Sam It’s almost 11.30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m making my way from the train station to my cousin’s apartment in the heartlands of Bukit Panjang. I’ve been coming here at the same time almost every week for the past couple of years.
But I’m not here to see my cousin or her family. I’m here to tutor three children who have moved from mainland China to pursue their educational dreams in Singapore. They just happen to live with my cousin, who provides a home away from home for these young educational migrants.
As I step into the apartment, they greet me with smiles and anticipation. Tongtong, the oldest at age 15, gets up and clears her Secondary One textbooks from the dining table. She makes some space for Xiaobao and Xiaomei, who join her at the table, along with their Primary 6 work books. They are all ready for our weekly lessons.
These three kids aren’t rare in Singapore. This is a cosmopolis that attracts people from all over the world, often from an early age. In fact, most young Singaporeans like me knew schoolmates like them who relocated here to study, sometimes from as early as 10 years old, and often without a parent.
After many years spent living here, where is home for such young people? Do they ease into their new surroundings and adapt to the lifestyle? Or, after their long educational path here, is home still back in China?
Chris I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot. This podcast explores the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
In this episode, Samantha, a 3rd year English major, tells a story about the ambition, sacrifice, and shifting meanings of home that is common around the world. It’s the tale of young people pursuing education, wherever it may lead them.
For many young people around Asia, their ambition, or rather their parents’ ambition for their children, leads them to Singapore. In a world where educational success can open doors to social mobility and families make financial and personal sacrifices for their children’s education, Singapore has become a beacon.
How have they adjusted to life in Singapore? Where is home to these young people, who face so many personal and educational challenges by living so far from their families? And finally, where will home be when their educational journey is finally complete?
Samantha searches for the answers to these questions and more, when we continue.
Sam I first met Tongtong, Xiaobao and Xiaomei at a family gathering on my mother’s side, around 2014. In the midst of the usual lively banter, I spotted three young unfamiliar faces. The boy and two girls were quietly following my cousin’s family around, politely greeting older relatives when prompted. I later learned that they were living with Ellie and her family on a long term basis as they studied in Singapore.
It all began in 2012 when Tongtong’s parents were invited by a family friend to visit Singapore for a short holiday. The trip was only four days, but Tongtong’s parents and a few others in the group decided to leave their children behind for a two-week trial school programme. At that time, the family friend and Ellie worked together to find homestay families for the children.
After the initial two weeks, Tongtong’s father sent her to Singapore again, this time for a longer duration. That’s when he first asked Ellie to host Tongtong. Ellie was surprised. She didn’t mind organizing homestays for others, but she never imagined hosting anyone herself. To her it was a huge responsibility to care for someone’s child – not just for a few days or weeks, but for what could turn out to be years of education. Ellie and her family had to consider many issues.
After much family discussion, Ellie and her family decided to welcome Tongtong. Then, half a year later, Tongtong’s parents sent her younger sister as well, along with the son of a family friend. That was how Xiaomei and Xiaobao came to Ellie’s home.
Sam So, do y’all remember when y’all first found out that you were coming to Singapore to study – to live and to study – how did you feel?
Xiaomei That one ah…
Xiaomei Cannot even understand anything
Sam You felt excited?
Tongtong: I find it very fun!
Xiaomei I thought is like, can play.
Tongtong I mean I found out like, I really – no, I’m the one that – who asked my parents come – I, I mean – allow me to come and study.
Sam Oh so you told your parents “I want to go to Singapore to study.”?
Tongtong No my parents ask me first, then, then I was like straightaway say ya I want to come here and study.
Sam Ohh okay okay, for Xiaomei as well.
Xiaomei No, at first I thought come here can play.
< Laughter >
Sam Oh so you thought it was a holiday!
Xiaomei I thought I can play everyday but in the end…very..mmm
< Laughter >
Sam In the end lots of assessment books?
Sam When they left their homes to fly to Singapore, they were each about 10 years old. The excitement and anticipation they felt back then about entering a new environment would’ve been normal for anyone, especially at such a young age. However, it was no holiday as Xiaomei initially thought. The reality for the children was that they were far from home, and wouldn’t be returning anytime soon.
Sam: Interesting! When you first came to Singapore then, did you feel… oh you know, now I feel like I miss home…did you feel homesick?
Tongtong For the first few weeks, first few weeks…after that can already
Sam (to Xiaomei) Yes?
Xiaomei A bit.
Sam (to Xiaobao) and yes?
Xiaobao: A bit.
Sam So what did you miss back then?
Tongtong Parents…my – my pet.
Sam Your pet?
Xiaobao That time your pet still there?
Sam But the first time when you went back home after going to Singapore for the first time how did it feel?
Tongtong I go back I don’t want to come back already.
< Laughter >
Sam Why? Why is that?
Tongtong Then then I cried when I came back.
Sam You cried when you came back to Singapore?
Tongtong The first time, I mean the first – ya the first two times.
Sam And for Xiaobao and Xiaomei how did y’all feel? Did y’all feel the same as Tongtong, like Oh I didn’t really want to go back to Singapore?
Xiaomei Ya, don’t want go back.
Sam Oh is it, but did y’all feel – did y’all cry as well?
Xiaobao One time.
Xiaomei Ya first time.
Xiaobao (to Xiaomei) You first time only meh.
Xiaomei No no, first and second.
Xiaobao (to XM) You don’t know how many times already.
< Laughter >
Sam But that was just the earlier part right?
Xiaomei & Xiaobao No more already.
Sam Tongtong, Xiaobao and Xiaomei still return home to their families about twice a year – during the June and December school holidays, and sometimes for Chinese New Year as well. It’s been about 5 years now since they first arrived in Singapore, and they have gotten used to living with Ellie’s family and studying at local schools. In fact, they’ve adapted so well that some of their classmates cannot tell they aren’t locals, thanks to the Singlish accent they’ve acquired over the years. They also move around the house and interact with Ellie’s family so comfortably, there is no doubt they have become part of the family.
The number of foreign children seeking an education in Singapore has risen steadily in recent years. Every year, the Ministry of Education receives about 3500 applications from foreign students wanting to enrol in local schools – a testament to the country’s outstanding educational reputation in the region.
Many of these young people live in school dormitories, far from their families, where they must quickly become independent and forego the comforts of home.
From the beginning, Ellie felt she needed to provide more than room and board. In addition to ensuring the family had the time and resources to care for the children’s welfare and education, Ellie mentioned that it was of utmost importance to ensure that Tongtong, Xiaobao and Xiaomei felt comfortable. I asked her what helping them feel at home entailed.
Ellie’s explanation was simple. The children had to be treated like family. This meant including them not only in the fun stuff, like watching movies, but also in household chores, like helping with the laundry.
Over time, this combination of care and responsibility has helped the children warm up to Ellie and her family over the past 5 years. Even though the children came to Singapore to gain education, they have also gained a place they can call home.
Having lived my whole life in Singapore, it is hard to imagine what it’s like to have two or more countries I could call home. Tongtong and Xiaomei have lived in China and Singapore, while Xiaobao has lived in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Sam So… if I were to ask you the question ‘Where is home?’, where would you say home is?
Tongtong (whispers) China.
Sam So… if I were to ask you the question ‘Where is home?’, where would you say home is?
Tongtong (whispers) China.
Xiaobao Got a lot of homes.
< Laughter >
Sam Oh so where are your homes?
Xiaobao Three homes.
Sam Three homes?
Xiaobao Mainly three homes – one Hong Kong, one Singapore and one China.
Sam Mmm okay. So right now you are in Secondary school and both of you are in Primary 6, and you will still continue to study for some – for a few more years in Singapore right? So after that, do you know where you want to go, what do you want to work as?
< Silence >
Sam No, haven’t thought of it? But do you have an idea that oh, maybe I want to go back home?
Tongtong This one is parents plan one, we cannot decide <laughs>
Sam Oh okay, but how about if let’s say you can decide? Where do you want to go?
Tongtong Hmm… I don’t know.
Sam Xiaobao Xiaomei?
Xiaobao Maybe go overseas to study university.
Sam Ahh, so where? Have you thought of maybe which country?
Xiaobao No…no guns one.
Sam No guns? Oh interesting.
< Laughter >
Tongtong Here la here, just stay here <laugh>
Sam The sisters, Tongtong and Xiaomei, seem to regard China as home, but they are not entirely sure if or when they might return. Xiaobao, on the other hand, has lived in three different countries and he considers each one home. He is even open to the idea of going on to yet another country for university. Like an increasing number of young people around the world, Xiaobao seems less fixed to one single notion of home and more open to the idea of having multiple homes.
Perhaps my question, “Where is home?”, reveals as much about my own limited experience and prejudices with regard to home.
Having grown up and lived only in Singapore, and only in my childhood home all my life, perhaps I am too limited in my thinking about home – imagining that everyone must have only one place they call home, and feeling that they belong in only one country.
In order to probe this question a bit deeper, I reached out to Yvonne, a friend from secondary school who has been living in Singapore for about 8 years.
Originally from China, Yvonne first arrived in 2011 on a 4 year scholarship from the Singapore government, awarded to academically outstanding students from countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
She’s now nearing the end of her university days, so I guess she would have a clearer idea of where home is for her and where she wants to go from here.
Sam So did you feel homesick?
Yvonne Umm actually for me not really, well actually um my parents are divorced, so I didn’t have a really good relationship with them. I remember all my friends were very homesick, like the first two years coming here, but I wasn’t very homesick. I rarely called my Mom, but they were like always on the phone with their parents all the time – not all the time – as in everyday (laughs).
Sam So there wasn’t anything in particular that made you think like “Oh, this is something that I miss from back home.” in general?
Yvonne Mmm (laughs) Nope?
Sam It’s okay, that’s interesting!
Yvonne (pauses) Okay well for me my background is a bit complicated. So I was born in one province and moved to another province when I was four. And my parents were both so-called like foreigners to that province. So as I told you, I didn’t really feel belonged anywhere. My mother-tongue is Cantonese, but I forgot how to speak it because my Dad doesn’t speak Cantonese – he’s Hokkien, so we only speak Mandarin at home. And the other time I went back to my hometown I tried to speak Cantonese to the people there and then they replied me in Mandarin and asked me where I’m from (laughs).
Sam But did that ever bother you? Like the feeling oh I don’t really have a…
Yvonne A root anywhere? Well… I guess I’m used to it.
Sam Moving abroad wasn’t a burden for Yvonne since she didn’t feel a sense of belonging at home anyway. In fact she was happy to escape her family situation. But that didn’t make adjusting to Singapore any easier. She has lived in dormitories for most of her time here, which has not been comfortable. So what will she do after she graduates?
Sam So what plans do you have after –
Yvonne Well I have a bond, so there’s nothing much I can choose from.
Sam So you have to stay on in SG to work, for how long?
Yvonne 6 years, after graduation. Actually we can choose to buy ourselves out after about 3 years. If we’re able to afford to (laughs)
Sam But do you have an idea like “Oh I do want to go somewhere else”, if let’s say you could choose.
Yvonne I guess I want to try working in America. I have to see how, because nowadays the economy is not so good.
Sam Yvonne doesn’t quite identify China or Singapore as a home she wants to settle in. In fact, she’s open to moving elsewhere in the future. Does this mean home for her is not found in any particular physical location or that she just hasn’t found a place called home yet?
Yvonne I don’t have so many physical objects like the food and the smell and things like that, that make me feel like home. To me it’s more about people who understand me and people who saw how I grew up… and… basically people who see me.
Sam As Yvonne walked me out of her dormitory, she asked what home was to me. Despite asking other people this question, I took awhile to think of a response. The question “What is home?” seems more difficult than “Where is home?”.
For me, home has been and most likely will always be Singapore, so “where” home is is pretty intuitive. “What” it is, however, seems to extend beyond simply physical space and tangible elements.
For the three children and Yvonne, a sense of home had to be forged away from their original homes and their families while living in a foreign land. Their attachment to a physical location was weaker than mine.
Instead, they’ve found home in the more intangible aspects. For Tongtong, Xiaobao and Xiaomei, it’s the familial warmth and care Ellie’s family provides. For Yvonne, it’s the close and enduring relationships she’s made with friends.
Talking to these young people made me realize that many factors contribute to the feeling of home. Home could simply be an address, and home could also be anywhere we find family and friends who make us feel like we belong.
Perhaps being away from the physical space of home helps us to better appreciate what home means to us.
I’m leaving in a few weeks to study in Japan for a year. So these questions about home impact me personally as well. I face the reality that while I may miss Singapore, I may find home wherever I go.
Chris Samantha, thanks for telling us this story. I’m a bit curious as to why it attracts you so much – what is so interesting about this particular phenomenon to you?
Sam Mmm I don’t know – I think when I first knew that these children were coming to Singapore like at such a young age I couldn’t really think about what I would feel like if I were them in their shoes? Because I’ve been y’know in Singapore for most of my life since young – for all these 22 years – and I think at that age the most I’ve spent time away from home was probably maximum 4 days at a camp and even then it was still very difficult for me to not know that I will be going home soon right after those 4 days were done.
So these kids spending – how long has it been for them – 5 years? That’s very long and they’re at a pretty significant part of their lives right now – they would go through a lot of growth and experiences. So I was really curious about how they would feel, whether or not it would complicate their idea of home for them… because for me it’s very straightforward – Singapore is my home – but for them it might not be the case, so I wanted to investigate more. That’s why I wanted to start on this story.
Chris So you have lived all your life in Singapore?
Chris Can you imagine a future home elsewhere?
Sam Umm… at this point it could be an option. Umm but then… I think it’s hard to imagine being away from a culture I’ve grown so close to – from things like the food, the language, the people. Umm… If I were to go elsewhere it could be something I could slowly get used to but then there would still be that lingering sense of belonging back in Singapore here that I would still want to return here to some degree of frequency.
Chris And of course the nation has done a wonderful job of instilling that sense of belonging in you, as has your family of course.
Chris Okay, well thanks for chatting with me.
Sam No problem, thank you.
Chris Each year when I teach my course on Home, I meet a handful of students whose lives resemble those featured by Samantha. Their educations have led them away from their family homes in countries like Malaysia, South Korea, or China. Many of them have spent the better part of the last decade in a series of dormitories and homestays. Today they study in Singapore, but tomorrow they may work or study in Australia, China, or the U.S.
I am incredibly impressed by these young people: by their independence, and their tenacity in pursuit of their dreams.
I did all of my pre-university education in the same town. In fact I spent those 12 years with the same 29 classmates. While that routine gave me a strong sense of place and belonging, it also limited my exposure to new people, new ideas, and new opportunities.
I’m sure to my globe-trotting students my education sounds almost like I attended home school, since I was nurtured in such a protective bubble. Our experiences have inspired us to have very different senses of home.
Near the end of the semester, we watch a TED talk by travel writer and essayist Pico Iyer. He speaks of several places he considers home, not because he is originally “from” there, but because those are the places where he became who he is today.
In their discussions and essays, my educational migrant students in particular feel a deep connection with Iyer’s understanding of home. For him, “Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”
For my students who have “become themselves” in many locations, home may be multiple places, or home may be a mobile object that connects them to diverse social networks, like a laptop.
It may be tempting to lament what these young people have lost by moving around so much. But I like to imagine what they have gained by not being too tied to one residence, one city, or even one nation. After all, as Iyer argues, “Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going.”
This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Samantha Leong. Our sound engineer was Stanley Chow.
Thank you to Samantha’s cousin and her very special homestay guests for sharing their experiences. Thanks also to Yvonne for opening up to Samantha and for prodding her to reflect on what is home. Finally, a quick shout out to Mi Jin, Prem, Chris, and the countless other students whose educational lives on the move inspired this episode.
This is our final episode of Season 1, so I’d like to give a final thanks to everyone who helped along the way – from students and interviewees to the production team. But most of all, I’d like to thank you for listening.
If you have any comments about the Home on the Dot podcast or suggestions for future epsidoes, please let us know by visiting our webpage at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot or our facebook page titled Home on the Dot.