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
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
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).
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?