Confession…I often worry that I’m a bad expat.
My house is full of American food and brands. I recently wrote an article about how to shop for American clothes while living in Singapore. I don’t like local food. I have a grand total of three Singaporean friends after a year. Does all of this add up to…a BAD EXPAT?
Probably not. Maybe. Hopefully.
This entry was inspired by Maria, who recently posted “Become an Ugly Expat in 12 Easy Steps.” I ended up writing a novel in her comments section, trying to tease out the difference between a hesitant expat and an ugly one, and she encouraged me to explore the idea further here. Thanks for the encouragement, Maria!
The very real truth about being an expat is that you will always be an outsider to some extent.
In many ways, it’s not unlike being an interracial marriage…for all that I’ve learned a lot about Indian culture and customs (or at least those of my extended family)…I’m not Indian-American. Regardless of Ravi’s choice to disengage with his Asian/Indian-ness and identify primarily as an American, he has had experiences and expectations placed upon him that I can’t begin to understand. I feel as though I’m tangentially part of the Asian-American community, in that my daughter is half Asian and I want her to grow up with an appreciation of that half of her heritage, so I make more of an effort to be aware of issues that may affect her than I might if Ravi and I had elected to not have children.
As an expat, I do try to engage with Singaporean culture, but there are ways in which I can’t. Some of them are very literal–I can’t vote, I can’t engage with things that are “political.” I didn’t go through the school system here, so I can’t fully understand what it feels like to be shaped by those experiences. I just don’t get the love of durians, and probably never will. If I tried to throw around Singlish, I’d feel like an imposter.
Each expat family has to decide how and to what extent they choose to integrate, and there isn’t really a right way to do it. The only wrong way is to hide in your apartment for the duration of your stay and complain constantly about how much you hate your host country.
This hasn’t stopped me from thinking on a fairly regular basis that I’m doing it “wrong.”
I’m really one of the last people who should ever jump on a plane and move to the other side of the planet.
The first time I flew, left the country, or left the Boston-DC corridor for that matter was when I traveled to France for a month-long short term abroad. The two French professors actually had a bet going as to whether or not I’d actually get on the plane, much less survive a month in France. My $2,000+ phone bill gives away my dirty little secret that I struggled with being away from everyone and everything I knew, regardless of how many cheery postcards I sent home. I didn’t stay in my bedroom at my host-family’s flat…I went out, I explored…I even ventured my way by train to Cannes for a night and day of solo travel. But it was hard, and there were plenty of nights where I went to sleep crying over how isolated and lonely I felt.
Moving to Singapore just over a decade later was a different experience. I’d left the country multiple times by that point. I was married, and I had a daughter. I was more mature, more confident, more open. I had a much stronger self of self. These factors all made it seem like the move would be easier than my short trip to France had been.
Unlike my trip to France, I didn’t move to Singapore with an end date. At first we said one year and then we’d make a call. Then it was two because our apartment and our cell phones and our helper were all two year contracts. Now we talk about five years, and longer. Ask me on any given day…hell, multiple points on the same day and you will get varying degrees of comfort with that kind of open-ended return (if in fact it is a return to the US at all from here.)
Expats should eat the cuisine of their host country, no matter how different from that of their home country.
As someone who has never been an adventurous eater, in fact has food-related phobias…I am very slow to acclimate to try new things. Silly though it might sound, I am almost as scared of new food as I am of giant flying cockroaches. I wish this were not true–I have often felt humiliated by my position as the problem child when my friends invite me to eat out, and over the years I’ve turned down countless opportunities to let people cook for me because it’s embarrassing to share the truth about how picky I am. People who have known me for longer than five or seven years can attest that I’ve experienced a great many breakthroughs and personal growth in the area of food since I met Ravi, who always encourages me to try new things, doesn’t care if I order something else, and has even escorted me to McDonalds when a “try” has gone poorly.
Singapore does have a lively food scene, from hawker stands to five star Asian cuisine. I can give you a very in-depth run down of places that purport to be American style or are American chains. I can also speak with some authority about Indian restaurants I’ve tried, although my preference is to find a place I like and then just return there over and over.
Elanor, on the other hand, has developed a deep love of Chicken Rice (one of the big Singaporean dishes) and has turned down offers of McDonalds to get Chicken Rice instead.
Ravi does take advantage of the easy availability of Japanese and Ramen places, and has even asked B to regularly make him noodle dishes to take to work for lunch.
But most nights you’ll find us eating meat (prepared in a western way), veggies (I’m trying to learn to stir fry, but I still suck at it…so largely roasted/steamed/boiled/western), and tater tots or fries. Because food is meant to be a source of comfort, and Ravi and I both find comfort in food that is familiar and home-like to us. Even on a bad day, that taste of home can help make things a little easier.
Is it more expensive than living in a more Singaporean style with regards to food? Oh yes, yes it is, starting with the oven I bought and continuing on through the high cost of meat and imported food. But if the cost isn’t a real factor, why deprive ourselves of something that helps us embrace life in Singapore more fully?
Expats, if they really want to, can blend into the local culture and make it their own…
Socioeconomics will play a real role in your interactions with other expats and with locals, and it’s something that very few “so you’re moving to X” books discuss.
In a place like Singapore, it’s virtually impossible to come here and be on equal or worse socioeconomic footing than the locals. Which is an uncomfortable reality, especially as the people you’ll likely start by comparing yourself to are the other expats. Who in some cases will be FAR more well off than you. When we moved here, we looked into the cost of joining The American Club…and nearly died of a financial stroke. I also scraped my jaw off the floor when looking at the cost of private school (hint…I think my college charged the same–or less–tuition per year) and began to seriously consider homeschooling. Our two-car lifestyle in the US became a no-car lifestyle.
With that in mind, I had this (very false) notion that we were effectively middle class. Better off than some, but not as secure as others.
Wow…I was naive…as I learned in the Huffington Post article I quoted in this short entry. It’s naive to think that income gap won’t have some repercussions on things like your social circle (by virtue of being able to afford a zoo membership, or the cab to get there on a regular basis, or multiple drinks at a bar or club).
Good expats make tons of local friends…
I remember being all excited about starting E back in gymnastics here, and picturing meeting local moms. I met expats and nannies. I joined a few meet-up.com groups for moms and tots…and met expats. Ironically, my “local” friendships are all by-products of my blogging…and I treasure them, but I’m not sure how to go about meeting local mums. Singapore doesn’t have the kind of local playground scene that is a staple of meeting other moms back in the US. I don’t want to stalk women with small children…that wouldn’t be creepy at all! I’m not the most socially adept individual and I’m not good at walking up to a stranger (in real life) and introducing myself and suggesting we get our kids together for a playdate.
Which is not to say that making friends with other expats isn’t important and valuable. There is something really great about being around others who are perceiving your new culture through the same lens of your old. I’m the baby expat in my circle of friends (for the moment), and they are really helpful sources of information and tips on how to navigate this often confusing new world. Moreso than the countless books I read on Singapore and adjusting to life as an expat. (In fact, Maria’s newest post “Oh the Places You’ll Go” should be required reading for anyone who is or plans to be an expat–no one gets what it’s like to be an expat–except those who have gone before you.)
Nor do you want to be the asshole who make token friends to fill the “local friend” slot. Connecting and finding ground with new people, especially when you feel vulnerable takes time. I genuinely like my “local friends” for the interesting and awesome women that they are, not because I can point to them and say “these are my Singaporean friends.”
Good expats live in a style similar to locals….
Lifestyle can also create chasms between what you think you’re supposed to live like and what you actually live like. We live, like many expats, in a Condo rather than in an HDB flat (like many Singaporeans). We run our air conditioners all the time. We keep our windows closed (I’m still not used to the lack of screens, and between the child and the kittens, I’m just too paranoid. That we have a construction site next door and opening windows allows for dust to come and cover our things with a patina of dust and grime also makes the windows less attractive. We gave up turning off the hot water heaters because we never remembered to turn them on (or turn them on with enough time to heat up) and took one too many cold showers. We have our American beds, our IKEA furniture, and our big oven in the kitchen. We like our bottled water as opposed to tap water. When the tv is on, it’s a dvd of an American tv show or movie. Our lifestyle is still distinctly American.
Expats leave their cultural baggage at the door…
The truth is that as a baby expat, I’m still learning to let go of the US. Some things, like tv via slingbox, food, air con, and my Gymboree addiction for E’s clothes will either never fade or take far more time than this first year. My life is so far from what I thought it would be, and what my friends back home lives are like that it’s sometimes scary to contemplate…and fear makes the familiar all the more comforting. But as time passes, some things that were terrifying before seem less scary or confusing.
This doesn’t mean I think I’ve got it all wrong…but that’s for another post.