That Was Home, Truly (Part 1)

Hi!, or should I say “Hei!” now

It’s been a while since my last blog entry. 2+ years to be exact. So much has happened then. I actually planned on having a full blog post, but then I find that this blog entry was really getting long, so I will publish it in parts.

Yes, I’m still at Norway, the country I chose to base my first career and way of life since moving out of the country of my birth, Singapore. I’m also still at the first company that hired me. The friendly boss that hired me had left, and I’m still working with Linux, hardware and systems.

Contrary to news going around that a lot of foreigners are laid off or forced to return because of the oil crisis, I have been very fortunate to keep my job. I won’t expect anything big on the finance side to be honest, just glad to have an income and a life here in times like this. I’ve never been much of a money chaser, although, I do try to save and if I can invest on some reliable investment, I probably would love to. If you give me enough money to live my life, I am quite contented. No need for cars, expensive travelling, or fanciful houses. I rather spend the money on things that I think are worthwhile, like education, technical skills, outdoor sports, and for the one true person in my life to live comfortably, my missus :).

And yes, I’ve applied for permanent residency.

Hopefully, when it is approved, it’ll be a stronger indication that I wish to make this my future home.

Life has been fulfilling, probably not as lively or interesting when I was in Singapore. I have stopped playing music, going to church, and immersing myself with religious activities (I used to be a devout church going Christian).  But contrary to stereotypical expectations, life has been very fulfilling, not necessary good, excellent, nor convenient but fulfilling it is. I think I’ve never accomplished so much ever, not even in Singapore, where I was born and bred for over 40 years. I also did things that I don’t think I would ever have thought I would do because of my fear, religious beliefs, low self esteem and timidity. That’s why it’s fulfilling, living life against all odds, even if some of the ‘odds’ seem rather ordinary to some folks. To be honest, if I ever had to give my life up now, I don’t think I will regret saying that I have lived a fulfilling one. And that could only have happened coming here.

The perfect place to migrate to, an utopian illusion

People often think that the grass is always greener on the ‘other side’.  There is always a sense of envy and pride for folks that have ‘made it overseas’ (from the local Singaporean context).  And everyone has their idea of the ‘perfect’ place to migrate to. I had my idea of the ‘perfect’ place too then, but I chose a different path eventually.

Choices. Love them or hate them.

A lot of folks from Singapore liked Australia at one point, and there are actually quite a lot of Singaporeans there. Going to Australia would probably seem a reasonable and logical choice, they need talents, and there is enough food and culture from ‘home’ to make it a ‘home’ away from ‘home’. There was also a recent article rant now about how easy it is to migrate there, just by chalking up some points.. But I do not want a home away from home, in fact I don’t want anything that reminds me of it because it has ceased to be one for me, hence the title (That was home, truly). But more on this later. Not now. I want a DIFFERENT home, I want to live differently. Since I had enough of living as a Singaporean, I guess I would have never fitted there.

Japan though was one of my top desired destinations. I gave a lot of respect to its culture, its acknowledgement of hard work and the reverence of it. That’s what I felt was missing in Singapore, the amount of respect towards quality in work is appalling, everyone just wants to make as much money as possible, no one wants to sell or have the aptitude to make a product that speaks more quality than finance… And even if there were some promising projects, they were changed to support a profit first mentality in eventuality. To be honest, this was never a problem of Singaporeans, it was more about the environment they were in, the expectations that it put on them.  But sadly, Japan was really difficult to integrate to, not only have you an obligation to observe needless protocols and become an ace in their language before finding a job, there’s always that Oriental stigma of age, sex and political correctness is attached to a person. I don’t have two thirds of these.

And then there’s America. Everyone’s pipe dream. To be honest, yes, I did have at least 3 offers from really big American companies, but this is where things differ. I ask myself why am I migrating? Is it because of work? Well, partly, I don’t see myself growing in the area of work that I had. I had become more of a facilitator than a technical resource. I mean, to most folks, that is probably good as they likely see this as a form of career promotion, but no, not for me. I did find it rather stressful and frustrating when I had to manage people, projects, dreams or fancies. And it’s worse when I had to coordinate folks and make sure incompatible people work compatibly. I do admire people who can do that well though, they do have a talent I can only dream about having.  I would rather work and make incompatible hardware work compatibly with other hardware or software. Hence, the American offers were really enticing, but even so, I do not see myself adapting to the American culture very well.  I’ll be polite and not say more. I have some very nice American friends, but if you want me to adopt their culture, I’ll politely decline, thank you.

The decision

Thus, I chose Norway. People often ask why of all places did I chose Norway. Why not America or the UK? Or some other country where English is probably the de facto language to get by. And after 6 years of learning Japanese, folks look at me as if I am crazy to go learn another language. Furthermore, I AM quite bad at languages, so why am I an idiot, just driving to crash onto the wall again and again? Well, there are reasons, and now that I have lived here, I can attest to the theory that being IN a place where the language is spoken, written and read is the best place to learn a language. Not via a foreign land where you can only learn up to perhaps a novice level. But if you are serious in learning a language of a country, go and live in that country.

Norway was supposedly also one of the best places to live, not (necessary) just work then. And during that time (2011-2012), it was one of the top 3. Although, it has fallen to 8th place in 2015 in that respect, but hey, even if it’s really, theoretically a good place to live, it did not mean that you could just go there and it would be instant. There is a journey to tarry, even as to get to where ‘good place to live’ lives (pun intended). Even now, when I wonder if I ought to have regrets, with all the fear and rumours going around about people losing jobs by the thousands because of the oil crisis. Furthermore, Norway has now become slightly more conservative with regard to immigration because of the politicians running the show (although it seems things can change from this year’s elections) Do I have any reason to fear for my future?

The answer to that question depends on the persona in me. The kiasu Singaporean in me probably says yes, the Norwegian in me, however, says no. While it is true that I need a job to survive, it’s not the end of the world if I do not have one.  And while the job I’m currently having isn’t perfect, it is still better than being someone/thing that you are not supposed to be doing in your job and being artificially recognized as a ‘career advancement’ . That’s worse than resignation to be honest, I’d rather have comparatively lower wages than go to that route. I realize I can never get the perfect job or perfect environment anywhere in the world or any time even if I had limitless amount of it. So what I want to do is to find a place where I can live for the present without much constraints and Singapore is not a place to do that. That said, it was not all  smooth sailing from the word go.

Personal struggles

When I first came here, I worked and stayed alone here for a year. During that time, I was nearly mugged (twice coincidentally, likely by other immigrants), and struggled to live life alone without my other half whom I was married to at least 14 years then. It wasn’t an easy time to just live alone, but in retrospect, that helped me reshape my thinking for the future. It helped me realize that I’ve just been too comfortable with my life, even though it seemed that I was “bold” at that time to just uproot myself from my comfort zone and look for a job at my age.

Life as an immigrant was hard, there was just so much I needed to adapt to, and this was not just coming from a European/American country to another, but from an Oriental to a Non-Oriental, so culturally, it was a bit of a shock to me, even though as Singaporeans, we prided ourselves as modern, cosmopolitan and developed, but really, nothing could really prepare you for this. The language, weather, way of living and seemingly astronomical cost of living were some of the things that took a lot of time to get used to. Although I did earn considerable more than what I earn in Singapore, the tax is also like considerably much higher,  A fast food meal at its cheapest that costed around SGD $20 was shocking then, for that price (then) I could have gotten twice from where I came from.

And then there’s the language. While it is true that most Norwegians speak and understand English quite fluently, but given a choice, by default, they would prefer to converse in Norwegian and you are expected to know Norwegian to really live life properly here. It is also part of their requirements for continuation of a work permit, permanent residency and citizenship. Thus, it was quite difficult when I don’t understand a word and I have to ask if they speak English and try to reason with them. Because of colloquial differences from how Asians speak English and Europeans do, there were some quite bad misunderstandings. And then there’s the Norwegian “no, I won’t tell you, but I’ll let you discover for yourself” hospitality.

Lastly of course, there is the weather. Coming from a land without any seasons (except maybe for rainy and non-rainy (that includes the haze now)) where the daily temperature is about 30°C on average and then to a land where temperatures can be 25°C in one hour, and 15°C the next. That, can really mess you up mentally. There were a lot of times where I dressed for warmer weather only to be fooled and found myself cold and miserable, so many wrong clothing choices were made then. To be honest, the cold is not so much a problem getting used to as compared to the sudden changes in temperature throughout the day.  And as if to add salt to wound, the Norwegians have a saying that “There is never bad weather, only bad attire”. While, I realise that is true now, it was really something that I struggled to accept then. And then, there’s this amusing yet mildly envious and illogical custom of eating ice cream at temperatures below zero. I can, till today, never understand why.

I will elaborate on more adventures with culture, the outdoors and the cold later but for now, yes, everyone wants to look for the perfect place on Earth to migrate to. The reality is that there is never one, because the world is not perfect. It’s about priorities and how much can you sacrifice something to obtain another and whether it is worth doing it. If the environment is not bad, you have to get used to the cultural nuances. If culturally you find yourself most compatible, then there is the environment, where a lot of it is harsh. Then, every country has its way of immigrant control, it may not seem that a country is hostile to immigrants, but countries that have a strong sense of identity will tend to be harder to assimilate in.

That brings me to my next point…

The immigrant: A guest or a conqueror?

It feels surreal (and greatly ironical), when in Singapore, we get hostile to immigrants. Yet, at this point, now I’m on the other side.

Actually, I feel that immigrants need to realise that they are guests in a foreign land, they should not bring your values and scope of looking at things and expect everyone to see (and do) the same way as they do.  I find this true (and painfully many times) at work, play and many areas of my Norwegian adventure. The thing that probably made many Singaporeans upset about the current foreigner-local situation there (and I’m generalizing as a disclaimer) is that the immigrants in Singapore are allowed to treat this land like an extension of their own, but do not see the need to integrate nor assimilate. There is nothing wrong in having a home away from home if you would put it that way, but the sum of the whole is greater than that of its parts. I personally feel that if you don’t see the need to integrate or assimilate, you are not very different from conquering the guest country. If you are there to immigrate to, to look for a new life, you don’t conquer the country, you integrate into it, you become one with it.

It’s probably why I felt so strong about this that I want to see for myself whether it is possible to actually migrate to a country without setting up a sub-nation with your own culture and making yourself a stench as if you are going there and making it part of (insert where you come from).  And yes, I think it is possible, with the right mindset and mentality, to always try to give respect to the host country’s culture, learning and try to adopt its language, norms and culture humbly. Undeniably, there will be resistance, but I believe, you would end up more acceptable than if you insist on crusading for your own cultural principles in a foreign land.

There were cultural clashes of course, I would be denying if I say that there wasn’t. As a personal example, for starters, I had to throw everything I knew about efficiency, Singapore’s style, out into the wind. This is Norway, they do efficiency “Norwegian” style.  While it seemed important that people here had to have a good work life balance, there were times where the scale tips over to the life part a bit too much. And when you needed things to be done urgently and the other person was like on a month vacation, you wonder, did anyone ever teach them about something called redundancy. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t take vacations and all, but surely not all at the same time. That’s quite bad for business and efficiency actually. But to them, this was not something to be negotiated at times.

Now, I’ve learnt how to work around and make sure that I utilise every second of non-vacation time to do anything that is urgent. It shifts the paradigm for planning to a different focus, in a way, it forces you to plan better. Singaporeans may be efficient, but because of that, it can also mean that they depend too much on it so that they don’t plan as carefully as they ought to. Here, one is forced to plan carefully, very carefully.

Make food, not war.

I must admit, though, in many ways, there is still that ‘Singaporean’ thing in me. You can take the Singaporean out of his own country, but never the Singaporean out of him. I guess this can be generalized to every nationality though. Nothing to do with politics or policies or the “preferential” treatment we get from our government in our homeland.

I still talk Singlish with my missus and my family in Singapore, do not eat rice with a knife and fork (we usually eat with a spoon & fork), nor consume sushi/oriental food made here if I can help it. But I’m mindful when I socialize with Norwegians or when I’m walking around. I don’t insist folks bring me a spoon when everyone eats rice with a knife and fork. Nor will I insist that I will not eat when presented with what I think is a faux impression of what Norwegians think what Asian food is. An interesting and amusing example is the chilli sauce, one of the essential holy grail of Singapore cuisine (and probably most Southeast Asian ones). The Scandinavian definition about what consist of chilli sauce, has quite a different interpretation of its spiciness to the extent that it can be a little insulting if you look at it with nationalistic lens. But one has to understand, they are probably trying to adopt it to their own culture, whereas the taste of what chilli sauce is has probably been ingrained in our genome, to put it figuratively.  Asians probably are very prideful about their food culture, as much as Norwegians are proud of their waffles, brown cheese and ostehøvel (The famous Norwegian invention – The Cheese Slicer) as quite evidently shown in this advertisement. Imagine a Norwegian eating brunost (brown cheese) made in Singapore. I don’t think so.

Regardless of food and culture politics, I think it is important to know that as an immigrant, you are always a guest, never a boss. Because you were not born in that country you chose to migrate to, you were not brought up there. You come to the country to work, to get away from an identity that has threatened to become more cannibalistic than your real personality. Therefore, I feel that some humility is in order here. Although one has the right to set their preference or choice based on how they are brought up, one should not, demand that the individual is bigger than the country or culture. Of course, if my host country (like Norway now) asks for my opinion on what I see as misrepresented Asian stuff, I will honestly give the truth and hope they will be open and understanding though I will also accept that they might not necessarily accept it, it is their right.

Recently, my missus baked pandan cake to share for her company’s fortnightly cake session (Norwegians love cake a lot). And it was received rather well. But the pains she took to research and modify the cake (and to find the recipe) is an example of how we tried to introduce our culture to them in a way that would be acceptable. For example, Norwegians often love cake with lots of cream or marzipan. A self respectable cake, to them, should at least have either. But in Singapore, we often eat pandan cake plain, on its own.  Having it with a lot of cream or sugar is a bit repulsive for that dish really, so she had to think what’s the best compromise to be done, such that the taste is maintained as much as possible, yet palatable on Norwegian taste buds. She thus had to modify the cake to include frosting and cream made of .. Gula Melaka. She was fortunate enough to find a recipe that does that and I think that was quite innovative of her. Thus, in the process, by adapting to their cultural culinary perception, not only did she introduced pandan, a very local (Southeast Asian) plant as a food condiment, but had also actually introduced Gula Melaka to them.

Therefore, while culture should be something uniquely tied to where you are brought up, it should never become something of a necessity of survival, it should be something that should be shared and enjoyed. It is also the right of the originating country to impose its own cultural order in its lands.

A pause for a cause

If you are wondering about the title That Was Home, Truly, and what it has got to do with what I have written. It was a play of words on this song, which once meant a lot to me.

Now, it has slowly become a memory of the past.

Migration is a journey, it goes on, it never stops. There are a lot more interesting adventures I would like to share. But I think this is a good place and time for a pause.  And I will be sharing more next time, of how being in Norway has transformed me from a guilt-driven, timid person with low self esteem to someone braver and progressive.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Comments are closed.