“Why are you so dressed up?” My daughter hit me with this question as we met after school recently. I had been at an event and was wearing a slim-fit black shirt, dark jeans and boots. I reminded my daughter that I often picked her from school dressed like this when we lived in Hong Kong and her reply was a withering “yes, but you don’t dress like that here in Singapore.”
And, there it was in one brief conversation, a summary of how moving country changes us, sometimes without our even noticing.
The Truth Is In The Wardrobe
Of course, she was right. I’ve adjusted my wardrobe to suit Singapore’s hot and wet climate. Most days I look like I’m on my way to a folk rock festival, or on my way back from the beach. And forget about seasons, I wear the same outfits in January as a do I July.
With every move, there’s been changes like this. The urbane and fashionable clothes I wore in Hong Kong were a different to the country club attire, all polo shirts, chambray and comfortable sweaters I wore in Delhi. When I first moved to London I dove into the life of being an academic by dressing in layers of black on black that made me look like a cartoonish cross between a 60s spy and an extra from the set of The Matrix.
On Being A Mysterious Alien
Each change of wardrobe is a somewhat superficial reflection of the process of adapted to new city. In London I lived in a nice little terrace lined street with a pub one corner and a church on the other, while in Delhi I dwelled a semi-rural area with tractors grinding past our gate and peacocks in the garden. In Hong Kong I was perched high up in a glass tower right in the heart of the city, while in Singapore I live in a low rise, quiet, tree-lined neighbourhood well away from the hustle and bustle.
I firmly believe one of the joys (and privileges) of being an expatriate is the chance to learn from each new place you inhabit. And, along with this opportunity to learn is the amazing chance to change yourself with each move, to improve and adjust your outlook on life, your career and work.
This constant change of wardrobe and perhaps even personality reminds me of the great time travelling British Sci-Fi hero, Doctor Who. The Doctor is a mysterious alien who frequently visits earth, at different stages of human history, typically just in time to save the planet from some invading peril.
An odd quirk of The Doctor’s species means that instead of dying, he regenerates right at the moment of death, coming back to life as a new version of himself. He retains his memories but changes his personality (which, of course, means the producers can cast different actors to play the same role.
The Danger Of Being The Doctor
There a wonderful moment every time the doctor regenerates, where he literally has to discover his new personality and get used to his current looks. He then proceeds to pick an outfit, a wardrobe if you like, that will define and reflect his new stage of life.
Of course, as wonderfully romantic as this metaphor might be, it’s fraught with problems. For starters The Doctor, originally developed for UK television in the 60′s is built on the myths of the British empire (the invaders usually attack London first, rather than New York or Los Angeles). The Doctor is very much the archetype of the patronising gentleman-solider chipping in the save the natives, frequently picking up a good looking local girl as his companion along the way (often to the chagrin of their loved ones), before dashing off to some idyllic location to laugh about his adventures.
And, while The Doctor is obsessed with saving the earth and minimising human casualties, much like like The Avengers, he saves the the day, but doesn’t hang around to clean up the mess.
One episode in particular put this into sharp relief. The Doctor had just saved the earth from yet another invasion, with the aliens fleeing in defeat. However, the Prime Minister decided to launch a weapon, destroying the retreating alien ship. The Doctor becomes incensed at the senseless loss of life (and possibly at being upstaged in his moment of triumph), but the human leader chides him by saying he might not always be around to save humanity since he doesn’t really live on earth.
Which, in a way, is the danger of forever seeing yourself as an expatriate. The life might well be a wonderful adventure, full of change and opportunity. But, for all that, you’ll always struggle to really feel accepted in the new places where you live, no matter how much good you try to do, or how deeply you come to love your new home.
Just like our mythic alien friend, The Doctor, the very thing that makes you special, unique and helpful might also be the thing that makes people struggle to trust you.