Home Sweet Home?

Returning to Rutland after 20 years in Southeast Asia, book publisher Philip Tatham discovers the meaning of reverse culture shock as he stumbles back in love with familiar surroundings.

A week into my new Rutland life I arrange to meet my wife and children after work in Oakham to see what the market town has to offer. Oakham, it transpires, is shut. Evenings in Singapore are buzzing as people dine, shop and party until late, but it hasn’t occurred to me the same might not be true of rural England. For a few seconds the four of us stand in the market square and look bewildered around us at the empty streets. Where is everybody? Then the penny drops. Reverse culture shock has already set in. 

Reverse culture shock is the experience of confusion and frustration a person feels upon returning home from an extended spell living in another culture. The symptoms are directly linked to the length of time spent overseas, how deeply immersed in the new culture one is and how different the overseas and home cultures are. In my case, except for a year of preschool in Papua New Guinea, my life can be neatly divided into two: 21 years growing up in the East Midlands followed by 21 years working in Singapore and Malaysia. 

When I leave England there are only four channels on TV, Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp are yet to introduce Britpop to the common people, and I am young and single with a full head of hair. Twenty years is a long time to spend away from home. Home changes and so do I. It is in my adopted home of Singapore that I experience many of the milestones of life that bring some form of self-actualization: getting a dream job, 

learning a new language, falling in love, getting married, becoming a parent, and losing my hair. Unconsciously Singapore becomes ‘home’. Will I ever rediscover ‘home’ in England? 

Back in Rutland and I am stunned that not only has 4G yet to penetrate my village but 3G is a thing of the future too. In fact I must climb the stairs to get any signal at all. I quickly share this incredible fact on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. A friend tweets back from a remote island in the Philippines that he is enjoying crystal-clear seas, sun-kissed beaches and 4G. I am soon to learn, however, that in Rutland mobile phones and Facebook are not essential; people don’t live their lives through social media, constantly seeking validation from others, and instead talk face-to-face with friends and neighbours. It is quite a revelation. 

In crime-free Singapore I tell my kids to approach any stranger if they are in trouble. In England I tell them to be wary of strangers. Yet I find the people in Rutland much warmer than in Singapore. British reserve has nothing on the defining Singaporean trait of ‘kiasu-ism’. Kiasu is a Hokkien Chinese term meaning ‘afraid to lose’, which manifests itself in people unwilling to open up and reveal too much. And I am constantly surprised how many people in Rutland do have a connection to Southeast Asia. RAF Cottesmore’s beloved Vulcan bombers were once based in Malaysia and Singapore and many people I meet were born over there or had parents who served there in the RAF. 

In equatorial Singapore a python eats our cat, a spitting cobra kills the neighbour’s Jack Russell and I discover a snake skin under the baby’s cot. Less sinister, at Rutland Water the children delight in being chased by ‘killer ducks’ demanding bread. I teach the kids to recognize the birds in our Rutland garden. Blackbirds, wrens, coal tits, jackdaws and robins are as exotic to us as the bee-eaters, sunbirds, dollarbirds and racquet-tailed drongos once were in Singapore. Pheasants, my daily reminder of the fabled Chinese phoenix, strut proudly under my office window and I catch glimpses of deer in the distant copse. Maya, 33 and the other Rutland ospreys become our extended family in England and we visit them after school and at weekends. 

There is often a humorous disconnect between expectation and reality. The idealized views I hold in Singapore of a contemporary British food revolution are shattered when I discover prawn cocktail, gammon with pineapple, and sherry trifle still alive on Rutland menus. There are notable exceptions on the local dining scene, of course, but they shouldn’t be the exception. I dig deeper and discover farmers, market traders and food producers who are challenging Rutland for the better. We now cook with trout and lamb from Rutland Water, wild rabbit, local oils, and vegetables from the garden. As a publisher of books on Asia I am reminded of bizarre food references that link East and West. Authors of colonial memoirs set in 1930s British Malaya credit Melton Mowbray pork pies as a cure for homesickness. 

I read the UK news in Singapore and presume all British people are obese and suffering from excess sugar intake. I don’t lift a tennis racquet for 20 years and imagine I will fit in well with unhealthy Britain. But I have been fed lies. All my new friends in Rutland are obscenely fit. I am coerced into taking up cycling and tennis and I now run three times a week. By choice. 

As I jog through villages the stench of slurry spread on fields assaults my nostrils and I wonder if I am the only one who can smell it. I am reminded then of the strange smells of Asia: fermented shrimp paste, durian fruit that stinks of rotting flesh, and the malodourous open sewers of small-town Malaysia. 

Comparisons and contrasts continue as I readapt to my new life in rural England. Rutland is similar in size to the island of Singapore and both places proudly punch above their weight in terms of what they offer. ‘Multum in Parvo’ could well be the motto of Singapore, were the city-state ever to replace ‘MajulahSingapura’or‘OnwardSingapore’. However, while 35,000 people enjoy the tranquility of Rutland, almost 5 million are squeezed onto the island of Singapore, where one block of flats accommodates more people than a small Rutland village. 

The British pace of life is frustratingly slow at first and I despair of no-show builders. It takes months to wind down, to leave the office before 7pm and to realise that pressing tradesmen to work all night might not be in anyone’s best interest. I begin to let go, to appreciate long summer evenings in the garden with a bottle of wine, watching the kids building bug dens and hedgehog hotels. I am tempted to switch the phone to silent, but there is no reception anyway. 

I am rediscovering what it means to live in Rutland and I already call Rutland home, Again. I am experiencing reverse culture shock, but in a delightful way. 

Philip Tatham runs Monsoon Books, a publishing house specializing in books on Asia. Get a free ebook with every paperback purchased at www.monsoonbooks.com.sg