Four months ago, as I prepared to leave my home country of Singapore for exchange, many of my friends were worried that they would begin to miss, among other things, the familiarity of home. But my perspective stood on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. For me, though my next few months in Sweden would be uncertain, and though I had never set foot in Europe proper before, it was as though I was about to return to a place I’d known all my life.
When I was nine years old, my parents moved my family to China. While I was there, I was lucky enough to study at an American-run international school until I was 18, and thus my peers and friends came from all corners of the globe. One could probably understand that the longer I stayed overseas, the more distant I grew from my home country.
Upon my graduation from high school, I was required by law to return to Singapore and serve in the military, just like every other 18-year-old male from my country. As I mentally prepared to leave China, I was warned multiple times that Singapore, my very own home country, would never feel completely like home.
It was true. Children who grow up overseas naturally find themselves withdrawn and detached from their home communities. It’s been four years since I arrived back in Singapore for good, and that disconnect is still starkly apparent to me. Though I learned how to talk like a Singaporean and walk like a Singaporean, my new peers and I simply did not share the same experiences growing up. We thought differently. We wanted different things. We cared about different things.
It felt like all my new friends in Singapore were only ever exposed to one world and one culture, whereas I got to see glimpses of countless others through my friends overseas. That difference in perspective, pretentious as it may sound, drove a huge division between my own people and me. Many of the things that my friends grew excited about were plain boring and cliché to me. I felt like a stranger in my own homeland.
So where is home for me? Basically nowhere. ” I could potentially return to China, but all my friends and teachers have returned to their own countries. My school moved to a different campus. My house was sold, my neighbourhood completely changed. That was just the nature of growing up in a community like mine. Nothing was permanent. As a friend of mine said when we parted ways at the airport: “I’m leaving everything I’ve ever known behind, but everything I’ve ever known is leaving me as well.
Coming to Örebro and being a part of ESN’s international community was my last chance to return to those ‘good old days’. Surrounded by people from places far and wide, I’ve talked politics with Belgians, jammed together with Germans, swapped jokes with an American, made dinner with a Greek, learned songs in Catalan, laughed about vulgarities with Koreans, and so much more. Being embedded in the diversity of cultures here — that’s where I find myself being comfortable.
And now, four months since I first arrived here, as I count down the final days I have in Örebro, the thought that this will soon be over hangs heavy over me. I will be forever grateful for the time that I’ve had in ESN. It hasn’t just been a breath of fresh air for me. It isn’t just an adventure. It’s life as I remember it.
Writer: Matthew Loh
Photographer: Alex Brown