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‘This Is Home, Truly’: How a Visit Back to Singapore Shifted My Sense of Belonging

Singapore belonging
Tammi Teo
Written by Tammi Teo

The heat was a surprise, even though I’d expected it from the very beginning. I hadn’t forgotten it in the time I’d been away, but now I was no longer used to the hot, sticky air of Singapore. The airport was, of course, thoroughly air-conditioned, but outside the soaring temperatures were almost oppressive. As I exited the terminal and stepped into the taxi, I was struck by how alien I felt in a country that was supposed to be my home. I was born in Singapore and, at that point, had spent most of my life there, but now I’d been away so long that I could no longer handle the weather. I’d known then that this trip home would shift my sense of belonging, but it ended up being in ways that I’d never anticipated.

My family moved to Melbourne, Australia shortly after I turned fourteen. The brutal academic expectations of the Singapore school environment had put so much pressure on me that my parents could see I was one bad grade away from cracking. We spent two years settling into our new lives, before going back to Singapore to visit my grandparents and celebrate the Lunar New Year — an occasion that’s always been very important to us. By then, I’d gotten used to life in Australia. I had new friends and I’d come to love the changing seasons, something Singapore has never known.

Even so, I thought going back to Singapore was going to be amazing, and the prospect of the trip left me quietly delighted in the months leading up to it. I was excited to live in our old apartment again, right on the outskirts of the inner city, surrounded by the restaurants and shopping malls of my childhood. More than that, I was eager to once again be able to use the MRT, the train system that functions as most Singaporeans’ main form of public transport. It never ran late and rarely broke down — a welcome improvement from the one in Melbourne. I really missed my grandparents and authentic Singaporean food, such as Nasi Lemak and Ais Kacang, which can’t be replicated anywhere else. Also, I’d made plans with many of my old friends.

Singapore belonging (2)

But actually, being back in Singapore was a whole other story. I hated the heat, from which there was no escape, so I spent most of my time holed up in my old room with the air conditioner on full blast. We were also visiting during the school term, which meant that on most weekdays my friends would be in their classes, leaving me to pass the time alone. It took me a few days to catch on, but I realized that I wasn’t happy. The bed was too low, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get comfortable. I texted my friends in distress, telling them that I was homesick for Melbourne. It felt weird to say, and almost sinful to admit, because I knew I belonged in Singapore too. I loved the food, my family, and the way the city never really goes to sleep. But I couldn’t deny that I was missing Melbourne more than I thought I would.

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It was the first time I’d ever felt like a foreigner in my own home. I recognized the places, the people, and the language, but I still felt as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. It was an odd feeling that didn’t sit right in my chest. When I was in Melbourne, I’d missed Singapore; but in Singapore, I started to miss Melbourne. I was trapped between two places, never really belonging to either, doomed to always miss the other.

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, we went to my grandparents’ house for reunion dinner, a tradition in which families share a meal in what is considered the most important get together of the year. It was just like before we moved to Melbourne. My grandmother made her famous tangyuan, which are glutinous rice balls that are traditionally eaten with family, as they symbolize togetherness. Knowing that I love them, she brought me a bowl the moment I sat down. I brought a spoonful to my mouth and the taste was as familiar as ever. Sweet and a little chewy — the same as they’ve always been since I was a child.

It was the first time I’d ever felt like a foreigner in my own home.  

We had a “steamboat” for dinner — a Chinese tradition where the whole family sits around a table and cooks meats and vegetables in a boiling broth together. I sat next to my grandmother. She piled my plate with food, all the while talking about how I’ve grown taller and prettier since she’d last seen me. In that moment, surrounded by my family, and with the steam from the broth fogging up my glasses, I didn’t feel displaced at all. This was a familiar experience, one that I had missed dearly, and suddenly all the homesickness fell away. I wasn’t a Singaporean in Melbourne, or a foreigner in Singapore. I was just me, a girl who loved her family.

That trip taught me something I’ll never forget: it doesn’t really matter where I’m living, or which country I’m visiting. I am a Singaporean-born Chinese girl who lives in Melbourne. I belong to all of my homes, but mostly I belong to myself. I don’t have to choose between cultures, I can exist in all of them.

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About the author

Tammi Teo

Tammi Teo

Tammi is currently a student at the University of Melbourne, studying a Bachelor of Arts and majoring in both Creative Writing and Media Studies. When she isn't writing, she loves playing music and catching up with her friends. Though she's having fun with freelance work at the moment, she's aiming to become a published author soon.

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