If Home & Away posits a binary between two places, then Benedicta Foo’s Home, the Final Frontier dissolves such binary assumptions with her country-crossing, planet-hopping and time-trekking essay straddling three countries and two planets, timezones and centuries. Star Trek and young Spock aside, Benedicta’s ongoing literary cartography draws and erases frontier lines of Third Culture Kid experiences, hunching over kitchen sinks projecting maps of home to life.
I haven’t lived in enough cities of polarizing urbanities to ever consider myself a third-culture kid, but I have lived in enough that my body processes the homesickness.
My mother constantly traveled between Palembang, her homeland – a mid-sized town in the south of Sumatra, Indonesia – and Singapore, where her husband resides. As a child, I found myself spending the defining moments of my childhood in my grandmother’s quiet corner house, resting in what Singaporeans would call a kampung.
Except to me, it wasn’t just that. In my grandmother’s house, I had all the resources to run a kingdom, or a thriving restaurant; an airline; a business empire; a humble laundromat; a kiosk selling fishcakes – everything and anything from bookselling to baking, if I wanted to. The three storeys were ample space for any universe to develop, and to easily occupy the five of us; when my grandmother and aunts weren’t mothering me, they were cast members for every single story that my tiny hands and mind could create.
When I left Palembang for good and settled in Singapore to begin a very long, arduous process of growing up, my mother and I bonded over shared airplane rides, naps during lonely afternoons where the dust in the air could be seen, and endless nights in bathrooms. I cried many, many times over the sink the way children do: vomiting on an empty stomach as my mother held my hair, quiet and helpless.
Sometimes I’d catch my mother over the same sink, her figure three hundred light years away. In these moments I was an astronaut, desperately trying to hold the sun in the cusps of my minuscule hands, except it was burning in ways my mind couldn’t comprehend. Except she wasn’t the sun, even with the gravitational force of one – she was smaller than space debris, hunched over a sink, crying.
Home, now, is planet Vulcan. Home is sixteen light years away from Earth, and this is a planet without a moon. The seas remain still; the tides less turbulent, and the water does not kiss its Indian red soil like clockwork – it merely exists alongside. One does not need the moon to survive, and there are no urgent rushes of water – but it is too quiet for a heart to bear.
I am in a city that is an artifact – it is old but it is breathing and it is alive, and I am templed in mahogany. I am in a planet ruled by logic, but it suppresses its roots of love; it forgets that love sometimes is logical; it forgets it is named after the God of Fire.
Here, in Singapore, I am a cartographer. It is easier to map out places when you’re always feeling lost, and I have learned to identify homes. Places that promote isolation – the kind of places that allow vulnerability – become beacons.
One of the biggest challenges that cartographers face is map projection. This means that what is accurate and seen on a globe is difficult to translate into a flat map. The everyday map people use is called a Mercator map, and it prioritizes navigation above all else; an adventurer can use a Mercator to determine the direction to take when going from Asia to Africa, but they cannot rely on the Mercator to compare the continents’ sizes.
My maps are made for navigation too. They lead me to homes – and sometimes they lead me to people who symbolise home. This way, the Singapore that I’ve mapped shrinks more often than I want it to. People leave and take away homes with them. They strip the landmarks off my personal map: 24-hour eateries of sub par curry; theatres; shared Netflix accounts; churches, steeple and minaret; rented rooms as sacred as these religious shelters. I wonder often how much more minute this land can be – I wonder if the Singapore that I know today could just disappear and leave outlines made of dust. I try to cradle dust in my hands, sometimes, make sure it doesn’t disintegrate. Just for practice.
When drawing maps, the most important thing to note is the proximity of favorite cities from Singapore. Palembang: an hour. Jakarta: 1.5 hours. Batam: 30 minutes on a boat ride, but too close for home.
Hougang: 20 minutes. You learn to make do.
Some 213 years from today there will be a man by the name of Spock – half-human, half-Vulcan, full-time science / commanding officer working for the United Federation of Planets, in a starship named Enterprise.
Here is the poster boy for biculturalism, or third-culture kids, or even the poster boy for humanity – the embodiment of all the moments when anyone has felt out of place. Amongst all the good things that the Star Trek universe brought was an alien born to an Earthling science teacher and a Vulcan scientist and diplomat.
His entire life was a struggle between a life of human emotions and one governed by logic. He was never enough to be either of his parents’ ideal identities – not that he knew how to be them.
I think often of seven-year-old Spock, who had to learn to put his pet sehlat, I-Chaya, to sleep without mourning for it, for its life was a life that was well lived. I think of Spock, who grew up with a compassion that could only be characterized as human, in the best possible way. I think of Spock in the reboot movies who had to witness the destruction of his homeworld, the death of his mother, and then the death of his best friend, James Kirk.
In many ways Vulcans are superior to humans; their dedication to logic is enviable, and physiologically they are stronger. But Spock was simply a man born on a planet named after the God of Fire, and steered the tides of his emotions without a moon. He learned to find home in space – in the Enterprise.
In Melbourne, I am 6,079kms and and 2 hours ahead of Singapore, and perhaps here I am simply just water.
Here, I am a child of the moon. When it is dirty, dark, and taunting, I am a lone figure kneeled down on a pew in a cathedral. When it forms a crescent, I am mirth bubbling at the base of my throat. I am the product of tidal waves and I am learning to kiss the shores of Brighton Beach in winter, where it is frigid and cold and I am still not close enough to freezing.
There are families with dogs here. I try my best not to kiss the dogs.
Home, here, is an abandoned conch, and I am learning to fill it with abandoned furniture from other abandoned shells. I dress the couch with vintage skirting, too. My white noise machine is the rerun of a Cartoon Network show at 1AM, and my neighbor is a grumpy bookseller who only smiles when he talks about the letters he’s written to dead poets. On good days, home feels like a lonely business hotel room – but there are no good days here, the same way there are no bad ones.
Home here is forgetting how to map things out. Home here is never needing a map to navigate. Home is forgetting the turns that lead you to your favorite corners, and relearning that every corner would work just as well as when you were 17.
Perhaps, maybe, if I pray enough, one day home would be the Starship Enterprise, and I’d be a cartographer. I’d be in many planets with too many moons, or none at all. My job would be to map out alien cities and new civilisations we’d discover – it could be anything from Vulcan to Andoria, even Qo’noS – right from the comfort of my crewman’s quarters.
The bedsheets would be marigold (in some lights it’s salmon), and the walls purple. And if I grew bored, and I wanted a kingdom, or a thriving restaurant, an airline, a business empire, a humble laundromat, a kiosk selling fishcakes – everything and anything from bookselling to baking – I’d have the recreation deck and replicator for that.
And here it’d be okay to have many homes, or none at all.
Benedicta Foo writes about lonely people and/in lonely spaces. Her work has been published in journals worldwide, and she won the National Poetry Competition (Singapore) in 2016.
Photo credit: Victoria Lee