National Day Special: Love, marriage and a new family made her stay in Singapore and call it home

SINGAPORE — Settling down in Singapore for the long-term was not on the cards for 34-year-old Jessica Santos, a graphic designer who uprooted her life in the Philippines and came to the city-state on an employment pass.

After all, the Filipina saw her birth country, where her family lived, as her home.

But it was a fateful meeting with her future husband at her workplace, as well as surviving through the coronavirus pandemic in the Lion City, that redefined where she felt she belonged, Ms Santos said.

“Home means being really comfortable in the presence of family and friends.”

Ms Santos would make regular flights back to Manila to be with her family — two sisters aged 37 and 38, and her parents who are in their late 60s.

She recalled her first visit to Singapore when she arrived for a holiday with her family close to a decade ago.

Having grown up in the Philippines capital of Manila, she said she was immediately bowled over by how modern Singapore was relative to her birth country.

“I come from a third-world country, and the difference in the efficiency and the convenience of living was really the number one draw for me,” she said.

Ms. Santos married a Singaporean husband and is applying to become a permanent resident.

Beyond that, she had also taken a liking for the food here and found the people in Singapore friendly. Compared with the crime situation back in the Philippines at the time, the relative safety that Singapore afforded was also a big draw.

“I told myself that I would move here… and when the opportunity came, I grabbed it.”

She found employment in Singapore in 2015 as a graphics designer.

There were, of course, some initial culture shocks that took some getting used to for her. Everything moved quickly, including the way people spoke and the deadline for assignments. And unlike herself and her compatriots, she also found that her Singaporean colleagues were not much for small talk.

“We (Filipinos) like chit-chatting. In an office setting, before we start work, we’ll ask about your day, your weekend, your mum, your pets… anything to get the conversation going,” she said. “Here, not so much. You just get one-liners, and you get the idea they (Singaporeans) don’t want to talk.”

But turn the conversation to food, and Singaporeans will give you a list of places to go, Ms. Santos noted. “To get chatting with locals, you just need to start talking about food. That’s the way to their hearts.”

Even though she got used to the quirks of Singapore living, Ms Santos did not originally expect herself to stay here for the long-term. After all, as a self-professed art lover, she had dreams of moving to New York in the United States — a city she felt catered to artists, musicians and other creatives.

Besides, she didn’t feel like she belonged here. Without her family, Singapore felt more like a workplace than a home.

A FATEFUL MEETING

However, things changed when she met her Singaporean husband, Mr. Aaron Low, in 2016.

“It was love that made me want to stay in Singapore,” she said.

They were colleagues at a publishing company in 2016, where Ms. Santos works. That was her second job in Singapore — they were both retrenched in April last year due to the pandemic. Ms. Santos has since found work as a graphic designer in another company, while Mr. Low works as a freelance photographer.

In any case, Ms Santos recalled how Mr Low, who is now 40, first expressed a romantic interest in her in late 2018.

She was initially hesitant at the time. “I still had plans of going to other countries and experiencing the other side of the world, so I wasn’t sure I could commit to being in a relationship (in Singapore).”

Mr. Low said that it was a “weird place that we were in” when he found out that she had this on her mind.

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