By Genevieve Toh | 17 Jul 2023
What inspired you to move to New York, and what made you decide to come back to Singapore after so many years?
I faced a challenging season of my life in the years before I moved to New York. When that season culminated in my dad’s passing in 2012, I felt a great hunger for healing, identity-searching and novel experiences in a new environment. My husband felt the same. He desired adventure and newness that would propel his personal and professional development. And so, when a job opportunity came in 2014, we grabbed our two kids and made the move to New York.
We lived in New York for almost ten years, and it was a gratifying decade of growth and evolution for our family. We responded boldly to adventure, met all kinds of characters, explored and lived life to the fullest. We were constantly beckoned to being open about having a diversity of experiences. Being open to change directed our lives in New York and also turned on our homing beacon to Singapore.
Even though we are heading to a familiar place of our origins, we understand that it is going to be a new experience albeit in an “old” but changed place. The personalities we have become are now different from what we used to be when we lived in Singapore before our move. It’s going to be such an adventure and growth opportunity to return!
I always contemplate that my need to grow is akin to a tree which flourishes from the growth of its branches. The more branches it has, the more leaves it is able to have, and the more fruitful it can then become. For that to happen, the tree needs space, broadness and wideness. The tree requires changing seasons which test its strength and refine its ability to stand firm in the face of harsh conditions. This was New York for me. It was a place where my branches grew. That growth came to a point of such flourishing and stability that I am now able to grow regardless of the environment I am in. (Thank you, New York!) In the past, I depended on the environment to grow. Today, I’ve grown to a point where the environment is influenced by me, and it can now be dependent on my craft and skills that it helped to hone.
At the same time, just as a tree needs its branches to grow, it also needs its roots. For true prosperity and health, a tree needs to be anchored deep in good soil in order for it to become a provision for others. Singapore is where my roots are. It is where I was born, had a childhood and had my values formed. Singapore is where my family and friends we grew up with are and these are the things that constitute our roots. My roots are planted in Singapore, and I embrace this essential part of my identity. After such a formative time of “branch-growing”, the homing call has been turned on to cry out: it’s now a formative time of “root-growing”! That’s why we’re returning.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while living in New York?
The biggest challenge of living in New York is also its attraction, which is freedom. I have thrived in having the freedom of space, from societal obligations, to be who I am and to walk out my authentic identity. The very lack of it in societies throughout human history has shown that without it, human suffering and oppression ensue.
But it is also freedom which we as human beings, in our fallibility, thwart and use, and sometimes abuse. This causes consequences that affect people outside of ourselves.
My most upsetting experiences in New York had to do with individuals or institutions using their freedom to “bulldoze” their agendas unkindly over me, in complete disregard of my well-being. Even though this phenomenon is not unknown in Singapore, my personal experience has been that this happened to a greater degree for me in New York. The extent to which freedom is given in a society directly influences the extent of “bulldozing”.
But as a Sara Bareilles song goes, “strength means blessed with an enemy”. I have learned to be armor-plated and not allow such encounters to awash me with shame or insecurity. It takes repeated episodes for one to learn strength and so I try to view all the nasty encounters as learning opportunities rather than negative memories. I have learned to brush off social toxicity, stand firm and keep my joy.
What are you most looking forward to experiencing upon your return?
I am looking forward to warm weather! After having experienced 10 years’ worth of long Northeastern winters, I personally am ready to be out and about in my lightweight summer clothes permanently in Singapore. I’ll take the heat and humidity!
I’m looking forward to spending more time with our extended family and friends who have journeyed with us through so many events in life. I am so excited to once again be present for my loved ones. I yearn for joyful gatherings with our people, our village! I cannot wait for my boys to experience the joys and faithfulness of kindred relationships.
How do you think your experiences in New York have shaped your perspectives on life, work, and family?
Living in New York has increased my ability to embrace differences in others. In this time, I have had the privilege to encounter a wider array of belief systems that are divergent from my own. I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to agree or endorse the different beliefs and actions of others in order to confront them with grace and love. I can do that while standing firm on my own beliefs.
I have also learned to communicate my unique beliefs with joy and respond in eloquence to the expressed views of others. This elevated level of communication was something that took time, organic experiences with others and unplanned exposure to diversity to cultivate.
My experiences with people in New York have helped me to remember that the differences of others are perhaps merely external. I am led to look instead into the deep core of the other, which is the human heart and soul within, a heart and soul that I have too. Therein lies the invisible, but true inner space for interhuman connection.
As Singapore celebrates its 58th National Day, what thoughts or feelings come to mind for you as a returning citizen?
It will be the first public holiday I will get to enjoy after I return to Singapore and that makes me excited about the potential for gatherings, and perhaps some fun parade-watching over food with family and friends!
The pandemic made me particularly homesick because it became the longest period I was starved of the physical presence of my family and close friends that I grew up with back in Singapore. I lived through the pandemic in New York City while my Singaporean loved ones remained thousands of miles away.
New York City is very crowded and can be oppressively congested. Whenever I find myself in overwhelming situations, I can easily find myself feeling alienated and at those times I hunger for family or the friends I grew up with to be around. It is among trusted family and close friends who have journeyed through much of life with you that you can be silent, or forthcoming to share, vulnerable and free to be yourself with.
As you prepare to settle back into life in Singapore, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
I have grown so much in my artistry as a singer, musician, and voice teacher. I am overflowing with all that I have learned and I wish to share it with the people of my country.
As an artist, there is an inherently rebellious spirit in me that seeks to change existing and questionable parameters. I feel a call to give, change, and influence what’s around me for good. I hunger to see the people and things I get to influence become transformed, healed, more free, more whole and to manifest more beauty.
My time away from Singapore has made me full of life. I am now that watered, nurtured tree that has grown its sturdy branches. I am ready to offer the strength, craft and character in me that was refined through trials and testing, for birds and animals to benefit from. That others get to thrive from the transcendent life that is overflowing from within me through my music or teaching or simply by receiving my words, gives me immeasurable satisfaction.
This is my hope, my aspiration, for my future, which has my home country as its next stop. Singapore, get ready.