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

AWA Member Spotlight: Manju Banka

by Helena Cochrane

Manju Banka moved to Singapore from Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2016, with her husband. They have a grown daughter who lives in New Jersey, USA. Her home in Cairnhill provides both easy access to shopping and entertainment, and a quiet respite from the buzz of city life. Manju says that before living here, she traveled to Singapore regularly for transit to and from Indonesia, as well as for shopping, so she knew the overall geography of the island. But since living here, she has become more intimately familiar with the neighborhoods and what they have to offer.

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 I appreciate most about Singapore is how friendly and helpful everyone is. Anytime I ask about something, people will go out of the way to guide me. What has been completely unfathomable is the lack of vegetarian options in food courts, etc. Singapore being such an international travel destination, one would think it would be easy to find good vegetarian food here in every food joint but, unfortunately, that is simply not the case.

What assumption or belief about Singapore did you have that’s been debunked?

I used to believe that English was the most common language in Singapore. But now I realize that even though almost everyone knows English and speaks it when needed, Mandarin and other Chinese dialects are more widely used.

What about Singapore culture has surprised you the most?

I love the patriotism and pride in the country, its government, and discipline.

What has been an impactful mishap you’ve had while living in Singapore?

One time I missed my stop on the bus and wound up several stops away. A really helpful gentleman walked me all the way back to my destination. So while this could have been a mishap, in fact it just reinforced my love of Singapore.

What hobby or activity have you finally been able to pursue in Singapore that you had wanted to previously? How has it influenced your time here?

I have always wanted to delve more deeply into our epic, Bhagavad Gita, and study it. I found a wonderful Bhagavad Gita society in Singapore that had virtual sessions during the pandemic which afforded me the opportunity to fulfill this lifelong dream from the comfort of my home.

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

Our apartment in Singapore is conveniently located atop Cairnhill Circle so I have developed the habit of walking to and from Orchard Road regularly for shopping and entertainment and I really hope to continue that wherever I go. I have primarily lived in cities although always surrounded by greenery. Even here in Singapore, I am lucky that my apartment is in the heart of the city but on a quiet street and surrounded by greenery.

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

One thing is: pictures of my daughter always bring me joy and make me feel at home. Another is: my morning tea while looking out the apartment window, listening to the koels calling always helps ground me and remind me of the promise of the new day so that I can feel rejuvenated.

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

I connected with the local community center and joined several associations, such as AWA, IWA (Indian Women’s Association) and MMM (Marwari Mitra Mandal),which promotes social and cultural understanding, welfare, recreational and educational activities for the Marwari Rajasthani community in Singapore. This allowed me to meet people from all walks of life. I would encourage any first-time expats to seek out organizations like that so they can build a social circle. Since Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, I always love to learn how a person’s family found their way here, and understand their story.

Have you or do you volunteer with a group that serves Singaporeans and how has that enhanced your living here?

I am involved in organizing several community center activities and volunteer at a few senior citizen homes. It has helped me feel more connected to the community and given me an opportunity to give back to my new home.

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

Not so much a saying or mantra but when I’m feeling homesick or frustrated, I call my daughter or sister or mother and that always fixes my mood.

What is a luxury that you fall back on when you want to treat yourself?

I love to explore good vegetarian restaurants. I miss the hawker stalls from India that serve some of my favorite vegetarian foods. If I could have those options here, I would be in heaven.

What is your favorite Singapore holiday to celebrate (ex: Hari Raya Haji, National Day, Deepavali). How do you celebrate it?

My favorite Singaporean festival is Chinese New Year. I love the decorations, lion dances, and all the works. The blessings people share remind me a lot of my favorite Indian holiday, Deepavali.

What aspect of your personality has been a strength you’ve relied on while an expat? Conversely, what personal weakness have you struggled with?

I have been an expat nearly all my adult life and throughout I have truly appreciated building friendships with people from all over the world. I make friends and connect to people easily which is so important as an expat. However, I am a homebody so I always appreciate when friends come to visit me so that I can treat them with yummy homemade goodies and we can enjoy ourselves together.


Since moving from Philadelphia in 2018, Helena has been active with AWA's Walking with Women, Writers' Group and International Vocal Ensemble, as well as with Urban Sketchers of Singapore. See her artwork on Instagram @helena_antolin_cochrane


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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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