Onions, Layers, Identity

imageI like to think of myself as a clean person – my apartment might be messy but not dirty. My clothes are always matching and clean and appropriate to the occasion. My nails are polished and I even keep the bills in my wallet in the right order. I’d never wear the same clothes two days on a row and can’t stand cracking finger nails or unevenly done make-up – including on others.

How then, am I having the time of my life on a dive boat, being wet all day, with messy hair and greasy face? Needing no toiled paper for days, eating dry rice, spitting on my mask, skin cracking on fingers? Things that in slightest moderation on my city life would drive me nuts, don’t bother me the least when I’m on a dive boat.

It’s liberating. Many people have multiple sides in them, and mine are clearly divided between the city-girl and the diver.  Allowing your different layers to bloom at their times, cherishing the ability to shift in between, enables a deep dive into our who we are. Our true selves don’t need to be easy to define, nor present at every single moment.

There needs to be no holding back on exploring out the potential of our many sides, the known or yet unknown ones. Outsiders’ perceptions of us ought not to hold us back. I once was on a dive boat with a friend from a city, who was new to this side of me. When she saw me spitting after coming up from a dive, she was horrified and told me that’s not “lady like”. It was absurd, not only the fact that she’d expect me to behave like a lady on a dive boat, but the fact that she seemed to think of me as a “lady”. It’s definitely not a term I’d use to describe myself, not even the city me. But that shows how differently people look at us, how they think of us. Those who only know one side of me, don’t really know me much at all.

Embracing and understanding the many layers we have, is a great gift and allows us to enjoy a very diverse life. It also allows space in our lives for many different types of people. There are people with whom I enjoy eating a Sunday brunch in a city, but would not choose to go on a dive trip with. Others are splendid company for a hike or a dive trip but would be out of place on a wine and cheese night. Shrek said it so well, “ogres are like onions, they have layers.” It’s a blessing to not be bound down to one lifestyle, one type of people, one setting for the life.

For in one person, I am many.


Hello, Goodbye

I moved from Vietnam to Singapore 5 months ago, but sitting now at the departure hall of HCMC airport, it for the first time feels real and eternal. End of an era, end of the HCMC life. This was the third time back at my old Saigon home, this time to say bye to my closest friend in town who is about to move back to the States. Singapore and HCMC are “just around the corner” in expat-lifestyle terms, but Singapore – Washington DC is a different story.

Having lived in 7 countries, I’ve had my fair share of goodbyes. They are always bitter sweet, knowing that true friendships conquer any obstacles but the good old times will be just that – old times, the past, memories.

As an expat one has to develop an ability to make friends quickly, approach new people with an open heart and embrace and treasure every moment together. For an expat, life and its precious moments are always right here, right now. A best friend of today might move to the other side of the world tomorrow so there’s no time to lose.

It’s nothing sort of easy to open your heart time after time, to new people, knowing that the day of goodbyes is already being scheduled. It’s hard and it’s painful. But it’s worth it.

The best part of the expat life are these moments making new friends, sometimes even meeting soul-mates. People you would never have met had you stayed living in one place. Moments you would never have had without trusting your heart being strong enough to handle yet another goodbye. Expat friendships are fast, deep, and full of emotions. They are made of short experiences that make all the difference because they were shared. They are full of realizations of how small and how big the world is, and how soul mates can be waiting at the oddest corners of the world.

Goodbyes mean an end of something special. Goodbyes don’t end friendships but they change them. As with anything special, it’s painful to let go. But letting go is a natural effect of an expat life. Our journey is filled with hello’s and goodbyes, with the value of the hello’s out weighting the sadness of the goodbyes. Even with the most difficult goodbyes, the saddest moments, there’s always the gratitude and joy present in having had a chance to meet that person, to be part of their lives and share special moments together.

I let the tears come to my eyes for a moment, allow my heart to ache, but keep a smile on my face reminding me of the time we shared together. It’s only hard to let go of something unique, something special. I’ll treasure the great moments we had and look forward to a thrilling reunion someday, somewhere. I’ll keep the gratitude and love in my heart and in the memories. And I’ll keep my heart open, not letting the fear of a future goodbye limit the opportunities ahead. Expat life is a journey filled with big emotions, amazing adventures, memorable moments and special people. Even at the times of sadness and longing, it’s a life that makes me feel alive and happy.

Friend, I’m sad to see you go but I’m eternally happy to have met you.

Let’s be friends

Last Sunday I spent some time on the beach in Singapore and noticed a laughing group of young people taking pictures of each other. One girl in small bikinis was posing to the camera, being photographed by another girl – wearing a burkha.

I’m too new to Singapore to try and make any expert comments on its integration and cultural policies. Yet it’s obvious that something is right in here, when two girls of such obviously different cultural / religious up-bringings feel so utterly comfortable with each other.

Has Singapore succeeded in finding the way for universal acceptance of one another? Singapore is known for boosting cultural tolerance and for strict measures against racial or religious discrimination. Buildings have quotas for people from different religions and cultural backgrounds, to avoid buildings or full neighborhoods being inhabited by one majority group only. Headscarves are an option for school and work uniforms and all major religions’ most important holidays are celebrated and declared for public holidays.

Certainly there are some underlying tensions, intolerance and even racism. But judging by the appearance on the streets, Singapore seems to have found an admirable level of unity and acceptance. What those 2 girls and their friends on the beach can teach us, is that it’s okay for you to do things your way and for me my way. We can still be friends.