A Singaporean expat in Beijing: you can take the girl out of Singapore, but you cannot take the Singapore out of the girl

I woke up around 8am and stared out of my hotel window. The hutong alleyways of Beijing coexist with wide open roads. Dilapidated houses sit side by side with tall apartment building blocks.

There is an undeniable character and charm to Beijing. Despite some of the harsh realities that Beijingers contend with on a daily basis, there is a strong Venusian quality to the city. A sense of grandeur, opulence and indulgence. 

I’m no stranger to travelling alone – especially for work, but it’s been a LONG time since I travelled solo for pleasure. I was a bit nervous about everything the first day I arrived in Beijing. China has a realness, a rawness that Japan just doesn’t. But by the second day, I was feeling more adventurous and ready to take on the city on my own. 

And what an amazing city it is. Firstly – the food is epic. People are loud – but hospitable and friendly. The old dynasties may have died with Pu Yi, but their palaces survived as a reminder of their legacy. There is a museum for every interest – no matter how obscure. I don’t have a good impression of taxi drivers in Beijing, but the subway system is cheap and reliable. 

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Whilst on the road, I finally found the headspace to read The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew. It’s a book that’s been on my electronic shelf for a while, but it was only in Beijing that I got around to reading it. And then it hit me – an unfamiliar and rare feeling of nostalgia. I’ve lived away from Singapore for 10 years now. That’s a third of my life. It’s a long time to be away from ‘home’.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of Kit Chan’s Home came back to me. It’s the only song that inspires feelings of patriotism and belonging in me.

“There’s a place that will stay within me
Wherever I may choose to go
I will always recall the city
Know every street and shore
Sail down the river which brings us life
Winding through my Singapore”

And as I remembered the lyrics, I started tearing. WHAT THE …?!? Where did that come from? There were two reasons why I stopped myself from bawling my eyes out. Firstly, I was in public and didn’t want a bunch of strangers to ask me what was wrong. And secondly, I was wearing a ton of mascara and didn’t want to ruin my makeup. 

Well, then…

And so I took a deep breath, held it in and stared out the window. But all I saw was a tear-stained blur. 

Multicultural Singapore

I was at a tour of the Great Wall at Mutianyu when I met two bogan Australians. I went to university in Melbourne so I can detect bogans from a mile away. There is no mistaking that rampant unsophistication. The two girls were wearing pyjama-type pants and a stained sweat shirt. They had their seemingly unwashed hair in a messy bun that sat on top of their heads. They were wearing bunny rabbit earmuffs on their ears and were speaking far louder than necessary. They were both overweight. They looked like they had just gotten out of bed moments before. 

“Where are you from?” they asked me in an attempt to make small talk. “We’re from Australia.”

I can see that… If only they knew I went to university in their country. 

“Singapore,” I answered. 

“Yes, but are you Indian Singaporean?” one them asked very proudly.

If I had a frying pan, I would have taken it and hit her on the head with it – cartoon style. Irritating ignorant questions like that have plagued me my whole life – both in Singapore and abroad. I wondered if she would have asked me that question if I was Chinese. I’ve always thought of Singapore as a multicultural country, but speak to most people – Singaporean and non-Singaporean alike – and they think that it’s a Chinese country. Singapore has a Chinese majority (around 75%), but it is not a Chinese country.

China is a Chinese country. Japan is a Japanese country. The countries of east Asia have large monolingual homogenous populations. There are few foreigners who live here – and amongst those who do, there are few that settle. I’ve lived in Japan for three years – and whilst people have generally been courteous to me – the culture is not embracive. A vast majority of Japanese people have a strong mental block regarding communicating – let alone befriending foreigners. Since moving to Japan, I’ve learnt to appreciate the fact that I grew up in a multicultural and multilingual society.

I don’t hesitate when it’s time to pack my bags and travel halfway across the world solo. I’ve lived and worked in three countries since leaving Singapore 10 years ago. After the initial disorientation, I adapt quickly and learn to get along with people from different cultures. 

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My Heritage and My Home

I consider myself a proud Singaporean. My Gujarati ancestors moved to Singapore in 1901. I’m a fifth generation Singaporean.

Singapore is my home.

So it saddens me deeply when people – both Singaporean and otherwise – seem to have the perception that only the Chinese are the ‘real’ Singaporeans. Speak to most Indian Nationals and they’ll have no problem telling you that in India I am a foreigner. My heritage is Indian, but my roots are in Singapore – where else would they be? 

Unfortunately, throughout my secondary school and polytechnic years, I often felt like a stranger in my own country. Whenever I insisted that I was born and bred in Singapore – people would comment on my lack of Singlish and insist on seeing me as Indian first and Singaporean second. 

If I had a frying pan, I would have taken it and smacked them on the head with it – cartoon style.

On some level, I get it. India and China are ancient civilisations which have histories spanning thousands of years. A legacy that long will not suddenly disappear in a few generations. Singapore is a young country. One that is still trying to figure out its national identity.  

In my heart of hearts, I believe that our Singaporean national identity is one of multiculturalism – one that is embracive and strengthened by its ability to adapt. As a culture, we cannot afford to build great walls because our economy is intertwined with the world economy. Singapore was founded on the premise of international trade. Even till today, we have one of the busiest ports in the world. 

And I haven’t even started on the food. 

The whole time I was in China, I kept thinking about Singapore and returning there to open my business. I’m been thinking about starting my own school for a couple of months now. I have a concept in my mind and I’m not afraid of risk or failure. Entrepreneurship is in my blood and hard work is in my ethic. 

I’m a born and bred Singaporean. I’ve been an expat for ten years. In the past ten years I’ve had to face the hard truths to keep myself going. I’ve learnt to steer the wheel of my own life and take responsibility for the direction it goes. A few times I crashed and didn’t know if I would survive. But somehow I made it and developed a confidence and resilience I didn’t know I had. 

And now I want nothing more than to go home and contribute to my country. When I left Singapore ten years ago, my lecturer told me that one day I would return. At the time I couldn’t fathom the idea. But now I can’t help but wonder if she was right. 

You can take the girl out of Singapore, but you cannot take the Singapore out of the girl.

Author: Dipa

Stargazer and lover of owls

8 thoughts

    1. Hahaha – actually whenever I went home, people would comment on how I’d changed – and I always used to reply with, “You can take the girl out of Singapore….”

      You reminded me of that 🙂 So yes – you did inspire me!!! YAY GEMINI POWER lol

      Liked by 1 person

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