Singaporean Abroad: Living Away From Home

Many of us spent our formative years in Singapore — going to local schools, eating local delights and frequenting classic landmarks like the Merlion for our weekend family outings. After all these years, we’ve gotten used to the familiar culture and environment of our sunny island. 

However, to broaden their horizons, some students choose to move overseas to study, especially for their university years. Perhaps these young adults are simply looking for a change in their environment, or that other countries offer programmes unavailable in Singapore. Regardless, living overseas as a student in the long run definitely can’t be easy. Even exchange students living overseas for just a few months may find themselves grappling with homesickness. We asked two Singaporean students, Sara and Nat (not her real name) about how they stayed rooted in their Singaporean identity while abroad.

Sara

At age 16, after completing her ‘O’ Level examinations, Sara moved to Adelaide, Australia to attend sixth form (the Commonwealth equivalent of Singapore’s Junior College). Studying in Australia came as a viable option to her since she had relatives already living in Adelaide who she could stay with. Seeking a future working in Australia, she took the leap. 

Australian map Photo by Joey Csunyo from Unsplash For the first few days after moving, Sara struggled with severe homesickness. Missing her family, coupled with the permanence of settling into a new life, made it too much for a teenager to handle. With the option of returning to Singapore still on the table, she was often tempted to simply go home.

“I cried a few times a day for the first week. It felt like my heart was being ripped up because I knew my life wouldn’t be the same anymore.”

But she didn’t look back. After several weeks of tears and heartache, things started looking up. Having the support of her extended family helped her in adjusting to the new environment. Attending a church with a large Asian community, including a few Singaporeans, also helped her integrate, though there was still a cultural barrier as most of them grew up in Australia. 

“Just talking to me about Singapore and recalling little quirks about Singapore made me feel less alone like there were others going through the same thing.

“It was more of being there for each other rather than specific gestures.”

After finishing sixth form, Sara moved to the eastern state of Brisbane to study medicine at university. There, she quickly found a much bigger Singaporean community to bond and connect with. The university had a Singapore Society, a student group created for Singaporeans studying in Australia to orient themselves and find a cultural community. There were hotpot dinners, outings and activities for the Singaporean students to bond with each other and find new friends, especially since many of them were moving to Brisbane for the first time. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she moved back to Singapore to be with her family, especially since classes were online and hostel fees were steep. But she still keeps in touch with her friends from Adelaide and Brisbane on social media, regardless of whether they remained there or returned to Singapore too.

Wherever she went, being able to find a community really helped to ease Sara’s homesickness and made living overseas feel much less daunting. Having a group of people who spoke the lingo of the Singapore streets and shared her taste for Singaporean food was comforting in a country where Asians are the minority.

In a similar story halfway across the world, Nat shares how she kept in touch with Singapore while studying in London.

Nat

Unlike Sara, Nat moved to London at age 19 to pursue her law degree. 

Having moved in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she spent her first two weeks there in quarantine. In total, she only spent about four months there, the equivalent of about one semester in university, before coming back to Singapore for the semester break. She also had family members there to help her settle in. As a result, she didn’t feel as much homesickness as one might expect.

“I had family there, so I wasn’t really alone. I don’t think I really missed anyone because I could just keep in touch with most people.

Big Ben in London, UK with a red bus in front Photo by Lucas Davies from Unsplash If she absolutely had to pinpoint anything that she missed about Singapore, it would be the food and hanging out with the people here. She found herself craving the local cuisine and wondering what her friends were up to because those were two major parts of her life that she had no way of bringing to London. 

“I missed the small things, like being able to walk around late at night by myself safely, or the little food eateries everywhere. I also just wished it wasn’t lockdown; having to stay inside all the time kind of affected (my university experience) as well.”

Like Sara, Nat found a community of fellow Singaporeans through her university’s Singapore Society. They provided a welcoming support base for her as she navigated this unknown environment, especially since COVID-19 robbed many international students of chances to connect with the wider community they lived in. In Nat’s case, it was difficult to build relationships with people in her college dormitory, law school or in London as a whole due to the pandemic, so the tight-knit Singapore Society was a safe space to start.

“It was really good because it was a group of people that I could meet with regularly, connect to, reach out to and have a feeling of comfort with. These are the people who had the same experiences as you growing up. Maybe they even went to the same schools as you.”

One big thing that connects Singaporeans all around the world is the shared experience we had growing up in Singapore. We recall warm afternoons at the sandy playground, followed by cool ice pops at the nearby ‘Mama’ shop; even if we can’t experience it again, it sure is nice to have people to relate and reminisce these memories with us.

While Sara and Nat may have had different experiences regarding homesickness while living in a foreign country, they both emphasised the importance of finding a community wherever you go. The community can help provide a support base for you to go to whenever you struggle with adjusting to life overseas. They help you stay in touch with your own Singaporean identity, from small things like the food and the language to bigger things like the common experiences we all share.

Although not all of us may be migrating to start a new chapter of our lives in another country anytime soon, we ought to be reminded about how unique and special the Singaporean identity can be. From playing the recorder in primary school to the Singlish rolling colloquially off our tongues, these are things that feel like home. They help you create memories that stay with you wherever you are in the world.