Review–Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen

***I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review***

Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen, a US expatriate based in Singapore, is a work of fiction that opens with Sarah, a successful but unhappy lawyer in the US who one day gets to gleefully throw her resignation letter onto her senior partner’s desk when her husband Jason, a neuroscientist, gets a job in Singapore. Sarah and Jason say their farewells and, with their two children, fly off to a new country, a new condo, and a completely new life. The country? Easy to adapt to, with familiar food and brands (at jaw-dropping prices – $15 for a bag of shredded mozzarella!) And life in the condo is like freshman year all over again, a dorm where neighbours pop by at any time to say hello, borrow a bike pump, or drink themselves silly any old night of the week. There’s Carys, the teacher, and good-looking Ian; Ashley, who keeps her apartment freezingly air-conditioned round the clock, and Chad, her amiable New Zealander husband; Sara, who, like Sarah, is Asian-American, and John. The couples form a close-knit group and their evenings are soon filled with poolside barbecues, Trivia Nights, dinners, drinks and more drinks. But is it time to put the brakes on the hedonism when Jason and Chad are arrested after a pub brawl? Why, with an unbelievably fantastic lifestyle, is Sarah starting to feel listless? Why does John keep taking solo trips and when will Sara’s brave front finally crack? Who’s that woman with Ian in the lift? And what secret is Carys keeping from her friends? Not a simplistic, straightforward novel of one-dimensional characters, Travails of a Trailing Spouse will strike a chord with anyone, expat or not, who has ever found life more complicated, puzzling, thrilling, frustrating – and, ultimately, deliciously rich – than could ever have been imagined.

Reading Travails of a Traveling Spouse was like sitting down for a good gossip with a girlfriend in Singapore. Many of the characters are familiar–whether because they resemble actual expats I’ve met, or fit the widely accepted stereotypes. It’s a breezy, enjoyable read. It is the antithesis of Crazy Rich Asians, which was a soapy take on the uber-rich of Singapore.

Chen captures, honestly and beautifully, the journey of becoming an expat when you transition from working woman to stay at home mom in a new country. The thrill of excitement and discovery, and then the alienation that comes with attempts to fit into a new role and a new country. Through Sarah and her friends (all of whom are having their own, different, experiences) you get a peek into a certain type of experience of expat life in Singapore. I say certain, because most expats never have a run-in with the law!

The characters are three dimensional, and unique in their voices. Sarah struggles with her role as a stay at home mom, her anxiety at dealing with a strange country’s legal process after her husband is arrested for fighting (even though he wasn’t the one who was fighting, but he was drunk at the time), her anger and the strain on her marriage that Jason’s arrest causes, and ultimately the ebb and flow of expat life as things and people change.

Chen drops in details, like that FDW’s (Helpers) are often acting as a second mother/aunty to your child while their own children grow up far away without their mothers, and that visits are rare. However, she does so deftly, without changing the tone of the book from fiction to non-fiction. I appreciated this little nuggets, as they serve to show that the ease of expat life often comes at the expense of others, or that Singapore is often bewildering to expatriates and why.

This is also the story of expats who aren’t white, and I’m so glad to see that representation.

However, there’s one element that is missing from the book, and it’s a bit of a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation—Singaporeans. There are Singaporean police. There are background Singaporeans. But there are no Singaporean friends, and it’s noticeable. However, had she written in a character, it would be difficult to capture the Singaporean voice and the character would be a token character. But I think that this, too, isn’t an uncommon expat experience. I’ve talked before about the expat bubble, and Sarah and her friends live in it.

I think any expat would enjoy the book, but I think non-expats would also enjoy this book. However, you’ll have to get a physical copy–there are no e-book formats available, even the ones that are commonly used in Singapore, like Kobo.

Travails of a Trailing Spouse (Straits Times Press, 2018) debuted on the Straits Times Fiction Bestseller list at #2. It is available in the US from Amazon, and in Singapore from Kinokuniya, POPULAR, and Times. International orders can be made direct from the publisher, ST Press Books.

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Moving my cats to the US

We adopted Gandalf and Kerowyn from the SPCA in Singapore. I have no experience with moving animals to Singapore, but here’s a link if you’re looking for that information.

To make things fun, each state is allowed to set their own requirements to import a pet. However, California is pretty relaxed (at least for cats, I have no information about dogs). By the time we met all the qualifications to leave Singapore, we had more than met the requirements to enter California.

Obviously you can meet all the requirements and fly with your pet without the aid of a third party. My friend Stacey wrote about doing so three adults, an eight week old baby, and a cat. This is the least expensive way to move your pet.

In our case, we had no idea where we would be living, if the temporary housing would allow cats or if we’d be staying in a hotel, somit wasn’t the right call for us to handle the transition for the cats.  We elected to board the cats with Kittycare Haven, who we’d been using for years for boarding the cats whenever we went away, and have them handle the transition.

The biggest surprise for us was the cost of flying the cats over on their own. It was actually roughly the same cost to pay for the owners of Kittycare Haven to fly to California with the cats in cabin with them (yes it’s allowed, you just need to notify the airline and there is a small additional fee) and for their hotel and food allowance for a night as it was to fly the cats in the pet cabin. Having the Kittycare people fly with the cats also meant that they spent less time in the airport and were better looked after. In February 2017 that was roughly 2500 USD.

It ended up being an almost two month separation from our kitties, and our house didn’t really feel like a home until they were back with us (and our stuff arrived, but that’s a whole other post).

 

Posted in Back to the US, Expat to Expat Advice, repatriation | Tagged , , , ,

Repatriation

I have two articles over at Sassy Mama Singapore, most likely my last two which saddens me. Another link to Singapore severed.

The first is a roundtable discussion with three other moms about repatriation and whether we’d go abroad again.

The second is written as a Singapore vs US school repatriation and the culture shock we’re still dealing with.

The biggest and most problematic change we have had to deal with in California is that the standards are very different. In Singapore, Elanor strove to meet the high expectations set by the MOE. In California, the expectations are much lower and her effort has correspondingly dropped. There have been no spelling tests, no math quizzes, no assessments of any kind. Although she skipped half a year of school, we often feel that Elanor isn’t being adequately challenged in California. After worrying about all the pressure of the exams in Singapore, it turns out that I miss the academic rigour.

Read the rest here.

The girls now say they’re about 50/50 on Singapore vs CA. They now have local friends and are building a support network here, and they would be sad to leave it. Yet they also miss their friends and support network in Singapore.

I’m at about 75/25 most days, missing Singapore.

Posted in Back to the US, Culture Shock, Identity, Published!, repatriation, reverse culture shock, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Monterrey Aquarium

A few weeks ago, we went to the Monterrey Aquarium. It’s quite large (we didn’t see everything and we were there for several hours) and I highly recommend it as a family destination. We elected not to get a membership as we’re not sure we’ll return any time soon as it’s almost two hours away.

 

The aquarium used to be the site of a cannery, and in the lobby there are interactive displays to learn more about the history of canneries in Monterrey.

There are lots of tanks and a huge variety of marine life, with a focus on the life that lives in the bay. There’s an octopus, a room full of jellyfish, sea otters, and more.

This is one of my favorite pictures–some sea anemones

Kids can pretend to be penguin chicks, or a clam

There’s a playground where little kids (mine are starting to age out of it) can run off some energy and pretend to be various fish. There’s also a baby play area.

And of course there are tons of touch pools. Rhiannon’s goal was to touch a starfish–here she is doing it.

Nearby there are tons of restaurants and shops on Cannery Row, so there’s plenty to do and see after your kids tire of the aquarium.

Posted in Back to the US, Pictures, repatriation, San Francisco | Tagged , , , , ,

Reality has begun to set in

When I first started this blog, it was with the intention of keeping those back home know what our new life in Singapore was like. It was, in effect, a way of keeping hold of Boston while exploring Singapore.

I think I’ve hesitated writing about the move because that will make it real. By not writing, I could be in denial and think that perhaps we would go back to Singapore or move on to HOME (aka Boston) rather than this alien coast. By not writing, I could hold onto Singapore.

But the truth is that I can’t hold onto Singapore any more than I can hold onto Boston. Both will forever be “home” but the likelihood of us ever moving back there is almost nil. I have to stop living in denial and accept that this is our new home, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Denial is probably the best way to summarize the past six months. Denial that we actually live here, a strong sense of homesickness for Singapore. In Singapore when I became depressed or agitated, I wanted to flee Singapore for the familiarity of Boston. Now, when I’m depressed or frustrated, it’s Singapore I want to return to.

Last night I heard Elanor singing “Home” (the Singapore NDP version) and we talked about how she missed her old school and her friend. She told me she watches a lot of the NDP videos when she’s sad. Elanor finds the beginning of Home a bit sad, and it resonates for her.

Rhiannon isn’t quite as articulate or self-aware as Elanor, and can only express how much she misses her old Kindergarten, her teacher, and the playspaces she liked to visit. She wants to move back to Singapore as an adult.

Ravi has had the easiest adjustment. He wasn’t that attached to Singapore in the way the girls and I were, and for him feeling happy at work is what centers him. He is enjoying his new work environment and the new skills he’s learning.

It took several years for Singapore to feel like home, and I fear it will be the same on this side.

This is not to say I’m miserable–I can shop at Target again, after all. But I definitely have gone through a lot of depression myself. It’s so difficult to adjust to a new country. While I am an American, the subculture of the West Coast is as alien to me in many ways as Singapore was in 2010, as well as the reverse culture shock after being away for seven years.

I’ve been asked what the big difference is between the move to Singapore and the move back to the US and what might contribute to my feeling trapped here (which I do). Partially the answer is that when I moved to Singapore Elanor was my only child and she was a toddler not yet in school. I didn’t have anything but time to explore. Here I have two kids in school, each with their own schedules. I don’t have the luxury of saying “Oh, today we’ll go see the Children’s Museum in San Jose,” or “I’m going to drive on the 1 and see the coastline.” I can’t realistically do that and get back in time for school pickup–or it feels like it. Unfortunately by the time the kids are out of school the highways are already jammed—yes, at 3pm–which means going any distance is easily twice what it would be otherwise.

We live in a house, and we all miss the convenience of living in a condo. We live in a quiet residential area, and we miss the city noise. We have lemon and orange trees in our backyard, and roses–which I am deeply grateful I am not responsible for keeping alive. There is almost no rain, and I miss the drama of the thundershowers. We have a cleaner, but I miss the regular support of my helper. I miss so many things it could be a thousand posts long.

I don’t miss the haze. I don’t miss my old rental car when I compare it to my new minivan. I don’t miss how much I used to spend on groceries. I don’t miss “cannot.” I don’t miss the lack of a return policy most stores in Singapore have. I don’t miss having to shop internationally for clothing that fits my body, instead of going to the multiple stores in a mall that I can shop in. I don’t miss the humidity (although I do miss the heat).

Posted in Back to the US, reverse culture shock | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tattoo

I’ve wanted a tattoo since I was 18, but I wanted one that had meaning for me.

In the spirit of dyeing my hair the way I had always wanted to, but been too frightened to do, I finally made my selection–a tattoo that represented my children. With the move closing in, I talked to my stylist with the amazing sleeve tattoo and got the name of his artist.

I made an appointment with Kelvin at The Standard Tattoo, and got a souvenir from Singapore that I’ll never lose (well, that and Rhiannon, who was born there).

I’d originally thought it would be a small tattoo, but ultimately it takes up the inside of my arm from the wrist to almost the elbow.

People ask if it hurts. Certain parts hurt, but watching Kelvin do the tattoo was so engrossing that there were only a few parts that really hurt.

The tattoo took three hours, which I’m told is fast. I lost track of time.

The bunny represents Rhiannon. She was born in the year of the rabbit, her class at her Chinese pre-school was called the rabbit class. She’s also bouncy as hell, so she is my bunny.

The ribbon is a miscarriage remembrance ribbon. We don’t talk about miscarriage enough. Everyone has their own way of grieving. Mine include considering that lost, wanted pregnancy one of my children.

The turtle represents Elanor, who I’ve called my turtle since she was only a few days old.

 

I have no regrets, and consider it one of the best parts of leaving Singapore.

Posted in Attractions, Leaving Singapore, Singapore | Tagged , , , , ,

The end of an era

We are leaving Singapore.

In less than a month.

This wasn’t planned. A company head-hunted Ravi, one thing lead to another, and it ended in a job offer that he accepted. We’d hoped the girls and I would follow later–giving them time to finish out some of the school year–but things just didn’t work out for that to happen.

I’m overwhelmed by the abrupt closing of a nearly seven year chapter of our lives. Ravi and I have spent the majority of our relationship here. Elanor is furious with us for making her leave her friends and her life here for a country she hasn’t lived in since she was one. Rhiannon is regressing and keeps threatening to not get on the plane. I’m trying to schedule one last dinner with everyone I’ve grown so close to.

I’ll have a lot more to say on the subject as the date approaches, and on our re-entry to the US. But for now, I’ll simply say that I both am already mourning the demise of my life here and am excited for the next chapter.

Posted in Assimilation, Culture Shock