Disclaimer — this is a tale of privilege and first world problems. Proceed with caution.
I moved to another country to live by myself when I was eighteen years old. The years I spent in America were a desperate search for all things familiar. I was mixing MTR Puliogare packets into freshly cooked rice, running to the Indian Grocery store every chance I had, just to LOOK at the overpriced tetrapacks of Frooti, and spending evenings with family friends who cooked South Indian food, just to feel a sense of familiarity.
When I was 21, I spent a summer in Barcelona on a study abroad semester and the first joy I found there was a Pakistani biryani shop. I even got flak for eating desi food while in a country as spectacular as Spain. The beauty and magnificence of tapas bars, churros, and post party sunrise shawarma was nothing compared to a brown man offering me chai and saying “Kahan se ho, beti?” For seven excruciating years abroad, I was homesick and desperate for the old and familiar.
When I finally moved back to India I found myself feeling that same sense of unfamiliarity. The city that I had left and the city I had come back to were not the same. It was like I had moved to any other city or country. I was starting from scratch.
What I hadn’t realised what that during all those years abroad I was redefining newness and familiarity. Over a few months, Barcelona’s newness had become familiar. Over four years, the Georgia Tech campus had become home. In the three years that I worked in Atlanta, all of the US had become familiar. When I travelled within the US and people asked me where I was from, my answer had become “Altanta” instead of “India”.
I had been so consumed by homesickness that I hadn’t realised that I had become a completely different person along the way. Over the years spent in Bangalore after that (a city I grew up, mind you) I rebuilt my life slowly. I met new people, made new friends, found new favorite cafes and restaurants, but I wasn’t the same person. I was the person that had learned to live anywhere, even if anywhere was my own hometown.
Through the pandemic of course all of us were stuck where we were. I was grateful to have a roof over my head and food at the table while I stayed with my parents. Finally when things opened up we all began planning our revenge travel. A few domestic trips made me feel sane again and I had a Goa trip on the cards for March 2022, just before which I injured my knee and needed surgery. The world was open again, people were travelling again, my best friend was on a year off travelling the world, NRIs were visiting, and there I was in my bed — every trip to the bathroom taking every ounce of energy I could muster. I was so angry as I cancelled those March bookings and lost the money.
The only light at the end of the tunnel was a trip to Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand for a friend’s wedding, Malaysia just for myself. Ahead of the trip I found myself feeling nervous. The “can find home anywhere” part of me was rusty and out of touch. I was lucky to have a seasoned traveller friend with me for the first few days in Bangkok and then a tight wedding itinerary in Phuket before I was left to my own devices in Kuala Lumpur. Deep breaths.
As I walked towards that immigration line in the Bangalore airport, it all started to come back to me. Years of saying “I’m studying in Atlanta” or “I’m working in the US” or “I’m accompanying my brother to the US”, it all came back. It hadn’t changed all that much.
Landing in Bangkok was a blast of happy chemicals flooding my brain. A new visa, a new stamp in my passport, a new currency in my wallet, a new language on the sign boards.
The next few days were bliss and my friend and I traipsed around Chinatown, night markets, temples, and palaces. I was wide eyed and naive again. The intoxication of newness hit me like a train. I was nostalgic about the feeling of newness. A strange combination. I fumbled through new notes, trying to differentiate the 5s from the 10s, I used google translate for the first time since I had been in Spain, I ate things that seduced my pallet and upset my stomach. I was in heaven.
A few days later we went to Phuket and it was a whirlwind of meeting old friends, making new friends, dancing, and celebrating the newly married couple. Their wedding was on the beach at sunset in Nai Yang Beach. It was like we were in a photoshoot or some kind of fantastic hallucination. It felt unreal. And before I knew it I was off to Kuala Lumpur on my own.
I love travelling solo because it gives me the mind space to really feel and experience and process everything. I spent three days there soaking it all in. The kinds of cars and bikes on the road, the pace at which people walked, the places people ate, I was surrounded by newness again and was intoxicated by it. But Kuala Lumpur was in stark contrast to both Bangkok and Phuket.
Being in KL made me feel like the places I had been to before this were curated for tourists. It was just foreign enough to be exciting. It was just oriental enough to be worth spending money on. All while being safe and modern. It was carefully placed in walkable clusters for tourists to easily get from one hub to another. Everything was easily connected by quick ride share scooter rides, no helmet needed. It was all knick knacks and ‘exotic’ foods, set in streets with upscale restaurants and dive bars.
Those places were PACKED with Europeans, Americans, and Australians. White people, mostly. Girls groups, boys groups, couples, backpackers. It was designed to be visited. It was curated for maximum spending all while saying “Omg it’s so much cheaper here” when converting from USD.
You could never tell from those places where Bangkok residents actually lived and worked, or ate or how they commuted. You left the real world behind to walk through a blissful bubble of tourist attractions.
KL on the other hand wasn’t as connected or clustered. You had to get around like someone who lived there. Take the train or a taxi. Other than the Petronas Towers, you rarely saw tourists. Only the occasional older white couple on the train. Everyone there seemed to be working or studying or living, rather than sightseeing.
It made me wonder why so many people had told me “There’s not that much to do in KL”. Is it because it doesn’t meet the East Asian criteria for newness? It is because there are malls and offices and residential buildings with the occasional bar or cafe, rather than clusters of street markets and temples? As someone who loves cities, I was enjoying KL the most in direct contrast to what I had been told.
It made me wonder about this idea of newness and how something must be new enough to feel new. A new mall, or a new taxi, or a new language doesn’t seem to qualify. The same people who sought new experiences in Europe (which has the right amount of newness and familiarity) didn’t seem to seek out Kuala Lumpur. If you’re making a trip that far, why bother with a city that didn’t offer the oriental exotic, right? I had the same experience in Singapore. People only went there to work or to study, never just to visit. It was too conventionally modern to qualify as new.
My rebuttal to this mindset is that if you cannot see the newness in what appears to be familiar, you’re not paying attention. Newness doesn’t come from elephant print harem pants or noodles on the sidewalk. Newness is in having to google every second of every day just to figure out how to do something. True newness comes with discomfort and having to actively seek things out. You can find newness even in a friend’s apartment, or a new neighbourhood in your hometown. You can find newness in what you thought was old and familiar. Most importantly, I have come to the conclusion that newness lives inside you — the person who has grown and changed and has new experiences and a new lens through which to view the world.
It took a trip abroad for me to find the new me, the post pandemic me, the moved back to India me, the me who is a working actor and not a techie, the me who still has it in them find newness and familiarity in every project, every script, every team. Perhaps that’s why I chose this line of work to begin with. The constant state of newness. I had been feeling stuck and confined when in fact I was living in a perpetual state of newness.
It made me happy to come back to Bangalore, to a new life that I had built for myself, to a job that I love, to work that I am deeply passionate about. I take comfort in knowing that the real newness is in the new person I am and in all the people I will be.
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