When I go abroad I am expecting to find “foreign”. It’s what I am looking for, to indulge myself in a little frisson of unexpected encounters and different ways of doing simple things, secure in the knowledge that in a few days I will be able to wrap myself in the comfort blanket of home.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to take a holiday in Singapore. It was never going to be homelike, being as I live in a cold, northern European, rural environment, and Singapore is hot, equatorial and urban. I had been warned of the need for additional warming layers indoors due to the fierceness of the air-conditioning; of the need to carry an umbrella (but not a coat!) against sudden rain showers; of the chewing gum ban.
I was looking forward to exploring the city, to trying out a day on a tropical beach, and to being somewhere new and interesting. Places to go, photos to take, memories to treasure. I did all those things and it was brilliant! I took loads of pictures of how things were dofferent from hoe. That is what I expect from going abroad – different.
I absolutely loved it for being so new and sparkling to my English eyes. I was tall and pale and out of place, and that was interesting too, because I live a privileged life at home where I am part of the majority so that I don’t really think much about how being different might feel. These experiences are why I find foreign travel nurtures my soul. I can be more aware of my assumptions and expectations by being able to contrast them with foreign-ness.
What I had not anticipated was things tat were, so far from home, just the same; the shock of the colonial past. It was painful to see my own homeland layered upon somewhere so distant, like lipstick on a goldfish. I would wander around wonderful old city streets, soaking up the architecture away from the crowds and modern shopping centres, and clicking away on my camera like a demented zambra dancer on their castanets; then suddenly around a corner – wham! – a red pillar box, completely out of place, as if I had been suddenly transported to London.
It wasn’t just the pillar box either. The old colonial buildings and the Raffles statue and all the announcements in English emphasised the colonial history of the city. The modern buildings were not an issue. Globalisation has hit all large cities, and if it’s a modern form of colonialism, then at least it may include a wider range of sources, such as Pikachu or Cobra beer. At least it’s shared by all of us.
But a red pillar box in the middle of Singapore? No, it’s not right. It’s not a coincidentally red pillar box, after all. It’s Royal Mail red. Specifically Royal Mail red.
This is the kind of sudden shock that makes it real. My ancestral countrymen bullied their way around the world, and their mark remains. I can’t change it, but I recognise it and wish it could be otherwise. I had expected to feel like a gawky Westerner. Not feeling foreign – that was the worse surprise.