The divided expat community…

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.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 10.12.43 PMexpat pals

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?

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 2.46.51 PMDo your kids go here?

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).

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 1.14.22 PM

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?”

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.57.54 AMHere she’s wearing a t-shirt with a US flag design on it–Are you happy now?  American enough for you?

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*****

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 12.21.00 PMThis photo doesn’t have much to do with the post–it’s more about TEENY BABY RHIRHI and it happens to be in Singapore, where she was born.

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.

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18 Responses to The divided expat community…

  1. pooja says:

    This is a really great post. I think many of your personal experiences, if I may make conjecture, have been with white American expatriates? I have many non-white American expatriate friends (including three (!) Chinese-American women married to Chinese-Singaporean men and one Indian-American woman married to an Indian-Singaporean man) and they wouldn’t ask you those questions as they (and I speak for only them) have a more nuanced view of an “American.”

    • Yes, these negative experiences were with white American women. You’re absolutely right that I don’t get that run down or set of biases from Asian American expats. Asian American expats have also been much more understanding of my choices about education. If anything (based on two people’s experiences recounted to me) they had more trouble with locals because they passed as Chinese (one was Korean, one was Thai) and people got irritated with them for not speaking Mandarin or acting more “Asian” (whatever that’s supposed to mean.)

      • pooja says:

        My Australian dentist sends her kids to local schools as does my Singaporean friend’s Australian boss. (His kids have perfect Singlish accents!) It’s really a not as big a deal as so many American expats make it out to be!

  2. Stacey says:

    Ah yes, I relate to this very much. The crazy interview process of meeting other expats was exactly as you described. I had so many downright rude encounters with women who were sizing me up. Our group ended up being a mix of locals and expats who were skimming the edge of the bubble. I think if we’d stayed longer than the 2 1/2 years we’d have broken further away from the bubble and even [gasp, clutch pearls] have moved out of an expat area. I love that you are going for local schools. I was totally creeped out by SAS and would have had a very hard time justifying sending A there.

    • The thing I really don’t get about SAS is the giant fence topped with barbed wire. It looks like a maximum security prison.

      I miss you!

      Interview process is a great description–it *IS* exactly like an interview, rather than a conversation.

  3. Fascinating, Crystal. We had a similar experience with the military, in Germany. Only, it was the line between officers and non-com and enlisted personnel. My husband was on officer and my best friend was a spec-4′s wife. Officers’ wives were expected to chum with other officers’ wives; I found them stuffy and too bound to tradition. Donna and I loved shopping “on the economy” and involving Chris, who was an infant, in local culture, I.e. the Frankfurt Zoo, local playgrounds, and just hitting local venues. As he was only 18 months old when we returned to the States, there were no issues related to school or play groups. During our short stay in Frankfurt (20 months), I learned a lot about Americans, our country, and other cultures. I guess that is one reason I am a progressive liberal and an American skeptic, unlike most of my relatives, other than my sister. Any way, I enjoyed your blog and look forward to many more.

    • I remember from when I was a kid and my family members worked on Fort Devens that there was a class divide between officers and enlisted families.

      I’d love to see pictures and hear more about your time in Germany.

      The more I get to know you, Sandra, the more I like you. Like you, living abroad has given me a much more skeptical view of America–and it’s nice to finally have a few more relatives who I actually feel like I have something in common with!

  4. Mummy Ed says:

    Thank you for a thoroughly interesting read! I’m Chinese Singaporean but I have been an expat kid when we lived in Hong Kong and actually my parents (in the late 80s) requested for the posting so that we could go to the SAS equivalent, which was a great experience for us coming from such a rote learning environment. I think the 2 systems have much to learn from each other.

    • I have some concerns about rigidity in the upper grades in subjects like literature with local schools. That said, I think the early math instruction in singapore in unmatched.

      I’m curious if you were in an expat bubble given that singaporeans speak mandarin, but HK uses Cantonese?

      • Mummy Ed says:

        Hmm well I was in the 6th grade so I only had friends from school, but unlike SAS, HKIS also (or in those days anyway) took in local students who invariably were the rich kids who went on to Ivy League universities. And HK is so close to here everyone has a relative or a friend living there, and many of us (not me though) can speak Cantonese so it would be much less of a bubble?

      • I’ve read that it’s still true that the HK elite send their kids to schools like SAS.

        Fair enough. I was curious because I know that HK would absolutely keep us in the expat bubble for linguistic reasons at least when it came to education, and that it would be harder for me to find friendships outside the expat community for the same reason.

        How long were you there? Did you still have to take the PSLE when you came back?

      • Mummy Ed says:

        Ah, we were there 3 years and actually no, I didn’t take the PSLE! Which is kinda proof that they aren’t really necessary 😉 It was timely so I had enough time to prepare for the O levels though.

  5. chewytravels says:

    Great post! Nice insight into what it is like to be a parent expat in Singapore. I haven’t met many Americans actually, just a few professors from my department. BUT, I have seen lots of expats and expat moms around. I have teammates who are from Colombia and they send their daughter to a local school (she is 5 years old). I haven’t asked them if they got bad responses when they tell people about it, but our teammates who are mostly all Singaporean (except for me and one or two others) love the daughter and think it is great.
    I agree that it is hard to get out of the expat bubble at first. A lot of my teammates have known each other for a long time, so their friend circles have been formed over several years already. The expats that I spend time with are from NUS (National University of Singapore) and are from all over which is really nice. People from India, Australia, the UK, Argentina, Spain, France, Belgium, Finland, China. I tend to enjoy these types of expat group, rather than a single nationality expat group. (I also get annoyed with super “American” Americans and conservative types!)

    • Sending Ellie to a local pre-k/k has been one of the biggest reasons why I have so many in person Singaporean friends. EB and twitter have helped me build a great online network locally, but few have transitioned into irl relationships. My Singaporean friends have been so great and supportive, and are helping me gear up for P1 registration. In many ways (ironically) sending my kids locally is sort of seen as proof that we take being part of Singapore seriously by Singaporeans.

      I think your expat group sounds great. One of my favorite posts here ended up with a fascinating discussion about washing dishes with Expats and locals all weighing in-I would never have expected such a mundane topic to be such fertile ground for conversation. Because there were so many opinions floating around there was no need to determine the “one right way”

      • chewytravels says:

        Yeah I could totally why they would see it as you are taking being a part of Singapore seriously. I think it is great and it means you are committed. One thing I have heard, though, is that Singaporeans may still be required to take the TOEFL for college or graduate school. I’m not sure about the details, but someone told me about her issues with this when applying for grad school. For some reason, it is not enough for some that Singapore operates completely in English and it is the official language of business.

      • My friend Kirsten (blogs here) finished a master’s program at Cardiff in Wales recently. Initially they were asking for that sort of thing, but eventually didn’t require it of her.

        I’m not sure about non US universities, but I think in the US the girls will be very complicated applications if they’re applying from Singapore. On one hand, as of right now they would count as American-not International-applicants (in other words they’ll be competing for the US citizen spots, not the far smaller number of spots available to international students). On the other, if they apply with O and A level exams, then there would need to be some sort of international student panel evaluating them. I’m honestly not sure how the language question would be resolved, because even though they are in Singaporean schools, they’re speaking American English at home (poor kids will never know how to spell anything though). The only third culture (American) kids I know of who are now at (American) university did go through the SAS system, so it’s a far less messy application process–one of their biggest selling points to American parents..

        That’s the sort of thing we’ll be looking into around the time we need to think about the PSLE and secondary schools–if we’re still here (the policy now isn’t terribly important as E is still 11 years away from applying). Much as I love Singapore, the reality is that our place of residence is dependent upon Ravi’s work–which means that if GNB wants him in HK or the UK or NYC, then we may not have a lot of choices about moving. Or if another company poached him, that could affect our living situation. But that’s the sort of thing that makes me psychotic, so we just plan to be here until there’s a reason to think that the situation would change.

      • chewytravels says:

        Ah ok, glad Kirsten was able to get out of it! I still haven’t figured out all of the O and A, JC, and other things about the school system in Singapore, but in general it seems complicated! I think I would be overwhelmed by it!

      • I’m overwhelmed by just the P1 registration process. If I didn’t have friends who have been through it before with older kids/are current primary teachers/are going through it with me, I’d have given up already. All the phases and balloting and so forth is insane.

        I figure we’ll take each step one at a time. Step one-successfully register Elanor at a primary school.

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