Bloom Where You’re Planted

Text by Yishan Lim
Illustration by Amaris Chen

If you were out and about in Singapore during the first quarter of 2014, you’d have certainly felt the heat. It was 33 ̊ Celsius outside, but felt like 37 ̊, as you quietly melted underneath your clothes, hastening towards air-conditioning. And you’d notice that the haze was back, way too soon.

Singapore’s brand may be all about being a clean and green metropolis, but by March, the grass was turning brown, parched from our driest spell on record since 1869. It only made it worse that forest fires were raging in Indonesia—time to whip out those N95 masks from the storeroom! The island was hot, hazy and uncomfortable to be in.

There’s a Welsh word, ‘cynefin’, that’s used to describe a place where a person, or even an animal, feels it ought to live. Like other untranslatable words such as the Portuguese ‘saudade’, meaning homesickness or longing, or the Cantonese ‘ngam’, meaning compatible or ‘just right’, simply translating ‘cynefin’ as ‘habitat’ doesn’t quite cut it.

‘Cynefin’ connotes both a sense of emotional rootedness that comes from tradition through the ages, as well as the fleeting, instinctive sense of place, in the moment: a gravitational pull that says in a split-second, “There, I will be happy.” Which begs questions like, “Can everyone find their ‘cynefin’, or is that too much to ask? And is Singapore it for me?”

Looking again at what it means, maybe ‘cynefin’ doesn’t define a place as much as it describes our perceiving. It says less about the environment, and more about us, the way we see the world around us.

Depending on who you ask, Singapore can be either the most livable city in the world or ridiculously expensive. And you may be surprised who gives you what answer, depending on where they sit along the middle class curve. Has it struck anyone the tension inherent in talking about the rising cost of living as we’re typing from our 15-inch MacBooks and smartphones?

There’s nothing like actually getting out of town to look at things through fresh eyes. Travel can bring rest and inspiration, helping you escape, it can also broaden your perspective, helping you come home to new realizations. Which happened for me this spring, on some work-related travels.

I saw my world differently in February, when I was in Bangkok walking through a protest site in the busy Ratchaprasong area, talking to protestors to understand how ordinary people felt about all that was happening. Not knowing that just hours later that afternoon, a grenade attack would take the precious lives of two children and a 40-year-old lady who were there at the wrong time, bringing the recent death toll of the past four months to 20, their blood colouring the twisted path to progress.

I saw my world differently again in April, as I was on the highway back to Pudong airport after a few days in Shanghai, sniffing and coughing from either springtime pollen or everyday smog. Looking out the window, I was mesmerized by acres of pylons set against a grey sky, a symbol of what it takes to power a country where air quality exerts not just an economic but human cost—an estimated 350,000-500,000 lives lost before their time each year, according to a recent study released by a former Health Minister.

Finally, my perspective shifted again, while in Tokyo chasing the peak of hanami season, this time on vacation. The cherry blossoms had been battered by a weekend of rain, but were lovely to behold all the same.

Back at the hotel while checking my various social media feeds, I noticed on Instagram that people at home were posting ‘sakura’ sightings in random parts of Singapore. I wondered why this hadn’t happened before, surmising that it was the Instagram effect. “Everyone sees their friends in temperate countries posting pictures of spring, so they want in on the action too!” I mused.

Only after getting back to town did I realize I was wrong, and that the answer was much simpler and more obvious. The massive show of flowers was an uncanny result of the dry spell, followed by rain. This, in effect, was ‘spring’, in summer all-year-long Singapore.

It was a reminder of how nature has its own mechanisms for reviving and restoring an ecosystem. From their own substance, the trees were working harder to produce flowers for the sake of their species, and they weren’t shy to put on their Sunday best while doing it. This was their comeback party. It’s almost as if they were saying to us: never mind the conditions, or whatever you think you lack, “you can always be happy here.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

From The U Press N˚6 (Singapore edition).