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It snowed heavily the day after I arrived in Germany.

It was odd, after a 13-hour flight, to be in a country that is so similar, yet so different from Singapore.

The weather, the language, and (the Singaporean in me felt this the most!) the food was all different, yet there was a sense of familiarity that has grown over the months that I have spent here before I wrote this.

I’m not the first to relocate to a different country, and I won’t be the last, but here’s my situation, perhaps you might find some similarities in your own story!

In the winter of 2021, I received a job offer to work in Darmstadt, a city just outside of Frankfurt. I was thrilled because, I don’t usually get an offer like this out of the blue (well, maybe some of you do, but I’m not the high-flying, head-hunted kind of person!)

singaporean living overseas
It was snowing heavily the day after we arrived in Germany. Image source: Karen Chek

Like the rest of us mere mortals, the search starts with a job application. And if you have hunted for jobs before, you know how stressful it can be!

Covid started in the spring of 2020. Travel bans sprouted up everywhere as Singapore and the world went into lockdown. Friends and families were separated, and we worried about our lives and our finances — mental health trended at an all-time low.

The silence in my neighbourhood was my only enjoyment; there has never been a better time to meditate, because with everyone stuck indoors, I could no longer complain about the noise (I had considerate neighbours!).

Drastic changes were rampant — in our society, careers, and personal lives. Individuals like myself were suddenly working from home, not realising, until it was absent, how my daily commute to the workplace had been beneficial to my physical and mental health.

As Covid progressed, the Great Resignation surfaced as people started reassessing their lives.

Personally, I suffered too, my partner is based overseas and we had not met in almost two years.

living overseas singaporean
My first trip to India, followed by travel bans. Image source: Karen Chek

When travel restrictions gradually lifted, my partner flew into Singapore to help me with the relocation logistics, so I didn’t have to handle everything alone. Still, I was packing to the last minute and we were so glad to be on time for that flight to Germany.

Similarities and differences

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the cold that got to me at first. Yes, it was odd to look out into snowflakes and single-digit degree weather, but my experiences of winters with no indoor heating in Sichuan, China made it easier for me to get used to the cold again. Pro tip: Lightweight warm fabrics are a must!

Learning the language was a lot harder for me, despite the fact that many German words are similar to English. I missed the ability to make small talk with baristas and retailers, and frequently struggled to understand cashiers. Some were kind enough to read my confused expression and would switch to English for my sake; others showed an understandable irritation that we sometimes see when busy locals interact with foreigners.

Although I miss the convenience of makan in Singapore (24-hour kopitiams are the best!), German food doesn’t disappoint. I have had the best sandwiches here; they beat a certain American chain hands down. I prefer to make my own coffee though — I still think the specialty coffee scene in Singapore is unsurpassable.

Living overseas as a Singapore
When a selfie stick comes in handy. Guess what, the word for mobile phone in German is “handy”! Image source: Karen Chek

What struck me most vividly about locals here, is the immense amount of eye contact they have. I’ve never felt so present.

In our Asian culture, eye contact can be perceived sometimes as confrontational or even rude. Over here, it is basic courtesy and acknowledgement. I have received so many random “hello!”s from strangers that I found myself being more confident about making new friends.

Fun fact: Germans sign off their emails (their equivalent to “best regards”) with mit freundlichen Grüßen — literally meaning “with friendly greetings”!

What a stark difference to my 40 years of Singaporean life! I grew up in a setting where I was told not to talk to strangers. I was taught to be wary of just about everyone, particularly the friendly ones.

Yes, it is important to teach children not to be too trusting of strangers, but what we seem to have forgotten is that as we grow up, we should also learn to be open to differing worldviews.

I found it slightly ironic that it took me moving to a foreign country to teach me how to appreciate the kindness and friendliness of strangers.

With much good fortune, I found a new friend, who introduced me to even more friends. In the three months since we met, we have gone for long walks in the woods, enjoyed the flora and fauna, and had meals together. What more could I ask for?

Singaporean living abroad
Scenery on a Sunday morning walk organised by friends. Image source: Karen Chek

Of course, I still keep in touch with my friends in Singapore (as my long-suffering editor would know). In fact, I schedule recurring calendar entries, so that I have no excuses for not keeping in contact over text or social media! Most of all, I worry about my parents, who are getting on in years, even though I’ve made arrangements for them to be looked after while I was away.

Being Singaporean overseas

Although I have yet to meet other Singaporeans here in Germany, knowing there are many others nearby and on social media gives me a sense of affinity and community; I’m not alone despite being away from my home country.

It’s also odd that I feel the most Singaporean when I’m not in Singapore.

Those who would have travelled or worked overseas would understand: The identity of being Singaporean is magnified when we are out of the country.

I become more chatty and confident when I talk to people about Singapore. Conversations with new friends who are unfamiliar with Singapore have been the most intriguing yet respectful exchanges I’ve had here. Gradually, I’ve come to realise that, like it or not, being the only Singaporean they have met, I am a representative of my country, and so I have to put my best foot forward!

For National Day, I watched the parade online and earlier that day, I made my favourite Singapore dish — chicken rice — just like that woman from the audience that announced that she is grateful for chicken rice!

How is it like living overseas for a Singapore
My way of celebrating National Day overseas — with an attempt at making Hainanese chicken rice! Image source: Karen Chek

Learning life lessons

After six months in Germany, looking at my surroundings, the infrastructure, public transport and quality of life, I can safely say that my host and home countries have much in common.

I’ve learned to slow down (sometimes not by choice) since I’ve come to realise that unlike other countries, the pace in Singapore is quite intense! I have been sleeping before 11pm and waking before 7am, a healthy practice that was difficult to do when I was in Asia.

One of the things I’ve been doing is travelling to other towns, and travelling locally on trains — affectionately known as the bahn — I often see people, in towns big and small, secluded or not, saying their hellos and goodbyes or making special connections.

Singaporean lives overseas
View from the bahn window seat during spring time. Image source: Karen Chek

It reminds me that no matter where we go, no matter who we are, regardless of race, language, gender or religion, there are things that bind us. We all have our own personal stories; we endure, we laugh, we enjoy the company of those we love, and we suffer the losses that are inevitable in life.

My relocation experience, a story which I call mine, may sound glamorous and exciting to some. To others, it may be foolish and selfish. Admittedly, I took a great risk, leaving an established job in a country I grew up in, to move to a place without family or friends, where I didn’t know the language nor the culture.

We all live in our own bubble, a sphere of what feels like a life that we call mine. But as a renowned yoga teacher Sadhguru said, life is like the air that we share, we do not have full ownership over it, we simply keep a part of it, for a while.

For me, I have learnt the importance of being kind to myself.

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Being in a new location, with my new status as a foreigner, teaches me to be more humble and open to accepting new traditions and cultures.

Perhaps for that reason alone, using how new environments can transform perception and cultivate compassion, is an encouragement for me to keep exploring this side of my story, to see how far it goes.

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