Singaporean ties that bind abroad

I had met them only once or twice, but when I heard that Ying's family were coming to Durham to attend her graduation from Duke University, I invited them to dinner at our house.

Ying's mother had first e-mailed me when she found out through this column that I lived in Chapel Hill, close to where her daughter would be going to school.

I was in Singapore at the time, so we met at the now-defunct Ya Kun coffee shop in Holland Village, and then in North Carolina a month or so later, when they arrived to settle their daughter in school.

That was four years ago.

Last week, I met the family for the second and probably last time here.

They were pleased I had made local food and they had brought gifts from home such as bak kwa from Lim Chee Guan. We had so much shared experience of Singapore, I felt I had known them a long time.

My children were a little puzzled, but took it in their stride. Who are they and why are we having dinner with them, they asked, and seemed fine with my explanation of how we had to show hospitality to visitors from Singapore.

This is especially true when you live in a state that most Singaporeans have no reason to visit. Anyone who does is gold.

In fact, I should buy 4D (a Singaporeanism if ever there was one) as we had not one, not two, but three separate groups from the old kampung in town this month.

But while I love seeing Singaporeans in Chapel Hill, I don't chafe at the lack of them. In fact, I did not seek out any of my countrymen when we moved here eight years ago, so it was about two years before I met Kim through a mutual friend.

She attended school in Oregon years before and had stayed, got married, started a business and moved to North Carolina, while maintaining strong ties with Singapore.

Another couple of years passed and more threads led me to others, criss-crossing so that, soon, we were knitted in a tiny but friendly Singaporean community.

Naturally, we formed a group for the primary purpose of getting together to eat. We called ourselves Treats, a kind of acronym for Singaporeans in the Triangle who eat all the time and e-mail exchanges invariably include the question: "Where to makan?"

Given the size of Singapore, none of us had to dig deep to find a connection. In fact, one who's become a good friend and shares my love of all things southern fried was just a few years behind me in secondary school and a fellow journalist. Amazingly, we never met until we had traversed the world to end up 20 minutes from each other.

Farther afield, there are others near Charlotte I have connected with on social media. Every Chinese New Year, they have a big party with local food (I love how "local" food always means Singaporean) and I hope to get up there next time.

Last month, Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo told Parliament that more children are being born overseas to at least one Singaporean parent. As time goes by, ever more people will live and work abroad for extended periods.

But just as I thought she would talk about persuading them to come back, she said: "Our vision must be a Singapore that is cohesive and open, where Singaporeans feel a sense of connectedness wherever they are in the world."

I never thought I could be away for so long that Singapore would start to feel like a foreign country.

And yet I wonder if that will hold true for much longer.

For one thing, the pace of physical change is so rapid, I simply know there will be parts of it I won't recognise every year I am back.

Some of that is good - like the expanding park connector network - but most of the time, it is yet another vestige of my past that has been erased.

Nearly every edifice I knew as a child no longer exists or has changed beyond recognition and now, the places I knew with my children are starting to go as well.

I hope there comes a day when we stop replacing the old. Even the structures that are not deemed worthy of conservation are worthy of conservation because they are part of my story.

But change is always more than skin deep and it's the spirit of a place, created by its people, that is hard to know from the outside.

We know this already every time Singapore appears on one of those lists that get people's knickers in a twist. Apparently, we live in the world's most expensive city where we get the least amount of sleep, so no wonder we are unhappier than anyone else.

I guess it's the same when people believe America to be a very dangerous place because of all the guns. You can't know a place by knowing just a little bit.

Furthermore, the change is not all on one side.

For instance, much as I enjoyed the dinner with Ying's family, the thought came to me a day or two afterwards that I might have been a tad overbearing. Did I dominate the conversation, I wondered? Were they too polite to let on?

The longer I'm here, do I become less Singaporean, more American? At least, would people perceive me as such?

It's inevitable if I want to be a part of my home away from home.

Yet, it is still in my DNA to prick up my ears at the mention of a rare breed - one of three-plus million in the world - and want to connect.

Though I did not seek them out, part of my community is the group called Singaporeans Abroad. Food binds us, yes, but so do shared experience and a sense of responsibility towards people from your own village on the planet. These are the connections.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Singaporean ties that bind abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe