Is there anything lonelier than falling ill, alone in a foreign country?

Let’s pretend for a second that the answer isn’t yes.

You throw a notebook into your backpack and check your phone for the time. A couple of hours to go before the first class of your last term. You’ve been back for all of two days, so home and your flat aren’t quite the same thing yet. When you reach for your trusty old cardigan, your hands shake.

A chill eats through your stomach and trickles down to your legs. When you bring your hand to your neck, it burns like an ice cube held for too long.

You stumble to your bed and wrap yourself up in threadbare blankets. If your brain weren’t rattling in your skull, you might have realized how ridiculous this is. It’s a fine day, and sunlight is streaming through your window, golden and benign.

A couple of hours to go. Maybe, if you curl up tight, you can dissolve into something warmer and reconstitute yourself in time to get to school.

You miss class.

You only have enough energy for one text asking the groupchat to inform your professor. Several people tell you to get well soon, to take care of yourself.

You remember that you’ll need a medical certificate, dated and signed, to actually be excused your absence.

You don’t have any medicine in your cabinets. Not that you could have gotten to them anyway. You’re shivering too much to crawl out of bed, and the other end of the room is miles away.

It’s mid-afternoon on a work day and the flat is empty. Even if it weren’t, you’ve barely had a conversation with any of your flatmates. Now, with your throat in tatters and your body collapsing in on itself — well, now you couldn’t ask them for help even if you wanted to.

Do you even really want to? They’ve lived here for at least half a year longer than you; your arrival forced a change in the flat’s day-to-day rhythms, and you’re still trying to make up for that by leaving as few signs of your presence as possible. Maybe, you’d thought, if they can forget that you’re there, it will be okay for you to stay.

So, again: Do you even really want to?

Here’s the thing: you’ve only skimmed the surface of everyday life in Singapore. You can do little things like deposit and withdraw money; buy groceries or odds and ends from the usual shops; use mobile data and an app to figure out which buses and trains to take.

The thought of a doctor’s appointment leaves you feeling completely out of your depth. Not just because you can barely keep your eyes open, but also because you have no idea where the nearest clinics are, let alone how to arrange or pay for a consultation. You’re not even sure if you can find a clinic that doesn’t operate exclusively in Mandarin (or Hokkien, or Cantonese, or Hainanese, or Teochew) on the first try.1Idly, you marvel at the many ways the process of getting better can be unintelligible to you.

The good news is that it takes you two more days to do anything other than drift in and out of wakefulness. It’s just enough time for you to muster the energy for a short conversation. There are a handful of people you want to call. You wonder if it’s a good time to try. They are so far away that a sudden bout of flu would surely appear infinitesimal.

In the end, you call your school’s medical insurance provider. The staffer sounds tinny through the phone, and most of what they tell you is straight off a script, but at least you get your referral.

When you put on your jacket, you zip it up tight, like that will help hold you together long enough to make it to the clinic and back. The same thought tightens your grip on your phone, which hasn’t been able to charge beyond 20% because of a hardware flaw that you haven’t had time to get fixed. The coincidental commiseration is nice, but you’d trade it for the reassurance of a device that won’t abandon you at any moment.

You have to pre-load the map and turn off your mobile data to conserve power. When you make it to the bottom of the HDB stairs, you have to pause to catch your breath. You slump into your bus seat; you stumble out at the designated stop. At this point you realize that the transport app couldn’t update its recommendations offline, so it couldn’t tell you that there was a better route to take, one that would have spared you the need to walk the length of an endless avenue to get to your doctor’s appointment.

This is a part of Singapore that exists outside the usual circuit of your flat, your school, and occasional errands, which is to say that this is a part of Singapore that you never planned to exist in until today. Home and this place aren’t quite the same thing yet. Maybe, if they had been, you would have known better.

The clinic is tucked into a corner of an HDB complex, and it takes you five minutes to find the front door. It takes twice as long for you to fumble through your bag for your Student Pass, just so you can get your Foreign Identification Number right for the patient intake form. When the receptionist reads the form back to you for confirmation, she trips over the syllables of your last name.

You settle into a hard plastic chair and watch the next patient sign in. Thirty seconds, tops, and you never learn their name or the color of their NRIC card.

There’s nothing more you’d like than to huddle in a cocoon of blankets and plushies until you can stand to exist for more than three hours at a time again. Instead, you force yourself out of bed and force down desultory spoonfuls of oatmeal to avoid throwing up your meds.

There’s no rhythm to it, but it becomes routine all the same. Officially, you’re home sick for a total of 8 days. When you shuffle into the second class of your last term, your phone still can’t hold a decent charge and your hands still shake. But you go the whole evening without coughing your lungs out. You international kids learn about “sian” and “jalat” from the class uncle when someone uses them during discussion. Your jacket keeps you warm throughout the seminar. Your classmates walk you to the usual bus stop — and from there, at least, you know how to make your way home.

18 January 2020