ROJAK – Kat Lee
By: Kat Lee
Edited by: Simren Sekhon
This article is part of ROJAK, a series inspired by the famous Southeast Asian dish, literally meaning ‘eclectic mix of ingredients’. It aims to collate the lived experiences of mixed-identity women who have interacted with both Singapore's society and the wider world, allowing for an exploration of the nitty-gritty hardships of intersectionality while simultaneously showcasing the beautiful diversity in our midst.
Kat studied psychology in London and is passionate about mental health in Singapore. She is currently working as a research assistant at the NUS department of Psychological Medicine, where she coordinates and collects data for a variety of research projects. She also volunteers at SYNC and writes content for their Instagram page, with the purpose of educating youth on mental health skills and the misconceptions behind mental health disorders. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting with make-up looks, journaling, and going for gym classes. She aspires to work in the field of psychological healthcare in the future.
In October last year, I came back to Singapore for good.
After completing my undergraduate degree in London, I was faced with both internal and external pressure to decide on my next few steps. On one hand, I wanted to jump straight into a Master’s in Clinical Psychology in order to pursue a career as a Clinical Psychologist. On the other hand, I was forced to think about the practicalities behind this end-goal. First, I needed to decide whether I wanted to take a few years off to work, allowing me to gain experience and improve my position as a master’s degree candidate. I also wanted to apply for a scholarship to relieve the financial burden a master’s degree will place on my parents. Within these crucial next steps, I needed to consider the individual cogs that would set the plan in motion: Would I be working in London? What job should I apply to? Maybe I should consider Australia for my masters? I put pressure on myself to decide where I would be next and which path would provide me the best opportunities.
With so many potential journeys I could embark on, I knew that there was no clear route to take except the one I would forge on my own. I ruminated on these plans consistently. Despite living in London for three years, I eventually decided that it might be easier to leave my second home, come back to Singapore and plan out my future from there.
Everyone around me seemed to be taking huge leaps to pursue their career goals. My peers were finding jobs, furthering their studies or in the midst of finishing their education overseas. While I was grateful to have my home as a safety net to fall back on, I felt like I was slowing down compared to those who were living their best life everywhere else. Meanwhile in Singapore, I was jobless and living with my parents – just like my pre-university days. Except this time, I was not carefree. I was under constant stress to find a job in the field of psychology. I had lost my sense of purpose and direction. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness and uncertainty of the future.
Through transitioning from London back to Singapore, I struggled with the loneliness of maintaining long-distance friendships, the frustrations of co-sharing a space with family after a taste of independence, and the hopelessness of unemployment. The pain of leaving London lingered, yet I bore it silently and somewhat shamefully. What right did I have to feel this way, when I have to worry about my job and my future, so I don’t let the people around me down? What right do I have to grieve the loss of my independence (not to mention my second home and being in the same country as some of my best friends) when other people were experiencing ‘real-life’ difficulties in their career and at university? I denied my own experiences because I thought that would make me stronger or motivate me to be more productive. Instead, I began to have an increasingly difficult relationship with my mental health. The persistent intrusive thoughts of finding a job impacted my everyday life. While I could not take my mind off how I felt, I resisted any pain to invalidate my own experiences. “It’s not important that you feel this way Kat,” I told myself, “what’s important are the next steps into the future.”
This struggle with my mental health took a huge toll on me. As someone who is a huge advocate for mental health support and an even bigger advocate of doing the ‘inner work’ to heal and grow from the challenges that life throws at us, I knew that I had started to neglect myself significantly.
One of the things that I missed most about being in London was the diverse group of friends I had. Many of them grew up in different parts of the world, and meeting like-minded, passionate individuals was extremely empowering. With many of my high school friends still abroad furthering their studies or professional journeys, I felt isolated from the close friends I had made in both my homes: Singapore and London. As a Singaporean, while Singapore has been a space of comfort, familiarity and safety in the past, I now felt that there was something amiss when I returned. A piece of the puzzle was missing. Singapore may be home to me in the traditional sense, but to put it cheesily, home truly is where the heart is meaning, where my friends and family are. With my friends scattered across the world, I felt incredibly detached from the traditional notion of ‘home’.
I found myself having to navigate and intentionally build the social mosaic in which I would thrive during my new chapter in Singapore. I reflected on what kind of friends I would like to make and where I could find a diverse group of individuals. The answer to this was, to my own surprise, Bumble BFF. I decided to online network out of curiosity, because I wanted to see whether I could actually form close bonds through an app – but I also wanted to meet people who, like myself, had just come to Singapore from abroad and were looking to meet new people locally. I felt like I could relate to their experiences since I had just transitioned from living in London to living in Singapore and only had a handful of close friends locally. When making new friends, I learnt to appreciate the different worldviews we hold, since we were all raised in different environments. Personally, the way my mixed-heritage feeds into this transition is not something that I have given intentional thought to before writing this piece and perhaps, one could suggest that the diversity in my heritage and later exposure is what enables me to relate to diversity around me. Nevertheless, consciously or subconsciously, diversity is what I sought to find here. In that diverse beauty, the potential of learning and furthering the development of my best self was enabled.
The greatest quality I admire in the community I have nurtured in this chapter is their dedication to personal growth. It inspires me to reflect on my journey, empowering me to work on myself, care for myself and use the challenges I face as opportunities for improvement. Even though we are all on different career paths, I am in constant admiration of their drive and passion, and we mutually support one another to work towards different goals in our career and personal life. Being vulnerable within these friendships opened me up to their insight and allowed me to gain a new perspective on my adversities. I remain thankful for the support that they give me, and I know that these friendships are what has made Singapore feel more like home.
To further my passions, I applied for a course to learn applied mental health skills - particularly cognitive behavioral therapy. While the course focused on unpacking a client’s presenting problems, it allowed me to become more in-tune with my own emotions. I learnt how to communicate with myself in a more validating and empathetic manner – just like how a therapist would communicate to his or her client. As fate would have it, I met Nicole, who introduced me to SYNC. SYNC is an organisation she co-founded to journey alongside youth, educating them on practical and mental health skills. As a content creator at @hello.sync, I have the opportunity to use my passion for psychology and mental health for a good cause. To be able to educate youths on a variety of mental health skills taps into my interest in mental health advocacy. With this platform, I not only encourage youths to reflect inward, but also equip them with tools to cope with distressing internal and external situations. In turn, I learn skills that I can apply for my own growth and self-care. I write bite-sized Instagram pieces on mental health skills for our audience and, in a way, for myself too.
Through this difficult chapter, I have learnt new skills and had the honor of meeting some of the most driven, talented individuals who have taught me new things about myself and the world around me. Through this journey, I opened myself up to new opportunities back in Singapore, despite believing that the only opportunities worth pursuing were elsewhere. I have learnt what has worked for me in transitioning back to life here, and I take the time to reflect back on how far I have come to get to where I am today. It’s good to center ourselves, remind ourselves that we are exactly where we need to be at this very moment, and to savour every moment – through the highs and lows.