‘Not taking cai png for granted’: Young S’poreans share how living overseas has changed them

This is home, truly.

| Candice Cai | Sponsored | February 28, 2023, 05:30 PM

‘Can meh? Sure anot?’

The Singaporean accent and jargon may be jarring to some, but it sure is a welcome sound to those of us far from home.

Just ask Farah Natalya, 28, who was in a random cafe in Svendborg, a town about three hours away from Copenhagen, when she heard the “distinctive Singaporean accent from a table behind”.

Farah’s ears pricked up immediately and she could not help but turn around to ask if the people at the table were Singaporean.

“And they were!” she shared, still excited at the memory.

“It was such a funny place to bump into fellow Singaporeans,” said Farah, who was living in Copenhagen at the time after moving there for a year with her partner in 2021.

Farah in Denmark during Euro 2022. Image from Farah Natalya.

It’s a sentiment shared by Vinitha M, a Singaporean student currently embarking on her Master’s course in Sydney.

“It is always exciting when I hear the Singaporean accent,” shared the 26-year-old.

Vinitha, who’s currently studying for her Master’s in Sydney. Image from Vinitha.

An even more poignant memory for Chia Koon Liang, 33, was when he took a return flight home on our national carrier.

“One of the best things I’d ever heard in my life was when my Singapore Airlines flight touched down at Changi and the stewardess announced, ‘and to all Singaporeans, welcome home’. I almost cried on the spot,” said Chia, a medical physicist.

Chia had lived in the UK for a year from 2015 to 2016 when he was studying for his Master’s in Medical Physics.

Chia in Scotland in September 2015. Image from Chia Koon Liang.

Coping with unfamiliarity and loneliness

Their emotions are palpable.

After all, living away from home for the first time can be difficult, and homesickness is real.

“It was difficult to leave Singapore as I had to leave my family and friends behind. I also had never been to Sydney before so it was intimidating to move alone to an unfamiliar place,” shared Vinitha.

Farah, who started a new job in Copenhagen during the thick of the pandemic, shared: “It felt very strange to not have met anyone in person for so long, in a completely new country”.

“There were many moments where I felt very sad and alone — even though I had my boyfriend there with me. I felt quite lonely at the beginning and craved friendship and company so much,” said Farah, who currently works at a bank in Singapore.

Sometimes though, the experience was just downright unpleasant and unsettling.

“The worst moment was being on the receiving end of racial insults from the locals,” shared Chia, “once from a group of teenagers driving by in a car, and once from a group of children who looked no older than primary school age”.

Discovering their Singaporean identity and appreciation for Singapore

But of course, bad experiences do not define their time overseas.

In fact, all of them agreed that their time abroad had a positive impact on their lives.

Said Farah:

“My experience living overseas made me feel like I could do anything if I put my mind to it. There were many hard and down times where I felt that I might never settle into this new country and new culture. But going through that whole experience made me realise how strong and determined I am and that hard times don’t last.”

It served to not only make them more aware of their Singaporean identity, but also made them better appreciate life back here.

Shared Chia, who considers the Singaporean accent his defining Singaporean trait:

“Instead of assimilating into the culture of my host country, I felt encouraged to share and explain why I am so similar yet different from them.”

Chia (extreme left) with his classmates at Loch Muick, Scotland. Image from Chia Koon Liang.

“I don’t think my Singaporean identity would have grown stronger if I’d just stayed in Singapore,” he explained.

For Vinitha, being overseas made her more acutely aware of her “kiasu” tendencies which for her, contributed to her overwork.

“Australian culture has taught me the importance of prioritising hobbies, social life and personal time as much as we prioritise work.”

But there is no doubt that all four of them have gained an appreciation for Singapore and all it offers — most notably our efficient transport system.

Vinitha shared: “Although many Singaporeans complain about our transport system, our buses and trains come very frequently and are clean,” — a point to which Farah agreed.

Having random conversations with elderly uncles and aunties too, was something which Farah oddly missed.

“You know when you get into a taxi and the uncle will just launch into his life story and give you some advice? I missed that,” said Farah.

She contrasted this to life in Copenhagen, where people “tend to keep to themselves and strangers will not usually come up and talk to you about random things”.

And yes, the grass is greener on the other side.

“Sometimes you don’t realise what you have until you lose it. And all the small things I took as ‘normal day to day things’ were actually things I came to appreciate when I moved back to Singapore,” continued Farah.

Not taking ‘cai png’ for granted

Chia has certainly learned not to take for granted the Singapore staple of economic rice or ‘cai png’.

“For S$3, you can get food that doesn’t cause heart disease, and is available everywhere,” shared Chia, describing how given a choice, a person in the UK would go for fried fish and chips instead of a salad for five pounds (S$8).

One can’t deny that food is intricately tied to the Singaporean identity.

And in times of stress, there’s probably nothing better to warm your soul than the good ol’ comfort food you grew up eating.

Farah, a self-professed foodie, shared a funny story of how she was so homesick yet unable to return to Singapore during the pandemic.

So on a trip to London, one of the first things she did was make a beeline for Old Chang Kee which had set up shop in the cosmopolitan city.

“I ate at Old Chang Kee every day for three days. On the third day, the Singaporean aunty working there asked me ‘Eh you again?!’ and asked me where I lived in Singapore. Turns out, we were not living very far from each other,” recalled Farah fondly with a smile.

‘We are rojak’

Both Farah and Chia professed to learning how to cook their favourite dishes when they were desperate for a taste of home.

Farah’s homemade chicken rice dish. Image from Farah Natalya.

Chia quipped: “I must have googled how to cook mee pok and char siew (not together) at least a few dozen times.”

To him, the Singapore identity can be summed up as another Singaporean dish — “rojak”.

He added: “I think the identity is that we are “rojak” but not “chapalang” (chaotic mess).

“We look like we are from a non-English speaking country, but our English says otherwise. We can speak multiple languages but we’re not from Europe. Our daily cuisine has elements from many cultures around the world. In short, we are extremely confusing and it is difficult to peg Singaporeans into a hole. That’s what makes us unique.”

For Farah, living in a multiracial and multicultural society has cultivated Singapore’s identity of being diverse and open to different cultures.

“I love the diversity in Singapore. I love that we are multiracial. I love that we have a unique language, Singlish, that other people are not able to understand because it is a mix of different languages from different cultures,” stated Farah.

Added Vinitha: “I have realised that many foreigners respect Singapore for being a successful country. I am always proud to tell others that I am Singaporean.”

And these unique attributes are reminders of why there’s just no place like home.

What makes you proud to be Singaporean?

With the launch of Forward Singapore, Singaporeans can come together to examine our values and aspirations, build consensus, as well as work together to turn them into reality.

If you want to better Singapore and contribute meaningfully to society, share your views, suggestions and feedback here.

This is a sponsored article by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.