The easiest job in Singapore has to be expat wife.
The quote above showed up in the @hellofrmsg twitter feed earlier today (a person the account follows, not a specific comment to the account). As I am an expat wife, I wanted to address this comment, but I knew it would take more than a series of tweets to do a fair job of addressing both the truth and the misconception of this comment.
First I think it important to note that the comment, and this entry address the life of expat wives in Singapore. As my mother in law, and my friend Emily can attest, being an expat wife in other countries (the US and Japan respectively) is an entirely different ballgame than what I’m experiencing. This entry is also based on my experiences, those recounted to me by my friends, the assumptions I’ve dealt with both here and back home, and does not necessarily accurately reflect every expat wife’s experience in Singapore. However, this is the only point of view from which I can address this topic.
I’m going to try to address this without getting defensive, although I think it understandable that my very first reaction was to feel defensive. Let’s hope that I can do it justice. Please let me say as clearly as I can–at no point am I trying to evoke pity for the plight of the expat wife. I hope only to promote understanding of what it is like to be in my shoes.
An acknowledgement of privilege.
I think that before I can address the assumptions inherent in the statement that “The easiest job in Singapore has to be expat wife” that I find problematic/troubling, I have to address the parts of that statement that are absolutely true. I have to acknowledge the privileges inherent in being an expat wife.
Although not universally true, it is true that most working expats are compensated at a higher rate than locals.
There is a lot of anger directed at foreign talent, and at expat wives for this privilege. This anger is understandable, and absolutely in need of addressing by all parties involved. I will say that my husband is well compensated for his work. However, he is not the person who placed the numeric value on his job skills, nor is he the person who elected to hire him. He applied for and accepted a job. We have no knowledge of whether there was a local applicant for the position, or how they were evaluated in relation to Ravi. The companies doing the hiring need to disclose what it is exactly that has them seeking out foreign talent–if local talent can be hired more cheaply, there isn’t a lot of logic in hiring an expat at a higher compensation. If there are skills that they are looking for that local education isn’t providing, the MOE needs to address that. But while we personally are not responsible for this trend, Ravi and I are participating in it, and our/expat ability to pay higher prices is partially responsible for driving up cost of living (among other reasons—expat wealth is not solely responsible for a cost of living increase).
Please do keep in mind that these interpretations of the tropes and perceptions of expat wife-dom are again based on my own incomplete understanding. Please do educate me further about the assumptions behind this statement.
Due to our husband’s financial compensation, many expat wives have the option of staying home.
As an expat wife, I do have the luxury of being a stay at home mom. This is not a privilege many/perhaps the majority of local moms share in. Some local moms, like my friend J, have been lucky enough to have generous maternity packages. But she is returning to work in part for financial reasons (and in part for personal reasons, including feeling fulfilled by her work). This tension between stay at home moms and moms who would like to stay home but do not have the resources to do so exists in many cultures, including the US, and is not unique to Singapore. However, expat wives are a visible symbol of this privilege and the frustration and resentment is understandable. However, again, I don’t set policy for Singapore. Singapore does not have the most family-friendly hiring/working/firing conditions for moms OR dads, and that is something I know that many are working to address.
The other truth that is inherent in my (and other expat wives) can afford to take extended vacations. When my best friend Kate got married last August, I took the girls and went to the US for almost the entire month so that I could be there for the last bit of planning and to host the bachelorette party. Before Ellie was in school/I had Rhiannon, I would often turn my husband’s two week trip home to the US into a month-long trip for Ellie and I. I could, I suppose, take the girls on vacation without Ravi, but apart from going back to the US (where I have my in-laws, parents and friends for support) it’s not much of a vacation.
But our ability to do this is enviable. Before I married Ravi I wasn’t in the financial position to afford regular vacations. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and I was 20 before I ever flew in an airplane. Growing up, I was jealous and envious of my friends who did get to go to Disneyland or to exotic places like California (I grew up on the other side of the US in Massachusetts), much less to places like London. I dreamt of visiting them, but doing so was out of my reach. I didn’t marry Ravi for his income, but I’d be lying if I didn’t openly admit that the income has increased my standard of living exponentially.
Expat wives sit around and shop on Orchard Road while everyone else does all the work.
The most common trope of expat wife-dom that I’ve seen is that we shop on Orchard Road, get pedicures, and gossip with other expat wives while our maids take care of our children and our homes.
Some of this is absolutely true. I’ve met expat wives that fit that trope, and there’s a reason I’m not really friends with most of those women–we have very little in common.
But while I don’t fit that exact profile–I don’t often shop on Orchard Road (apart from Kinokuniya books at Takashimaya and occasionally Jasons’s Marketplace), and I don’t have a maid (anymore), there are assumptions in there that are true. I am lucky enough to be a in a position to have a cleaning service, and I have a twice weekly babysitter. I like a good pedicure (although I think my last one was over six months ago–babies and pedicures aren’t necessarily compatible). I like to hang out with my friends–expat AND local.
More to the point, the assumption speaks to perceived luxury. It is true that I have the resources to shop at more expensive grocery stores (although I definitely don’t have the buying power to even walk into Louis Vuitton or Prada). I could hire another live in maid if I wanted to–and that I have the option of hiring a cleaning service that is more expensive than my live-in helper’s wages (although not wages+food allowance+taxes, I believe, although that’s not the point).
Growing up without money, I was frustrated that others seemed to get things so much more easily than I did. I’m 90k in debt because I had to take out a lot of money to pay for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Although as a teacher I was compensated at about the median income of the US (50K USD), I had no ability to afford a home in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US–I was looking at a lifetime of renting. If I had married another teacher, we would have needed loans to pay for our children’s education.
Expat wives expect Singapore to accommodate them, and not the other way around.
I hope that most days this doesn’t apply to me or my friends. But it is true that it applies to some. To this I can only say that there are assholes in every walk of life–be they expat wife, cab driver, teacher, or sales clerk. And there are days it applies to me, when I am the asshole (I share a day like that in this entry).
We get to live abroad, and that is a rare privilege.
Living abroad at all is a rare and wonderful privilege. We (including myself) often lose sight of that in our day to day lives. This is a million miles (figuratively) away from what I expected my life to be at 34. Living in Singapore as an American is one of the easiest places I could live–I speak the local language (sort of-see this entry for an English/English FAIL), foods that are familiar to me are easily available, the water is clean, the schools are good, and a thousand other things I likely take for granted, when compared with being an expat in another location. To be fair, my only other experience in living abroad was that of a student living with a host family in Aix-En-Provence, France when I was 20 for one month-where again, I more or less spoke the language (sort of-in a grammatically deficient form), I had my housing and food largely provided, and I didn’t have to work.
Further, I get to participate in daily Singapore life in a way that Ravi doesn’t. He works a ridiculous amount of hours. He works in Singapore, but only gets to be part of it on weekends. And that’s just not the same experience.
Addressing the problems/troubling aspects of the statement
Now that I have tried to address the truths of the statement, I’d like to address the problems in it.
The conflation of expat with the words wealthy, white, and Western.
I know a number of expats. Not all are western-my friend Y is from Indonesia, and she’s technically an expat wife. Not all are white-my friends W, M, J, A, and P (P blogs as Notabilia) are western expat wives, but are of Asian extraction, not Caucasian. My friend E is both white and western but not wealthy.
This assumption that expat=white is really problematic. My non-white friends have all shared experiences where a different set of expectations have been placed upon them because people assume they’re Singaporean, or think that they should fit a different set of stereotypes. I see this trope constantly–an example from twitter is the question of “what salon is good with expat hair?”, and I recently received a media request to help them find “expectant expat women” who were using “local medicine” for a reality program–a request I correctly interpreted to mean that they wanted some white blonde girls who were using TCM for prenatal care to be a spectacle on a western show.
Obviously terms like “expat” and “American” are universally problematic because few people fit stereotypes (or fit them completely). But I think that when we’re addressing a comment like “the easiest job in Singapore is expat wife” it is important to draw attention to the stereotype being addressed.
I’d also like to add the assumption of straight, but the truth is that if you are an expat wife in Singapore you are either bisexual and married to a person of the opposite sex (such as me) or you are straight. Which is a whole other topic to get into another time (the heteronormative aspects of life in Singapore that I struggle with).
The assumption of a certain lifestyle
I know a number of expats. None of us (American or otherwise) are members of our nationality based “club” (the American Club, the Dutch Club, the British Club and so forth). Roughly only half have maids. Most of us are stay at home moms–but we are involved, hands-on mothers.
Very few people come to Singapore on “expat packages” anymore. Ravi has what is called a “local package.” His company paid to relocate us, and put us up in a temp apartment for one month. That is it. We don’t get a housing allowance, or a school allowance, or any of that. Which is not to say “feel bad for me”-I’m just sharing that the financial/corporate support is very different from 10 or 20 years ago.
What I’m getting at is that few of us have the lifestyle imagined. Which brings me to my next point.
Statements like this only serve to push expats and locals further apart, rather than help us connect.
I am deeply grateful for my expat friends, American and otherwise. Being an expat is a unique experience, and it helps you get through the day to know that some of your friends understand the parts with which you struggle.
I am equally grateful for my local friends. Kirsten, J1, J2, J3, M, D, and my many local friends whom I’ve only met on twitter or via their blogs (such as Singapore Actually) are vitally important to my day to day survival in Singapore, probably more than I can ever express to them. I am a stranger in a strange land, and they are my guides. They’ve advised me where to find stuff, what restaurants they enjoy, recommended pest control services and dry cleaners, and they are my first line of information when I just don’t understand something. I know they will be the people who will help me navigate the confusing process of getting Ellie into a local P1 class when the time comes. And just as there is no universal expat experience, they have a wealth of different experiences that help me form a better, multidimensional view of the topic we’re discussing.
However, finding local friends isn’t easy. You can’t just walk up to someone at a store or on the street and ask them, “will you be my Singaporean friend?” In my case, social media (my blog and my twitter particuarly) and people who were willing to reach out to me were my entry to friendships with locals. If I weren’t a social media/internet sort of person, it would be hard to find local friends.
There is an assumption in both the local and the expat communities that they are “other” from ourselves. Statements like that only build resentment and further firm that assumption. As an expat wife, I want to be defensive. As a local, I might feel a twinge of resentment.
But the truth is that my local friends and I have a lot in common.
Those of us who are moms want the best future for our children. We love them, and want them to turn into wonderful people. We might feed them differently, or discipline them differently, but we all share the same end goal. We like food. We like many of the same movies. We support each other when we’re having a bad day, and provide a shoulder to cry on. We step in and pick each other’s kids up from school if someone is going to be late.
My friend Kirsten and I share a love of Broadway musicals. We have a similar snarky sense of humor and I’ll miss her snark during the New Year’s Eve show, as she’s currently abroad in a graduate program.
I would love it if every expat had a great group of local friends. Maybe we’d have less animosity if they did.
There are often things that aren’t easy about being an expat wife
Let me again reiterate that I am not seeking, nor do I deserve, pity. I have a great life. But there are things that are less easy here than they would be in my home country, and my purpose in sharing those here is to shed some light on the parts of being an expat that aren’t part of the public discourse in the same way that the parts of our life that are priviledged are.
- It isn’t easy to be 10,000 miles away from my closest friends and family. Yes, I skype, tweet, blog, and facebook to stay in touch. It doesn’t make losing a relative but not being a position to fly home for the funeral easy. It doesn’t make missing out on friend’s weddings easy. It doesn’t make them missing out on being a daily part of the girls lives easy. it doesn’t make days where someone posts “who wants to go to X” on Facebook and I want nothing more than to go to X with them, but can’t because I’m on the other side of the world easy.
- It isn’t easy to learn how to navigate the ins and outs of daily life in Singapore, especially the parts that you think SHOULD be easy. I had to learn how to use a washing machine and dryer again. I didn’t know what to do when we lost power, and I was frustrated because it seemed like such a basic thing to know. For that matter, I didn’t know how to call an ambulance…something that became vitally important when I was laying on my floor with a broken leg. These moments of confusion, especially the longer I’ve been here are extremely frustrating because I feel like I *should* know how to do them. But they’re not situations that your “moving to Singapore” guides or seminars cover.
- It’s not always easy to explain your life to your friends back home. Some parts are just so mundane–I take the kids to school, I do grocery shopping, I drive. Others are weirdly different–the country is smaller than my home state (which is a small state to begin with), and I’m still not used to the nonstop heat. But then there’s the middle ground–stuff that’s too mundane to be interesting, but not exotic enough to be interesting either–such as what it’s like to hire a handyman and navigate a home repair (we don’t have the 150 dollar deductible/then hire a handyman yourself dynamic back home).
- It’s definitely not easy to have a maid. I’ve written pretty extensively about this (20 posts). But let me boil it down to some essentials. For those of us who come from cultures where it isn’t the norm to have live-in help are ill-prepared to be effective managers of live-in help, and the MOM “training” just isn’t adequate. There are major cultural differences. Having a stranger live in your home, especially if this is an abnormality for your home culture is problematic. Having a maid didn’t just fail to work out for us because she stole things from us (although obviously, that was an issue), but because I sucked at being a maid’s employer.
- It’s not easy to raise third culture kids. If I were raising them in the US, I’d have a lot of understanding of their day to day experiences, inasmuch as any parent has. Raising the girls in Singapore means that they are having a radically different childhood from our own. Which is partially the point. But it isn’t always easy to navigate how to parent them in a way that supports their growth and respects who they are/how they identify when you don’t necessarily understand their experiences. For me this is compounded by the fact that my children are biracial, and no matter how much I learn about Indian culture-I’m not Indian, I’m not a person of color and I will never completely understand their experiences. Something I plan to write about is that when I was filing my police report on losing my purse in Vegas (Oh yeah, I need to share about that too), the officer asked me what race my children were and when they didn’t have biracial or “other” she asked me “what do they look like-white or asian?” and used that, to my extreme discomfort. It’s not easy to support a child who is learning Mandarin (which I’m so excited by) when I can’t read the weekly summary of what they’re doing in Mandarin class (because it’s written in Mandarin), I can’t speak the language to help her gain vocabulary, and as she ages I can’t support her homework.
Some final thoughts
I didn’t write this post to attack whoever first said that “the easiest job in Singapore is that of Expat Wife.” I always meant to address being an expat during my week as curator on @hellofrmsg and this was an entry point to do so.