A holiday feeling

As the prospect of being on holiday inches closer to reality, the topic of where we are going has become a frequent part of our conversations.

And the people who are part of these conversations become a captive audience to my spiel about why Singapore is my favourite country to visit. So here I go:

A few years ago I went to Singapore because my sister was doing her medical elective there (brief explanation: a final year medical student overseas experience thing). Since at that point I had only ever travelled to Australia at the age of 24, (and I was now turning 25) this was a huge deal for me! It was my first long-haul flight.

When I arrived in Singapore, the first thing I heard as soon as I walked out of the airport was people speaking my language. Two men were talking to each other about getting coffee.

When I say ‘my language’, I’m referring to the Chinese dialect: Teo Chew or Chao Zhou. Most people understand Chinese languages to be either Mandarin or Cantonese– these are the main ones. But there are lesser known dialects- and my language is one of them. My understanding is that a lot of Teo Chew people moved to South East Asia from the 19th century due to poor circumstances (and hence why a lot of us are mixed-ethnicity Asians). In New Zealand, it is rare for us to hear our language being spoken. And when we do hear it, our ears perk up and we are always amazed by the sight of another Teo Chew person. We will literally message our family or tell them when we get home about how we sighted a Teo Chew person at the supermarket or at the mall.

So you can imagine how amazed I was that there were Teo Chew people in Singapore. And in addition to this there were many hawker stalls that sold Teo Chew food. The taxi drivers that I spoke to could speak Teo Chew or had Teo Chew ancestry. Wow it was Teo Chew overload but I was here for it.

So there was that, but also the fact that most people in Singapore are Asian, so appearance-wise I blended in almost seamlessly. I also appreciated how safe it was. My sister and I would walk at night and we never felt unsafe (this was a big deal for us because we grew up in Manurewa and never felt safe walking outside even in broad daylight because we lived next to a tinny-house that was frequented by gangs and people would brazenly steal fruit from our trees or throw eggs at our house).

It seems pretty simple but these are literally the reasons why Singapore is my favourite place to visit. It has nothing to do with any attractions that are available there, but it has everything to do with the feeling I had when I was there. The main reason why I loved the place was because for the first time in my entire life, I actually felt like I belonged somewhere. I didn’t know anyone there, I don’t have any family there, but I felt like I fit in there.

My experience growing up in a Western country as a child of refugees (and Teo Chew) was that I didn’t fit in with non-Asian people, and I didn’t fit in with Asian people either. Even though ethnically I’m Chinese, I had little in common with Chinese people. They were usually Cantonese/Mandarin speaking people whose families had migrated from China- meaning that they either had skill or money to be able to migrate here- which is what we didn’t have. And even though I’m also ethnically Vietnamese and Cambodian- while we usually shared a refugee background with these ethnic groups, we didn’t share everything in common with them because at home we were ‘culturally Chinese‘. As I’m typing this I know how weird and confusing it sounds but I really can’t explain it any better. Basically, I never felt like I belonged anywhere.

So there I was, 25 years old- not looking to belong somewhere, but I found it unexpectedly in Singapore. It was an incredible feeling.

I think the thing that also made me feel a sense of belonging or connection to the place was the fact that my grandpa had worked there. This was the grandpa that was conscripted in the early 1900’s in China, and then fled in order to evade war so that he could continue working to support his family. Singapore was actually the first country he fled to, but he only spent a couple of years working there before he moved to Cambodia hoping to earn better money than what little he was making.

While I was in Singapore I often wondered where my grandpa had worked. I wondered if he had walked the street that I was walking on. Had he eaten at any of these Teo Chew establishments? Did he have any friends here? I also thought about how hard life was for him. He had to make the sacrifice of leaving his family in order to move to a totally foreign country just so that he could earn money for them to survive. Like I reflect on that and think how that is such a juxtaposition to my own life because I can get anxious about the most inconsequential things- like asking a waiter for tomato sauce… How much anxiety did my grandpa experience having to navigate through so much unfamiliarity and uncertainty? Or did he not even have the mental capacity to consider his own well-being because he was so focused on his family’s survival?

I wondered if my grandpa- while working gruelling hours with minimal pay and missing his family, could have ever imagined that one day, his family would all be okay. That one day, his grand-daughter would also be in Singapore- but just for a holiday– with nothing on her mind except for how wonderful it feels to be there.


4 thoughts on “A holiday feeling

  1. I got you.. I have a similar thing too.. I am an Indian from the southern state called TamilNadu. We speak the language Tamil and are called Tamizhan. When visiting the neighboring states with different languages, I look for people if they could speak mine and look for TN registered vehicles. Once we find it.. ohh it sends a chilling

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeahh.. it takes us to realise how much we miss our identity or who we are or where we belong.. all that realisation in a distant foreign land .. still it gives us soothing sense of belonging to it..


  2. I got you.. I have a similar thing too.. I am an Indian from southern state called TamilNadu. We speak a language called Tamil and we people are called Tamizhan/Thamizhachi. In India every state has different letters for their vehicle registration. When visiting other states, the sight of a TN (TamilNadu) registered vehicles gives me excitement. Now that I live in UAE, when I hear people speaking my mother tongue.. oh !!! That’s another level of emotions. And I am quite able to feel your emotions on a different land.


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