I personally envy the courage of those who dared to relocate themselves to a foreign land, whatever the reasons it may be. I can only imagine the concerns and initial discomforts that come with settling into a new life in a land far away from home. It is a known fact that Singapore’s citizens have a migrant past. Our forefathers left their homes, in Fujian, Java, Nagapattinam, Malacca or wherever they were previously from to build a future in Singapore. In search of hope, they willed themselves to journey out of the comforts of their homeland whilst not forgetting about their cultural roots.
Enter the story of Madam Im’s family – a Korean family who have settled in Singapore for the past 21 years. I have recently caught up with ajummeoni (Madam Im) and she was willing to provide some insights to her life in Singapore and how her family have adjusted to living in the city-state.
Madam Im, aged 55, is currently a Korean language teacher to foreign speakers in Singapore. In 1994, she packed her bags and readied her children for a new life, joining her Singaporean husband in this sunny island. Here are some excerpts of our conversation as I learnt a thing or two about her courage in overcoming life in a foreign country.
Solyh (Me): “Living in a different country, environment, and people may come as a shock to many. Did you experience culture shock? How did you overcome it?”
Madam Im: “There were two things that proved as a shock to me – food and public transport. As for food, I could not get used to laksa (noodles with a coconut-based gravy that is both sourish and spicy) and some Indian dishes as they use coconut in their cooking, which is rare in Korean cuisine. I initially relied on eating Hokkien mee (egg noodles stir-fried with prawns) when I first came here, until my tastebuds got more adventurous to eventually accept such dishes. Secondly, it took a lot of getting used to the public transport system in Singapore. In the 1990s, the metro system was not as comprehensive as it is now. I had to take buses but there were no station announcements, unlike back in Korea. It proved to be both daunting and costly as I had to take taxis frequently.”
Me: “Sounds like ajummeoni had a pretty tricky time here. How about your children? Did they face anything peculiar?”
Madam Im: “Education was the biggest challenge they faced as English was still an unfamiliar language for them when my kids first came here. But they were young and they learnt fast.”
Me: “So why Singapore? What do you enjoy most living in Singapore?”
Madam Im: “To me, life is much simpler here – I can concentrate on just my job and my family. Besides, I enjoy the exposure I get as there’s many different cultures and ethnicities residing in Singapore.”
Me: “Are there any places in Singapore which reminds you of home in Korea? Do you often go to these places?”
Madam Im: “I frequent Bugis Street as it reminds me of the busy alleyways of Namdaemun. I do also like Sentosa for its beaches and attractions, much like Yongin’s amusement park. And Botanic Gardens reminds me of the greenery and natural landscapes of Korea, sans mountains.”
Me: “Are there any local traits you have picked up after being here for so long?”
Madam Im: “I am now familiar with Singlish and sometimes find myself using it. I have also learnt to do some tai-chi for exercise and cook local dishes. I even use local condiments to make Korean dishes since some of them are hard to find in Singapore. I think that’s what you call fusion dishes? Haha!”
Me: “Lastly, what is the most Korean thing you have at home?”
Madam Im: “Ummm…my hanbok and refrigerator for kimchi. I guess that’s the most Korean thing you can find in a Korean family’s home.”
By Solyh Ahmad, ASEAN Correspondent from Singapore