Eighteen years in island-city-state Singapore and two and a half years in the massive United Kingdom. In this article, Minn touches on the differences in both lifestyles and shares what matters to her most.
Singapore has a land area of 725.7km². The city of London itself has 1572km². The United Kingdom, in total, owns 242,495km².
Just that much land contributes to the number of different lifestyles people could be living. The first eighteen years of my life I had only known one; dominated by crushing educational pressure, boiling equatorial heat, smothering humidity, concrete skyscrapers and countless apartment buildings.
Overseas university studies had always been on my mind since my father shared with me his adventures of studying Law at the University of Leeds. True to being a child, I was initially attracted by all the new and different kinds of fun he had. But as I grew older living the one kind of life Singapore handed to me and then entering another that I chose, I began to realise the fun is nothing but a small factor compared to the other promising things that life in the UK had to offer.
Our childhoods were, sometimes for me or always for others, dominated by education.
In 2016, an eleven-year-old jumped seventeen floors to his death for underperforming to his parents’ standards. “I only ask[ed] for 70 marks, I don’t expect you to get 80.” his mother repeatedly said.
Every child in his sixth year in primary school in Singapore has to take national examinations in October, the results determining the kind of educational stream and which secondary school he could enter for the next phase of education. To say that this is important is an understatement. It is unspoken but this thought, or similar to, surely has reverberated in parents’ minds: this determines your future.
I had four subjects then: English, Mathematics, Science and my mother tongue, Chinese. My preliminary results weren’t stellar but they were nowhere near horrible. My father, who had incredible expectations of me, wanting me in top schools with the big fancy names, thought this wasn’t enough. I was arranged two tutors each for Mathematics and Science, and one each for English and Chinese.
I came out scoring an A* for English and As for the other three. I did not qualify for any of the top secondary schools. I was twelve.
The next big national examinations were at the end of secondary school, the equivalent of the UK’s GCSEs. I had nine subjects. I once again did not qualify for any of the top junior colleges.
I remember my mother had sighed in the greatest of relief when we met after I had collected my certificates. She thought I might have killed myself, jumped four floors to my death because I might have been disappointed. I told her she was ridiculous, why would she think me capable of that? She answered that it’s because it’s not unheard of.
Two years later, I sat for my A’ Levels. No local university I applied to took me. I obviously did not qualify for Oxford and Cambridge to my father’s repeated disappointment although he was satisfied that I was accepted into a UK university. My mother, till this day, would rather I stayed home.
On February 23rd of 2020 past one in the morning, I sat with a group of friends. We were tired from the 21st birthday party we had just attended. I was daydreaming until the topic of A’ Levels pulled me back into reality.
They seemed to have had an average of four examinable subjects at A’ Levels. I had seven. One of them said my A’ Levels must have been easier than theirs simply because I had more to study for.
I remember, childishly, that rage consumed me. I hated that she had downplayed the hell that I went through in those two years, that my friends and Singaporean teenagers had to slog through.
And they are still slogging, in universities back home, through mountains of coursework and exams from double or triple the number of modules we have each term, while I, here, live a life freer than I have ever lived.
October and November 2018, 19 and 20, I spent every waking moment I could watching the leaves turn all shades of red and orange. I watched the sun set at odd times earlier and earlier every day. I watched the temperatures drop and felt the cold chill my skin. Just a few weeks ago, my flatmate laughed at me for playing in a pile of fallen leaves. But it’s because I’ve never had the opportunity to do it before.
Late January 2019 I had my second-ever experience of snow. It fell gracefully from the night sky onto the green grass of the dimly-lit horror-esque Wivenhoe Park. A most delightful contrast. The next morning on the way to class I stepped off the concrete path and into the snow, listening to the delicious crunch of it against my shoes.
Spring is my favourite. The great rebirth. Barren trees and bushes sprout leaves and flowers again. The brown grass goes green. The squirrels make a reappearance, done with winter hibernation. Last year, I watched a swan couple make a nest and lay their eggs in the pond beside the Meadows. The insects, however much I hate them, are out and about. The sun rises earlier and sets later. The bitter, bone-chilling cold comes to an end. And the world comes alive again.
A city is commonly characterised by skyscrapers. All concrete, metal and glass. I remember in 2018, a friend who knew nothing about Singapore asked me if there was a countryside. I laughed, in amusement and sadness, and said no.
December 2018 I took my first rail train from Colchester North station to London Liverpool Street station, due to fly home for Christmas from Heathrow. I was standing by the doors on the crowded train, luggage by my side, when I looked out of the window to see cows, sheep and horses grazing in fields. Field upon field upon field.
One night in October 2019 I was in bed when I glanced out of the window to see the dark, clear Colchester skies dotted with numerous beautiful, bright stars. I did not truly understand light pollution until that night. In Singapore, I could only see a maximum of three faint stars no matter where I went.
5th February 2020 I was seated in the Essex minibus with nine other friends, on the way to our AirBnb in Coventry for a national winter Polo tournament at the Rugby Polo Club. We were cruising down the highway northwards when I saw my very first wind turbines. I’ve seen them on the internet but not in real life; these massive machines designed to harness the strong, frequent winds of the UK stood menacingly, planted in green fields and on the peak of hills. As the minibus covered more of the highway, I saw more towering into the gloomy skies. My friend from Canada said out loud then, that she had never thought that someone could even have a first-time seeing wind turbines. On the journey back to Colchester after the tournament, I also saw my first windmill.
7th March 2020. I can class this as the best day of my life so far. I was up North for the first time to visit a dear friend. We were headed to a small town named Settle that sat just on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, planning for a four-hour hike.
The hills came into view as we walked from the railway station to the Ye Olde Naked Man café starting point. Fifteen minutes into the trail, when we had properly stepped into the 2179km² of the national park, I finally saw true British countryside like never before.
Infinite rolling hills. Vast, endless green fields. Countless curious cattle and stained fluffy sheep. Rock surfaces with texture so weirdly fascinating and that I have never seen before. And there was absolute silence, only the roaring wind in my ears. This was a geography that I had seen only on the internet. On that extraordinary day, I wanted to hike forever.
Surely it must be those rose-tinted glasses that sit upon my face? That I cannot see beyond the varieties of weather and climate that frame this country? Beyond the wonders of the timeless nature that colour this land? Beyond the little that I know of childhoods here?
Does it matter, because I ask myself time and again these past two and a half years: what do I truly want? The life I was born to in young city-state Singapore filled with artificials or the life I could have in the United Kingdom with a rich history embedded from every building to the small pebble lying in undisturbed grass in a national park?
Rose-tinted glasses. ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. It doesn’t matter. For my last few months in this country, I will live as much and for as long as I can.