I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer so I can (hopefully) not get flamed in comments. A reminder to new commenters that your first comment on EB will be held for my moderation, but once you’ve had one approved, your comments go live immediately (although I do retain the right to delete).
Disclaimer–There is American Expat bashing in this post. I am going to talk bluntly and honestly about some of my most negative experiences in Singapore which-SPOILER ALERT-have been with other Americans. I do tend to keep a mostly positive blog, but this post is partially written to highlight the less pleasant aspects of expat life.
A few months ago, I was talking with a Singaporean mom. I was sharing a story about how some expats I’ve run into have been unpleasant about my plans to send my kids to local schools. That led to a discussion about how there are a lot of divisions within the expat community, which was interesting to her, as she said she’d always just thought of us as a cohesive group.
As I have a lot of Singaporean readers, I thought it might interest you to know a bit more about expat/expat interaction, especially if you don’t know many of us in person. You should know this is based upon my experience, and other expat’s experiences may vary. When I say expat in this post, I mostly or specifically mean American expats.
When expats meet, there is a series of questions we always ask each other…
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been here?
- What brought you here?
- How long are you here for?
- Where do your kids go to school?
- Do you have a maid?
This information allows us to slot each other into a series of boxes in relation to ourselves–specifically what we do or don’t have in common. Are were from the same country or continent? Are they baby expats or have they been in Singapore longer than us? Was it their job or someone else’s job that brought them to Singapore? Are they long term or temporary residents? If they have kids, do they go to the same school as ours–or if we don’t yet have kids in school can they tell us anything new about a (assume private) school?
There is something I call the “expat bubble”–when you only really know other expats, your kids go to school with expats, etc. Singapore is more like a place you visit, as opposed to where you live when you exist in the expat bubble.
When you first arrive, it’s really hard to live anywhere besides the expat bubble. It’s not like you can walk up to a Singaporean person on the street and say “Will you be my Singaporean friend?” On the flip side, when you hear a familiar accent, it is absolutely acceptable socially to go up to that person and say “are you from the US?” (Or rather I’ve found this is true among American expats–I assume it’s true within other expat groups as well.)
Part of the reason it’s ok to approach a strange expat is that other expats are your lifeline–they’ll help you understand Singapore, and they’ll be a touchstone of the familiar. They speak the same language-literally and figuratively. They share the same cultural references. They explain things in a way you understand, using references you understand. When you first arrive, it can be isolating to be an expat. Other expats make you feel less alone. That’s part of the reason we attended the 4th of July events the first few years we were here.
If you’re here only temporarily, there is a lot of validity to staying in the expat bubble. If you have older kids, sending them to your country’s private school will allow them to transition back to their home school more easily, for one. That said, the expat bubble is expensive–condos that cater to expat families are more expensive, private school tuition, and nationality based private clubs don’t come cheap. You may not be here long enough to break free of it, even if you want to.
Singapore is a bit of an odd duck because as an English speaker I have the option of existing outside the expat bubble. If we were to move to Hong Kong or Japan I’d pretty much have to live in the expat bubble for language reasons. My kids would attend a private or American school for the same reason. I feel really lucky that I don’t have those constraints here, and that participating in/adapting to local culture is an option in a way it wouldn’t be in other countries. Apart from English speaking countries, the only ones I’d have a chance of leaving the expat bubble are French speaking ones (and realistically even that would be a bit tough as my French is rusty and my grammar sucks).
How well you get along with the expat community can vary wildly once you get over the initial I LOVE YOU BECAUSE YOU SHARE MY NATIONALITY.
***This next section is about me, personally. Your experiences will vary******
I tend to have little in common with many expats. Disclaimer–stereotypes–not every expat fits them (obviously). I don’t have a maid. I don’t go out much (in terms of bars/clubs/etc). I’m not particularly into designer consumer goods. I’m politically very liberal and don’t share the values of many American expats–a large percentage of whom are socially and politically conservative. I’m not the least bit enamoured of SAS or private schools in general–I’m a former public school teacher. I’m very aggressive academically. I’m not particularly attachment parent-y.
I have found that the more I assimilate/integrate/whatever into the Singaporean community, the less welcome I have felt within the expat community. Or perhaps it’s more that I have less tolerance for the topics of conversation that come up whenever you get a large group of expats together–for example another (Australian) expat friend said recently that she’s over the whose husband is away more olympics amongst expat moms and I totally relate. An American friend was iced out by a group of American moms because she doesn’t have a maid (I’ve only really gotten the eyebrow raise and the “I don’t know how you do it!” to which I respond that different solutions work for different families) while they happily returned to maid-bashing.
Or maybe the reason I’ve pulled so far away from the expat community is that my most negative experiences have been with American Expats, not Singaporeans. My personal pet peeve is that I’ve got a lot of hostility from other American expats about our education choices for Elanor and Rhi. To be clear, I’m not talking about someone saying “Wow, that’s unusual. Why?” It is an unusual choice to go local, and I’m happy to have a respectful conversation about it. I’m talking about the people who are jerks about it…
Comments I’ve gotten include
- But don’t you want your kids to be American? (I don’t know what this even means. Accent? Cultural references? Saying the pledge every day? Check their passports and my US taxes–they’re American. Often I do know what they mean, and it’s xenophobic bullshit about my kids becoming “too” Singaporean.)
- Aren’t you worried about local schools? (Am I worried about what specifically? That they’re rigorous–that’s part of why we like them. That the classes are large–a bit, yes. That the sex ed classes are heteronormative–absofuckinglutely, but that’s why the girls won’t participate in them. What exactly about local schools are you implying? Again, there’s a lot of thinly veiled and coded racism in the conversation when it goes here.)
- How are they going to assimilate back to the US? (They’ll assimilate/adapt as is appropriate for them. There’s no cohesive American Identity for them to check off the boxes for. They like ketchup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mcdonalds, sesame street and the Disney princesses just fine. What’s the big deal if they also love Chicken Rice, Maggi Noodles, Mat Yo Yo, and speak Mandarin?)
- SAS is a really good school! (Yes, but that doesn’t make it right for my kids or our family.)
- Have you checked out school x? (Yes, probably. I’m a former teacher and I have a master’s degree in teaching–I don’t make educational decisions about my kids on a whim.)
- Don’t you want to move back to America? (Eventually. What does that have to do with anything?)
In many ways, the conversation often becomes some sort of evaluation of my own American-ness. Which, “Seriously?”
The fact that I’m largely unavailable in the evenings also limits my contact with and ability to meet more like-minded Americans. Democrats Abroad (an example of an American group I’d like to be more involved with) only tends to do nighttime events–and even then, those events only happen near election dates. Time restrictions also means I don’t interact with many people who aren’t moms/who work and are only around at night. This relates back to my not having a maid, which differentiates me from the vast majority of expats I’ve met (yet again-no value judgment, whatever works for you).
With the exception of my social and political liberalism, I’ve found myself to have far more in common with Singaporean moms. This is particularly true when it comes to education. Ravi and I are far more aggressive academically when it comes to the girls than is typical for an American family, and our values there tend to be more in line with Indian/Asian views (in the US I’d be considered a “Tiger Mom”). I’m also a lot stricter and traditional in my discipline than my American expat counterparts (although I don’t cane).
I think that the fact that my family is biracial definitely contributes to how my friendships have developed. The plurality of my Singaporean friends are ethnically Indian. We have that in common, and they are part of the village that is helping this white girl raise two daughters, one of whom already has a strong Indian identity (as well as American and Singaporean identities–“I’m a little bit American, a little bit Indian and a little bit Singaporean.”)
However, those local friendships took time to develop. I too lived in the expat bubble at the start–I’ve just left it for the most part because of my negative experiences with other expats.
****end of the just about me/my experiences section*****
The length of time you spend as an expat has a definite impact on your perspective, in my opinion. I find the short term/newer expats to be the most flag waving “America, Fuck Yeah!” types. The longer you stay the less you feel compelled to find friends based on nationality, and the more you move toward friends you’d want to know even in your home country. It’s not really coincidence that I’m only close to one person I met in the first six months of my time here.
While there are traits and such that do unite nationalities (yes, Americans are WAY friendly and WAY loud-I’m guilty of perpetuating both those stereotypes), once you dig past the surface, we are very fragmented. If you’re a local and you get to know expats, you’ll discover this for yourself. If you’re an expat and you get to know locals, you’ll get to know this too (not every Singaporean is a foodie, for example).
Being an expat does mean you’ll have some experiences in common with other expats. Being an American expat will give you some experiences in common with other American expats.
If I can offer new expats advice, it would be this–try to meet a lot of people when you first arrive (moms, there are mom meetup groups that will meet during your available hours, and will let you bring the kids along if you need/want to). Don’t hold onto people simply because they happen to share a nationality with you or because they’re expats like you. You will meet a crazy wide range of people you’d never met in the US–and that can be awesome–but that’s not a reason to hold onto a friend you wouldn’t want to know back home.