I landed with the rain hitting the asphalt airport lane as the tires screeched down the lane after a tumultuous descent. The sky bathed in comforting dark gray and thunder began its steady rhythm. “Welcome to Singapore,” the speaker said. I was home after a year and I felt relieved, excited, nostalgic, but, funnily enough, and something I didn’t expect, strangeness.
I’m home! The place where I grew up, the memories buried and pinned in different places around this island. But I looked out the double paned window and felt almost nervous, like meeting an old friend after years of not speaking to each other, trying to rekindle something when the chapter already closed.
Within the year away from home, I’ve made a life outside of Singapore. College was almost like what it was before a raging pandemic stole two years away from us. We started to go out, meet new people, smile, laugh, and touch one another with sheer joy that life felt freeing again. After spending a year and a half in and out of Singapore quarantines, lockdowns, social restrictions, more quarantines, and more dwindling hope – coming back here again with the restrictions finally lifted was like stepping into a whole new world that I barely recognized.
But even as this city becomes more of a stranger, food is the familiar heart and soul. Everyone has that one dish the family made for a celebration, or even the go-to meal for a Netflix night-in; or you’re a loyalist to that one cozy restaurant in your hometown where you greet the chef like an old cousin. People can change, friendships come and go, the city evolves, but the food remains.
When I think of Singapore I think of sizzling char kway teow and sweet kecap laced with the smoke of the wok. I think of creamy laksa noodles bursting with prawn flavor that harmonizes with the coconut broth. I think of chili crab paired with fluffy mantou buns dipped in a sweet and tangy chili sauce that dribbles down your plastic disposable apron. I think of Pietra Santa, the Italian restaurant my family has dined in for over a decade – their truffle and sausage fettuccine will always be no.1 in my eyes (and stomach).
Despite all my friends no longer here, my displaced foreign accent after spending too long in America, and my lagging sense of direction, I could still count on getting an ice cold avocado and sugar cane juice from down the street.
As international students, home is often where your feet are on the ground at that moment. My friend Cindy Gotama, BC’23, grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, but spent her last two years of High School in Singapore before hauling herself to Boston. Home is a weird feeling too. There isn’t one place that feels quite right.
“I never know how to explain what home is,” says Cindy. “I love my life in Boston. It’s a home. I miss Jakarta. That’s my childhood. I miss Singapore, that was also my home for a time.”
The first time I met Cindy was in Singapore. We devoured Din Tai Fung xiao long baos, soy sauce noodles, and egg fried rice, and black sesame buns to polish the meal off. Din Tai Fung was the go-to spot. Need a late night meal? Hungover meal? Brunch? Afternoon tea? It was even a place I would eat at three times in a row and still not be sick.
Yet going back to such a cult favorite, it wasn’t as exciting as it used to be. The meal was tinged with a nostalgic longing of our childhoods, a reminder that we’re reaching the start of our early adulthood, and that eating the same meal three times in a row might not be the most adult thing to do.
“When I’m in Boston, I crave Indonesian food. I want actual nasi goreng and es campur,” Cindy says. “But when I’m back in Asia, I want my life back in Boston. My friends, the routine, even the food places I’m now obsessed there!”
A 2014 study conducted on mice actually confirmed that our sense of taste directly triggers positive and negative memories or a particular location – home. Our brains are able to associate food with our past experiences. The power of food memory involves all five senses – in that sense, food never becomes a stranger to you unlike a physical location can. It’s what makes one dish the family favorite above all the other ones. Maybe the question isn’t so much as where is home; rather, what is home? Home doesn’t need to be tethered to room, a house, a town, a city – home evolves as you outgrow memories and experience something totally new. That strangeness I felt was toward a place, a place where the memories remain but are somewhat distant because the girl in those memories I don’t recognize anymore. I’ve outgrown Singapore? Perhaps a bowl of vinegary fishball mee pok noodles will cheer me up. Food is home.
Cover photo courtesy of Din Tai Fung