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!

The Magic of Christmas, it Comes and Goes… (Article for Among Worlds Magazine 2010)

My family’s early bird approach to Christmas day might explain why it is the earliest memory I have of being tired as a child. Struggling each Christmas to subdue my immense excitement and go to sleep, I would wake up soon after sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 am the following ‘day’.

In the nano second that I hovered between sleep and waking up, I knew, even before I opened my eyes that it was Christmas day at last. It was still dark and my face would be cold, the only part of me exposed above the blankets. It was the 1960’s and we had central heating, but not the kind that turned itself on in the morning. Living in County Durham, in the north of England it was essential to emerge from bed with socks, slippers and a fleecy dressing gown tied tightly at the waist.

I would wait in my little mustard bedroom (a strangely fashionable colour at the time) imagining the scene downstairs; three piles of presents in front of the brick fire place in the living room; one for myself and one each for my older brothers. I willed my brothers to wake up so I could follow them down and begin unwrapping my gifts. I never really believed that Santa Claus had brought them – even though we had a chimney big enough to accommodate him. My brothers were keen to confirm what I suspected; that “Mum and Dad have done it all”.

I didn’t have to wait very long on those Christmas mornings; padding around the house in the small hours like cat burglars, one of us would plug in the tree lights while we surveyed the equidistant piles of presents. Crossed legged and quietly ecstatic in the half light, with pine tree smell enveloping us, I would carefully go through my pile and place each present in what I felt might be an order of priority (a technique I’d learnt to prolong the anticipation and fun I think).

Later on in my childhood I would be amazed to learn that some families opened their presents after breakfast, lunch-time or even later in the day – after the Queen’s 3 pm speech. I was in awe of the restraint this must have required and also a little sorry for those friends! In our house we would save the chocolates until after breakfast, but the board games, Jackie Annual, Etch-a-Sketch, poster paints and dolly’s paraphernalia had all become completely familiar to me by the time our parents got up. I liked it that way, after all, I’d already waited a year for that most sacred day to be counted off the Reader’s Digest calendar, why wait any longer.

My early Christmases were some of the most special – a common phenomenon, I imagine? After a relocation to the south of England when I was nearly eight, the festivities lost some of their intensity, that moment of innocence had passed. Much later, when I had my own young children I experienced again the special pleasure of Christmas, reliving some of my own family’s traditions and combining them with my husband’s; he cooks scrambled egg and smoked salmon for breakfast (not a particularly Welsh tradition, a place where simple food is valued and unnecessary mixtures scorned!).

With motherhood there also came the responsibility of making it all happen and a little cynicism around whether the massive input was worth the output. In Britain, like most westernised countries, our monstrously early build up seems to begin just after ‘summer’ subsides with Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for around a third of the year.

We are currently living in Houston – I suspect if it wasn’t for the hysteria around Halloween there would be nothing to stem the flow of Christmas crapola filling our trolleys even earlier. That said, on our first overseas posting to Singapore, I was surprised to find that the commercial build-up really did contribute to the overall experience of Christmas; a maddening discovery. Being a shining example of a culturally and religiously mixed society, demand for Yule tide goods was diluted in Singapore. As my first Christmas in Singapore came close, I felt quite panicked at the lack of festive items (no crackers) it was late November by the time stocks of Christmas goodies arrived. Presumably my over reaction to this was rooted in an unquestioning desire to yet again provide a near perfect crimble for my family.

That first Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons; we had recently arrived from the UK, naive about culture shock and without extended family around us, it was tough trying to cope with the other missing elements as well; the familiar TV specials, fresh Brussels sprouts, After Eight chocolate mints, going to church in mittens and a brisk walk before it went dark at 4:00 pm – I could go on.

By our second Christmas in South East Asia not only had I put into perspective what we didn’t have; we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us and by a further stroke of good luck some old friends who had moved nearby. The wine flowed, the roast potatoes were cooked to crispy perfection and although the day was still strange by comparison, I made it through with dry eyes. What mattered was that we were sharing the experience again. And a turkey dinner eaten in the sapping equatorial heat, worked off in the condominium pool would certainly be something to remember, not something to forget!

On reflection it seems to matter more who we are close to rather than where we are on Christmas day. This year I will strive once again to focus on the fundamentals – remembering why we celebrate Christmas and enjoying and being thankful for the giving and receiving.

You can read more of my adventures in ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ published by Summertime Publishing.

Do you have any festive traditions, quirky or otherwise, you’d like to share? Click on ‘Leave a reply’ below.

My article in Among Worlds Magazine: Hidden Immigrant or Foreigner?

“What do you mean a bath?” boomed my friend’s Dad with disdain. He sounded to me like the news readers I had heard on the BBC. I became aware of the pounding in my chest and heat rising up my neck. Looking down at me again, he countered: “For heavens sake, speak the Queen’s English child – its baarrth, not bath”.

Laughing and shaking his head, he turned his back and continued buffing the paintwork of his Renault car. In all likelihood he was oblivious to the wound he had inflicted upon me.

Back in 1971, I was only eight years old, but was fully aware that the joke was on me. I slunk home feeling I had behaved shamefully. I was struggling to cope with the losses of our recent move from Northern England to London. A smaller house, a smaller garden and a smaller life. Ridiculed for my Geordie, North of England accent, I was finding it hard to make friends at school.  No one it seemed wanted to befriend the kid who was difficult to understand.

I had a small success making friends with Paul, but his father’s retort had made me feel an outsider again. If I could not even speak in an acceptable way, how would I ever belong?

Like countless other children, before and after me, I quickly learned the answer to my dilemma, which was to change the way I spoke. As a result, I developed what my French teacher referred to as a “phonetic ear” – the ability to imitate an accent. Aged eight, this was my first experience of finding the chameleon from within.  It was not my last.

Thirty years later, as I touched down at Singapore’s Changi Airport, I became what Ruth Van Reken1 refers to in her Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs as a “Foreigner” – the definition being to “look different from the culture and think different from the culture”. A theoretical model which has helped me to understand the challenges of moving to a place where the “surrounding dominant culture” is different.

On moving to South East Asia as an adult I expected cultural diversity. The outer physical differences between myself and the Singaporeans were obvious and to an extent so were their inner – thinking, values and belief systems. Of course, I still experienced significant culture shock, but I was also able to resurrect the skills which sprouted from a need to survive a childhood move.

I could be found lurching around Singapore in the back of a taxi, trying not to stick to the black vinyl seats, I would holler “U turn back please la”. I was copying the Singlish accent and was relieved to be understood.

Having returned to the UK, another move this time to Houston, Texas came along four years later. I imagined that I would be culturally aligned in this new posting, with hindsight (a wonderful thing) I was ill prepared for the move.

On arriving in Houston, I was a “Hidden Immigrant” – look like culture and think different from culture. I was surprised to find that the British, with their deep historic ties to the Americans since the Pilgrim Fathers, thought very differently on many issues even some of the deeps ones – the values and beliefs.

As I learned to negotiate the ribbon of freeways, I was alarmed to see motor bikers without helmets and workers with their dogs, huddled untethered, in the back of open trucks.

As a “Hidden Immigrant” I looked like a local, but was thinking differently. I felt more challenged than in Singapore, where I clearly was different because I looked it. Now isolated, alienated even, I tried to function in my new home. At first, questions such as why is it considered a good thing that “everythin’s bigger in Texas” – including the gargantuan portions of food, flummoxed me and highlighted the contrast in our values.

Winston Churchill, the British wartime Priminister, is famously credited with referring to Britain and America as “two nations divided by a common language”. I could relate to this, my radar was broken as I tried to cope with what I perceived as an over familiarity in communication style, underpinned with little depth in conversation. I was confused about how to begin and where to end. What should I hold back and what should I bring forth?

After many months of tussling with my identity – a period of great adjustment, I found it helped to remind myself, that there does not have to be a right or wrong, just alternative ways of being. With acceptance, came integration and gradually I felt my former life had transitioned to the new one. Now I could enjoy the posting. It also helped to discover that even Americans from other States, have experienced culture shock after arriving in Texas!

Now, more than a year since I arrived, I appreciate the warmth that is offered to me as I move around Houston. “How are you t’day and where ya’ll from?” is a typical greeting. Houstonians often like to make acquaintance, if only for a minute, as you pass through the supermarket till. What I mistook for insincerity was merely people operating from a friendly bubble.

I have learnt how to respond in my new environment and function effectively.  I have also traded my cultural way of communicating, but part of my identity is retained – as soon as I speak most people know I am British (or Australian!).

Having three children under the age of 12, I am focused on helping them cope with their cross cultural moves and appreciate the diversity they encounter. As I look back and try to make meaning of my emotional journey as a “Foreigner” and a “Hidden immigrant”, I notice how difficult it was for me as a child, to verbalise my dilemma.

How do you explain to a potential play mate, why you have a strange accent? (which until recently you were not even aware you had). How do you cope with giving up a part of yourself, which you thought was perfectly normal? That is before your world was transformed overnight.

Children are by nature, ill equipped to analyse their experience and cope with the loss of their culture and identity. It can be tough to feel what Linda Bell[1] reports in her book Hidden Immigrants as “coming from outer space”.

I have tried to give my children the words to explain who they are. For example, they might say “I come from Kent – which is near London, but I am living in Houston”. It sounds simple enough but can be complex – my youngest child was born in Singapore, should she mention this? Perhaps not, simplicity is easier.

And I wonder, what of the children who continually move countries, those that have not lived in the place where their parents grew up or their extended family live. How they look and think may be more complex.  They will need words too.

There are, as we know many upsides arising from exposure to cultural diversity. One of the potential attributes being a confidence upon meeting new people. Learning to be cautious and observe, before leaping into relationships is another skill. Not a surprise then, that this growth phenomena can spawn the development of sophisticated social skills in TCK’s.

My experiences have taught me to make a judgement regarding how much of myself I will trade off. As an adult, I can choose to give up some of my own culture or at least keep it temporarily hidden in the interests of fitting in or making a friend. To have done otherwise and denied any experience of culture shock, might surely have made me culturally incompetent.  These decisions are often made at a subconscious level as we act on our gut instinct. But we can all become aware of what is okay for us – how much of the inner identity we show through our outer self. Which parts we might change in order to be accepted and effective in our environment.

It can be helpful to know we have a choice and support our children in theirs. And with a little curiosity and a sense of adventure, we can usually experience the joy of learning about others and new ways of being in our adopted home.

Copies of Among World magazine  are available at:

http://www.interactionintl.org/amongworlds.asp


1 David C Pollock/Ruth E Van Reken (1996) Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs.  Pol/Van Cultural Identity Box Copyright 1996

[1] Linda Bell (1997) Hidden Immigrants. Cross Cultural Publications/Crossroads