Triangle of Experiences: Lessons from Singapore, Berlin, Seattle

Diya Khanna
Freelance Journalist with a focus on diversity, integration & migration

I was once invited to a storytelling event in an after-hours coffee shop in Berlin. There, among strangers, we exchanged stories and connected through shared human experiences.

There was one rule though – you couldn’t tell a story on behalf of somebody else. A woman from Australia hesitated and abruptly walked off stage. “It’s not my story to tell”, she said. And she was correct. I feel the same way now. Instead I try to tell my stories and offer evidence in the way of facts.

What I am going to try to do is triangulate my experiences living in Singapore, Berlin and Seattle and to offer a unique point of view that only comes from someone living in these three cities.

I grew up in Toronto and after graduation found myself in Singapore, where I was working for NGOs and my husband was in banking. A solid career change later and we moved to Berlin and are now living and working out of Seattle on the west coast of the United States.

Singapore: The Asian Tiger

It was Singapore National Day and we were invited to a fellow expat’s home for a rooftop barbeque. “What kind of view do you think they have?” I asked. It was more than I expected. A two-storey condo, in the heart of the city, with a private pool overlooking the skyline. We were in direct view of the fireworks and they were nothing short of spectacular. Weekend after weekend, the parties continued. It didn’t take me long to realize that my experiences didn’t necessarily match the experiences of a local. As of March 2015, over 80% of the population live in public housing, flats built to offer affordable housing to residents of Singapore.

Singapore has long been a magnet for foreign talent, with around 600,000 expats in 2015 earning considerably high incomes. In short, people and their skills matter here.

The government is largely responsible for this. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been successful in holding on to its majority since 1959. What some call a one-party government is actually a democracy. Yet, every term, they win. On the one hand, there have been concerns about the youth and political apathy and, on the other, this system has allowed the government to implement long-term plans and is what has taken the country from poverty to prosperity.

Frustration about foreigners is not limited to those in banking. My time spent counselling domestic workers shone light on some human rights abuse cases. Singapore is made up of four major groups, Chinese, Malay, Indian and other. With some groups outnumbering others, there can come privilege.

Berlin: Hand in Hand with History

“We love being in Europe,” I said to the man in the co-working space we met at every morning. “Only North Americans describe it as Europe,” he laughed. North Germany is different from the Basque Country of Spain, which is different from the Tyrol region of Austria. Yet, they are all part of the European Union, consisting of 28 member states. Within  a very short period of time, I was able to understand the disappointment around Brexit. The EU is something that binds neighboring countries together, and in these uncertain times, offers a sense of security and support.

Yet there remains a struggle over what is politically best for the city and the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, long known for her open door refugee policy, went from winning to losing to regaining popularity. Berlin struggles with issues of unemployment and you don’t have to venture too far out to still find some neighborhoods with right wing groups that are best avoided by racial minorities. There is also a deep rooted fear of history repeating itself. In Berlin, you will be arrested for performing the Nazi salute, even as a joke.

Our apartment was located at the exact place of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and it was a reminder every day that this is a city that lives hand in hand with its history. It struggles with what it was, what it is and what it wants to be.

Seattle: Balancing a Divided Nation

Yes, I was nervous. Yes, there were doubts. And yes, I had to defend my decision to move to the United States right after the presidential election to several friends and family members, including myself! Then, on our first house hunting trip, I heard through Facebook about a rally taking place in downtown Seattle. The picket signs were everywhere, children were on shoulders, refugees were campaigning and everybody appeared to be in support of the same argument. President Trump’s travel ban had to go.

As a Canadian, I have once before overly asserted our multicultural and accepting attitudes to my neighbors in the South, assuming that we are in the right and they are in the wrong. But the reality I hadn’t come to terms with, was that the United States is not one idea, one vote, or one anything. The 2016 election results, brought to light a country polarized over issues relating to race and culture and a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Furthermore, some of the biggest and best social justice activists, progressive thinkers and movements had come from the United States including Dr. Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk and Rosa Parks.

So, what does living in these three cities, in these three large continents around the world suggest? What insights does it offer? For one, we all have our share our challenges. Another is that we all have a history that impacts where we are today, and finally, we are all striving for social wellbeing. It is important to understand these points when approaching one another’s realities.

It took me living in these three cities to realize we are not that different from each other. The lessons that I learned were that geography matters, history matters and most of all, context matters. Our values are shaped by these things. Undergoing a process of cross cultural understanding is what we need to exchange knowledge, practices and experiences and come to a place where we can continually promote new ideas and possibilities.


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