Life on The Northern Fringes of the World: 3 Things You Should Know

In the second instalment of our Making Every Second Count series, we follow two Singaporeans embracing the big unknown and living life to the fullest in far flung parts of the world.

By SGN | 29 March 2021

Wei Si posing for a selfie against the backdrop of the Operafjellet Mountains

Upon graduating from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Wei Si did what few would have dared: instead of job hunting, Wei Si made the extraordinary decision to pursue her dream of living in Longyearbyen instead. She explains, “I don’t believe in hustling first and enjoying later. I think that with the right mindset, I can work hard and play hard at the same time.”

Wei Si first caught the Arctic bug on her solo trip in December 2017. “It was during the dark season, ‘night’ all day long. I fell in love with the place because it was so slow, quiet, and peaceful.” In stark contrast to her home in sun-soaked Singapore, Longyearbyen experiences four months of complete darkness a year, where the sun never rises or sets.

Longyearbyen, famed for being the world’s northernmost town, sits between Svalbard and Jan Mayen in Norway. A frigid, remote and sparsely populated town, getting there involves a three-hour flight from Oslo. Home to just 2,300 residents, Longyearbyen is surprisingly diverse with over 50 nationalities represented among the residents, with Wei Si representing the only Singaporean in town.

The diversity of the Longyearbyen means that English is widely spoken as the common language. Wei Si had no trouble communicating fitting right in. Since moving there permanently in November 2019, she makes a living working part-time as a bicycle guide, supplementing her income with stints at the local stores selling arctic equipment, guns, and ammunition.

Wei Si felt no pressure to join the corporate race. “I know I can pursue my career for the next 30 to 40 years of my life.”

Yue Jie braving the snow in Umeå, Sweden during Christmas

Yue Jie is another Singaporean graduate who decided to move to the Nordic region, albeit for very different reasons. After graduating from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), his search for a master’s programme in Strategic Communication led him to Lund University in Sweden.

“I’m fascinated by how people communicate at personal and corporate levels, which Lund University’s programme covers at deep, theoretical levels. Sadly, it isn’t a subject that is available for reading in Singapore.”

So how does uprooting yourself from the tropics to pursue your dreams in the Nordics change you? Wei Si and Yue Jie tell us more.


Learning to be Adaptable is Key

Wei Si says that life in Longyearbyen has trained her to improvise and adapt. “I was able to deal with the transition from Singapore to Longyearbyen because I made sure that I was mentally prepared for the move.”

Photos of the Northern Lights (also known as aurora borealis) captured by Wei Si during the Polar Night season. Svalbard is the only place where one can catch this scintillating dance of lights in the daytime

The unusual Longyearbyen seasonal pattern is typically the biggest challenge that newcomers need to acclimatise to.

Wei Si explains, “From November to February, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, so it’s dark all day long during this polar winter. Conversely, from April to July, the sun doesn’t set at all, so its bright all day long during the polar summer.”

Owing to these extreme seasons, it is often difficult to differentiate between ‘night’ and ‘day’, which affects time perception. During the polar winter season, Wei Si found sticking to a strict schedule and supplementing her diet with vitamins helped her body adjust. “I adjust to the unusual seasons by taking lots of vitamins and using a light-therapy lamp.”

During the polar summer season, Wei Si boards up her windows with up aluminium foil to keep the sunlight out, which helps to regulate her sleep by keeping her bedroom dark.

Vitamins and supplements have become a staple in Wei Si diet as fresh produce is expensive and hard to come by in Longyearbyen. “My diet typically consists of protein and carbs now, and I try to include as much fibre as I can in my diet from frozen vegetables. I make up for the unbalanced diet with vitamins like B, C, D, iron, magnesium, and omega 3.”


Don’t be Afraid to Push Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Yue Jie notes that leaving Singapore’s shores enabled him to enrich his life by putting him in the driver’s seat. Moving so far away from home forced him to live independently and take care of himself.

From living alone to cooking and grocery shopping, Yue Jie grew by learning to lean on no one but himself in a foreign land. 

Yue Jie is seen here standing in front of the Lund University fountain

Besides empowering himself to live independently, studying in Lund puts Yue Jie at the forefront of emerging developments in the communications field.

“In Singapore, communication courses usually entail mass communication or media communication at NUS, NTU and some of the private institutions, so the variety is limited.”

Strategic communications, on the other hand, focuses on the theoretical studies of personal and intercultural communications — a relatively new field of study.


Embrace the Chance to Experience a New Way of Life

Living abroad, especially in an environment so different from what one is used to at home, presents a rare opportunity for one to experience a new way of life. Through breaking old routines to exploring new pastimes, the move abroad enabled Yue Jie and Wei Si to experience a completely different way of life.

 “One of my most magical moments was the first time I saw a polar bear in real life. It was summer and I was on a boat going towards Nordenskioldbreen (a glacier) when I saw the bear roaming about on the glacier. It felt so surreal!” Wildlife encounters are common in Longyearbyen, and Wei Si often bumps into reindeer casually grazing during her daily strolls.

Wei Si shares a snapshot of a pair of Svalbard Reindeers strolling in Nybyen

Getting around town is easy when you live in a town with only 40km of roads, says Wei Si. To get around, riding a snow mobile a handy way of exploring the settlements of Svalbard.

“You’ll need a driver’s license to operate it, but it’s just like driving a motorcycle, except you don’t have to worry about losing your balance. And it’s simple to operate with only a finger throttle on one handle and a brake on the other.”

Wei Si is seen here on board her own snowmobile, the preferred means of transport for getting around in Svalbard. During the Polar Night, you can spot many chasing the Northern Lights on snowmobiles

In Lund, bicycles are an inexpensive and efficient way of getting round town. Buses adhere to a strict schedule and trains run infrequently, which means extensive planning is required if you want to get around town using public transportation. Getting a second-hand bike on the first day of arriving in Lund helped Yue Jie get around quickly – his nearest supermarkets are located just 5 minutes away by bicycle.

 “Buses arrive at specific timings, so you must be at the bus stop exactly on time. Trains can run twice per hour or even less, so you really need to plan around these schedules. If you miss them, it can mess up your travel plans badly.”

Adjusting to Life Under COVID

For Longyearbyen, the pandemic has left an indelible impact on the small and vulnerable local economy in Longyearbyen, a former coal-mining town now heavily reliant on tourism.

Colourful houses line the streets of Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen, Norway

“Because of travel restrictions, we haven’t had any tourists up here. Local businesses are struggling. A dog yard even had to consider putting down their sled dogs because they couldn’t keep up with the costs of maintaining them without tourists.” 

Wei Si adds that many of her friends have been permittert — a Norwegian term which meant they were being temporarily laid off from work due to the pandemic. She adds, “They have to move away to search for more job opportunities in their home country or try to scrimp and make ends meet here.”

With fewer tourists, Wei Si no longer gets as many shifts at the local store or jobs as a bicycle guide. It is a grim reality which challenged her resourcefulness. Fortunately, she managed to secure remote working opportunities such as her recent role as an Advertising Manager at Rocket Conversions.

As for Yue Jie, relocating to Lund during the pandemic had its own challenges. He notes that due to the reduced travel routes available in August 2020, he missed the university’s traditional Arrival Day activities, an orientation event where new incoming students would meet with senior students at the airport. Senior students would lead the new students around, showing them how to navigate the train service to get to Lund or drive them to their apartment.

Without the usual orientation program, Yue Jie had to figure things out on his own, though this was made easier with how digital everything was. “Everything concerning public transport takes place on a mobile app where you buy a virtual bus or train ticket that comes with a QR code to be scanned.”

Global Citizens, but Singapore will Always Hold a Special Place

One thing that both Wei Si and Yue Jie find most attractive about Longyearbyen and Lund is the pace of life. Unlike Singapore’s fast-paced city life, both places are laid back and relaxed, rich in natural scenery and absent of crowds. 

Yue Jie shares, “Here in Lund, everyone is generally relaxed, positive, curious and polite. There aren’t long queues for most things and people don’t complain unless something really bad happens.”

With its sheer number of parks and nature spaces, Yue Jie finds himself indulging in hikes with friends in Lund

Wei Si says that the slow pace of life and different perspectives towards life has rubbed off on her, teaching her to slow down and appreciate little things in life. “The biggest difference is that society here is a lot less achievement-oriented or academic-focused than a city like Singapore.”

Naturally, both miss the warm weather of Singapore from time to time. Wei Si shares, “I miss just being able to go anywhere with a pair of slippers, t-shirt, and shorts. Now, I need to wear at least 3-4 layers of clothing to brave the cold.”  

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About Wei Si

Weisi moved from Singapore to live by the North Pole on Svalbard and Jan Mayen in November 2019. Her favourite past time here is riding her snowmobile out into the wilderness. Besides playing hard, she works equally hard as a remote marketing manager. Follow her adventure on Instagram or connect with her on LinkedIn

About Yue Jie

Yue Jie is a Master’s student from Singapore living in Lund, Sweden. He received his diploma from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2015 and BA degree from SIM-RMIT in 2019. Yue Jie learned the ropes of film production and marketing respectively before finding himself up north in Scandinavia enjoying the seasonal weather. Today, he is focused on finishing his Master’s by Summer of 2022 and aspires to become a Europe-based digital marketing nomad upon graduation. Follow him on Instagram to experience Sweden from a Singaporean perspective or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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