The Best Kind of Welcome
Posted on May 31, 2013
My younger sister moved to Singapore for the summer two weeks ago. We have been exploring the city together, and on more than one occasion I have caught her expression out of the corner of my eye – wide-eyed with a dopey smile taking in her new surroundings. From bus lanes near Bras Basah to the bright lights near Marina Bay, everything is new and represents unexplored possibilities. She is excited about building a life in this city I am sure, as I felt the same way when I moved to the Lion City.
We are from a small Canadian city of 100,000 people. Despite its size, it is globally aware and was named the world’s smartest city by the Intelligent Community Forum not too long ago. But being globally aware is different than being international, just as traveling extensively is different than living abroad. Craving the latter, my sister pursued an international internship just as I did before her. Pursuing the unknown is an intoxicating experience. Out of your comfort zone, beautiful idiosyncrasies constantly colour outside your lines. And you let them. You notice, witness, experience like never before. The beautiful gift of realization is a gift from one country or community to the curious. It is an extended hand welcoming you to understand the culture, hoping that you will enjoy it and share your own.
When I first landed at Changi Airport, my heart was swollen with the hope that typifies someone leaving home for the first time. I was excited to jump into the unknown and discover. Then, one hour later, I found out my housing situation had fallen through. My heart grew tough, then was softened by the warmth of an acquaintance who offered to let me bunk with her for a few days. What I did not know was that her kindness veiled the true chagrin of her landlady. As I left for my first day of work, I profusely thanked her for letting me stay in her home. She smiled, walked me out, and then slowly explained that she was not at all willing but that my presence was forced upon her. To my stunned silence, she closed the door behind her and bolted both locks. I felt unwanted and lost in this new city I had been waiting for months to call home. “A unique situation,” I told myself, shaking off the sting. The beauty of hope is that it buoys hearts along in unchartered territory. I chose to believe that every sparkling city light represented untapped possibilities. Two days later, I signed my own lease and began to settle in.
Learning to be Comfortable when Uncomfortable
Hope often manifests itself during the summer between middle school and high school. Some say this is the perfect period for reinvention; when the fall term begins, induction into a wide pool of unfamiliar faces is a canvas upon which to paint anew. Living abroad is sort of like this. No one knows your past or cares much that you were bullied for your foreign accent in the first grade. The way you present yourself is the way people perceive you for the first time. The magic occurs when so many of your preconceived biases are challenged on a daily basis that trying new things becomes second nature and who you want to be often becomes who you are.
Because of this, immersion in a new culture for even a few months can be a powerful, life changing experience. Millennials aspiring to lean in all the way to the top must understand how to communicate across cultures and there is no better crash course than moving abroad. Learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is a talent that will remain long after an international experience is over. Look for other transplants and learn from their experiences, share yours with those even newer to the city than yourself. (Almost everyone has a difficult housing story). In today’s flat world, new faces move and out of cities everyday armed with new hope. There is always a constant stream of opportunities to make new connections; it is an amazing feeling seeing someone experience your familiar for the first time.
Re-exploring Singapore with my sister has refreshed my eyes in many ways. Like her, many local expressions – spoken in English – felt foreign to me when I first heard them, though “makan,” “take away,” and “cannot” have all but replaced “for here,” “to go” and “no way” in my vocabulary. Like it has been for me, I believe this experience will be a period of growth for her. I hope she will learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and see that this opportunity to be abroad is the best kind of welcome to receive and give.∗