My Misconceptions about Expat Life

Following in the theme of my Stuff I wish I hadn’t brought to Singapore post, today we’ll explore my misconceptions about life as an Expat that I’ve since had shattered.

Misconception #1–That I would lounge by the pool, reading a book

I had a baby later that day…this is posing, not lounging.

When I thought about my life in the tropics, I pictured a LOT of pool lounging.  Daily pool lounging.  Things like grocery runs and pre-school pick-up did not figure into this view of expat life.  I forgot a major rule of life–wherever you go, there you are.  Put differently, same daily chores, different location.

Misconception #2–That I would be over homesickness within a few months

Homesickness is a tricky emotion.  You can go months without a pang of homesickness, and then seeing a tv commercial can make you burst into tears.  I can say that after two years, I still feel homesick at times-birthdays, holidays, and sometimes when it’s as simple as a friend posting “hey who wants to do X with me this afternoon?” on Facebook.

At the same time, I expected that every flight from the US back to Singapore would be tear filled.  I’ve cried twice that I can recall–the time we moved, and the most recent trip (because we’d JUST introduced Rhi to our family, and I knew how different she’d be before we got back for another visit).  Even so, the tears dried far quicker than I had anticipated.

Misconception #3–That I would raise a little American who also spoke Mandarin

Celebrate CNY?  Can!

I’ve touched on the issue of identity for my girls before.  Having never been an expat before, I don’t think I fully understood how much you are changed by where you live.  As I lived my entire life in the Northeast, my experience was fairly homogenous even though I moved around a lot.  I never stopped being a fan of the Red Sox because I lived in New York City, for example (although I may have cheered for the Mets every so often).

Singapore Actually asked me if she’d heard a trace of a Singaporean accent in my most recent video.  Yes, yes she had.  Ellie may love McDonalds, American Style pancakes with bacon, and tell you that she’s from Boston…but she sounds like she’s from Singapore.  Which she sort of is, having lived here more than half her life, and for the duration of what she remembers.  She uses some Singlish fluently (Can and *shudder* the dreaded cannot for yes and no, for example).  She absorbs so much without even trying, and I’m so proud of that.

Two years in, I’d feel as though I had failed if I had that American kid who happened to speak Mandarin I had pictured.  I love that Ellie can move seamlessly and happily between Singapore and Boston, and I hope she’ll retain that sort of cultural ease and fluency as she ages.

Misconception #4-That having a Maid would be the most awesome thing ever

Without even touching on the negative aspects of our story, I did not understand how challenging it would be to have a stranger live in my home.  The issues of culturally based assumptions.  The way that you can speak the same language and not have a clue what the other person means.

To be fair, not doing dishes or laundry for almost two years was pretty sweet.  As was being spared picking up after Hurricane Ellie.

But for our family, not having a live-in helper has been a really positive experience.  We have outside support (a cleaner 2x a week and a regular babysitter) that make it easier, but we are the only people who live in our home, and that’s pretty awesome.

Something that is incredibly hard to admit is that when you have a full time helper, it can become extremely easy to cede parental authority.  You have the freedom to go meet your friends whenever you want.  You can get time to write, or take a shower, or eat an entire meal.  But the negative that comes far too easily (and of which I was guilty of from time to time, especially when I was sick with the pregnancy) is that it becomes easier and easier to take time away from your kids.  And you miss out on what awesome little people they are (and they are, even when they are monsters who make you want to check yourself into a mental institute just to get five. fucking. seconds. to yourself).  I’m closer to Ellie today than I was eight months ago, and that is a hard thing to admit publicly.  I am a better mom without a helper than I am with one, even if my house is about 100% messier.

Misconception #5–That there would be a plethora of dolls that looked like my girls, instead of an ocean of white blonde dolls

My daughters are half Asian.  They are not naturally blonde, nor are they particularly pale (I, on the other hand, buy the lightest possible shade of powder–and sometimes it’s too dark for my skin–or at least that was true when I lived in the US), although by Indian standards, they are very “fair.”  Most dolls you see at Toys R Us do not look like them.

I had this notion that when living in Asia, it would be super easy to find dolls that look like the little girls that live here (and by extension, my daughters). This has not been the case. I underestimated the fetishization of the white beauty ideal here.  The skin whitening cream (the comments on this post are very interesting), the white models, the constant presence of a white western idealization (particularly of women).

White.  Very White.

I was nursing Rhiannon at the Marina Square mall while Ellie was in gymnastics class.  The nursing room nearest The Little Gym has some pretty wallpaper, and a giant picture of the baby.  The baby is blonde with blue eyes.  While nursing, I had a good 20 minutes or so to ponder this baby.  Why a white baby?  Why not an Asian baby?

Ironically I did recently find E a cute Asian baby doll–at IKEA.

How has you expat life differed from reality?

This entry was posted in Before the Move, Culture Shock, Expat to Expat Advice, Random Stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to My Misconceptions about Expat Life

  1. nancyholtzman says:

    OMG the Doll Situation. As you know, we use many many dolls here at Isis Parenting in the classroom for teaching. (We call them Teaching Dolls). It’s quite a challenge to find the perfect size and non-freaky appearance because you can really freak out expectant parents with an oversized doll, one with weird blinky eyes, a newborn with a HUGE HEAD, or -especially in the Breastfeeding Basics class- TEETH. Yes, yes, we know, very rarely newborns are born with teeth but we prefer not to fixate on that remote scenario.
    We have the perfect teaching doll, but. But, they are primarily available in blue eyed Caucasians. Cuz, you know, that’s what all people are. Oh, wait – they ARE available in African American. But the Hispanic and Asian are perpetually backordered and basically not available, period. So frustrating.

    • Crystal says:

      You would think that the company would do something about increasing production on Latino/Asian dolls rather than just let them stay perpetually backordered. Understanding supply and demand #FAIL

      I wish the infant CPR dolls weren’t so scary. I don’t remember what they looked like at Isis 3 and a half or so years ago when we took the class pre-Ellie, but the ones at the refresher course I took here in Singapore were terrifyingly creepy. And of course, white.

  2. Homesickness is weird. I totally did not really miss home that much the first year I was in NZ, but by the time it came to the end of my 2nd year I was practically a mess whenever I went back.

    It did eventually turn out that I was consciously/unconsciously unhappy with the boyfriend I had at the time, which was why I was loathe to leave the comfort of home to go back to that stress, but yeah, it was still weird how long it took for the homesickness to hit.

    • Crystal says:

      I’d be a miserable mass without Ravi and the girls. I barely made it through a month in France in 1999 (2000?) when I was on a short term abroad for Simmons, and didn’t know/really connect with anyone from my school there.

      • I’m much better now because travel has become such a part of my life that it feels like no big deal… but then again you never know when it strikes, and I haven’t been living away from home for an extended period of time (6 months and above) since NZ.

  3. Geraldine says:

    Hi Crystal 🙂 it is always good to read your posts. I am coming to Singapore at the end of May. I have learned a ton from your blogs and I’m very grateful. Me and my 2 dogs are looking forward to this big and exciting change. I do have a question about live out helpers. My purpose is for dog sitting and light housekeeping. Looks like it will cost me an arm and a leg if I board my dogs while I work. Do u still pay a levy? Is there anyway u can tell me the cost to hire a live out helper? I’m sure u won’t feel comfortable talking about money here 🙂 will pls email me @

    Much appreciated


    • Crystal says:

      I dropped you a line privately.

      It is worth noting that our 2x, 8 hours a week helper’s salary is just over 600 a month. 600 is a high base salary for a live in…you absolutely can keep your privacy, but you *do* pay for it.

  4. Robin says:

    I am proud of you for being proud of Ellie’s ability to transition between two cultures. I, unfortunately, am not as proud of my son for that. My husband is Singaporean & our son was born in America. We moved to Singapore when he was just a few months old, and neither of us wanted to give him the additional Singaporean citizenship. (Not because of National Service. Entirely because of education. My mother-in-law is a P6 teacher here, so I hear a lot from an insider.) I think when you combine the facts that (1) through my husband’s identity and his family, I learn things about Singapore (eg, we live in an HDB flat), and (2) my husband and I are both university-educated from a US perspective (self-critical, critical of gov, etc), let’s just say that we don’t see Singapore through rose-colored lenses. And this outlook of mine makes me want to keep my American son “American”. When he says “cah”, I find myself repeating “carrr”. To be honest, after three years in, I’m still really struggling with culture shock, homesickness, and the like. Oh, and I know what you mean about crying at something like a TV commericial! I have had my two biggest doses of culture shock right after seeing American movies. I get immersed in my home “culture” for two hours, and then I step out of the cinema and it hits me like a ton of bricks.

    Oh, the only other difference that I can remember is what I thought fellow expats would be like. Haha! 🙂 Quite different.

    • Crystal says:

      Hi Robin!

      Ironically, the cah for car thing doesn’t phase me–it just sounds like she’s from South Boston (where we have lost every R that ever existed at the end of a word). Cannot for no makes me grind my teeth.

      I have the same experience when the lights come up after an American movie–it’s like temporary culture shock all over again, as it’s so easy to forget for a few hours.

  5. bookjunkie says:

    I never really thought deeply about it before, but yes, when I was little the only dolls out there were blonde with blue eyes and that became the image of the ideal beauty to me (subconsciously). All the books I read also portrayed the blonde child is the ideal/ good one. It was only as an adult that I discovered barbies of different ethnicities. In India in my 20s…Barbie in a sari thrilled me.

  6. I just found your blog, and I am loving the honesty (and your writing)! I think the part about live in help really made me think. We don’t have that (it’s not part of the culture here in Japan), but I do get what you’re speaking about when we lived in a hotel for so long. Sometimes, it is nice and helpful and really great not to have to make your bed, and sometimes you just want people the fuck out of your house because you just want to stay in bed and watch reruns of Community a little bit longer and you haven’t brushed your teeth and yes it is one in the afternoon…. but you can’t really say that, can you?

    And I think the Facebook posts of friends back home just doing normal things (BBQs, etc.) that make me so, so, so homesick. Which I certainly didn’t expect.

    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

    • Crystal says:

      Facebook is a total double edged sword. I didn’t have anything like that when I spent a month in France in college and I was soooo homesick that I ran up a 2k USD calling card bill. Back then even email was new, and if you had internet in your home, it was dial up. On one hand, I feel so much more connected to my friends that I did back then. But that is absolutely a negative too–you know your friends are at the movie you want to see, and you’re wherever you are, unsure if the movie is even coming out in your country.

      We had that experience when we lived in the serviced apartment. The maids would come knock on the door and be horrified that we were not up and at em at 10am. Sorry, not a morning person.

  7. Laura says:

    I totally relate to your first two points. I think a lot of my friends back home think I live a life of lounging around pools etc all the time. They really don’t always seem to get that I still have to do exactly the same things I did in the UK and that they do too but just in a different place and in different shops.

    Likewise the homesickness, I’ve only cried a handful of times, first time I flew out, a couple of other random times and our first Christmas away but like you it can hit me at the most silly times and over the most random things. I am lucky that we go back to the UK fairly regularly to see my husband’s sons from his first marriage and that in turn this means I get to see my family and friends regularly. However I feel pangs of guilt at times that I don’t then appreciate my visits as much as I should because we get to make them so frequently! During those moments of fleeting homesickness where I’d do anything to be back in the UK I end up feeling guilt too for the times I’ve taken that luxury for granted.

    • Crystal says:

      People definitely think our lives are way more exciting than they really are. Yes I pass palm trees on the way to the grocery store, but I’m still going there to buy toilet paper.

      I have friends who haven’t been back in years, and I am awe of their resilience. I think I can handle the homesickness when it strikes because I have a pretty good idea of when I’ll next be home.

  8. Claire says:

    I’m definitely with you on the first two points! We’ve had a few visitors since we arrived, and they are all super shocked that I don’t sit by the pool every single day! Sometimes I feel guilty that maybe I’m not making the most of it, but then I remember that I am still having to do all the chores I would’ve had to do at home, look for a new job, and try and settle myself into an alien country. The odd times I have sat by the pool I’ve felt a bit lonely, and I know it would be more fun to do it wiht a friend.

    I really struggled with homesickness at the beginning. It wasn’t that I wanted to go home, but I just missed my family and friends desperately. I had days where even going to the supermarket and not being able to buy something that I’d buy with ease in the UK would set me off. I feel way more settled now – I’ve learnt to appreciate the contact I do have with my family and friends, and supermarkets are just places to buy food! That’s not to say I don’t still have the odd down day, but is a bit more random and fleeting. I still hate that I have to miss things like my friends getting married but I try to remember that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I really want to make the most of it.

    I’m really happy to read that good, positive things have come out of your experiences with B, and that you are closer as a family. That is a wonderful thing to have come out of expat life.

    • Crystal says:

      I actually need to spend more time at our pool. I feel guilty for not using it more often–I’ve always dreamt of having a pool (they’re uncommon in the northeast of the US because you can’t use them 9 months out of the year–impractical as hell, and mostly there as status symbol).

      I think we also get so desperately grateful when we see a familiar food at the grocery store. Ravi and I practically fell to our knees the first time we saw tater tots, for example.

      I do love the closeness of our family. I think that’s part of expat life too…you need to count on your partner and family more than ever because they’re what you have at hand. It’s not surprising that for many, the expat experience will either cement your relationship or end it (and I’ve seen both).

  9. Dawn says:

    American Girl dolls come in all sorts of shades, and when my daughter was asked to choose one (from the online catalog) that she might like to have someday, she picked one out that looked as much like her as a doll could. I think it’s natural when kids want dolls that look like them, and heartbreaking when they specifically want dolls that look very different from the way they do.

    • Crystal says:

      Yeah, I’m planning on an American Girl Doll when she treats her dolls a bit better. They’re just too pricey (and her interest in dolls when it exists is too low overall) to justify it today.

      You make the excellent point that at least they want dolls who look like them.

  10. Love the article – I’ve just shared it on the Families in Global Transition Facebook page. Hope that’s ok!

  11. Kate M says:

    I rarely reply on blogs, but it was so refreshing to read all this as I am doing the same with a 2yo girl in Santiago, Chile (and I am from Brookline MA, so she says “cah” too). I hear you! I laugh when my friends think my life is so interesting living in South America because I do the same things that I would be doing at home except *everything takes 3x longer* than it should due to traffic and other inconveniences. I hate having a housekeeper (I realize how snotty that sounds), but for a myriad of reasons it just doesn´t go with my beliefs, but I need one (because everything else takes 3x longer than it should), so we have one that helps out a few days a week (ok, it is great not having to iron, but I also hate having someone in my home). Mostly it was refreshing to read that the struggle is there for us all- raising a little one in a mixed marriage far away from what we consider home. Sometimes I suffer from expat envy: why didn´t we end up in Rio, Milan, Dubai, or anywhere else slightly more glamorous/closer to home/interesting/not plagued with seismic activity, etc, and in our cases we all are in places with strengths and weaknesses, and we would all have the same struggles anywhere. We are all the richer in experience for it. Hopefully our kids will be, too. Have a great weekend.

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks for the comment! I love Brookline.

      The “everything takes 3 times longer” thing makes me really frustrated too. Our washing machine, for example, takes over 2 hours to do a load half as large as the one my washer back home took only 30 minutes to do. It’s a lot more energy efficient, but difficult from the perspective of “I have stuff to get done.”

      Hugs and have a great week!

  12. Pingback: 500 « Expat Bostonians

  13. Tina says:

    Hi Crystal!

    I stumbled onto your blog and have been reading articles for the past few hours. I love it!

    My husband is a Chinese Singaporean, I’m a white American and I’ve definitely found a lot of parallels to your situation and our own.

    We’re in the States currently but are considering going to SG for a while after he finishes school to see how we like living there and weighing the pros and cons of having children in SG versus US or elsewhere.

    I love the things you’ve picked up on about SG from an American perspective. The fact that so many models in ads were white or Eurasian was something surprising to me as well. I thought there’d be a bunch of exotic-looking (to me) people in their ads, too.

    Part of me felt a little sad when I visited and saw such rich, diverse cultures all coexisting while they were all speaking English (kind of hehe), glorifying a European appearance (it’s hard for most people to stay pale in SE Asia anyway) and the younger generation being very westernized culturally. Not what I was expecting, but still a bit novel.

    For me the biggest shame is that you basically have to go to Malaysia for a good scenic hike in the wilderness. We visited Bukit Timah, but I’m used to getting lost in the woods for hours. Such a beautiful place shouldn’t be built up so much when the natural beauty is absolutely breathtaking.

    I certainly don’t mean to disparage such an amazing little island. If it weren’t so wonderful we wouldn’t want to consider moving there. Those were just a few of my unexpected experiences while visiting. It makes you kind of glad most people don’t even know of its existence!

    As you’ve mentioned, much of the younger generation (we’re in our mid-20s) feels like life in SG is a bit stifling and many are immigrating elsewhere. So my husband isn’t big on planting our roots here, but will maintain SG citizenship. As someone who’s American yourself, what would you say the biggest pros and cons of living in Singapore are versus Australia or New Zealand? Those are two alternatives we’re considering.

    I know you’re very busy, but if you happen to get some free time a firsthand opinion would be fantastic. Thanks for making such an inclusive blog and keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Crystal says:

      Thank you for such a great comment!

      I’ve never lived in Australia or New Zealand. However, my friend Kate is an American who lived in Australia until recently (when they moved here to Singapore– you can check out her blog at WTF Mate, linked on the side of my blog). You could also reach out to Kelly, who writes Our Big Expat Adventure, who is Australian and now living here in Singapore. Tell them I sent you!

      I’ve only visited Australia, but the things that would make living there hard for me would be the internet cap and the fact that most things close very early (like 6/7) and that would make me absolutely crazy. Never been to New Zealand, but it’s super high on my list as I have a few buddies who live on the Northern Island and it would be great fun to drive from Wellington to Auckland.

      I definitely think there are pros and cons to having the kids here in SG versus the US. There’s a distinct lack of fear mongering (see my recent post about men and kids here in SG versus the US where all men are treated like suspected predator and here where men are “uncle”), with the right OB you’ll be able to call more of the shots about your pregnancy, and I certainly feel like the education Ellie is getting is much stronger than what she’d get back home in the early years. However, I definitely miss neighborhood playgrounds (there are so few outdoor playgrounds and the equipment gets too hot to use anyway), cheap babystuff (clothes, toys, equipment–all double and triple what you’d find in the US…and what I think of as the Target “home brand” of Munchkin here is treated like some exotic high quality import, where I consider it a baseline product back home), close friends and family (although you’d have that here with your husband’s family), a wide variety of choice (baby food is limited to what you can find, and sometimes you find something they love only to never find it at cold storage again). And Target. I practically orgasm when I walk into Target on trips back home. Did I mention how much I miss Target?

      We haven’t done much exploring of the local nature…I’ve heard Bukit Brown is gorgeous (for as long as it’s still around–it may be paved for a highway), and the resevoir, but as they’re not terribly stroller accessible, I’ve yet to really make it there. I’m also a bad person to ask because while I miss the neighborhood playground, I’m not very outdoorsy/nature girl. I’d be the first tribute killed in the Hunger Games 🙂

  14. Pingback: The Uncomfortable Truth about Toys in Singapore | Expat Bostonians

Comments are closed.