Flying home was not flying home. Flying home meant grabbing the homing pigeon inside of me and twisting its imaginary magnet one hundred and eighty degrees to the north instead of southwards to Australia. The magnet still twitched stubbornly north even as the plane droned over Darwin, five hours before I finally reached home. Except it wasn't home. Sydney now looked as foreign as the glossy travel leaflets I grabbed from Singapore, its shine not quite matching the missing substance of my once childhood home.
"Thank you for choosing Singapore Airlines
I hope you will enjoy your stay in Sydney, or a warm welcome home."
Winter air slapped me like a bucket of ice water as I emerged, searching for my parents and my sister. For eight years, their voices were tinny and masked by static on the occasional phone calls home. Today, they sounded as brittle as ever, Australian accents barely sheathing the chill emanating from them.
"Welcome home, sis," said my sister with an unusually bright voice. My mother hugged me and suggested we get the hell out of here before the traffic built up at this hour of day.
As twilight descended upon Sydney, choking in its fumes of its famous peak hour traffic, I tried to picture Singapore. It would only be 2 o'clock, perhaps the laziest time of the Singaporean day. Thirty-three degree heat would hover around customers sipping on the sugar cane juice that's being peddled by some hawker downstairs. The streets would mostly be bare, with everyone else ensconced in their air-conditioned homes until twilight. Then, the real activity would begin, with night markets spilling out from the sidewalk selling anything from pyjamas to chicken rice and restaurants boasting the best chilli crab in town. Just remembering the vibrant night scene was enough to send a twinge through my heart. Seven thousand kilometres was not enough to dampen the memory.
"Your lips look chapped already. You need lip balm." I broke out of my reverie at my sister's critical gaze. Her blonde hair, pressed stiff by years of hair straightening, hung in lifeless locks around her too-pale shoulders. I licked my lips and grimaced. Even the Sydney air was treating me like a foreigner.
"Yeah. Never really had that problem in Singapore, you know. All that humidity."
Silence surrounded me till I reached the apartment, or at least, what was supposed to be my apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour. I once thought it a monolithic structure, but it was a gnome compared to the giants of high-rise flats that were the norm back in Singapore. The three of us dragged the luggage into the lift. I insisted on taking it all into my apartment without their help. They backed off immediately and bid me goodnight, and some mumbo-jumbo about me needing rest after a long flight. I had never been so alive with restless misery. I barely shoved my luggage (all five pieces, each more battered than the next from my constant travels) into the apartment before running downstairs.
It was now eight o'clock. It was probably less than ten degrees Celsius. The birds had long retired for the night.
I still found myself jogging on the Harbour Bridge, under the dirty yellow lights of street lamps. My breath powdered the air. I made a mini thunderstorm out of my exertions before I finally paused against the protective barrier, the metal cold against my flushed cheeks. Cars whooshed by. The path was empty. So empty. At this time of night, it would be buzzing in Singapore. The wrongness of it curdled within my chest.
Click, click, click.
I pressed against the grate in fright, but it was only a young man with a Poloroid camera, capturing the miserable scene before him. Like me, he had been leaning against the barrier but now rose out of the shadows for a better angle. His black motorcycle jacket was rumpled and faded like the photographs that were pouring out of his camera. He blinked when he saw me staring at him.
"What are you looking at?"
"Don't worry about me. I'm just curious that anyone would take a picture of the Sydney night-time. It's as boring as watching sloths sleep." I rubbed my half-frozen hands together in a vain attempt to conjure warmth. In contrast, the young man's fingers appeared animated as they hovered over the buttons.
"It's getting better over the years." The young man smiled ruefully. "I guess for an expat like you that seems rather bizarre. Sydney is always boring compared to where you were previously."
I took a step backwards, my mouth hanging open. The way he said it, almost confidently, reassuringly, rang serious warning bells for me. "Who are you? What do you know about me?"
"Nothing, except for what I've observed and heard from you so far. I could be completely wrong, but judging by your reaction, that isn't the case. How long have you been away for?" He placed his camera back in the bag and now directed his full attention to me. It was almost surgical, as if he had done many, many times before.
"Who are you?" I didn't trust him just yet. Eight years in any country would teach you to be wary of seemingly friendly stranger talk. Especially at night.
"I'm David. Receptionist for a travel agency, budding photographer." He paused to glance over the harbour before looking back at me. "And undertaking an honours degree in psychology focusing on reverse culture shock."
The last three words stabbed me like chopsticks. "Reverse culture shock?" I echoed, as though I was trying to pronounce a particularly difficult Chinese word.
He nodded. "When you come back to your home country after spending time abroad and realise things have changed. And you can't fit in again."
"What I'm feeling has a name?"
"Yes." He looked at me with a sad smile. "I didn't know it myself until three years ago. I was only starting to take shots of the Sydney nightscape when I saw someone jogging along the Bridge. He stopped by me and commented, just like you, about how boring Sydney was at night. Even the nightlife in Asia was more vibrant than the occasional spurts of life here, he said to me. I found out from him that he was a frequent traveller but he decided to settle down in Australia and realised that no one was interested in where he'd been. Everyone had moved on. No one really cared about how much he started to miss being abroad."
I swallowed, the beginnings of tears in my eyes. "Where is he now?"
"I don't actually know. He just disappeared after that before I could ask him any further. I thought that would be the end of it. But over the next three years, I was approached by many others who felt almost exactly the same. They had similar tales of grand travel and adventure, and yet coming back to Australia just didn't sit well with them. I learnt to read the signs. Their slightly foreign accent. Behaviour. Learning psychology probably helped. That's how I figured you might be one of them too. Although I've never had one who didn't quite trust me at first." He chuckled and looked over the harbour once again.
I joined his gaze through the iron mesh. The Sydney Opera House was the brightest spot on the harbour, its sails awash with white light. Thousands of tiny city lights competed for attention with the real stars above. I turned away and felt David push something in my hand. A leaflet.
"I created this group for former travellers. It meets at Town Hall every Sunday. I thought you might be interested."
I glanced down at the leaflet. It was faded and crumpled but I could still discern writing on it. "Adjusting to Life after Travel: A Weekly Meet at Town Hall. Chaired by David Holsworthy. Sundays 1-3pm. Join us if you've decided to settle down and find it hard to feel at home in your own home country." I stifled a laugh at the last sentence. How painfully ironic that last sentence sounded!
"Thank you," I said to him and turned the leaflet around. There was a picture of a homing pigeon flying towards Australia, its path from Asia marked by a dotted trail. Its eyes stared right through me. There was no doubt where its magnet was pointing towards.