Growing up as a Singaporean in a foreign country
I was 7 when I had to adapt to life in the Middle East.
I may be Singaporean, but I have not fully memorised the pledge yet. And I still stumble through the words of our national anthem.
But don’t blame me. I practically grew up overseas.
Growing up as a Singaporean in a foreign country changed my concept of a home and introduced me to a third culture.
I was only seven years old when my family moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2005, after my dad got relocated by his company. I remember feeling excited about living in a new country, but I cried while saying goodbye to my childhood friends.
That is how I ended up spending nine years living in the Middle East.
During my first few months in the UAE, my parents explained that even though we’ve relocated to the Middle East, we would return to Singapore every year to visit our family and old friends. I used to count down to the day we would fly back to Singapore because I missed it so much.
So, I always made a conscious effort to be as Singaporean as possible. While I sang the Emirati and Australian national anthem at school every morning, I would practice Singapore’s national anthem at home in the evening.
I was already in a better position than my younger brother who grew up thinking he was British, even though we went to an Australian school. How he reached that conclusion still confuses me.
When I was 8, I attended a National Day celebration organised by the Singapore embassy. I was only able to sing half of the national anthem, and I mumbled through the pledge, using the crowd as a guide.
I felt out of place. I regretted not knowing my own country’s national anthem.
But after looking around, I saw others around my age acting the same way. I then thought that it might not be necessary for me to know the national anthem and pledge in order to celebrate National Day and call myself a Singaporean.
Some might think that I cannot consider Singapore home if I don’t even know the national anthem and pledge. But living and growing up in the Middle East simply made me someone with a third culture. It also changed my definition of home.
To me, home is simply where I am for the moment.
I spent what I considered the most important years of my life in the UAE, which by the way, has more than just Dubai. The nine years I spent there shaped a lifestyle that became a benchmark for my future.
When I returned to Singapore in 2014, it was hard to adapt to the different lifestyle – and Singlish.
Everyone drives a four-wheel drive car in the Middle East. If it was not a four-wheel drive, it was a ridiculously expensive European car. As pampered as it makes me sound, it annoyed me that I had to give that lifestyle up.
If I’m being honest, I still refer to my MRT app when I’m changing lines. It goes without saying that I avoid buses because they’re harder to navigate!
A huge part of being a Singaporean also involves using Singlish, something I had to put effort into learning. It was not just about adding lah to the end of my sentences, but also the tonality and flair.
I was lucky enough to pick up enough Singlish at a part-time job before starting polytechnic. My friends at school also taught me more Singlish, including some Hokkien swear words. (Sorry, mum.)
Being in Singapore still feels foreign at times, especially when my friends talk about their shared experiences in secondary school.
But as I learn more about my home country and immerse myself with the cultures it has to offer, I become more confident with saying I am Singaporean. I’ve gotten used to wearing slippers to malls, using tissue paper to chope tables, and even queueing for things!
Besides, what else could I be?