Singapore, it’s a family thing …

I love Singapore, the food, the culture, the tropical heat. It’s a wonderful country, full of the most wonderful delights, who wouldn’t love it?!? I do, however, love Singapore most of all because of the historic connection with our family.

We have had a love affair with the country since the mid-eighties when mum and dad made the courageous decision to enter into expat life, as dad had landed a job teaching at the New Zealand Defence school there. Nowadays this doesn’t sound that courageous, as many New Zealanders live and work all over the world with thriving expat communities developing on almost all continents. Thirty years ago, however, this was not at all the done thing. No one dared leave job security, good career prospects and everyone they knew, to pack up and move to a country that barely anyone had heard of, with minimal infrastructure and their two young toddlers in tow. Especially from small-town New Zealand! Despite many opinions to the contrary, my parents dared to dream and dared to be different.

During mum and dads time living in Singapore, there were many exciting milestones and adventures. Trips to Malaysia and Penang, first days of school and for one of my brothers first days at multiple kindergartens, a house fire, and the making of many longtime family friends. But if I do say so myself, everyone’s biggest and best milestone of all, me! I was born in Singapore at Mt Alvernia Hospital, so naturally, I have a connection with the place. Even though my memories of this time are made purely of old photographs and the stories of others, I still feel a sense of familiarity with the country. Perhaps it’s the extra parts of official forms I am required to complete to prove I am a New Zealand citizen or the fact I am always required to provide a copy of my birth certificate, which has a VERY clear stamp on it stating “This Child is NOT a Singaporean Citizen” or the fact I always get a couple of extra questions when reentering the country “When did you first come to New Zealand?” … “31 years ago”, “Why did you come here?” … “I was born and my parents moved back home”, “Why did you leave?” … “I didn’t I was born out of the country”. More than likely it’s the little bit of uniqueness that it gives my identity. I was born in Singapore because my parents decided to grasp this unique opportunity and embark on an exciting adventure together. That is something I am very proud of and admire hugely, and one day my niece and nephew are going to look back at their parents with that same sense of pride and admiration. As my brother and sister-in-law now live in Singapore with their two young children as well. In fact, their youngest was also born in Singapore. So when I say Singapore is a family thing, I genuinely really mean it.

When Damian and I set off on this whole trip one of our main priorities, right from the start, was to come home via Singapore. For two reasons, one being I had only been back to Singapore once since we originally left and I was a sulky sullen teenager who refused to appreciate the awesome experience in front of me and did not at all take advantage of our time there. So I was desperate to get back and see things like our old house, the area that my parents lived and worked in and the landmarks I had heard so much about. The other, and easily the most important, was that we wanted to just spend time with our family. To share in their life and see how they live in their expat world.

Since my brother left New Zealand, to live in London, way back in 2004 I had never been in a position to actually go and visit … I had always wanted to, and financially, I got close once right after uni but emotionally I was just not at all ready to go and then when I did a couple of little trips later on in life (to Hong Kong and Japan) I just could not afford the extra expense to add the flights onto the trip … I have always felt like I have missed out on understanding a big part of the life he was living and experiencing, but most of all I felt like I was slowly slipping away from knowing him as a person.

My big brother is six years older than me, so he was always a little bit out of reach in terms of life stages, but boy did I idolize him. I thought everything he did was just amazing, I wanted to be just like him and I wanted to do exactly what he did. Both my brothers actually. They were my heroes. I remember doing something dumb at high school (just once of course) and mum saying “what do you think your brothers would say if I told them about this?” well the fear of them finding out and the shame of what they would say was enough of a lesson for me! They were just awesome in my book, they still are.

I don’t know if we were ever really close back then, as in friendship connection close, perhaps briefly before they left and I was almost old enough to join in with them. But I really was always the annoying little sister and rightly so, I was four and six years younger than them, I was always that little bit too young to be part of what they were doing and I was emotionally quite young as well, which didn’t help. My oldest brother in particular always felt like he needed to give me advice, I was too stubborn to take it, frustration grew and the slow demise of a siblingship started.

Don’t get me wrong we still spent time together whenever he came home and things, it’s not like we were estranged and didn’t speak or didn’t love and care for one another. It was more the genuinely knowing each other as people part that diminished. As time went on, I failed to reach out when I needed help and continued to cocoon myself in mismatched perceptions of judgment and shame … which in hindsight was a reflection of how I felt about myself more than how he felt about me … the problem seemed to compound and eventually, we hardly knew each other anymore and didn’t really know what was going on for one another. By the time the realization hit I felt like I had missed out on so much. He and my sister-in-law essentially began and grew their relationship overseas, I felt like I missed out on really getting to know them and developing an understanding of their life and who they are. So, for me, I guess this trip to Singapore was less about being a sightseeing tourist and more about the opportunity to begin to rebuild a relationship that I felt was almost lost.

To say our time in Singapore was special is a bit of an understatement. We really genuinely loved it. I remember at one point my sister-in-law asking if there was anything we especially wanted to do and apologizing because it was all a bit boring. It was really just perfect though. Keeping in mind by the time we got there we had done a whole winter season and then crammed in four cities and a road trip before leaving the states, boring was ideal!

To us, it wasn’t boring. To us, we got to share in daily life and just be part of what was happening for them. We went to my nieces’ swimming lessons and saw her perform fantastically as she learned to use her crocodile arms. We also learned about lightning warnings here and the extra excitement these add to lessons. We spent many hours swimming in their condo’s pool and saw how confident both my niece and nephew are around the water, the latter often surprising us with running jumps into the deep end when no one was ready for him. We frequented their local cafe for coffee and pain au chocolat and ate at Newton Circus their local hawker food market, which was delicious every time! We were blown away by how my niece and nephew could chat to the hawker ladies in mandarin like it was nothing. We visited Gardens by the bay and, unfortunately, missed out on the children’s garden and the cloud forest both of which my niece informed us are “the best things ever!” but wandered along the skywalk and took in the views from atop the supertrees, which were very impressive. We had breakfast and went for a swim at Sentosa Island, before stopping in to see the Merlion on the way home, to which my niece informed me “that there is actually three of them now”. We got a personal tour of the school that my brother and sister-in-law work at and my very proud niece showed us her room, playground, library and all the places she gets to frequent every day. As we stood gasping at the beautiful facilities and reflected in awe of the amazing things they casually do, it was clear that even the day-to-day “boring” bits are interesting and exciting from a new outsider perspective.

One of my favorite parts of our time in Singapore was hanging out and spending time with my niece and nephew. Obviously, we try to see them whenever they come home and we try to spend as much time as possible with them when they are here, but it is such a busy time for them as they try so hard to fit everyone into the little time they have. So actually being able to spend quality time with them, in their own home, just us, was something completely different. Damian developed a little shadow in my nephew, who promptly woke him (not me, just Damian) up each morning to play with his animals. Whenever we went anywhere he had to hold Damian’s hand and would always look at him before launching into some sort of cheeky little action … like stuffing half a wheel of cheese into his chops … It was so gorgeous to watch my nephew bond with someone who means so much to me. His older sister was not too be left out either, as we spent time playing with ALL her teddies, hearing ALL their stories and having ALL the snugs, which was just as neat. I really felt like we got to know them as individuals and see their little personalities shine through. Making a real connection that I don’t think we have made before but something I will really cherish for some time.

Another highlight was the special night out my brother and sister-in-law had planned for us. Without us knowing they had booked us into a fancy restaurant overlooking the marina for dinner, it was such a lovely surprise especially since we wouldn’t do something like that for ourselves! We sat out on a highrise balcony and watched the sunset and the lights of the city startup. There was a laser light show over the water and we got a spectacular view of the Marina Bay Sands building, which is very impressive. We sipped cocktails and just took it all in, unfortunately, the food was disappointing but that has given us all something to laugh about as it has taken on a story of its own. We had such a great night with cocktails and beers, just gossiping away, it was a really special time.

One of the days Damian, my brother and I went for a drive to Sembawang, where we lived growing up. It’s on the other side of the island (or the other side of the country) to where my brothers family live now and was a really neat afternoon. We managed to find our old house on Admiralty Road, which we think has now been turned into a kindergarten, and we located the empty lot of our first house that burned down. Many of the old Defence Force facilities are still there, some are well loved and lived in while others have fallen into disrepair which was sad to witness. The old ‘black and whites’ as the buildings are knowing are beautiful and it’s sad to think that some of them are left empty and may be lost forever. The old commander’s house is still lived in, however, and still flies the New Zealand flag, which is neat to see. We found the old officers mess, where mum and dad would attend functions and the old Fernleaf where we learned to swim as kids, again they are run down and semi-empty now but the pool at the Fernleaf still has the kiwi tiled in the bottom, proving that us Kiwis are hard to forget. The school that dad taught at is still standing but is run down and has turned into some sort of adventure camp. I guess it’s a true testament to life and the fact that it moves on, time can be cruel but things morph and change. For us, it is sad to go back and see parts of our past dilapidated and beginning to crumble but for others, they may be seen as a bottomless pit of renovation and upkeep that take up far too much land in a country where it is a premium. Either way, it was neat to be able to see it all and share that experience with Damian, giving him an insight into our family’s heritage and background.

Before we knew it, it was time to say our goodbyes, head off to the airport and begin our journey home. The end of things always seems to creep up so fast, and in this instance, I was not at all ready to go. We were having such a neat time and it was so great reconnecting, it was very hard to say goodbye. In fact, I cried all the way to the airport. I did, however, head off grateful that we had got that time together. We had had time to begin to get to know each other again and hopefully revive a connection that could have easily been lost. Singapore is a family thing, it’s a family thing of new beginnings and fond memories because it’s our family’s thing.

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