Commentary: A home can heal in the time of coronavirus
Home can be a safe haven that ties families together and brings comfort to individuals during this COVID-19 outbreak, says Connie Singham.
SINGAPORE: We are lucky Singapore is not on lockdown. But we are, or we should be, isolating ourselves in our homes.
This has made me think of the meaning of home and what the current generation of Singaporeans thinks of and experiences as home.
Do they view home as a place where they spend unusual amounts of time with people they only see late in the evening on most days? Will that change as more work from home or have to stay indoors?
And with this coronavirus outbreak, will home-cooking and eating at home with the family become the norm again?
HOME, A SAFE HAVEN
Spending more time at home and with family is bringing back childhood memories.
When I was growing up, which seems like a century ago, home was where mum waited for us, my siblings and me with a hot meal when we returned from school. Home was where all the fun things happened.
Home was also a safe place – a place the family got together, had meals together, had arguments and conversations, a refuge from the larger world, where mum and dad made the rules and operated within their own sense of time, reality and constraints.
Whatever the hardships and struggles, home was the centre of our lives. We may get into trouble in school, had many red marks in our report card and were too scared to go home but we still went home.
My family moved a few times so it wasn’t just the brick and cement walls that made where we lived a home.
The house we grew up in and the time we spent there was the most defining time in our life, defining our sense of place, our sense of identity, our experience of intimate family life and our idea of home we try to replicate in adulthood.
HOME, WITH THE KAMPONG SPIRIT
Indeed, where the simple idea of home has captured the hearts of many authors and creatives, it has also been celebrated, even immortalised.
The house that Piglet and Pooh build for their friend Eeyore in AA Milne’s popular children’s book The House at Pooh Corner represents friendship, togetherness and loyalty.
In many of our local writings (Josephine Chia, David Leo and Hidayah Amin) the kampong life they portray encapsulates and represents the idea of home and celebrates even the humblest dwelling and way of life.
That simple life has its own meaning and its own beauty. In those easier days, teenage boys could and did construct crude badminton courts and football pitches in any open area. A couple of boys from my neighbourhood did just that in our front yard.
The primary function of a house is a place for inhabiting, a dwelling. But that dwelling or a cluster of dwellings function more than just as a dwelling, as memoirs of kampong life reveals.
HOME, WHERE WE ARE
Maybe home is a collection of memories. After all, we are more likely to remember what happened inside the house we had lived in than what has happened in the outside world.
Home is in its most idyllic, even romantic, sense can be reduced to a feeling, an idea, a refuge; the people we live with and on whose love and loyalty we depend on and know to be unconditional.
I recall speaking to an expatriate couple who seem to have moved around the globe quite a few times. “Where is home?” I asked. “Home” the wife responded, “is where we are”.
That expat wife’s idea of home is the reality for many young people.
The situation today in our homes is very different from the time I was growing up.
My idea of home, more relaxed, more spacious, nourishing and nurturing by a full-time mother could not be sustained.
The call for women to enter the workforce, the rising cost of living, and the need of women for financial independence has resulted in a growing number of women entering the workforce.
Today almost 62 per cent, the highest percentage globally, of our women are in the work force. Many of them have the responsibility of home, childcare and elderly care as well.
One in five households have a foreign domestic worker (FDW). In these homes it is the FDW who feed the kids and organize their life when they get home from school. But the majority of us (almost 77 per cent) of us live in HDB housing out of which 27 per cent live in one-, two- or three-room flats, allowing very little or hardly any play space for children.
The reality of these statistics tells us that my experience of home and my idea of home have changed in dramatic ways. The idea of home I experienced as a child is now available only to a privileged few.
HOME, AS COMFORT
Ideas of home have been vague through history, ranging from "where the heart is", to the more pragmatic sentiment defined by Robert Frost, the American poet, as "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
This is home as a collection of people under one roof, home as a place to escape from and to return to.
So what is home to Singaporeans? Is our home more like the Robert Frost vision of home?
Jeanette Winterson, the author of Sexing the Cherry and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and other novels, points to a different idea of home as offering comfort when she writes about a rug offering her the comfort of home
“When I was a child,” she writes, “a hearth rug was a flying carpet. Remembering this, in my borrowed room, I saved up some money from weekend work and bought myself a rug the size of a duster, one that folded into my case as easily as it expanded in my imagination. From then on, wherever I found myself, even in a doorway, I put down my little rug, and I began to feel calm. Better than calm, I imagined myself free. My rug became my comforter.”
If home is an idea, a feeling of comfort and security can it be a café, the school, the university campus or even the hawker centre?
It can even be one’s laptop or mobile phone. I am quite happy if I have my laptop with me but I still need to come home.
If food is associated with comfort and nourishment, is the hawker centre a substitute for home since many Singaporeans eat at the hawker centers?
HOME REMAINS IMPORTANT
But in spite of everything - in spite of the mobility, the individualism, and the demands of the economy - on some level, we recognise the idea and importance of home, as a physical place for a group of people who owe loyalty to each other and can comfort each other at least when we need it as we do now.
Even as I write this, I am aware that home may not always be a safe refuge for some especially for the victims of domestic violence and the poor. For the 1,000 or more homeless sleeping rough in Singapore, a home is an illusion.
READ: Commentary: Lockdown and isolation sound simple – but keeping people at home is no easy answer
What will our experience of the pandemic teach us in relation to home? Can we acknowledge it is possible to organise a better work-life balance and be home more often, that productivity does not suffer from the practice of flexible work hours or work from home?
The pandemic is a health crisis but it is also an opportunity to come home.
Maya Angelou, the American poet and writer reminds us: “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home. A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body”.
Constance Singham is a writer and an activist.