Finding home halfway around the world
People & Society Articles

Finding home halfway around the world

Alexander and his family

When Alexander Kalinin first stepped foot on Singapore in 2002, he was taken aback by the intense tropical heat. Sixteen years on, he has embraced Singapore and all its quirks – the food, the Singlish and, yes, the weather. These days, he spends his free time hiking up Bukit Timah Nature Reserve with his family.

Alexander Kalinin had never experienced tropical weather. So when he first arrived in sweltering Singapore in 2002, he almost could not bear to leave the airport after feeling the heat when the glass doors opened.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, is this the type of climate that I want to work in?’”, recalled the 42-year-old. He had made the 8,600-km move from Ukraine to Singapore with his wife and eldest daughter for a job posting in a multinational company here.

He braved the torridity, and the warmth – both from the weather and the people – grew on him. Almost 16 years and six cities later, all doubts about staying on in Singapore have been erased.

The global citizen, who has lived in countries spanning from Netherlands to Thailand, felt most at home in Singapore due to its melting pot of cultures.

Captivated by the city’s open and cosmopolitan culture, Alexander, his wife and three daughters are now Singapore citizens. His two younger daughters were born here and in Bangkok, where he stayed for a stint.

“Singapore is open to different influences and everybody feels comfortable here. The beauty of the Singapore society is that it is cosmopolitan enough to fully integrate into it,” said the chief financing officer at a consumer goods company.

His family has embraced the local life here. For instance, his two younger daughters study in a local primary school, with his youngest daughter considered the best in class for Chinese.

The allure of safe and stable Singapore

Having grown up in Soviet Ukraine and later living through the fallout of the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, Alexander was mesmerised by Singapore.

He was amazed at how modern Singapore’s infrastructure was compared to the uniformity and drabness of most buildings in Ukraine – a legacy of its closed-off socialist era.

“I remember coming to Raffles Place for the first time and seeing the skyscrapers with big TV screens on them. It was like being on another planet,” he shared.

Recalling his teenage years in Ukraine in the 1990s, he added: “Things weren’t easy. If you went to a store to get groceries, you couldn’t even be sure they had bread there.”

Crimes like racketeering and theft were rampant, and gangs infested the streets. “You couldn’t be on the streets and be sure you were safe,” he added, sharing that locals referred to that period as the Wild West.

Singapore, on the other hand, made him feel safe and secure. The city’s multiculturalism was another plus point, a contrast to the “homogenous and traditional” Ukrainian culture.

“As a young person coming here, I felt excited by the diversity. I’m always learning and experiencing something new here,” he observed.

Singapore’s openness also meant that integrating with the local community was not an issue for him. His colleagues, who were then his main circle of friends, helped by introducing him to Singapore food and culture.

Laksa was the first local dish that he tried, an experience he vividly remembers. “I’ve never tasted such a dish!”

He has since gone on to explore more local cuisine, and now counts nasi lemak and chicken rice as his favourite dishes today.  

His friends also helped him get used to Singlish phrases and accent, which he admitted was an initial struggle. “It took awhile for my ears to tune in to the local accent,” he noted.

Most importantly, he liked the stability Singapore was able to offer him.    

“When I came to Singapore, I felt for the first time in my life that I had found a place that’s built with a long-term view for the people.”

Alexander became a permanent resident in 2005, before attaining citizenship in 2012. For him, the decision to settle here was easy. “It seemed like the right thing to do for myself and the family. It simply felt natural to get a citizenship.”

Staying rooted

Having called Singapore home for more than a decade, he has grown to appreciate what the country offers – something he feels is lacking in the Singapore society.

“A lot of Singaporeans have plenty of opportunities here, but I feel they need to have appreciation of their country. I like to tell people about how different Ukraine is from Singapore, that they’ve never seen things on the other side,” he said.

“You have a system here that is non-corrupt and centred around the well-being of the citizens. So I make it a point to let people know they should appreciate the things they have in Singapore.”

Despite his clear fondness of Singapore, he keeps in touch with his roots and frequently mingles with the small but tight-knit Ukrainian community. Alexander estimates that there are only about 500 Ukrainian families living here.

The community hosts monthly gatherings and celebrate Ukrainian holidays together, where they wear traditional costumes and eat Ukrainian dishes like dumplings and cured meats.

Not surprisingly, he misses certain aspects of Ukraine – in particular the weather. Although he is used to the year-round tropical heat now, he misses the four seasons.

 “The temperature (in Singapore) is generally the same, so you lose a sense of time with this uniformity. I like to joke that I only can tell time has passed when I see how grey my hair is getting,” he said with a laugh.

He also misses his family and friends, but there is no mistake that Singapore is home, truly, for him.

“Here, it feels like my second motherland. Even if I were to go and work somewhere else, I would come back to Singapore. My whole life is here,” he said.

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