The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I discovered a new appreciation of my American home after I moved far away from it

People meditating near a snake at the Bukit Batok Nature Park in Singapore. (Oanh Ngo Usadi for The Washington Post)

Oanh Ngo Usadi is the author of the memoir “Of Monkey Bridges and Banh Mi Sandwiches: From Sai Gon to Texas.”

“Xiiiiii, huuuu,” says our group leader softly. The women standing around me are calm, their eyes closed, breaths in sync. Does “xi” mean inhale, or is it exhale? I’m far from feeling Zen inside a nature park in Singapore.

In the summer of 2019, my family and I moved temporarily from our small town in New Jersey to the city-state in Southeast Asia. Being in a new country invariably means homesickness, a familiar feeling from when I immigrated to the United States from Vietnam almost 40 years ago. Inside a Singaporean neighborhood park, I discovered a community and a newfound appreciation of my American home.

Every morning long before sunrise, Bukit Batok Nature Park — a tropical forest with wide footpaths, the site of a former granite quarry — was already remarkably crowded with people exercising. Visitors gathered to jump, dance or play Hacky Sack to blaring motivational music. Others practiced tai chi or meditation, accompanied by the sound of crowing roosters, the rustling of long-tailed macaque monkeys and other forest animals waking up.

This early-morning crowd seemed like a tightknit community, and for a long time, I kept to myself as I walked in the park. Sometimes I was struck by homesickness from unexpected sources — a jogger wearing an “I♥NYC” shirt, a snippet of the song “American Pie” playing on a passerby’s phone.

After several months of solitary visits, I decided on a whim to join one of the predawn groups, a breathing-exercise class of women around my age. It soon became obvious that I was a foreigner, struggling to follow the group leader’s Chinese instructions. My neighbors paused to help, offering English translations that were almost as indecipherable as the original: Pretend you’re holding up the moon, flying like a phoenix, catching a rainbow. I stumbled on, smiling along with the women, who eventually resorted to saying, “Just copy us.”

After the first class, the group wanted to know where I was from. “America, but I was born in Vietnam,” I answered.

“Wah, that’s why you’re so friendly! Americans are very friendly lah,” one of the women said.

The remark caught me by surprise — not that Americans are unfriendly, but that she was referring to me. When I arrived in Texas in the 1980s at age 12, Americans’ welcoming attitude was something my family and I also noticed. At the supermarkets, cashiers smiled and asked how we were. People I didn’t know called me sweetheart and blessed my heart.

Of course, not everyone was welcoming, and much of the friendliness was superficial, but some acts were truly magnanimous. Churches gave us clothing and others in the community helped us navigate our new life. I associated being American with friendliness, but I had not thought of myself as part of that America. Not long after this exchange, a Vietnamese national working in Singapore, whom I had just befriended, mentioned how I use upbeat phrases, such as “that’s great” or “awesome,” more than might strictly be necessary. “Very optimistic, very American,” she said. To her, I was wholly American.

Early last year, amid murmurs of a fast-spreading, very contagious new virus, Singapore instituted a sudden, massive effort to stamp out an alarming spike of infections. Under the strict lockdown, parks remained open, but group exercise was banned, drones flew overhead to assess capacity and covid-19 ambassadors patrolled the grounds to monitor safe distancing and mask-wearing There was little need for the latter, as everyone complied.

The nature park became strangely quiet, save for scattered footsteps and the sounds of monkeys high up in a jackfruit tree or a pristine white rooster crowing intermittently. Among these animals, in their home, I often thought of my own.

Viewed from abroad, the United States appeared to be unraveling, from the ravages of the pandemic and other cascading traumas — urban unrest and racial tensions in U.S. cities, political violence in Washington. Goodwill seemed in short supply.

More recently, reports came of random violent attacks on Asians, many of them elderly. I was asked more than once if I felt afraid when in the United States. I said no. My friends in Singapore seem to hold contradictory impressions of America, both admiring and wary.

But conflicting traits can exist in a nation just as in a person. Since its inception, the United States has defied the odds to overcome its worst moments and to build on the best of the past. But the long arc of history has not been smooth. Progress doesn’t happen on its own and requires constant effort.

After almost a year, with covid-19 under control, Singapore has started reopening and exercise groups are allowed back at the park. My Chinese hasn’t improved and neither have my breathing techniques, but I feel more at ease among the women. Our conversations often touch on America and the exotica of its mountain ranges, four seasons and wide-open space. The place they describe as the “oh, so big, so beautiful country” is still a dream destination for many, as it remains for me.

Read more:

Mili Mitra: A tiny island nation has lessons for the next stage of the pandemic

Cheryl Lu-lien Tan: In Singapore, a quarantine offers surprising lessons

Fareed Zakaria: What America can learn from Singapore about racial integration

The Post’s View: Is Singapore fighting fake news or free speech?