You can take the man out of Singapore but you can’t take Singapore out of the man. This adage rings true for 34 year old cancer survivor, Ian Seah, who has been living in the United States for 13 years. During this time, he has graduated from college, got himself certified as a yoga instructor, worked in Investment Banking, diagnosed with GIST, a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer and also co-founded Tochi Snacks, distributing salted-egg flavoured potato chips and snacks in the US with his girlfriend, Dina Shi and his brother, Marc Seah. It’s been more than a year since he last saw his family.
SG Lifestyle’s Column Editor, Angela, speaks with him to find out how he is coping during this challenging season.
SGLS: What’s your NYC story?
Ian: I moved to New York City in 2008, bright-eyed and full of excitement to start my University education. Upon graduation, I decided to stay on to gain some experience working overseas before moving back to Singapore. 13 years later, I’m still here, and hopefully one step closer to returning!
SGLS: What were some of the challenges you faced initially in NYC?
Ian: I only realised how fortunate we are to be living in Singapore when I moved to NYC. Even though NYC is a great place and has this electrifying energy to it that gives it its name as the city that never sleeps, figuring out ‘adult’ things such as signing a lease, budgeting, and living in a new city without the comfort of my support network of family and friends was challenging. Singaporeans including myself often take safety for granted. There was even this one incident where a person was shot right outside my window just 30 minutes after I got home!
SGLS: You were diagnosed with cancer four years ago whilst working in NYC. How did you cope?
Ian: At the cusp of turning 30, I was at the peak of fitness and health. One day, I was feeling uncharacteristically exhausted after an intense workout. The next day at work, the words on my computer screen would fade in and out of my vision and I felt suffocated sitting at my desk. I saw a doctor later that day and was immediately admitted into the hospital as my blood levels were half the average levels; I had been unknowingly bleeding internally for two weeks. One thing led to another, and after spending two weeks in the ICU and going through surgery, I was diagnosed with GIST (Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour), a rare cancer.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, everything else seems so trivial. Work, going out, meeting people doesn’t matter. Cancer easily consumes your thoughts, dreams and life. Of course, my first instinct was to fly back home to Singapore right away. Thankfully, with the support of my parents who flew up to be with me then, I was able to stay and continue my journey in NYC to fulfil my dreams.
SGLS: We heard that you started a salted-egg snack distribution business in NYC. What’s that about?
Ian: Yes! I started Tochi Snacks with my girlfriend, Dina and my brother, Marc in 2018. At that time, we had just returned to NYC from a vacation in Singapore. What started out as a hobby for Dina, who had just quit her full time investment banking job quickly turned into a company with the vision of introducing hyperlocal Asian flavours to the US. Salted-egg snacks were the obvious first choice given its roots in Singapore and popularity in Asia. Fast forward three years, and our salted-egg snacks are available in 50+ stores across the US as well as online retailers such as Amazon.
We chose the name ‘Tochi’ which means ‘earth’ to remind ourselves to always be rooted in our respective Asian cultures. Currently, our company is at a turning point and we are considering external investment to accelerate growth and take things to the next level. Our next few months will be focused on funding and rebranding.
SGLS: Living in the US when the pandemic started must have been terrifying. Did you think of moving back to Singapore?
Ian: The first two months of the pandemic were extremely difficult. New York’s COVID-19 situation was alarming given how densely populated the city is. Day after day, we would watch New York governor Cuomo give his coronavirus updates, and each day we would see both the hospitalisation and death rates climb with no top in sight, all whilst life seemed normal in Singapore. There were countless times where I had considered moving back home, and saw many of my friends do so during this period. However, I chose to stay and fulfill my dreams.
Bonus Q: What do you miss most about Singapore? Any special messages for Singapore this National Day?
Ian: Friends and Family – This is a given. No man is an island and while I do have many cherished friends here, my family is still based in Singapore with the exception of my brother. Most of my friends whom I went to school with have returned home as well.
Singaporean efficiency – Every year when I return home to visit, I am always amazed at how everything functions like clockwork. The MRT is clean, temperature-controlled and comes every few minutes and on time. The roads are well maintained and public services run efficiently. We often take for granted these mundane services, but try waiting months to get your passport or driver’s license renewed in the US and you see the stark difference.
My National Day message:
Happy Birthday Singapore! The road might be long and difficult, but let’s build on the success of our forefathers and continue to be a shining example and role model to the rest of the world!
Read more about Tochi Snacks’ story here.
Interview by Angela May Tan, Column Editor & Writer.
This interview is part of the Stories to Inspire series, written in commemoration of Singapore’s 56th National Day. Column Editor, Angela May Tan, speaks with inspirational Singaporeans, including those based overseas, to find out how they are coping during this challenging season brought on by the pandemic and tell their stories of courage and resilience.