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Gen Y Speaks: I returned to Singapore after 3 years abroad, and needed to learn how to find ‘home’ again

I touched down in Singapore in September 2019. This time, I was back for good. After three years spent studying in England, it was time to come home.

Gen Y Speaks: I returned to Singapore after 3 years abroad, and needed to learn how to find ‘home’ again
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I touched down in Singapore in September 2019. This time, I was back for good. After three years spent studying in England, it was time to come home.

But this “home”, strangely, didn’t feel like one anymore.

Walking out of Changi Airport, I immediately felt the clammy humidity as beads of perspiration started staining my shirt.

And despite my parents’ best efforts to prepare my room and make me feel welcomed, I felt strangely out of place.

For one, the peace I had enjoyed in Nottingham, was a distant memory now marked by the daily honking of cars and the din they make when drivers step on the pedal.

For the first fortnight, I didn’t have a proper night’s sleep. It wasn’t just the noise that kept me awake.

In the United Kingdom, I had a peace of mind knowing that I was there for my studies. Back in Singapore, I now have to confront the uncertainty of finding a job, which left me in deep unease.

Then, there were the people I left behind in the UK. They were folks I had come to call my friends and family in the three years I was there. Suddenly, I felt alienated from the people I met back in Singapore.

That sense of alienation started with simple things, like realising that going around Singapore to find good food, wasn’t that appealing. Rather than cafe-hopping, searching for the next recommended place to eat, I now preferred long walks.

This feeling graduated into a deeper dissonance with what I saw as important. Milestones that used to be familiar — like getting a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat, marriage, and babies — didn’t match what I wanted for my own life.

I struggled to adjust to the crowds in the MRT and buses. I struggled with understanding why friends would frequently talk about BTOs or salaries or marriages. I struggled with how fast people were always rushing from one place to another.

Unlike in the UK, there was never any time for the random conversations that someone would strike up with me in a supermarket, or on a bus.

I felt as if conversations with friends needed an agenda before they would be willing to meet. I would preface my requests to meet with, “Hey, I wanted to chat to you about...” Even if we wanted to meet, I needed to book their time three weeks in advance.


The most important change was perhaps the place I felt I’d lost.

Sure, I had a roof over my head, but I didn’t feel I belonged to this place. I felt housed, but not homed.

There wasn’t the warmth and cosiness of feeling safe and sound, of feeling that I knew people, and that people knew me.

How did it come to this? I spent 21 years growing up in Singapore. Have my three years abroad changed me that much?

I didn’t know what I was facing, but I felt a big hole within me. Sometimes, the pain felt so physical and I knew I was hurting badly.

For a month, I stuffed myself with cakes, cookies and chocolates, to fill the emptiness within me. I ended up gaining 8kg in a month.

My therapist recommended that I speak to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants.

On October 6 that year, I took my first antidepressant. Popping in the first pill seemed a stark contrast to the promised picture of success after my graduation.

But working with my therapist, I gradually learnt about the grief I was going through. It wasn’t easy.

I used to think that grief only involved the loss of a cherished person. But my therapist also showed me how grief could come from the loss of a cherished experience.

I was told that I experienced the reality of reverse culture shock, where the return to your home country needs an accompanying adaptive process. Many speak about how moving to a new culture is difficult. For me, moving back was a greater difficulty.


I stopped taking antidepressants on Feb 2, 2020. I felt happier, and after checking with my doctor, I stopped taking them.

There isn’t a single turning point that I can mark. But two things helped.

Perhaps it was my realisation that home is where the heart is. Home is not a physical place. It’s an emotional place.

And to call someplace home, was for me, about finding a place where I could feel safe to be “me”, and to be with people who loved me, whether or not they were physically with me.

For me, to find home again was about building a place where my heart could stay without feeling estranged.

Tangibly, this meant that I had to actively remind myself of the times which I had enjoyed with the people I loved, and where I felt fully alive. I filled my room with physical anchors of my favourite memories in the UK — like the Christmas gift from my host, or the keychain that accompanied me for three years, or pictures with my friends.

Despite the time difference, I also deliberately scheduled fortnightly calls with my friends in the UK. These friendships, from a time where we studied and grew up together, were precious in how they reminded me of a time when I had fewer responsibilities.

At the same time, I learnt that reintegrating into Singapore has been about seeing familiar places with fresh eyes.

Whenever I go to a seldom-frequented part of Singapore, I remind myself about the last time I was there. I remember, “Oh, I haven’t been to Jurong for six years!” It forces me to look at what’s changed in the place, and to recall the memories once made there.

It has also been about remoulding old friendships. Friends change, and I’ve changed. It is difficult, but necessary, to recognise that certain friendships have come to pass. We may no longer connect as well as before, and that’s okay.

Just as there was a summer when those friendships blossomed, there is also a winter when those eventually end. It’s also doubling down on the friendships that do matter, initiating meetups and activities I enjoy.

Sometimes, I pinch myself and wonder if the UK ever happened. Then, I receive a letter in the post, with a London stamp, and I remember — maybe the experience is over, but the relationships formed there, have only started.

When I catch a whiff of freshly baked buns from BreadTalk, my mind is taken back to those late evenings in Lidl, a supermarket in the UK. Or when I pull on my tights, and I remember how those tights took me through the cold winters.

The feeling of home is deeply visceral. The senses of smell, touch, and taste can bring you back to a place you missed.

Someone once told me: “Just move on. The UK is over.”

I don’t think so.

I think it’s about leaning fully into the memories that you love, and recognising that while they may have passed, they are still great recollections.

I’ve come to embrace every sudden moment that takes me back to Nottingham. Yes, they can be painful. But losing the things we love doesn’t mean ignoring the pain. It means embracing the loss, and making meaning from it.

We’ve all lost something in our lives. A cherished person, experience, or even a familiar pre-Covid life.

And maybe sometimes, it’s leaning into the pang that memory causes, and saying: “Wow. That was a beautiful moment. And I will choose to make more.”

Moving back to Singapore has meant the loss of beautiful moments once made abroad, but it’s also meant the building of new memories.

The tears shed when I shared my suffering with a friend. The time in the street soccer court where I pat a teammate’s sweaty back over a great goal. The warmth of a hug.

The Singapore story was one forged by migrant people, with their backs to the wall, when few believed that we would ever make it. It was forged by people from many different lands, far from home, who found and built a new home in Singapore.

And this National Day, perhaps it’s a reminder that we don’t just find home. We build it.



John Lim is a motivational speaker and a graduate from the University of Nottingham. He speaks and writes on healthy, and happier workplaces for Gen Zs, and regularly shares on

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Gen Y Speaks grief psychiatrist study abroad United Kingdom

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