Having landed here in Singapore from the UK just nine weeks before I guess it should have come as no surprise that I felt homesick. Ever since we’d arrived I had a feeling of things being not quite right. Off kilter. Like something didn’t quite fit. This particular day it hit me hard, and it hit me in the least likely of situations. I was on my way to meet a lady I’d met at a school coffee morning the week before. She’d kindly invited me to join her and a few other women for a walk with our dogs and we were then going to have brunch together. All very sociable; more than I could have hoped for so early on really.
So imagine my surprise when, on the way there in the car a huge wave of longing to be home hit me. I found myself crying. Right there at the traffic lights. Good job I was wearing my sunglasses.
And this is how it seems to be for me. I can be doing anything at all – the most mundane of jobs – and it’ll hit me right in the gut. It’s a physical thing too. Not a pain as such, but a twisting of the insides. A huge lurch in my stomach and chest.
Having asked around, it seems many of us – new and old expats alike – feel the same. Some of the things I’ve heard include a feeling of being overwhelmed, a lack of belonging, that the first few months are so raw.
So I got to wondering why this was? When we have come willingly (most of us anyway) to this beautiful country that is full of wonderful things to do and people to meet. Not to mention the fabulous travel opportunities being in Singapore offers up.
Some of these feelings I’m sure are a result of coming down from the high of the move. The initial excitement of the prospect of moving to a new country, telling your friends and family, choosing where to live etc. Before you leave your previous home, you spend time and energy getting organised for it. Packing, re-packing, sorting, clearing and so on. You are emotionally drained from all the farewells which can go on for weeks . Then, when you land, you have to hit the ground running trying to set up a new home (or find yourself a new home!), get the kids settled – at home and in school or nursery. There’s no time for what many have called the grieving process.
Once you’ve arrived there’s also the issue of finding your way round. I totally underestimated how stressful this would be. Navigating the roads is no mean feat. Navigating a shopping mall in this particular country I find almost impossible. There’s a certain incident that will be forever known as ‘Organic basket’ day that will go down in history as one of my all-time lows. But that’s a whole other story for another day.
Getting to know people, making friends and building relationships is vital – but can be draining. That’s not to say any of the lovely people I’ve met are making things hard for me. But, when you are getting to know someone there is a lot to think about. All that information that needs to be shared, remembered and digested. Just a quick cup of tea can turn in to what feels like mastermind. In the next round you’re supposed to remember how many children they have, how long they’ve been an expat and where else they’ve lived. Otherwise you feel your time may be up.
You long for the warm, snuggly comfort blanket that is home and all that you know there. For family who you know you can call on when you just need a break from the kids. No questions asked or gaps to fill in. The friends who know when to call for a chat, to pop by for a cuppa – bring your favourite cake and give you a hug.
Being out of routine doesn’t help either. With no real place to fit or even anywhere to be most days it’s hard to fill your time meaningfully. Yes, for me, I could spend all day writing on my computer – and I often do – but that’s not going to help. The advice from many who’ve trodden this path before is, it’s best to get out there. To engage, see what’s going on, join a group, start a hobby. But wandering around without a real reason, or in my case, getting lost constantly isn’t much fun. But, I know it has to be done in order to build up a routine. Even if it’s just taking the dog to the local park every Thursday morning – that lady I spoke to once might become a good friend. It’s all about making the most of the opportunities really isn’t it?
The sad thing I’ve found though is how many of us feel this way. There are a lot of lonely women (and, I’m sure men) in Singapore. Women who have often put their lives on hold for their partners job and uprooted their families to pursue what they hope is a better life, a new adventure, a chance to start again. Which is all good in theory. But the reality of it is tough. Even those who have been here – or been away from ‘home’ – for over 20 years say it’s still hard. Especially as, by their very nature, expats are transient. People come and go all the time so you may find your new best friend has to leave and you are back to square one.
When does where you’re living become home I wonder? One Dutch lady said it was when she referred to a trip back as ‘going to Holland’ rather than ‘home’. When does the ‘not quite the right fit’ suddenly become more comfortable? One lovely analogy someone shared with me summed it up really:
‘It’s like being a tree that has been many years happily in its pot. But, it really needed to be replanted in order for it to grow. Its branches and roots needed to be trimmed to help regenerate new growth. The branches (everything you knew how to do on automatic pilot) needed cutting back to grow new ones. Your roots (your support network of family and friends) have been given a shake up but they’re still there, along with some new ones that will help ground you. Although we call it homesickness, it is in fact, transplant wilt. With a little bit of time, patience and care you’ll soon be back to your blossoming self.’
That was another thing that came out when talking to others about this. It’s important to be kind to yourself. Give yourself space to feel sad. Give yourself a pat on the back for doing this well. Then also give yourself a kick up the you-know-what and get out there and enjoy the experience as much as you can. Accept you will miss home, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Get help from an expert if you need to. Phone that lady you swapped numbers with last week and arrange a night out. Go along to that coffee morning, you never know your new BFFN (best friend for now) could be there waiting for you. Help yourself develop a sense of belonging by making an effort to belong.
Cherish the family and friends you have at ‘home’ – wherever that may be, near or far. It seems the common feeling is that the first year is the hardest, after that it becomes easier. So, only 41 weeks to go then…