After spending nearly ten years in the United States, Valentina made her decision to return back to Singapore.
6 January 2021 / By Valentina Ko
When I turned 20, my mother, a Taiwanese American, obtained Permanent Residency for our family to live in the United States. We welcomed the move—a change of scenery, more options for our future, and a chance to connect regularly with my ‘cooler’ cousins from the west that I’ve admired from afar.
I remember the very first day I moved to the Cupertino, California. The drive to our new home from the airport amazed me. Huge houses with open driveways, strip malls that stretched on for hours, and in the most mesmerizing sight, a valley of ‘mountains’ in the backdrop of the new city that I would be living in. I was undoubtedly ready for something different, and excited to what a move so permanent would mean. When I told my friends back in Singapore that my family was moving to the States, I was greeted with both curiosity and envy from my friends. And I was determined to live up to their expectations.
And so, I did just that. I chased “The American Dream” in my initial years there. After graduating from the University of California, and being intrigued by how different the structure of the education system was in the United States compared to Singapore, I found myself working for education non-profits based in the Bay Area. I first found employment with a national non-profit known as Reading Partners, helping to implement reading programmes to help fill the English reading level gap amongst the immigrant communities. Thereafter, I moved onto a local non-profit housed and funded by Stanford University, working in development programmes. Gaining an interest in justice restoration from the communities that I interacted with, I then headed to New York City to complete my master’s programme at Columbia University, while at the same time, working with the New York City’s Office of Appellate Defender with appeal cases of incarcerated individuals.
On paper, my achievements; the brand-name colleges, colourful job experiences, and living in highly sought-after coastal cities seemed to check every box on a path to achieving what Singaporeans saw as “The American Dream”. Of course, I enjoyed my life there to a certain extent as well. In California, I was able to bring my dogs hiking on the mountains at Silicon Valley at any random weekend, while in New York City, I was able to enter musical lotteries and found myself the chance to catch the much sought-after musical, Hamilton, a total of three times.
As enticing as all of that sounded, it was my cumulative experience of almost ten years in the United States that led me back to Singapore. The exposure to new things were exciting, and I was introduced to practices that I never would have been a part of here at home. But what was this dream that I was chasing? Was it even something that I wanted?
Ultimately, it was what I gained from these experiences that made me think about Singapore endlessly, and how I could contribute to the country that I grew up in with what I’ve learned outside. Contributions aside, I also thought long and hard about what it was in Singapore that I missed. To paraphrase both Isaac Newton, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton, “Every action has an equal, opposite reaction” and it was all the opposite reactions that made me decide to move back.
While I revelled in the freedom and independence that was given to me from a young age, I also saw of what this freedom does to people. My later years in the United States were peppered with incidents of racial injustice, countless anxiety attacks from being ‘randomly’ followed at subways in New York City, being exiled from friend groups if political opinions were slightly differing, not to mention, the high cost of living coupled with constant worry about eviction from my landlord.
Faced with these personal experiences, I was thankful at that moment, for having Singapore to return to. Others might see this as a privileged way of thinking. “Ah, to return to your home country, when things get difficult”, but I knew that in my decision to move home, I was also bringing with me lived experiences that I’ve gone through to better shape how I interact with Singaporeans here. I would be able to turn my negative experiences into something positive here and help my country move forward. Others might criticise this as compromising, but the way I saw it, two steps forward, one step back, is still one step forward. And it has been ingrained in us from a young age from our education system that that efficiency is key. Moving forward is better than staying put.
And so, moved forward I did. In July 2019, I packed up my room in New York City, said by to my roommates and friends, and got on a one- way flight back. At that time, this decision scared me. I had been away for ten years. Sure, I had some friends, and my family was here. But at the same time, how was I going to compare with my peers that had been here the whole time? Would they accept me as a permanent fixture in their lives rather than a flitting figure through Summer and Christmas Holidays? Would I be able to fathom moving back in with my parents again? Will they respect my life choices as the adult that I am, or treat me as the 19-year-old when I left home?
Like how I remember my first drive to my new home in California, I remember the ride home from Changi Airport distinctly. My mother picked me up, our dog with his head popping up in her tote bag.
We took a drive along the ECP and exchanged family gossip. We stopped by Old Kallang Airport to dapao (take-away) my favourite local fare, bak chor mee, and returned home. My worries were replaced with a sense of familiarity, but at the same time, coupled with anticipation of what my life would be moving forward.
I decided that it was not “The American Dream” I wanted, but rather, the experiences there that grew me into the person that I am today. I’ve learnt to appreciate Singapore more for how it grew me, but at the same time, I return with hopes and dreams on how to make it better. Just like how I was ready for a new experience ten years ago, I was ready for a new experience in my home ground now.