was peace, somewhere, someplace.