“The Younger living room would be a comfortable and well-ordered room if it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being. Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years — and they are tired.” Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” begins with this stage description of its setting. The conflict over the characters’ dreams in the play seem tethered to, and limited by, the space they inhabit. I was struck by how physical space determined their mental space, or at least reminded them constantly of their freedoms and lack thereof.
But while ownership can be a signal of privilege, now in the US, moving into your own place (with or without roommates; however big or small) is less of a symbol of wealth, and more a symbol of adulthood, of forging your own path. As an international student here at Yale, these ideas of space were not entirely remote, but I certainly did not expect to find questions about space floating around me constantly, having never been ingrained with the idea why space for yourself is quite so important. So why does your physical space matter? How can we delineate the necessity of space and the often needless desire for possession? And how can we apply these ideas here at Yale to both preserve our spaces and be generous in creating spaces for others?
Back home in Singapore, the narrative of adulthood is vastly different from that of the West. Many people continue to live with their parents deep into adulthood, only moving out when they are in their 30s and ready to marry. The government has strived to boost the birth rate, and push Singaporeans to marry and have children earlier, but the government is also responsible for most Singaporeans’ inability to do just that, given spatial constraints and career pressures. In 2016, Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo responded by suggesting that, “You need a very small space to have sex.” That may well be, and the creativity of Singaporeans means the public staircase of flats is commonly utilized, but perhaps people’s frustrations stem not from lacking the smallest amount of space necessary, but rather lacking a space they can call their own.
A comic competition, aptly and a little squeamishly named Piak Piak Place — from the Singaporean slang for intercourse — was launched by the Substation, an independent contemporary arts center in Singapore, in 2019 to fight back. My favorite entry, by Rachel Pang (@rachelpangcomics), reads “For most of my life, I slept in the same room as my whole family. There was a certain coziness to it.” But it wasn’t so much about not having enough room for sex. Accompanying a drawing of her sulking on the toilet are the words, “There was no private place to cry or feel my emotions. So I suppressed most of it.”
Its final slide asks what the “broader, long-term impacts this has on our development as a society” with adults who have never had the room to grow, or cook, or do their own laundry, or, yes, have sex freely.
But the crux of the issue arises when, in a country so lacking in physical space, not enough is done to create freedom outside that. Schools demand a certain image and behavior, political thoughts are limited to the “speaker’s corner” at Hong Lim Park, and for the people that are in the greatest need of safe spaces — the LGBTQ+ community, racial minorities — even opening up conversations about their identities can feel impossible.
Self-expression is contingent on erecting and preserving physical spaces, but those spaces don’t have to be owned. Communal spaces can be just as important and often easier to access, whether you live in a land constrained by its size, or don’t have the means to your own or even any household. When we think about why space is so necessary to ourselves, we should also consider how to create more spaces for others — both physically and emotionally. Cultural centers, safe spaces, shelters and public spaces can be made more accommodating for the expression of emotions. Maybe this way our growth won’t be limited by our spaces, our status or our means.
Living in LDub, arguably the “worst” dorm at Yale, I often hear comments about the cramped rooms, the tragedy of bunk beds and shared closets. And while it sometimes feels a little squeezy, I am only reminded that even if the walls close in inside my room, the outer boundaries of Yale are constantly being pushed and remolded by its community. I am grateful and lucky that I have the freedom to think and be what I want here. How much better would the world be if we could create these spaces for each other?
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at email@example.com .