Revisiting Singapore & Repatriation Blues

It was the holiday I’d been waiting for all year – the family mid summer break. But this year it felt more significant. Twelve years ago we repatriated back to the UK from Singapore, and now, after a decade of anticipating a return, we would go back, albeit briefly. The air miles stash had been plundered and South East Asia beckoned.

Even as we left Sing all that time ago, I knew I would want to return one day. Writing in my memoir An Inconvenient Posting, I recalled the scene as we took off:

“… the tiny island with its stalagmite skyscrapers being sucked away beneath me like a misshapen pebble.”

In the weeks before our holiday memories were rekindled of the time when we left Singapore to come ‘home’. I am one of those people who can’t help but plan ahead and wonder how things will pan out. Both ‘a blessing and a curse’ scenario planning seems helps me to feel ready for what life may throw at me. The downside is over-thinking can be energy intensive and result in poor sleep patterns.

My concerns back in 2003 had focused on:

  • Would we settle back easily, how would we pick up the threads of our former life?
  • Would the children be happy/fit in at their new schools?
  • How would I cope on the mid winter school run with a new baby in tow and without the domestic help I’d grown used to relying upon?
  • Would the town I’d lived in seem parochial after our Asian experiences?

I the event I discovered so-called ‘re-entry’ does have its own challenges. You expect to gel with people at home; you imagine they will feel comfortable and familiar with you and you to them. After all, it’s your homeland you are returning to. What I discovered was that I had changed while I was away, not surprising given I had learned to adjust to a different culture. Now, like a poorly fitting shoe, everyone and everything looked familiar, but it hurt as I moved around. It would certainly take time to adjust.

Thankfully, having only been in Singapore for three years, we weren’t forgotten. Although I do remember a couple of people seemed to look straight through me in the supermarket and others hadn’t realized I had even been away! Clearly, I needed to try harder with those ‘friends’.

Most people weren’t particularly interested in our foreign adventures and after a few sentences began to glaze over. Endeavoring to put myself in the mind of those that had stayed behind, helped me to cope with the apparent absence of curiosity. In my experience, the ‘I’ve lived abroad T-shirt’ is best worn with those who have had the experience.

Acknowledgement of how it feels to be back and some expression of appreciation for their continued friendship helped smooth the transition. Lillian Hellman’s words from Toys in the Attic come to mind.

“People change and forget to tell each other.”

Moving back inevitably required a period of adjustment on the part of the children too; being young they did not have the advantage of remembering living in their homeland. For them England was a country they visited in the summer for a month, chiefly to meet up with relatives. Unused to the cool climate, it took them an age to see the necessity of sock wearing and warm sweaters – a particular source of concern for me having spent my early years growing up in chilly North East of England.

In the first weeks and months I sometimes felt a little isolated, but I also recall the kindness of friends. One neighbour pre-empted my difficulties and organised for a friend of hers to swoop in and help me with school runs. Having a young baby who loved her afternoon naps, this felt like a gesture of life saving proportions. I barely knew Angela, but by chance I recently met up with her one evening, it was so nice to express my gratitude to her after all this time.

Enough of re-entry dilemmas, finally it was the day to take our holiday flight to Singapore. I was excited to see our old home and looking forward to immersing myself in the unique atmosphere; the vibrant bustle of the city, tower blocks rising up from the lush earth, bougainvillea adorning the bridges and overhead walkways, turning endless metres of ugly concrete into a cerise and purple flower show.

However, I had been warned Singapore has changed a lot so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Arriving at Changi Airport I was immediately struck by (wait for it) the airport carpet. The person who selected the enormous swirls of brown and orange shag pile clearly had a sense of humour; surely long haul passengers, starved of sleep, feel queasy enough. In my mind I recalled Changi Airport as a state-of-the-art environment. Seeing it now, it felt more homely – to the extent that any vast building can.

As we picked our way through the traffic to our hotel near the shopping district in Orchard, I could not stop smiling to myself. It is difficult to sum up exactly why it is good to be back somewhere once so familiar; my eyes were hungry to see what I recognized and what had changed. There were many new residential blocks along on the East Coast Road, leading into the city. Singapore felt even more full, made possible by more land reclaimed from the sea, something I always find improbable. The amazing green houses of Gardens by the Bay and the triple block towers of the colossal Marina Bay Sands Hotel (see pic) both new to my eyes were certainly not to be missed, literarily or metaphorically.

If I’m honest my nostalgic delight was not a shared experience; my husband travels to ‘Sing’ a couple of times a year on business, meanwhile our girls didn’t seem to remember anything! The older two were four and seven years old when we left, so perhaps my hopes of enthrallment were unrealistic. With a severe storm moving through South East Asia the backdrop to our arrival was also a rather dark and wet one

Once we had got over our jet-lag and started to adjust to the time zone (I had forgotten how bad it feels to be awake all night) equilibrium was restored. Walking around our old condominium, our eldest squealed with glee as she recognised the monkey bars by the condo pool. Afterwards, I suggested we all walk to the Botanic Gardens, but had underestimated the length of the walk. There was a chorus of, “how much further Mum?” – I had forgotten what it was like pounding a pavement in the equatorial heat – oops.

Singapore Orchids Botanic Gardens

Singapore Orchids Botanic Gardens

As we left Singapore and moved on, my husband asked the children what was most memorable for them about Singapore? They all agreed that aside from the tasty food, seeing the maids hanging out on their day off; Sundays at Lucky Plaza shopping mall had made an impression. The lifestyle difference of the maids surprised them, with little time for themselves and then seeing them huddled in groups for picnics taken on the verges and sidewalks of Orchard Road, one of the busiest shopping areas on the planet, this was something completely new. For all Singapore’s fantastic architecture and sight-seeing opportunities, what impacted their young minds most was the women living away from their families in servitude, and having such a different, more limited lifestyle to what they know.

So, what did I take from returning to our old home? To crystalise so many memories, good and bad, was restorative for me. It was the place where a younger self experienced a first, mind expanding posting and where I gave birth to my third, and last baby. I think we leave a little part of ourselves in each place we live and take something with us too; a connectedness with the place and the people. It felt right to go back. Ideally I would like to have do so much sooner; had there been some of the people we knew when we lived there to visit, it would have made the experience richer.

I am a little embarrassed to admit the Singaporean woman in Holland Village, who still runs a nail bar there, remembered me without any prompting, “I know you, you used to live here, you brought your friends”, she smiled. My girls thought this was hilarious as I usually do my own nails, to discourage them from doing the same and wasting money (ironically). My retort, “Well, I had more time on my hands back then and it was cheaper in Singapore.” Sadly, neither of those things are true nowadays!