04 January 2013


I was so unbelievably excited to land in D.C., knowing that two of my best friends in the world were waiting to greet me. Well, at least one best friend was waiting; her husband decided to remain in bed and sleep through my arrival. Thanks, Van. When I got off the plane, I walked down the jetway and made my way to immigration.

I followed the sign for U.S. citizens and green card holders, walked through the maze of black and blue retractable belt barriers and waited near the end of a long line. Only four immigration agents were working at 8 a.m. on a Friday, so I continued to patiently wait my turn. Once through immigration, I found my bag and then stood in the longest possible line leading to the one and only on-duty customs agent. Welcome to America.

By the time I made it passed the customs guy, I was practically running through the winding hallways. I was not expecting to see Katie inside waiting for me but the second I saw her, I raced over, rolling my suitcase behind me and darting through anyone in my way. We hugged like friends who haven’t seen each other in a year, eyes watering and feet jumping with excitement.

The first thing I wanted to do was take a hot shower; the second was to eat the massive, amazing, all-American breakfast I was promised. Before we made it home, however, I was faced with my first fail: getting into the car. In Singapore, drivers drive British style – they sit on the right side of the car and they drive on the left side of the road. Since Katie was driving, I needed to get into the passenger side, but, instead, I tried to take over the driver’s side since my brain was still in Singapore.

When I got to Katie’s, I was ready to tackle my first objective: hot shower. I happily achieved this objective without issue. When I finished, however, I faced a serious problem. I was in the bathroom. I finished my shower, covered myself in my oversized towel and then, it happened. I hit the rocker light switch, a long, flat, slightly angled teeter-totter with two side-by-side controls. The left switch had the bottom portion pushed in; the right switch was pushed in at the top.

Since I am familiar with the teeter-totter switches that fill my Singaporean apartment, I thought I had this task in the bag: turn off the light. I turned on the fan. Startled because the fan was loud and Van was still sleeping in the next room, I just started fiddling with the switches, beating them against the wall over and over until I achieved my desired result – fan off, light off.

I went into my room to change and had to seriously think about my processes before again attempting the light switch. In Singapore, down is on and up is off, meaning that in order to turn on a light, I need to push the bottom of the switch. Conversely, in order to turn off a light, I push the top of the switch into the wall. My brain processed “turn on the light” like this: “O.K., down is on and up is off, but I’m in America so it’s backwards. If down is on at home, then up is on here. O.K. Push the top of the switch.” Success. Three weeks into the trip, I am still having some issues but I am getting better.

Issue number three arose when I had to drive a car for the first time. The best part of having to drive for the first time in a year is knowing that Paul’s mom bought my former car from us when we left the country, so I did not have to learn how to operate a new vehicle. I had my car for six years before passing it along so I was quite comfortable driving my own car. My problem was instinctively knowing on which side of the road I was supposed to be.

In Singapore, left-hand turns are made close against the curb, while right turns require drivers to move forward into the intersection, avoid cross-traffic and then make a wide right turn into the far lane. Even though I have not ever driven in Singapore, my brain has been trained to operate as if I have.

Now that I had a chance to drive, I knew I had to focus. I was fine, for the most part, though slightly nervous simply because I had not been behind a steering wheel in a year. I had the speed worked out, used my turn signals, got used to the break pressure – all was good in happy driver land. That is, until I had to make a left turn.

My hometown is on the small side, so there was not a lot of traffic. I was on the edge of town and wanted to turn left onto a side street where car sightings are rare. I made my way into the intersection, waited for a clearing and then proceeded to turn. The second I started to turn, my brain looked at the vacant street and wondered, “Which side am I supposed to be on? Left? Right?” I honestly did not know.

To make matters worse, I noticed a truck pulling out of a parking lot situated to the left of the road. The truck pulled out to cross in front of me and then made a right-hand turn to face me. I started to move into the right lane, but when the truck turned, he turned wide and came into my right lane. My brain freaked out. If the truck was moving into the right lane, I need to move into the left lane. So I started to move into the left lane but something in my brain thought that was wrong, so I just stopped in the middle of the street. I waited for the truck to pick a lane. When he finally decided to come at me from my left, I took my foot off the brake and gracefully glided to the right. Man that was rough!

Remember to drive was a challenge but I seemed to struggle more with finding my way around. I came to this town in 1995 after my parents’ divorce. My mom temporarily moved my brother and me into my grandmother’s house, where we all continued to live – mother, grandmother and children – until two years ago. My brother and I moved out after high school but my mom and my grandmother remained in the same house where my mom grew up in the 1950s. I tell you this to put into perspective that I should know my way around this small town. Christmas Eve, however, I learned that I, in fact, only have a general recollection.

I took my grandmother and her lifelong friend to breakfast. I like hanging out with the grandmas – they’re fun. And grandmother #2, also named Helen, has been taking care of my Helen since my Helen’s sister died a few months ago. Helen #2 comes to our house and takes my Helen to the grocery store, the drug store, the bank…wherever she needs to go. My Helen is 88 and stopped driving a few years ago. Until the fall, her sister was the chauffer and companion.

After breakfast, the grandmothers parted and I took mine to run a couple errands on the way home. First we needed to stop at the post office so that my grandmother could mail some letters. I left the restaurant, drove down a road paralleling the main road through town and tried to picture where I needed to be.

“The post office is near Timberlanes and Timberlanes is near Pershing, so I need to get to Pershing. Pershing Street will be on my left, so I need to watch out for Pershing.” I was halfway down the road when I realized I was already on Pershing. When I approached Timberlanes, an old restaurant and hotel formerly owned by Paul’s grandfather, I again put on my thinking cap. “The post office is just a couple blocks away on the left.” I looked left.

I could see the post office in the distance and calculated the steps I needed to take in order to get there. I turned left at a stop sign and realized that the alley way I thought I could take was one way the opposite way, so I had to take a few left turns in order to get around the post office and over to the boxes. “You should have gone the other way,” said my grandmother, indicating a smarter way that the locals would have used. “Well,” I advised. “I don’t live here anymore, so you just have to go the way my brain remembers.”

It’s been a fun few weeks. If all of these experiences are considered part of repatriation, I am now well on my way to becoming American again…just in time for the trip back to Singapore.

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