Bad Expat (part 1–ur doin it rong)

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.

Two worlds in one adorable package…

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.

I even know the location of the American Food I don’t like….just in case

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).

We don’t shop here…

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 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.

I see white people…

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.

NO.  Just…NO

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 is HOME (Boston)

This doesn’t mean I think I’ve got it all wrong…but that’s for another post.

This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Pictures, Random Stuff, Singapore, US. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Bad Expat (part 1–ur doin it rong)

  1. bookjunkie says:

    Aw…don’t worry about it. As a local I could totally relate to you and not all of us Singaporeans like Durian…my cousins are examples.

    I have always been a picky eater and didn’t get used to Japanese food till now. And even then I can’t eat raw sushi.

    I have an extreme phobia of roaches…..screaming, running away..the works.

    Wow it’s awesome that lil E likes chicken rice, although I am not a fan of this very Singaporean dish. Everytime my cousin comes back from Australia she wil definitely get her cravings satisfied.

    I would be totally homesick if I ever moved…its more about the family being around than anything else. I really do desire to migrate but the homesickness would do me in. I would worry too much about the people back home too. I am quite a wimp.

    • Crystal says:

      The lack of family/old friends is definitely the hardest part of being an expat.

      However, I can say with authority that it is far easier today than it was in 2000, when I was in France. Back then, there was no Skype, no internet, no international sims/codes for your cell phone to use minutes instead of running up a massive bill, and email was this fairly new thing in my life…and most of my friends didn’t have it at home (and as we were on summer break…well, that was that).

      Today we Skype regularly with parents, I call my friends (not as much as I’d like, but that’s time difference, not money) back home for minutes, Facebook/Twitter/Blogs keep me up to date on the vast majority of my pals, and we stay connected. Not to mention streaming video, iTunes and all the other little things that remind me of home. No, it’s absolutely not as good as hanging out with Kate, or catching a movie with Curt or any number of things with any number of friends. But it’s a vast improvement.

      E is OBSESSED with Chicken Rice. I think it’s because B is a big fan, and E sees her eat it all the time. She’s also a huge fan of papadum (but that’s my influence).

      If you ever took the plunge, you would be shocked by the inner strength that you’d find.

  2. Maria says:

    Awesome, awesome post. In many ways (picky eater, difficult first expat experience in France) you and I could be sisters, especially because we seem to share the habit of being too damn hard on ourselves.

    I didn’t read anything in your post that made you a bad expat. What I read instead is the story of a woman who is dealing with a massively different culture and lifestyle — at her own speed, with courage and grace. Who knows what differences the next year will bring? Keep on doing what you’re doing: exploring your own boundaries and deciding on a day-to-day basis how far (or even if) you want to shift them.

    I’m tweeting this baby. Writing like this deserves to be seen!

  3. bookjunkie says:

    I too can’t live without air conditioning, hot showers, bottled water, burgers, ikea….

    • Crystal says:

      I’m enough of a bad expat to whinge constantly about the lack of a larger hot water heater. You get spoiled in a place like Boston, where pipes freezing in the winter is a very real possibility, and hot water heaters are kept on all the time. When you live in a large building, there’s a central water heater(s) with enough water for all 100+ units so you can (and I confess to having done so) take an hour-long shower with no drop in temperature…and that, to me, is heaven.

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  5. kirsten says:

    I don’t really think there’s such a thing as a bad expat unless – as you say – this person just sits in their flat all day and complains about the country or (worse) how stupid and weird all these locals are. Unfortunately, I do know of some people who are like that. It makes me feel justified in asking, “Well, why the hell did you move here then?”

    If you want to meet local mums maybe you should ask my friend Edwina (who blogs here: She used to be in my class in high school and now has a baby son, making her the youngest person I know with a kid. She was talking about all the support she has got from other local mothers and stuff on forums and groups, so maybe that might be a good way to find out more about the local mothering scene (is there such a thing? A mothering scene?)

    I think everyone has their ways of adjusting to a new place. It’s not fair to expect everyone to react the same to a new environment.

    In my home we don’t open the windows either. It’s ‘cos of the dust, and also my room faces A GIANT CANAL. Not great.

    If E likes chicken rice, I should drop by your place with chicken rice from this store that’s near my work one day. It’s FAMOUS. Apparently the best in Singapore! I don’t know if that’s true, but I like it, so…

    • Crystal says:

      I’ll definitely check out her blog! There is absolutely such a thing as a “mothering scene,” you just have to find a door to enter it.

      I’m glad to hear that we’re not the only people who don’t open our windows. My air con guy, realtor and several people with whom it’s come up look at me like a three-headed alien when I tell them that.

      • kirsten says:

        At my grandma’s the windows are open all the time. But then again they live in an old point block and on the 12th floor so there’s not much obstructing the breeze and they are high up enough to get away from the dust (and there’s no construction around them anymore).

        At my place there’s the canal. Then construction. And the wind is always being blocked by the other blocks anyway, so it’s kind of like “what’s the point?”

  6. Hello.

    I’ve been following BJs blog for about a year and we have became blogging friends. I too am an expat living in Italy and have been here for over 15 years.

    I can truly relate to the story you wrote here in regards to assimilating to a new society. I first moved to Italy before there was modern communication too so I know what it means to be away from family that sustains you.

    I just believe that the process of becoming part of your new country will take a bit of letting down the windows, metaforically speaking. I would say to emulate good behavior such as BJ. You just LIVE the life there and you will make friends along the way.

    Give yourself a break, take a chance, risk, ENJOY the new opportunity.

    Sometimes, you have to immerse yourself in an unfamiliar world to fully understand your own.


    • Crystal says:

      Can you post a link for “BJ”? I don’t know whom you’re referencing…thanks!

      We all open our windows and immerse at our own pace.

  7. Kelley says:

    Great post. I just moved to China last August to teach. What you mentioned about living a completely different life than your friends back home really struck a chord with me. They just don’t understand why I would be so happy that a grocery store here starting selling ranch Doritos. It is the small things!

    • Crystal says:

      It really is. I begged for tater tots for a few months, and then our Market 360 got a shipment of them. Ravi and I were practically in tears of joy.

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  9. Tabea says:

    Just a thought – the absolutely normal feelings of cultural dislocation that you feel would actually be a lot greater in a place less Americanized than Singapore.

    I lived the first 18 years of my life in Singapore and here are some of the foods my family ate on a regular basis, and which we considered normal, staple foods:

    – Goober Grape
    – Tater Tots (widely available when I was growing up in the 1970s)
    – cream of mushroom soup (usually Campbells)
    – Spam
    – baked beans
    – garlic bread made with McCormick’s garlic spread
    – Quaker brand oatmeal
    – Kellogg’s cornflakes
    – Kraft cheese

    I now live in the UK where it is a lot harder to find American products. I never realized how spoilt we were, in comparison, in Singapore. These are the products readily available in Singapore that I cannot find (or easily find) in the UK:

    – unsweetened baking chocolate
    – Keebler graham cracker pie crust
    – Pillsbury ready-rolled pie crust
    – Celestial Seasonings tea

    Would you believe that anytime a friend comes to visit from Singapore, I ask them to get me some Hershey’s or Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate?

    Goober Grape and Tater Tots were such an integral part of my childhood diet. But they are totally foreign to British people – who might, on the other hand, be more comfortable with the sort of ‘cooked in the oven western meat’ that you mentioned.

    • Crystal says:

      More than anything, I think when we move abroad we miss food that says “home” to us. I’ve seen many a twitter feed dissecting the availability and quality of “home” food in a new country, and have engaged in a few of them myself.

      I have come to realize exactly how spoiled we are in Singapore when it comes to American food. Which is not to say that one of the FIRST places I’ll stop at home in the US won’t be a US grocery store to load up on long missed snacks/foods and that I won’t be dragging a suitcase of food home to Singapore.

      It’s also interesting that there is so little US food available in the UK. I’ve only spent a few months there on various trips, but I had been struck by availability of familiar foods…which, now that I’ve thought about it means candy/chips/soda…stuff I’d grab on the go. I never actually went into a grocery store and pretended to shop for a home (something I’ve actually become fascinated with now that I live abroad—foreign grocery stores) so my impression was far less accurate than I had given it credit for being.

      I absolutely can understand asking a friend to bring food. Food, health care stuff, and clothes are our most frequent requests for care packages.

  10. Tabea says:

    PS Sorry but having just seen your other post, you are emphatically not ‘middle class’. Your monthly rent alone is equivalent (at least) to the median wage. I won’t be rude and ask if your husband’s company foots the bill.

    PPS Squat toilets are not exclusively an Asian thing. I’ve seen them in France and Italy. That doesn’t make them any less eeeuuuwww of course.

    • Crystal says:

      Ravi’s company does not pay for anything. They paid for the move here, an a month in a serviced apartment but then we were on our own. We have what’s known as a local deal, as opposed to an expat deal. In a local deal you have a salary and that’s that. In the expat deal, the company can/may cover a home, schooling for kids, a car, etc.

      Our rent is approximately 25% of Ravi’s monthly salary (pre-tax). If we choose to move, it’s unavoidable that it won’t go up to 1/3 or almost 1/2. By comparison, we lived in a “luxury” condo just outside Boston for less than 1/2 the rent even with the exchange rate and such, and the part of the country we lived in was one of the more expensive parts of the US (after SF and NYC).

      You are right that compared to the everyday Singaporean we are wealthy.

      However, when we compare our lifestyle here to our lifestyle in the US, or even other expats we are decidedly middle class. We can’t afford a car (we had two in the US and I desperately miss having one), paying international private school tuition is going to hurt (much less two, sigh–one of the reasons I haven’t taken a local school off the table), and membership at the American Club is laughably out of our price range.

      Singapore is the 8th most expensive city in the world, and we definitely feel that.

      But it’s also a matter of perception, and I’m willing to concede that my perception may be skewed. But until we can afford even a teeny little car, I just can’t think of us as wealthy.

      And yes, squat toilets are gross.

  11. Tabea says:

    International school fees are priced that way because historically, none of the parents would have paid the extortionate fees. It would all have been paid for by the MNCs who also coughed up for the black and white bungalows, car, amah, chauffeur etc.

    I’d say it’s worth giving local schools serious consideration. I went to a Singapore school, and my high school was one of the top 5 schools sending students to my Ivy League institution, right up there with Phillips Andover.

    I understand that running a car is essential to American life. But to be honest, your apartment is so central that you don’t really need one on a daily basis. There is no reason why you need to pay all that extra tax to the government!

    Finally a thought – one of the less pricey clubs is the NUSS Guild House. You might find it a little easier on the wallet. Their Suntec outlet has a nice bistro which does nice, and reasonably priced local and international food. You could probably get a steak dinner there for less than what you’d spend in Cold Storage.

    • Crystal says:

      For now we’re very happy with E at Growing Up Gifted (which is a fairly inexpensive “localish” pre-k program–lots of local kids, very few expats). I think we’ll see where things are when E is finishing up K1, and what our plans are at that point in terms of where she’ll go for P1. By that point, #2 will be moving into N2, so we’ll be making choices with an eye towards both girl’s schooling. If we are near where we currently live, there’s a Primary school within walking distance, but I have no idea as to it’s reputation. From what I’ve read about the high demand Primary schools, I might prefer a less prestigious school with a smaller class to give E more individualized attention. As a former teacher, and someone still certified to teach grades 1-6, I’m not worried about filling in any gaps that E might have, with the exception of Mandarin (US History is the obvious one there–I haven’t any complaints about what I’ve seen from the tests about the content in English and Math–although I feel for her on the spelling issue when we move back to the US).

      The whole car thing really is a cultural hold over. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of being American that it feels like a huge loss to not have one. It’s difficult to explain how deeply entwined notions of “freedom” and such are tied into car ownership. It’s just so painful to see cars at triple the price that we’d pay for the same car in the US (we didn’t own luxury cars in the US–my secondhand Camry and Ravi’s Accord were considered middle range cars–sensible family cars). But the ridiculous pricing *does* accomplish its goal of raising public transportation usage, so I have to give kudos to SG on that point. We did get our licenses, though, and I like forward to driving a rental at some point after this kid is out–I really want to go to KL (we had plans to go last January, and then I broke my ankle).

      I’ll keep that club in mind. After a year here, I’m not so sold on the necessity of membership (although the bistro sounds lovely). I used it as an example because I seem to encounter many expats who have no trouble paying for those and our jaws hit the floor.

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