07 May 2019


The OSL Intel: Building a home away from home

Michelle Loh

Time is a funny concept. It’s what you make of it, and it can feel as lazy or as harried as you want it to be. I’ve lived in New York for almost three years now; when I first moved here back in April 2016, homesickness hit me like a brick wall. Every day brought new and unfamiliar ways of doing things, and while the administrative tasks of settling in occupied lots of bandwidth in the first few months, the hours outside of work passed at an excruciatingly slow pace. I missed the comforts of home and being with family and friends who I could turn to in a pinch. Ironically, as OSU’s work involves connecting overseas Singaporeans with home, it made me long for the sureties of Singapore. But as any immigrant would tell you, you’d gradually learn to adapt and fit in, because there’s simply no other choice.

Of all the amazing ups and downs in the last 36 months, three things have shone through and shaped my settling in here in New York.


1. Getting involved

Volunteering with a food bank in New York

When I had enough of wallowing in my homesickness, I noticed something curious about my new home. Beyond the bright neon lights of Broadway and dazzling skyscrapers of Midtown and FiDi (Financial District), New York is a city of undeniable contrasts, and there are visible signs of income and social inequality everywhere you look. I started being aware of how incredibly lucky I am, and felt the need to give back pretty early on.

Volunteering with dog rescues in New York

For the past two years, I’ve been helping out with two causes that I feel most strongly about: feeding the hungry, and animal welfare. I volunteer with New York Cares, the largest volunteer network here, as well as several dog rescue organisations, on weekends and other down times. My time with New York Cares has brought me everywhere in the city – from deep Brooklyn to South Bronx – to distribute or prepare food at places like soup kitchens and green markets in housing projects. I learnt very quickly to roll up my sleeves, cast aside all preconceived notions about those I’m helping, listen and empathise, and give help wherever it’s needed.


2. Planting new roots

With some of the wonderful Singaporean volunteers who put together Pasar Singapura 2018, the second of OSU's community days in New York

From the get-go, I was really lucky that my work introduced me to lots of new faces, some of whom I started hanging out with as friends. They, in turn, introduced me to their own resources, including letting me in on invaluable intel: like where to get a pretty decent version of bak chor mee (Bo Ky, 80 Bayard Street) and Hokkien mee (Taste Good, 8218 45th Avenue, Elmhurst), and the best shops to get Asian groceries (Hong Kong Supermarket, 157 Hester Street; Deluxe Food Market, 79 Elizabeth Street; and Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street). I cannot begin to tell you how important it is to establish and grow your own support networks in a new city! My friends here have been my family, and they have made my time in New York wonderfully vivid and fulfilling.


3. Growing myself

With fellow jiu jitsu students

Lastly, I’ve grown to love to do things by and for myself, and I think I’ve come out richer for it.  For example, I picked up jiu jitsu on the recommendation of a good friend, before switching to kickboxing. Few things feel (and hurt!) better than knocking your day’s frustrations out on a 70lbs (31.75kg) bag!

I also took up running a year ago, and it has helped me get to know my neighbourhood and the city way better than any tour would. Like many New Yorkers, I love the East and Hudson Rivers (although I absolutely abhor the hills in both Central and Prospect Parks, haha). Setting goals helps too: I write this days after completing my very first half-marathon! Getting into a routine of working out every other day has done amazing things for my physical and mental well-being, especially during the winter months when it was so tempting to just hibernate indoors to escape below freezing temperatures.

Running with November Project Brooklyn


On another note, solo travel has taught me that being alone doesn’t necessarily equate to being lonesome; I’ve met really interesting folks by randomly talking to strangers in cities like Savannah, Georgia and Greensboro, North Carolina. Living by myself has also expanded my repertoire of podcasts, which are now an inextinguishable part of my days here. This American Life, The Moth, 2 Dope Queens, How I Built This – the list goes on.

On a trip to the Grand Canyon, in Arizona

So, TL;DR – my time in the US has been both fast and slow; focusing on the community and myself have helped me make this a home away from home. It’s been a journey of a lifetime! To all Singaporeans living in the US East Coast and Midwest, do you feel the same way? What has your experience been like? I would love to hear from you, so ping me anytime via the OSL US Facebook page!


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.