My Heart Longs for Home

Sherilyn Chong

It’ll be two years before I see my family again.

A lot has changed since I left the place I called home. The unforeseen circumstance of COVID-19 has been prolonged into perpetuity, the whole world thrown into distress by this ongoing pandemic.

The cracks of my skin formed into a dryness that I’d never seen or felt before. Skin gripped tight and rough. Flakes appearing among the redness. I sigh at the daily undertaking of maintaining my desired smooth skin, and the regular grind of retaining moisture. I’m tired of this.

Dare I say, I don’t miss the stifling humid weather conditions of my home, Singapore. But I yearn to physically see my family and friends again. The intense wrestle of grief, anxiety, loneliness, and a fear of missing out have extended beyond my comprehension. I’ve been away pursuing my degree in Brisbane with the occasional thoughts that maybe, just maybe, I could come back home. Someday.

COVID-19 struck even worse than before. I’ve been stranded here. Lockdowns after lockdowns. My mental health weighing down on me, and I’m holding on to a thread. Drowning in my sorrows, falling deep into quicksand. Help. Get me out of this misery. It’s the first time I’ve ever been away for a long duration, and I truly miss a lot of things.

I miss the smells of the local hawker food the most. The aroma that defined the personality of the Little Red Dot. I long to savour some of my favourite dishes—Fried Hokkien Mee (thick yellow noodles fried in rich prawn and pork stock), Hainanese Chicken Rice (steamed cut chicken with fragrant rice), Roti Prata (flat bread dough stretched out with ghee) with curry, and even just simple Fish Soup to cleanse my palette. 

I reminisce about going to hawker centres near my apartment with my dad, mum, and older brother. My dad would always drive, even though it was 10 minutes away. I missed seeing aunties and uncles mending stalls and shouting orders from across the area. A gigantic fan hung above the ceiling of the hawker centre as the strong gust of wind blew my messy hair. The recurring smells—left, right, and centre—surrounding me with so many choices to satisfy my hunger. Sadly, it hasn’t been the same, and I wonder when I will feast again.

What do you want to eat?’ asked my father.

‘Fish soup… and otah,’ I said. Otah was one of my favourite sides—a Southeast Asian fish cake made out of fish meat and spices.

‘Alright. Ask your mother if she wants that too.’

My dad hated seafood and would always divert any seafood questions to my mum, because she was the queen of eating anything seafood.

‘Mummy, fish soup?’ I asked.

‘Sure, dear. Take it and order it for your brother too,’ she said as she handed me two $10 notes. ‘And three otahs please.’

As I relived this memory in my head, I remembered the good times when we chatted about what we’ve been up to in school and at work. Then came the uncle with three bowls of fish soup and otahs on his tray. 

I remembered slurping the noodles, burning my throat with the hot soup, and recalling a distinct fish smell from the slices of fish. The otah was wrapped in a pandan leaf with some of its sides burnt. I opened the pandan leaf and there was the glorious orange otah, its spices tingling my nose and my throat.

It’s unfortunate that I don’t have the skills, nor the ingredients, to make the exact dishes. But I’m longing. Soon enough, I tell myself.

At a time like this, one of the ways of conversing with friends from home is through Zoom, a video communications app. To be quite honest, I’ve become jaded by the Zoom fatigue, because I’m on it at least four times a week. We’re at a time when physical touch is withdrawn. Many of us stay home, become conservative, and prefer not to go out. Even in my weariness of Zoom, I’m also extremely grateful, because it has always been my outlet to connect to home and have a virtually pleasing conversation with my loved ones. I often tell myself not to take it for granted.

‘When your mother and I were dating, I was studying in the US. She would send me physical pen-written letters. If only we had technology like this then.’ Dad always told this story to me.

‘Must’ve been really difficult for mummy,’ I said.

‘Yeah, well, consider your generation lucky! At least you didn’t have to spend so much just to send letters. Now there are video calls, email and all.’ 

That much is true. My generation is privileged to have advanced technology as compared to my parents and grandparents, who only had snail mail when they wanted to converse with each other if they were overseas.

Over time, the comfort of home has also become something that I’ve been somewhat lost from. I am stricken with the fear of missing out as I scroll through my friends’ Instagram stories and see them having a meal together. My social anxiety rises from seeing others having fun without me. I wish too that I may join them soon. 

In my grief of missing friends’ weddings, funerals, and events, it was also preventing me from happiness. The significant stresses in my life became supplementary to a profound urge to return home.

This thing called ‘homesickness’ has everything to do with attachment. I’m feeling a lot of things—insecurity, discomfort, and am being challenged physically and emotionally. I’m so exhausted of the unknown. I just want something that my mind knows is predictable. Indeed, I’ve grown very attached to my family and community back home.

Homesickness is something that I’ve been acknowledging for a while now. It took a long time for me to normalise it, even though it’s something that most adults go through now and then when they are far from their comfort blanket and not surrounded by their loved ones.

Imagine this with an analogy of a swimming pool where we are afraid to get in. Maybe because it’s too cold, or we don’t know how to swim, or we just fear the water. But when we eventually get in, we become more accustomed to the water. The water on our skin provides a sensation that we are in a swimming pool, and that I have to tread water or hold on to the sides for support. My swimming pool is Brisbane, and I am ‘treading’ on the land that I’m on, holding on to my friends for support, and praying to God for strength. Just a little bit longer, I tell myself again.

Homesickness is also a period of adjustment. I, too, am adjusting to being distant from home. Living in Brisbane for the past two years has brought me a lot of uneasiness. The people I see, the places around me, the language, the food, the accessibility—these are mainly what I experience on a daily basis as I anxiously head out of the security of my current and temporal house. To me, these things are far from my normal—where I usually see a multiracial society, experience humid weather, eat delicious hawker food, and notice an increased frequency of trains and buses. 

How I counter homesickness is by spending time with fellow Singaporeans. I’ve come to realise that human connection is something really fascinating to me. When you meet someone who has similarities and knows all the lingos you speak, it’s much easier to develop a relationship with them. I suppose this is part of the overseas study experience too—meeting new people, cooking together, becoming tourists, trying new food, and just appreciating the beautiful city of Brisbane altogether. Through these wonderful friendships with my circle of friends, they’ve also continuously supported me as we’re all in the same boat of being lost and away from family and friends. 

The battle comes down to this one thought.

This is only temporary.

The waves of homesickness will come and go as I anticipate my return home. These feelings too shall pass, and I am also growing in my own way. Adapting in my independence, in being brave, in understanding different cultures—things that I know that I can keep as a memento for life. On the bright side, I can say that I’ve experienced living in Brisbane for a decent amount of time.

‘We miss you, Sheri,’ Dad said as we were on a WhatsApp video call. ‘Come home soon.’

‘I miss you too. The food too,’ I chuckled, holding the phone towards my face.

‘We’ll definitely bring you back to your favourite places.’

‘Looking forward to it.’

‘Hang in there. Before you know it, you’ll be back.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I said, feeling a little melancholy. I could sense my parents were also in grief, as they haven’t seen me physically in what seems like forever.

Even as my heart longs for my home of Sunny Singapore, I know that my family and friends are waiting for me too. The love I’ve experienced while being abroad has been astounding, and I can’t wait to return to the home where the heart is. The place where my foundation of love, warmth, and happy memories sustains my soul.

Sherilyn is a Singaporean-based writer of memoirs, personal essays, fiction, and poetry. She is in her final year studying Creative Writing and hopes to shape storytelling through the use of media.