Growing Pains

cover photo by Bogomil Mihaylov

Christmas 2019 was one of those times when I felt like quitting. When you hear someone say that the holidays can be a tough time, it’s hard to comprehend at first. Who is unhappy at Christmas? Family members you haven’t seen in a year (in some cases more) reunite, then there’s the food you love but takes too much effort to make if it’s not a holiday, and the presents, the surprises, the joy on your loved ones’ faces when they see just how much you’ve thought of them.

I wear a smile that not many can penetrate, but last year was excruciatingly tough for me. I left Singapore, my home of 10 years and the place I gave birth to my children. We were happy there. It wasn’t perfect, but we had friends who had become family. The kids were immersed in a society where there was a mix of everything, and everyone. We celebrated Christian, Indian, and Muslim holidays, and I took pride that my girls and I were learning about different cultures together. It was a true melting pot; again, not perfect, but a diverse populace with an easy lifestyle.

It was hard getting them settled last year. My eldest went from having friends she knew before her memories formed to no one. There were a total of 180 students in her year 2 class in Singapore; her new school had just 25. There weren’t many groups to choose from. If she didn’t “fit in” with the group already formed, well, then, maybe she’d have better luck when she reached secondary school. There were many nights where we both cried together in her brand new bed, in her new bedroom, in a new house three-times the size of our old one.

My youngest struggled with the weather. She never wanted to go outside and would often ask me to tell the teacher that she had “medical reasons” to stay in during recess. It was hard with her because instead of tears, she got angry. She shouted. She wore her winter coat well into spring. I could hear a few snickers, so I shared with her that I was worried people were going to laugh at her, but my youngest one has a fire in her belly that makes me proud. She said, “I don’t care. You told me it doesn’t matter what other people think. I’m cold. So I’m wearing my coat!” Then she added, “Full stop.”

But we have adapted, each in our own way. My eldest now chats with friends online and my youngest is often out in the garden doing cartwheels when she should be studying.

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I even went for two socially distant walks with two of my friends recently.

An expat forum I belong to advised that it takes a good year to feel settled in a place. They are right.

It had been something like seven years since we celebrated Christmas on the western hemisphere, and I forgot just how big of a deal it is. I was shocked to see my youngest’s classmates handing out cards to one another! Christmas in England is huge. Much bigger than the USA, in my opinion. I took for granted the freedom from expectations that being abroad gave you.

I chuckle as I type this because some of my best Christmas memories are around Auntie Kate’s dinner table. Auntie Kate is a British citizen with Vietnamese origins who has lived in Singapore for something like 15+ years. She was the perfect mix of both cultures and could cook better than your “mamma”. And on those Christmases when she “abandoned” us and instead took her family skiing in Hokkaido (leaving us to fend for ourselves), we would slink off to some hotel for a free-flowing champagne brunch where the kids ran amok, high off marshmallows dipped in chocolate. There was a selection of fine Christmas cuisines from all over the world: your traditional English/American roasts, Chinese noodles and dim sum, Indian aromatic curries and rice, and clams and oysters and tiger prawns the size of your palm. Dessert was a cornucopia of sweet and savory: ice creams in all flavors, some of which, you never heard of; fruit ripened to perfection; and molten chocolate lava cakes and puddings served in tiny dishes so you could have a little of everything—oh, and let’s not forget the cheeses, tucked away in its special corner to keep their pungent aroma contained. You would eat until you weren’t sure if you could move. Then, because you lived on an island state small enough to get anywhere in under an hour, your taxi dropped you stumbling back at your condo’s entrance, the kids quickly changing so they could go for a swim while you swore you were never drinking that much ever again. This, shared with your friends who had become your family, was the Christmas I remembered. Little-to-no expectations, and blessedly no clean-up!

I think if I could’ve escaped to my Dad’s in Texas last year for Christmas, I would’ve. I just needed a moment to sit with my thoughts and mourn the loss of my friends who had made the holidays so special for me and my children. There was just so much change happening last year that by Christmas, what I needed wasn’t a celebration; I needed a breather.

But growth is uncomfortable. It forces us outside of our comfort zone and we see things we weren’t able to before. Change is almost always for the best. It just takes time to adjust, to accept, and to mourn so that we can ultimately move on.

Shortly after Christmas, I realized that I needed to make some changes. I was drawing closer to the end of Book 2, Sacrifice, and starting to feel antsy. There’s one more book I still need to write, but that wasn’t the cause of my anxiety. In every country I have ever moved, there had always been something for me there. That can be hard to understand, but I moved to Japan as a single woman, I left Japan and traveled, then moved to Singapore for work and later married. We left Singapore and moved to the USA so my husband could work on his second start-up in Seattle and I was able to earn my Master’s. There was a reason for me (independent of everything and everyone else) being in each of those countries. England wasn’t the same. I needed to find something here, and my book wasn’t enough because I could write that from anywhere. Recognizing that I needed a purpose, something that would tie me here to this land, was quite a mental shift for me.

Life can be a funny ‘ole place sometimes. The coronavirus hit and the world slowed down. It was as scary as it was beautiful. I do not mean to devalue the tragedy that it brought. Some will move forward after lockdown lifts with their lives irrevocably changed.

As I watched the news about each country and how they reacted, their daily death toll and the new number of those infected, I was never more happy to be in the countryside of England. Hidden safely away from the cities I secretly longed for, craving the conveniences of fast-food deliveries and consistent power during a storm, I couldn’t help but be steeped in gratitude for having so much of the important stuff—nature, potable water, trails for walking just at my doorstep, and the weather. Yes, even the weather cooperated there for a while, making it bearable.

The lockdown helped me realize just how much of my life had been simply about going through the motions and pleasing everyone else. Drop-offs, pick-ups, drama classes, Chinese lessons, netball, football… Covid-19 stopped it all. I sat down, perhaps for the first time since arriving in England, and listened to myself. I did a lot of deep breathing. Out of that came the realization I wanted to work for myself. I was surprised how quickly and deeply I arrived at the desire to teach creative writing. I have the qualifications as well as the experience. What was holding me back? Since then, things have sort of fallen into place. (Note: nothing just “magically” falls into place; one must work at it and put themselves out there.) I have a few editing jobs going at the moment and am developing materials for my workshops. (If only we had stock in Zoom, eh?) I’ve even started getting up early—don’t worry the world isn’t ending just yet!

At the start of 2019, it felt like I was stuck in the Waiting Place Dr Seuss references in his children’s book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. But upon further reflection, I think I was just growing, gathering the energy for what lies ahead.

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