Being a Singaporean is not just where you’re from, it’s how you have lived

Living her entire life everywhere except for Singapore hasn’t stopped Cheryl Low from adopting a Singaporean identity. Having moved halfway across the world from her family, Cheryl shares her story on how she has developed this strong sense of identity over her university years.

25 November 2019 / By Cheryl Low

“Where are you from?” Such a short, simple question and yet I struggle with my answer every time it’s asked.

My name is Cheryl, and I’m a Singaporean citizen but I was born in Thailand, raised in Vietnam, and lived in Australia and England at points in my life. My parents are Singaporeans but they moved to Thailand years before my brothers and I were born. A year after I was born, we moved to Australia for 3 years followed by Vietnam for the next 14, for me anyway. Once I finished my education in Vietnam, I moved to England for university.

Whenever I tell people this story, the most common question I get in response is “so…. you’re Vietnamese?” Well, no… but in some ways yes as well? Ho Chi Minh (HCM) will always be the city I grew up in, and it is the place where all my childhood memories begin. There are so many streets, buildings and restaurants that are associated with memories I hold dear to my heart. However, even though I grew up in HCM, I never felt like I was able to fully experience a typical lifestyle and upbringing of a Vietnamese. My daily routine was structured for most of my upbringing – it was school, CCAs (if any), home, tuition, sleep and repeat. My family lived an ex-pat life in HCM for an extended period but that didn’t make us Vietnamese.

When I moved to Leeds for university, I was excited to meet new people and experience a whole different culture. However, the transition for a minority race was difficult. I shared a house with 16 people – 15 British and 1 American.

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Even though I enjoyed spending time with them, I always felt something missing and I only realized what it was when I met some Singaporeans at a society event. It was that common understanding of culture, upbringing, the struggle of being miles away from home and the lack of access to similar foods we ate back home, that connected us. After that realization, I put in more effort to befriend other overseas Singaporeans as well.

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Although I never physically grew up in Singapore, my Singaporean friends and I still shared similar childhood experiences. There were nights we spent reminiscing our childhood – playing eraser wars, pick-up sticks, neopets; wanting beyblades for Christmas, or even keeping a sticker book and swapping stickers with friends at school. We would even laugh about the things we used to be ‘punished’ for, and how we used to hide canes from our parents.

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We often talked about the food we missed back home and the inaccessibility to any of these dishes in Leeds. As a fresher, I didn’t even know how to mince garlic, but I had to learn how to cook at some point because eating out was simply too expensive. As my cooking improved over the years, I decided to challenge myself by attempting some typical hawker center food, such as chicken rice, hokkien mee and bak chor mee.

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One of the first events I attended as a student in the UK was hosted by the Vietnamese society. While they were welcoming and friendly, I was surprised to find that the connections we’ve made were not as strong as ones I’ve found in my friendships with overseas Singaporeans. I was least expecting to vibe well with Singaporeans, primarily because I didn’t have many Singaporean friends growing up. However, they were the people I found easiest to be myself around, who really understood me and whom I could relate most to. They made me feel like I had a home away from home. It didn’t matter that I have never lived in Singapore, or that I sometimes couldn’t relate to the experiences they had growing up, but, what mattered most was that we had each other to rely on, especially when we missed home.

I didn’t have to physically grow up in Singapore to be a proud Singaporean.


About Cheryl Low

Cheryl studied at an international school in Vietnam for 14 years before moving to Leeds to pursue her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Towards the end of her first year at university, she was elected as President for the Singaporean Society in Leeds. After her second year, she took a year off university to gain some work experience as an Assistant Psychologist at a forensic hospital specialising in brain injuries. She is currently finishing her Master’s degree specialising in Cognitive Development and Disorders

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