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... stories, adventures and all things related to life in Singapore and Southeast Asia by AWA members

AWA Member Spotlight: Helena Cochrane

Our own AWA magazine writer and team member, Helena Cochrane, will be leaving Singapore this September. She has not only contributed several articles to the magazine, but she has been copy editor and single-handedly prepared our Member Spotlight column for the past four to five years.

Here she shares with us her Singapore journey.


How long have you been in Singapore? Tell us about what it was like when you first arrived.

We began my first ever expat assignment here in August 2018. We sold our home and cars in the Philadelphia area, and I left a teaching job in Wilmington DE. Our three adult children remain in the US, near one another in the NY/NJ area. We celebrated Christmas 2019 together in Bali. COVID has made me appreciate just how special that visit was.

When you looked for Singapore on the map did you find it right away?

It shocked me that on a full world map, Singapore really could only be represented by a red dot. I had been to Bali in 2012, and thought that was miniscule, but this packs more into a much smaller space.

What have you enjoyed more about Singapore than you thought you would? What has been the most pleasant surprise? Conversely, what have you struggled with that you didn’t expect to be challenging? What has been disappointing?

I am totally hooked on lighting festivals. There was one during the month when we arrived, and I joyfully waited in long lines to see flickering colored lights, wall projections, light sculptures, even glowing crowns on children’s heads.

Singapore is like a perpetual July day in Philadelphia, with the humidity. I walked about eight miles a day in the first month, because I did not know anyone, and my husband had a heavy travel schedule. It’s likely I was dehydrated for my first 28 days in Singapore, before I caught on to drinking enough water as I moved around.

It is sad for me that the beach really fronts an industrial site, and is not suitable for swimming. Still, I am so delighted with the NParks system, and have walked hundreds of miles along beautiful tree-lined paths.

What hobby or activity have you been able to pursue in Singapore that you didn’t previously? How has this influenced your time as an expat in Singapore?

When I was teaching full time in the US, I grabbed every spare moment to paint watercolors. I take advantage of my non-working status, and paint full time now, like a job. I’m immersed in the artists’ community here in a way I never dreamed possible. Singapore artists are incredibly welcoming and nurturing.

That’s fascinating! Can you share more about how you got connected with Singapore artists? Did you find a group online through a search engine, on Facebook, a flyer in the community or just word of mouth?

In Philadelphia, I joined the Urban Sketchers, a worldwide sketching organization that meets outdoors and sketches, to “Show the world, one drawing at a time.” When I saw that SG also has a chapter of USK, I wrote to their admin, and he wrote back immediately, informing me that their monthly sketchwalk (gathering) was the last Saturday of each month. My first time to join them, sketchers approached, welcomed, invited me to join other groups that met more frequently to paint outdoors. There is an extraordinary network of sketchers and painters, enthusiastic beyond my wildest imagination, to gather, share perspectives, share our work, learn about materials, techniques, unique sites. By mid-September of 2018, I was already aware of three more opportunities to paint outdoors in groups.

I am deeply indebted to the Urban Sketchers of Singapore. USK in Philadelphia was not as active as here. This is a joyful, welcoming group of artists. They have included me in their events, and helped me to learn about food, parks, landmarks, and cultural icons.

Since you moved to Singapore, have you tried something new (a class, a sport, etc.)? How did it turn out?

I joined the AWA Writers’ Group, and feel stimulated, appreciated, and challenged by these supportive, hard-working writers.

When I joined the International Women’s Choir in 2019, I realized that there was something from my USA life that I had really been missing. I have always sung with one group or another. AWA International Choir gave me that back, and added the wonderful component of singing in senior centers, in Chinese and Malay, to connect with shut-in seniors who thrive with the songs they remember from their younger days. During Covid, we pivoted to virtual singing, and one of our members, Tomoko Ichimaru, taught herself video editing so that we had ‘performances’ to share with the public. We sing in the senior centers again, and are always happy to welcome new singers, and any pianists we can find, to help us get the music off the ground.

What about Singapore culture has surprised you the most?

Cooking at home is such a novelty, and eating out can be very cheap. Some Singaporeans never prepare a meal at home.

Have you or do you volunteer in Singapore and how has that enhanced your expat experience?

Until July of 2020 (the last four months on line) I work with KidsREAD at North View Primary School in Yishun. Without a teaching job, I missed being with students more than I had anticipated. Reading with first graders here has led to hilariously frank (“You are so old! Why aren’t you with your grandchildren?”) conversations with six- year-olds.

Have you adopted a habit in Singapore that you hope to take with you to your next home?

I walk more than I ever have, though I walked a lot when I lived in a temperate climate too. But the walking here is challenging, with all the humidity, so it keeps me in better shape than before.

What habit(s) make you feel most settled in Singapore?

Having a few flowers in pots on my balcony. I can be outside, trimming and watering, and savor the elements, with either a breeze and sunshine, or torrential rain. Helping my plants thrive helps me to thrive also.

What did you do to meet people and form friendships as an expat? What advice would you give first-time expats?

I spent the first three weeks here in virtual isolation. I talked to anyone who would notice me. I remember feeling grateful that three Korean students stopped me for a survey on Korean food when I was sweating my way down Orchard Road one day in early September 2018. Once I joined AWA, my quality of life shot way up. Along with the Urban Sketchers of Singapore, AWA has offered me a community to invest in and contribute to.

What life lesson have you learned during your time as an expat in Singapore?

Everyone has a story, that is both individual and a reflection of their larger environment. Pause, and listen carefully when a person shares that story, because it can be very rich and rewarding.

Do you have any saying or mantras that you tell yourself when you are homesick or experiencing cultural frustrations?

“This opportunity will not be replicated. Make the most of it.”

What item in your Singapore home-away-from-home makes you feel the most settled?

My work desk, with paintings, postcards and sketches all around, as I stream my Philadelphia classical radio station.

What do you miss from home that you can’t find in Singapore? How would having that item in Singapore change or improve your experience?

I miss good Mexican food. I’ve tried some here, but there’s always too much added sugar. In Singapore, I pivot to Thai or Vietnamese food, since both cuisines are so delicious, and I’ll waste mental space yearning for that other treat I can have again when I return to the US.

What is your favorite Singapore holiday to celebrate? How do you celebrate it? How do you think celebrating something from your new culture has helped you feel part of Singapore?

I have enjoyed learning about the many holidays that Singaporeans observe, but without question, Lunar New Year takes the cake. I was in my wet market the day before Family Reunion Dinner, and felt swept into the excitement of people making their preparations. I heard a little boy singing Gong Xi Gong Xi on a bus, the way an American kid might sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This parallel universe where people live their full lives doing things I’ve never even seen before in ways that are vaguely familiar fascinates me to no end.

Is your quality of life different in Singapore than it was before you were an expat? What aspect of it would you like to preserve?

It’s really nice to have this amazing public transport system. Along with Grab, relatively cheap and very convenient, it has me thinking whether I would ever want to have a car again.

Did you live in a large city or in the country before you came to Singapore? What do you think of living in the city? Do you escape into nature here? Where and how?

I lived just outside of Philadelphia for 27 years. We took advantage of all the cultural offerings as often as possible. It had nice parks too, and great bicycle trails. I take the same kinds of walks, bike rides and swims I did when I lived in the US. My favorite here is Bishan-Ang Mo Kio, but it’s part of an extensive list.

How do you treat yourself in Singapore? What is your luxury? Was your luxury the same in the US?

I swim, for as long as I can at a stretch . The public swimming pools in Singapore are big, clean, open-air, and leafy. Swimming outdoors all year long is the ultimate luxury.

I know we can find more about your art in your Instagram (@helena_antolin_cochrane) where as an artist, you have found new landscapes and other subject material here in Singapore and your travels in Asia. What do you think has been your favorite place, or subject, in Singapore to paint/sketch?

Hard to say where the best place is to sketch, but I can tell you about my ideal sketching experience. There has to be shade, and a breeze, not [be] far from a washroom, nor from public transport, and the very best is to be near good food, for after the painting work is done. Plein air painting in this climate is very tough at times, with the humidity and the sun, but it’s been wonderful to explore the many corners of the city and Nature. My most recent delightful painting experience was at Cavenagh Bridge, with friends, in the shade, and close to Funan, for some nice ramen after finishing.

Adjusting to a new country is never easy but embracing the journey and opportunities can, in hindsight, deepen our values. What have your experiences in Singapore helped you appreciate more about life?

Can’t say whether it was Singapore itself, or Singapore in the grip of Covid, that left me believing that so much more can be achieved and appreciated when we care about those around us, and work for their well being. I cannot be doing well if people around me are struggling. Accepting opportunities to practice kindness is not always easy, but it is always necessary.

It's impressive how you embraced opportunities here to build community during your 5 years in Singapore, even with COVID! You will be missed, Helena, and we wish you all the best in your next chapter ahead!


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AWA members are women who come from many countries and life experiences but they all have one thing in common — they have chosen to live in Singapore. Some members are new to Singapore,  while some have been here a long time or have returned to Singapore after time away. Our magazine - written and curated by AWA members - focuses on a diverse range of topics including wellness and family, travel tips, cultural events and information, and other helpful tips around navigating and experiencing life in Singapore to it's fullest. 

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