I’ve recently been emailing with a potential expat. I had a number of Singaporean expats respond to my emails, answer questions, and generally be a great resource for our move. Some of them are now irl friends (or were and have moved onto their next country). I actually love it when potential expat contact me because it gives me a chance to pay the kindness I received forward.
The reason I’m bringing this up at all is that she asked me the following question–“How do you and your kids enjoy life in Singapore?”
It’s sort of an obvious question to ask–one I’m sure I asked many people. However, as the expat living in Singapore, it’s not a questions I’ve given much thought to. I was inspired to write a blog post to answer her. Apologies if it’s a bit all over the place–I’m writing at 1am, and this is stream of consciousness. It’s also a bit long.
Me as an expat, a history
Me in years 1-3
I had few, tenuous in real life friendships that mostly existed on Facebook, was miserable. I questioned my choices. I resented the hell out of needing a “dependent pass,” as if that somehow made me less equal in my marriage. This is a common feeling among trailing spouses.
I resented that my partner got to go to work while I had to figure out how to get a plumber or a handyman. When the power went out, it took me hours to figure out who to talk to (your building manager if your box is ok, but the power is still out–there’s a master in the hall or something that can be reset). In those early days, I didn’t understand Singlish or the Singaporean accent at all, and it took me forever to understand what most people were saying.
I was lost. (You’re lucky because Google Maps has fully mapped Singapore, including the public transit system–that had not yet happened in 2010 when I first moved here, and that was probably three-five cell phone ago, as well). I didn’t understand how anything connected to anything else.
I was reduced to feeling lonely, angry, and frustrated a lot of the time.
Me in years 3-6
I had my friends, my routine, and my kids were learning Mandarin. I liked their schools and I wanted E and R to do X and Y before we even contemplated a move. I was firmly in Singapore and I knew I definitely didn’t want to leave before a specified time.
I had friends. Some left (and their leaving was difficult on me and the kids), but for the most part I have had a stable group of friends since 2012. I knew, mostly, who to call and how to deal with the normal nonsense of life. We were settled in.
Me in year 6
I am happy/content most days. See above–my stable friend circle is still alive, although we recently had another close friend leave. I have my routine and I’m good with it.
If in years 1-3 I wanted to leave and years 3-6 I wanted to stay, in year 6 a sort of ambivalence has set in.
I’m living my life just as I’d be living it in Boston or London or San Francisco. But if GBN were to move us to NY or London next month, I’d miss my friends terribly, but I’d be okay with leaving. I feel like I’ve had the “Singapore experience. But if we stay longer, I’m happy with that too.
I still have days and moments that make me homesick. I was lucky (?) enough to be in the States when my grandfather died, but I couldn’t afford to fly back for his funeral several months later. One of my dearest friends adopted a newborn baby who has since passed his first birthday. I’ve never held him, or interacted with him beyond skype.
When big problem occur (or ones that feel big, but aren’t) there are moments when I still want to throw in the towel and say “fuck it, I’m going home.” The lure of that can be strong. It’s easy to remember that a move will involve brand new problems. There’s no nirvana–there are always good days and bad days. It’s just that when you’re 10k miles away from home, running home and hiding involves multiple planes.
Things I still haven’t adjusted to 6 years in
- The heat. Oh my god, the heat, where is my air-conditioning?
- The haze, because I like breathing
- The deep and enduring love of the people for LKY
- The Prices (although to be honest, I just try not to look too closely at them now)
- The super expensive sports cars everywhere (and drivers who don’t know how to drive them)
- The sheer proliferation of malls, and how crowded they are on weekends.
- The screeching of the birds on Orchard Road at night.
- The negativity and 90’s style American-born-Fundamentalist-Church attacks on the LGBTQA community. That 377(a) is still on the books and that while “it’s not prosecuted” sex between two men could be.
- The way that Singapore score quite low when it comes to freedom of the press
How do my kids like living in Singapore?
They have no basis for comparison. Elanor was seventeen months when we moved here and Rhiannon was born here. Ellie has no memory whatsoever of living in Boston. This is all they know. They’re kids. They’re happy.
(run-on sentences below are intentional to replicate the way my kids talk)
They would love to live in Hawaii because then they’d live at Aulani (the Disney resort).
They’d love to live in Boston because then they’d be close to their grandparents and there would be snow and they could build snowmen and in the summer they could go to an amusement part called Canobie Lake Park and Elanor could go to public school where she wouldn’t have to wear a uniform and that would be awesome.
They would like to live in Tokyo so they could hang out with my friend Emily and her son Aiden and there are two Disney parks so they could go there all the time and there is a Universal Studios somewhere else in Japan that Elanor wants to go to so we can visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Any of the places they express a preference for has to do with a vacation they’ve been on. Boston is the only one with some sincerity as they do miss my in-laws and wish we could see them every week (or every day in their preference). But even then, their knowledge of Boston is that of a visitor, not a resident. Elanor has never stepped foot inside an American classroom, for example. They understand the US primarily through those half remembered visits and what they see on tv/in movies.
For the adults, our time in Singapore will be an experience that has left a positive mark on our lives. Singapore will always be a part of us–we will always have friends here, I will certainly keep abreast of Singapore’s news, and we will visit.
For our kids–if we left today, they would leave semi-fluent in Chinese (and I’d need to get a US tutor right away)
They will always have a taste for certain foods.
For Elanor in particularly, her “normal” will be Singapore, and it will be the US (or wherever) that will be foreign and uncomfortable, at least for a while. Thanks to the internet, she’ll maintain some of her friendships with her BFF’s. Depending on when we leave, I wouldn’t bet against “lessons I learned as a third culture kid in Singapore” being Elanor’s entrance essay to university. I wouldn’t be shocked if she chose to move back here as an adult.
For Rhi, it will depend on how old she is when we leave. If we left today, she’d probably only have dim memories, much as a friend who came here as an adult after being here as a child did.
What about you? How will SG work out for you?
I’m speaking directly to the stay at home parent—If you never leave your house and you never look for or find friends, you will be miserable. You need to make the effort to have a life here. If you put in the work, Singapore can be an amazing experience. If you don’t, it can be a hot hellish hellhole you were dragged to against your will.
The move is going to be hard. It will be hardest on the primary caregiver/stay at home parent until they find community, but even after. My husband has it so good–he gets up and he does the mornings with the kids, for which I adore him, then he goes to work and comes home. I (half)joke that he visits Singapore on weekends, and we life here. I deal with any repairs that need to happen, groceries, laundry, sending out dry cleaning, the family calendar, and so forth. (Yes, I have an FDW, and that has been a positive experience this time around for tremendous support as I’m still recovering from surgery and dealing with chronic pain, but I’m also in charge of ensuring that she not be overworked and has enough support from me to do her job.)
Culture shock will hit you again and again and again. I posted last week about grading, and how six years in I still got smacked in the face with some culture shock. Starting and continuing with everything here is ridiculously expensive. Housing, food, electricity, clothes, toys, blah blah blah. Bring as much as you can, and rest easy in knowing amazon offers free global shipping over 125 sgd.
Making friends, or at least acquaintances will be easiest for the working parent. The stay at home parent will need to work to make friends. Meetup.com, starting a blog, commenting on other people’s blogs, joining the discussion on twitter, etc are how they’re going to have to find community. Chat up other people at kid events (and be frustrated when sometimes you meet only FDW’s–who are lovely to get to know and chat with, but they can’t grab a coffee with you on Thursday evening.) If your child goes to school, try to get to know the parents there. There is likely a FB group or a Whatsapp chat going that you can join.
Depending on your home climate, the heat can feel oppressive. Brave it to get to know the country. Go to the Zoo, the Night Safari, Gardens by the Bay, the water play area on the roof of Nex Mall, walk down Orchard Rd—if only to try to count how many Tiffany and LV stores there really are (a lot), go to the Mangrove Walk at Sungei Buloh Preserve, there’s amazing children’s theater here year round but keep an eye open for the kidsfest programming in January/February, the Port of Lost Wonder on Sentosa. Stay busy.
Celebrate your new home country. Coming up I highly recommend
- National Day–Watch the festivities on tv on Aug 9 (channel 5), but
attend the weekly “practice” fireworks every Saturday starting soon through August 9th. Even the practice fireworks are spectacular. Grab a seat on the ground opposite the Marina Bay Financial Towers, or along the boardwalk at the Marina Bay Mall overlooking the water. You won’t be disappointed. (Warning for loud noises may frighten little ones)
ETA—In comments, someone said the practice fireworks are being held at the stadium. Does anyone have advice on where to view them? Can you buy seats for the practice fireworks or go into the stadium seats for free? What’s the buzz?
- Despite the smoke, look for the signs of the hungry ghost festival (august) Go to Chinatown and see what sorts of offerings people throw.
- The Mass Lantern Walk (early September)
- Halloween in little America (get a cab to the Singapore American School and follow the crowd) It’s a trick or treating experience unlike any other.
- Diwali (late october/early november) in Little India is beautiful. They have amazing lights and there are markets. Enjoy freshly made jalebi to bring in a sweet start to your new year.
- Christmas on Orchard Rd–as early as late October you’ll start to see Christmas decorations going up along the road from Tanglin Mall to Plaza Singapura. When lit up at night it is a spectacular sight. Each mall tries to outdo one another. At Tanglin Mall, there is a tree that shoots our soapy “snow” that the kids love (bring spare clothes and a towel)
Loneliness will come. I hope that you find your way through it, because your time here can be wonderful.