It all started when I first listened to Taylor Swift’s new song Welcome to New York.
She romanticizes the feeling that she got when she first came to New York, the city of bright lights and bustling people.
I mean I’ve never been to New York so I guess I don’t have much to go from there other than Hollywood movies and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind.
But it made me wonder why Taylor is so quick to praise this other-worldly place, and how we’re so quick to do the same ourselves.
If I ever meet anyone from France, or Vietnam, or Norway, or even New Zealand, I’m filled with this sense of awe, and think of how lucky that person must be. I put myself in their shoes for a moment, and imagine how my life is like if I grew up there, or studied there, or worked there.
But here’s the thing: the other person does the exact same thing.
They reminisce about Singapore, whether they’ve been there or just seen pictures, and they talk about how it must be like to live and eat and shop there.
We are constantly fascinated by the idea of travel, and we have this romantic notions of tourism and living somewhere else. People from Singapore are fascinated when I tell them I study in Australia. And people in Australia are fascinated that I come from Singapore.
It’s this sense of otherness that they have not experienced before, and they absolutely love it.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, but the weirder bit is when people get embarrassed or awkward of their own homeland.
I met a filmmaker in Singapore who is from New York a year back. He came to Singapore as a student in the New York Tisch School of the Arts (the ill-fated school that no longer exists in Singapore, but that’s another story).
After finding out that he’s from America, I asked him the one question he always gets: why come to tiny Singapore when he’s from America, the huge land of opportunities?
He wanted a change of scenery. And he got embarrassed when I kept asking about his hometown in Staten Island (one part of New York City) and said that he got so bored of it and the same places that he kept going to.
Instead, he much preferred to walk around Singapore, and talk about Singapore. To him, Singapore was a completely new world and he loved it, and his own homeland didn’t really feel that way.
I meet people in Melbourne who sort of feel the same way. They get embarrassed to say that they’re from Melbourne, and then proceed to talk about how much they want to go work in London, or travel to Cambodia, or study in the USA.
What is it about “the otherness” that we humans find so utterly fascinating?
Is our own country so dull that we can’t stand it? If that’s so, then why would someone else want to come to our country? Why is someone else imagining at this very moment, that they’re us?
When we talk about our own country, we’re immediately drawn into saying something we don’t like about our country, whether it’s corruption, or cleanliness, or lack of funding in the arts sector.
It could be something lighthearted like laughing about Singapore’s chewing gum ban. Or it could be an outright complain about how our ministers are corrupt and there’s only one ruling party who’s so utterly ridiculously incompetent (this doesn’t reflect my personal views about said party).
Why are we so quick to put our own country down while praising other’s?
Maybe it’s because we’ve spent our formative years in one country, our first 15 to 20 years of our lives in one particular country. And this is enough time to make us pine for somewhere else.
That time has shaped our lives, but also our ideas that our country is too boring. We’re waiting for something new, something better, something different.
We think that there’s far more beyond our shores, which is true in a sense. But we’ve developed something called the ‘cultural cringe‘, where we think that our own culture is inferior to other people’s cultures. We gaze at the geishas’ painted faces and kimonos, we dance to the beat of Brazil’s Mardi Gras, we reminisce the Renaissance period in Rome.
We like them, we admire them, we wish we were a part of them. And sometimes that translates over to us not liking our own culture, or thinking its less colourful, less fun, less vibrant.
While waiting at a gym once, I watched a mother and her son and daughter come out from gymnastics. And for a minute, I put myself in their shoes. Going for evening sports classes, running out without a coat even though it’s Winter outside because the car’s just nearby anyway, driving home to a house house, with two storeys and a picket fence and a dog.
I’ve never lived in a house before. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s lower than 5 storeys high. I can’t imagine what it’s like. But I’ve always tried. I always have this romanticized notion that it’ll be wonderful (even though it probably won’t, with the lizards and roaches and fear of someone climbing in through the window). It’s this sense of otherness that I’ve never experienced.
In my head, it’s romantic.
We’re filled with this desire to experience more, we’re waiting to relish in something new. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But sometimes we’re waiting so long that we’ve forgotten to look at what we already have.
– Fari Wu