Colleen: S'pore is like my third home now

Colleen: S'pore is like my third home now
Ms Colleen Turzynski (back row, fourth from left), with some relatives at a farewell party for her yesterday. She has been to different relatives’ homes and has taken many photos with them. The highlights of her trip were getting to know about her late mother and visiting her final resting place.

Just about every other day since Ms Colleen Turzynski arrived in Singapore a month ago, a stranger would go up to her and ask if she was the one in the papers.

"They told me that what happened to me was sad," signed the 26-year-old Polish orphan, who is deaf.

Her parents were brutally murdered 25 years ago in America and she had no contact with her Singaporean mother's family here until they were reunited last year.

Several of the people she met on the streets of Singapore asked to take photos with her.

Others contacted her through this newspaper to pass her gifts. One even took her to lunch.

Everyone she met was happy that she finally got to meet her Singapore relatives in person. The attention, she said, made her feel "special".

"But I'm not a famous person. I'm not a star," insisted Ms Turzynski.

She leaves for the United States today to continue her university studies, with memories of Singapore, a "wonderful" family she thought was lost, and plans to write a book about her experience.

"I have many feelings inside that I want to share with others. I hope my story can inspire them too."

She was just a toddler of 17 months when police found her in an apartment in New Jersey, wearing nothing but a soiled diaper.

For a week, she had survived by drinking water from the toilet bowl and eating Cheerios left strewn on the floor.

The bloodied bodies of her mother Lee Kui Yin, 39, her Polish father Kazimierz Turzynski, 35, and her grandfather Mieczyslaw Turzynski, 61, were found stabbed.

The case remains unsolved.

Her paternal grandmother, who is also deaf, took her out of foster care to live with her father's family in Poland.

And while her mother's ashes were returned to her Singapore family, they lost all contact with her.

In 2013, she started searching for them.

After reading about her in The Straits Times last April, her family stepped forward.

A few days later, they met through Skype.

On Dec 16 last year, at Changi Airport, she finally met her Singapore relatives face to face for the first time.

Then began a whirlwind tour of the country.

Her mother's family and friends, and friends she knew through a Singaporean university mate, took her to various tourist spots, including Sentosa, Orchard Road, MacRitchie Reservoir and Chinatown.

She also went to the Merlion Park - she found the national icon "cool" - and watched fireworks with cousins at Marina Bay while counting down to the New Year.

Local food, though, was a challenge. She tends to get a runny nose when eating spicy food, but it was her encounter with the durian that left a deep impression. "The smell was horrible!" she signed, pinching her nose with eyebrows furrowed.

"Another cousin gave me durian ice-cream. I tried a bit, then I drank a lot of water to flush out the taste."

But she does like carrot cake.

"If I had grown up in Singapore, I'd probably like more local food."

The heat has also been a test.

But that has not stopped her from falling in love with this country.

"This is an international place, with a lot of shops... It's also a small place where everything is near to one another, unlike in the US," she said.

"I also have good friends here, and they're warm-hearted."

But the biggest highlights of her trip were getting to know about her mother and visiting her final resting place at Mount Vernon Columbarium.

She went there twice - first with her aunt, Madam Lee Say Moi, just hours after she touched down, and then on Jan 2 with her mother's best friend, Madam Chan Yoke Mei.

She also paid respects to her maternal grandparents at a Chinese cemetery in Lim Chu Kang.

Through sepia photos in family albums and meeting her mother's friends, she found herself being inspired by a parent she hardly knew.

"My mother had little education and yet she was so outgoing. She was very brave to have travelled around the world," she said.

Her mother, who lost her hearing after a high fever when she was five, met Ms Turzynski's father, a deaf mime artist, while on holiday in Poland.

With her mother being the seventh in a family of eight children, Ms Turzynski's visit here has opened her eyes to a rather big Singapore family she never knew.

In the last month, she went to the homes of different relatives and took photos with them at each place.

"I don't have my parents. I've always been alone, so I wanted to learn more about my relatives," she said.

"After a few days of interacting with them, I felt more and more comfortable with them... They've given me a lot of love."

Yesterday, there was a family gathering at her uncle's home to bid Ms Turzynski goodbye.

Her aunt Madam Lee told The Sunday Times: "She was very brave to try and search for us." Ms Turzynski's cousin Lee Hui Jun, who is just a year older, said: "She's very smart. She can guess what we're saying from our gestures."

But language has been a problem, particularly when communicating with her older relatives, many of whom speak Mandarin or Hakka.

"At gatherings, if they are not writing to me, I feel left out a bit because I don't understand what's going on. But my cousins would then write for me, and I'm happy," Ms Turzynski said.

Despite the challenges, "I cherish my family", she said.

"I don't want to lose them. It's because of my mother that I have this wonderful family."

She admitted that it is hard having relatives all over the world.

Her father's relatives live in Poland; her foster parents and the burial places of her father and grandfather are in the US.

Her Singapore relatives hope she will eventually live here, finding a job - and love.

"My relatives asked me if I have a boyfriend. I said 'no'. They would like me to find a Chinese boyfriend here," she said, laughing.

"If I didn't have to go back to the US so soon, I'd have wanted to stay here longer," added Ms Turzynski, who is here on her school's winter break and graduates next year.

"I have to focus on my studies, so I don't know when I'll return. But I would like to come back regularly. This is like my third home."


This article was first published on January 11, 2015.
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