When we are told to imagine what an ‘immigrant experience’ in Singapore looks like, the narrative that ensues is typically one of optimism and opportunity – that a better future lies ahead of them. While this may be difficult to dispute, their struggle to fully integrate into Singaporean culture and consider Singapore a ‘home’ despite working and living here full-time is often overlooked.
Perhaps this underlying attitude of indifference towards the immigrant experience is simply a matter of disparate realities. Uprooting one’s entire life in an instant for the sheer hope of a better life is simply a far-fetched reality for most Singaporeans – this consideration may not even have crossed their minds before.
But for 16-year-old Vietnamese Mymy – this subject was not for play-pretend or ludicrous imagining – this was her life. Born and raised in Kien Giang, Vietnam, Mymy lived a simple life with her grandmother and her cousin – one she treats like a “brother”. She lived apart from her mother during her early adolescent years as she had migrated to Singapore to work after her divorce from Mymy’s father – a desperate attempt at staying financially afloat and supporting her family.
Mymy’s life changed in an instant when her mother fell in love with a Singaporean man and married him.
“[After] she found a new husband... I had to follow her instead. It was a pain to leave two of my favourite people.
“But I had no choice,” she said.
At the tender age of eight years old, Mymy was forced to confront a multitude of challenges as she began a new life in Singapore – from adapting to the rigour of modern life, learning a new language from scratch, to coping with cultural differences.
The secondary-two student attributes physical environment as the immediate and most profound difference between her life in Vietnam and Singapore.
“My hometown was more like a kampung, but Singapore is more ‘fancy’ because we live in HDBs, which is rare in Vietnam,” she said.
Mymy was also accustomed to a more “lively” living ambience and colourful nightlife in Kien Giang, where she recalls people “selling food and drinking together” at night – a scene that would definitely pale in comparison to her current neighbourhood in Admiralty.
“There was just more joy in Vietnam than Singapore,” she says simply.
Although Mymy has now spent more than half of her life here, there are still certain elements of her Vietnamese upbringing that affect her everyday life in Singapore.
In fact, she still gets carsick most of the time, since the main mode of transportation in Vietnam is motorcycles.
Mymy (first from the right) on a motorcycle with her family members in Vietnam.
Photo credit: Mymy
However, one particular difficulty proved to be a long-withstanding battle for her in the last eight years: conversing in English.
“I often get judged and laughed at by other students because of my pronunciation. The way I write my words is like calligraphy because that is how we Vietnamese people write,” the Northland Secondary School student explains.
Mymy (second from the left) has come a long way in her journey of learning the English language and even presented the ‘Quote of the Week’ to her school.
Photo credit: Mymy
Due to sheer hard work and her persistent resilience, Mymy has improved tremendously in learning the language and sometimes even tops her class for English tests.
Although she is grateful and proud of herself for finally being able to blend in well in school and in Singapore’s society in general, this achievement does not come without a huge cost – a feeling of disconnect from her Vietnamese roots.
This is further exacerbated by the small Vietnamese community in Singapore – most of which are working adults.
“I do not have any Vietnamese friends here.
“But my mother and so-called sister (a Vietnamese woman who lives with them)... are the ones who still make me feel like I am a part of Vietnam,” she quips.
Fortunately for her, Mymy is still able to connect authentically with her Vietnamese roots through food.
“My mother cooks almost every day and makes Vietnamese food such as spring rolls and noodles. And I won’t lie, her food is even better than the restaurants!” she proudly boasts.
Bún bò Huế (pictured above) is Mymy’s favourite Vietnamese dish.
Photo Credit: Gastronomy
To taste good and authentic Vietnamese cuisine, the 16-year-old recommends the Vietnamese restaurants in Bugis as the chefs are usually Vietnamese.
Mymy feels immense comfort and joy whenever she is able to return to Vietnam during her school holidays – something she has not been able to do for the past two years due to the pandemic.
When asked if she considers Singapore her home now, she says: “No matter what, Vietnam is still my home. It is where I grew up and belong.
“But I will not decide whether Singapore or Vietnam is better because I cannot imagine the difficulties I would face if I lived in Vietnam now”.
Mymy often visits Vietnam during her school holidays but has been unable to do so for the last two years because of the pandemic.
Photo credit: Mymy
Although she is now fully aware that Singapore is still the “best choice” for her to attain a “brighter future” for herself – there is no denying that her heart will always beat for Vietnam.
“I don’t know how to say this… but life in Vietnam was more cheerful. I was happier and less stressed. I honestly miss Vietnam so much and sometimes I even imagine myself living there again.
“Even though I was poor, I was happy,“ she confesses.