By Vandana Aggarwal | 22 Nov 2021
To make a house a home requires love, patience, and dedication. It does not happen overnight. To call another country your home requires similar passion and commitment.
We came to Singapore in 1994. I was a trailing wife, having uprooted myself and my children, from an extremely comfortable life in India to follow my husband, who had come here for a new job. I took heart in the thought that he had promised to go back in three years. With little choice, I got down to focusing on getting the children settled in a new life and a different educational system. Every day was a struggle. The culture, language and lifestyle were so different.
I once sat in the front row of a getai and wondered why it was empty. I even entered a funeral set up in the void deck thinking that the decorations were a part of a religious ritual that was celebratory. These episodes frightened me so much that when, a few weeks later, Hindi songs blared at a Malay wedding in the same void deck, I was too chicken to explore. Weekends were spent at Little India, stocking up on groceries, eating out and taking the children to their second language school. But to be honest, even Little India seemed alien as it was not like the India I knew.
Singapore offers a lot of comforts and has a way of growing on you. The well-organized, clockwork precision with which things function, comfortable and convenient public transport system, world-class facilities where everything is taken care of, is addictive. Add to it an education system that compares to the best in the world and there is truly little reason to complain.
My life meandered on. I started teaching at the school where my children were studying. It was a revelation! The thoroughness of the system, the professionalism with which everyone worked, the discipline and dedication blew my mind. I gradually moved to a full-time job as a teacher and got busy with my life.
When the teacher becomes the student
As a social studies teacher in an international school, I noticed that the focus was on topics that had no relevance to the local history or culture. I took it upon myself to bridge this gap. While teaching a chapter on the Congo Basin, I realized that it was located on the approximately same meridian as Singapore. Just mentioning that and drawing parallels with the vegetation in Congo and Singapore made the lesson come alive for the students. They were no longer studying about foreign lands, but each lesson connected to Singapore whenever possible.
I started reading more about Singapore to share with my students. While they excitedly lapped it up, unconsciously, I was the one who was adding to my knowledge about this country.
The convict who freed my mind
It was while transcribing that I stumbled on the name Kunnuck Mistree. Mistree was a life convict from India who arrived in Singapore in 1825. I started spending more time on Newspapersg, a portal of the National Library Board, to peruse newspapers from the 19th century to see if I could find any more information about Mistree.
I squinted through micro-films at the National Archives of Singapore and slowly reconstructed his life from the time Mistree was deported from India in 1818 till his death in Singapore in 1865. Soon a story emerged of a convict who had lived out his years in Singapore and earned a name for himself through his hard work and diligence. His story differed from the usual stories about convicts building roads and buildings and living a life of penury.
Mistree became my connection to Singapore. Our stories though different, were similar in many ways. Both of us came here reluctantly, only to work hard with honesty and dedication and rebuild our lives to attain a modicum of respectability.
The Kamala Club story
Newspapersg opened another treasure trove of information for me. Just reading about what happened on a day-to-day basis so many decades ago was fascinating. At a chance meeting with the President of the Kamala Club (an Indian women’s club in Singapore), she mentioned how the club was established in 1950 and was among the oldest women’s club here.
I did some sleuthing and uncovered that the club dated back to the 1930s. The initial proposal to create a pamphlet outlining the history of the club became bigger and bigger and soon turned into a 150-page book detailing the history of the club from its inception to its present form.
Once the book was published in 2018, I was no longer watching from the outskirts. I felt, I too had a stake in Singapore. It was a story of women like me, who had followed their husbands here, held hands with other women in the same boat and forged a sisterhood to create their Singapore story.
Stories of Integration
I had called the Little Red Dot home for over a quarter of a century, and though my identity card identified me as a permanent resident, I always thought of myself as a Singaporean. When a taxi driver asked me where I was from, it took me by surprise. How many years does one have to live in a country to be regarded as someone who belongs there? This was a question that began to bother me. I was not born in Singapore, but I had brought up a family here, lived an honest life, and yet, my being from Singapore was suspect.
And so, my book “Stories of Integration” was born. I spent the next two years interviewing thirty naturalized Singaporeans to find out more about their journey to calling this country home. These people had come here from various parts of the globe at various times. They followed differing career paths but travelled in the same direction, setting down roots and contributing their best to this Island nation, and later taking up citizenship.
Each one of them went out of their way to not just contribute meaningfully to Singapore but also integrate into the local milieu. Their contributions may have differed, but the passion remained the same, as did their desire to go all out to integrate. There was also gratitude for the honor of calling this tiny island their home.
The book was well received and, in many ways, made me even more conscious of what more I could do to serve Singapore.
Today, for me, Singapore is no longer just home. It is a place to which I connect deeply. My journey to calling it my forever home is a story that I cherish and a journey that I deeply appreciate.
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Vandana Aggarwal came to Singapore in 1994. She fondly traces her journey of the last 27 years as a mother, teacher, writer, archivist, and a history buff. Each role over the last 27 years has played a part in helping her integrate in Singapore.
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