WHAT does a young Irish immigrant in 1950s America have in common with an international student today? Natalie Ng reflects on new film Brooklyn and how its heroine’s new life abroad and journey of self-discovery has mirrored her own.
When I first arrived in Melbourne, I remember how nervous and equally excited I was to start a new life abroad. For me, it was a chance to live my own life and be my own person; to find out who I really am. It was a chance to discover new people and new places, be inspired and flourish creatively.
I saw that same excitement and trepidation in the young heroine of Brooklyn — a new film from Irish director John Crowley, with a script by An Education‘s Nick Hornby (who adapted the film from a Colm Toibin novel).
In Brooklyn, we follow Ellis Lacey (played by Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish girl from a small town who moves to 1950s Brooklyn, New York to work and live in pursuit of a bigger and better life.
Okay, maybe not completely, but Ellis’ experience is not unlike many of us who had to say goodbye to everything we knew. We said goodbye to our parents and friends, our country and the world we knew to move to move overseas for study, and inevitably, a new life.
Brooklyn could not have come at a more perfect time for me. I have been living, studying and working in Melbourne for nearly three years now and seeing Ellis’ story unfold before my eyes felt like seeing the last several years of my student life mirrored on screen.
When Ellis first arrives in New York, she is overwhelmed with homesickness like so many newly arrived students starting a new life alone in a foreign country. She misses her family, her friends and the familiar comforts of her life in Ireland and I could relate.
I remember my own experience of choking up after reading letters my friends had written to me before I left Singapore, and seeing friends cry before saying goodbye to their parents before they flew off to different parts of the world for university.
Soon, we see Ellis learn how to cope and adapt to her new life. We see supportive characters like Father Flood, the kindly priest who funds Ellis’ night classes in bookkeeping; the girls living in her boarding house who slowly become her friends; the eccentric landlady Mrs. Kehoe, and even her stern but helpful manager Ms Fortini all become part of her support system in Brooklyn. Yes, they are not the same as the people Ellis had in Ireland, but they are not meant to be the same.
I think for a lot of us, when we move to a new place, we unknowingly close ourselves off to people under the presumption that “these people are not the same as my old friends”. But they can’t ever be and they don’t have to be. I constantly find myself having to relearn this — being more open with new people, which is something that feels already particularly hard as someone entering a new country.
But the biggest part of what enables Ellis to find her place in Brooklyn — besides her work, her studies and her friends — is love. Ellis meets Tony, who is sweet, funny, kind and crazy about her. Not everyone is going to fall into a relationship when they move abroad, and not everyone will be as fortunate as Ellis to strike lucky the first time round.
But what Tony represents to her is someone she can really share a life with, and more importantly, a life she can claim entirely as her own. I might not have been so lucky in love as Ellis but what I do have is my passion for film and design which has really blossomed since coming to Melbourne.
And therein lies the dilemma.
Because like Ellis, I too am unsure if I will continue to flourish artistically if I return to Singapore. And like her, I also feel the confining limits of the place I grew up in.
While I will always call Singapore my homeland, the same way Ireland would always be Ellis’, as a design student I have always felt creatively stifled whenever I’ve returned, because the country, while great in so many ways, doesn’t have a culture and environment that inspires me creatively.
Coupled with the fact that it becomes too easy to settle back into old habits once I’m in an all too familiar environment — much like with Ellis who has to return to Ireland at one point in the film — and then I realise how much my old life fails to challenge or push me to become more than what I already am.
And for that, I’m not sure I belong to Singapore anymore.
I don’t know if I belong in Melbourne either just yet. I’m still trying to figure out how and if, I fit in here at all. I have been stuck between two worlds: all that is familiar in Singapore and the change that Melbourne has represented in me for the last three years as an overseas student.
But that uncertainty of not knowing where I truly belong is just another step in my own self-discovery, one I’m willing to take. That realisation, which troubled me at first, doesn’t so much anymore, because I know now that this “in-between” period represents the start of another chapter in my life.
My experience abroad as an international student has certainly changed me. Like Ellis, I have worked, I have studied and I have seen and done things I wouldn’t have otherwise accomplished were I to stay in my home country.
If there’s one thing that I took away from Brooklyn, which I feel all international students can relate to, it’s this: we all outgrow things. We can outgrow people, relationships and certainly we would learn to outgrow places and the lives they once held for us.
It is always hardest first to realise this because of the comfort that familiarity can bring, but once you do and once you realise what you really want, you can make the step to let go and begin your next chapter in life.
Brooklyn will be screening at the 2015 BBC First British Film Festival from October 27 to November 18. Its official theatrical release date in Australia has not yet been confirmed.