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What Expat Life in Singapore is Really Like

An American Perspective about Expat Life in Singapore

This month I’m celebrating my 2nd year living the expat life in Singapore. While my expat years are teeny tiny in comparison to the rest of the expatriates around the world. It’s still fun to reflect and think of what my Year-Ago-Self thoughts were, to what my Now-Self thinks.

Did you catch what I learned in my first year living abroad? Catch it here; Top 10 things every Expat should know when moving abroad.

Instead of posting a Top 10 List of what I’ve learned this year.

I’ve rounded up, what I love about expat life in Singapore, things I miss and don’t miss about living in the States and the top most interesting, awkward questions I’ve been asked, while living abroad.

American Expat in Singapore

What I really love about Expat life in Singapore

The safety and cleanliness in Singapore is a significant bonus.

Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. While dining out, it’s common to see restaurant goers leave their personal items (purse, wallet, cell phone) unattended on a table, when they go have a cigarette or use the toilet.

Speaking of restaurants. Dining out, is different. When ordering food as a group, it’s more common to order family style. Everyone collectively chooses a few dishes and shares. It creates a family type of experience when dining with friends.

The restaurant service generally leave their patrons alone while dining. It’s common practice in Singapore, to raise your hand to catch a server’s attention when ready to order, ask for more food, or for the check.

It took me a little while to get use to, but now I prefer it. It’s a great way to enjoy a conversation and your meal without interruption.

Calling the elderly Auntie and Uncle. Are the ways to address our elders, even if we are not related to them. For example, when asking an elderly attendant (when out shopping, dining, hawker center, etc). Say, “Excuse me, Auntie (or Uncle), how much is this?”

Sarah Emery Friends Expat Lifestyle

The Friends Circle. The friendships we have in Singapore are both locals and expats. It’s amazing to experience how quickly and easily people can form strong friendships.

Yet, in the expatriate world, it’s common to have friends come into your life, then move on. Literally, move to another country. Think military brat. It’s common to attend a lot farewell parties on the weekends.

How easy it is to travel to neighboring countries. Much like living in Europe. It’s so easy to travel to the surrounding countries and not everything needs a flight. There are buses that drive up to Malaysia and ferries that go down to Indonesia.

What I Miss about Living in the States

I have learned to live without, or I’ve forgotten what’s in our storage unit back in California. Though, there are still a few things that make me sigh and miss the following:

Seeing my parents easily. We are half around the world, apart from each other. A 24 hours of flight time (not including additional time to and from the airport and layover time) is a drastic difference from the previous 6 hour flight (California to Virginia).

I miss living in 4 seasons. A pumpkin latte and hot soup just don’t taste the same in high humidity, sweat dripping, rainforest type weather. I do miss living in NorCal weather.

I miss pedestrians having the right of way. Here, drivers have the right of way and ARE total creepers about it, especially at traffic lights.

Drivers inch forward towards pedestrians. It’s just a matter of time, until I’m nudged on the back of my legs by a car when crossing at a traffic light.

Outdoor activities have taken an unfortunate backseat. The weather in Singapore is brutal. It’s high humidity and 2 degrees off the equator. Also the beaches / coast are definitely not the same. The “beaches” (man- made) are surrounded by a ton of cargo and cruises ships (creating gross and oily ocean water).

I miss mountains and hiking them. I miss our SUP boards and going out into the ocean and paddling by harbor seals. I miss seeing beautiful landscapes from mountain summits.

There are a few Reservoirs here in Singapore. That create a different type of hiking. There aren’t mountains yielding spectacular mountainous views and hiking in humidity is not my favorite. I do enjoy hiking the reservoirs here because there’s a high chance to see a ton of monkeys (which is a new one for me), boars, snakes and many species of birds and eagles.

Cheap prices on alcohol. It’s cheaper to buy the local Singaporean Tiger beer, in the States. Than it is here, in Singapore. Record scratch, I know. A Tiger bottle in Singapore is S$3.75 / US$2.24 and in the States it’s US$1.67.

A bottle of cheap US Barefoot wine in Singapore is S$21/ US$15. At Total Wine in the States, Barefoot sells for US$4.50.

A bottle of IPA Sierra Nevada is S$7 / US$5. At Total Wine it’s US$1.15.

I miss the spirit of courtesy. I’m pleasantly surprised, if I see someone hold the door for a stranger. Especially an elevator door (not counting hotel staff).

Since moving to Singapore, I’ve never experienced how common it is, for people to immediately press the close door button (multiple times in a weird-panic mode) in an elevator (whether someone is approaching the elevator or not). It’s like they are in a horror film, being chased and trying to close the elevator door as fast as they can.

Passing others in opposite directions on the sidewalk, can turn into a game of ‘chicken’. The times I’ve been shoulder checked, is pretty annoying. Should I be wearing shoulder pads?

To clarify, I don’t want to convey that people are rude. It’s just different to what I’m personally used to. For example, in the States, generally, people do not remove their shoes before entering a home. In Asia, we remove shoes (no matter if it’s your home or not).

Saying, ‘excuse me’ when walking in front of you (especially in grocery stores) is not a practice done here, either. Again. It’s not being culturally rude. Simply put, it’s just the way it is.

Sarah Emery Expat in Singapore

What I Don’t Miss about Living in the States

Owning a car. I even let my driver’s license expire. I don’t miss traffic, paying for a car, insurance, gas and driving in general. The only thing that I own that has wheels, is my luggage.

Having to worry about safety, my belongings and crime. It wasn’t often that I would feel unsafe in the States. But we’ve had our cars broken into, smashed window, slashed tires and property stolen (all at separate times).

The amount of times our packages were stolen from our front door, was definitely a skid mark.

Years ago, a driver pulled a gun on me on a freeway, while I was driving. Super no bueno and thankfully myself and my friends in the car all drove away with our lives (yet we were all terrified).

While these things can happen anywhere in the World. It’s a weight off my shoulders, that I don’t have to be constantly looking over them.

Paying high state income tax. No gracias, California.

Sarah Emery Expat lifestyle in Singapore

The Quirky Things about Expat life in Singapore

Yes in Asia doesn’t necessary mean yes in Western standards. Sometimes, it’s an indirect way of saying, no.

The colloquial language. The slang in Singapore, is Singlish. It’s a hybrid mix of Malay, English, Tamil, Mandarin and Hokkien. The best way for me to explain Singlish is. It’s incomplete sentences of broken and shortened English words that is mixed with said languages. Confused? Me too. Every. Single. Time. I hear Singlish.

I have the accent. I never really thought about it, until it was pointed out to me.

Negotiating with local vendors. Never take the first offer. Also, rental prices (on an apartment) is negotiable. Again, definitely do not take the first offer.

To chope, is reserving a seat in eating areas like hawker centers or food areas in businesses. By placing a set of tissues, or a business card at a table is reserving your seat, while going to collect food.

I’m still getting used to….

Grocery stores. My favorite grocery store is Japanese and I still have no idea what some of the items are. The weekends are the best, because there are food sampling stations, set up all around the grocery store. It’s fun to sample the goods, even though I have no idea what the packaging says.

The metric system. Don’t judge – I’m still doing math in my head when it comes to measurements. Putting items, in terms that make sense to me and how I can categorize them to gauge distance.

Converting kilometers to miles. Celcius to Farenheit, kilograms to pounds and etc.

I’m also doing math gymnastics in terms of money conversions and still count on my fingers when figuring out military time 😉

When Visiting The States

I notice more so….how big everything is and lots of it. It’s not like I’ve been gone long, and I do visit every 1/2 year or so. But it’s hard to ignore, how everything is so big and in mass quantities.

Big grocery stores with an exorbitant amount of choices, big cars (2 or more per household), big food items and the amount of a single serving, big homes and the amount of extra space (and storage), big everything :).

What I look forward to, is seeing my parents and friends. Obviously. But I’m that American, who gets back to the States and wants to eat American food. In Singapore, we have a lot of Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese, Peranakan, Malay and Indian food. So when I visit the States, a good óle juicy BBQ, and or cheeseburger calls me. YUM!

Even though, we don’t have a car here (we often use shared riding or rent a car). I still get in, on the wrong side. I make a full circle around the car before getting in. I’m sure I look like I have OCD, pacing around a car, then getting in.

Thankfully my husband is such a gentleman, that he opens the correct door for me. Or, he’s just embarrassed to watch me struggle. Yet, I do believe it’s the former, because since day 1 he has always opened car doors (any door in fact), for me.

Sarah Emery Thriving Expat Lifestyle

The Top Common and Interesting Questions, I’ve been asked.

Top 3 common questions asked as an expat living in Singapore.

1.“Where else have you lived?” Is a very common question amongst expats.

2. “How long will you live in Singapore?” Was the first question when we first told friends we were moving. Which confused me because, when I moved from Virginia to California. No one asked me how long I was going to live in California.

Meeting other expats, this question is common because most are on a contract and will return or move on within a few years. For us, we don’t have a contract, so it’ll be interesting how long and where else we venture to.

3. “How do you fill your days?” Is a common question, usually followed by, “Do you work?” when answering no.

PLEASE DO NOT ASK A TRAILING SPOUSE QUESTION NUMBER 3#

Most trailing spouses are asked 3# and it’s a bit undermining.

Instead, ask about personal interests, or what activities are scheduled for the upcoming weekend, or upcoming holiday. Ask, how they are liking their expatriate experience and if there’s something they would change what would it be, or is there something they really enjoy about the lifestyle. Ask, what’s their favorite food in their new location, favorite color, favorite restaurant…. anything… but a similar version of…. “What do you do all day?”

Top Most Interesting Questions

Job Interview Questions: The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) does not exist here. I have been asked (on job applications) my origin, religion, gender and marriage status.

When meeting a friend’s father here in Singapore, he asked me, ”What is it like being an African American?”

A good expat friend asked me, “Do you fear being shot when you go back to America?”

At a 4th of July function here in Singapore, a friend asked, “Do people in the States, really chant USA, USA, USA, like they do in the movies and tv shows?”

Seconds later, the table next to us were playing flip cup and timely roared, “USA, USA, USA!!”, when a team galavantly won the round. I seriously can’t make that one up!

At a dinner in Hong Kong, I was asked, “Are you Native American?”

If you have read my Top 20 International Tips you will know the following:

A ticket agent asked me, “How many months pregnant are you?” To clarify, I am not pregnant and I burned that dress.

An Immigration officer has asked me, “You’re unemployed, so how did you get here?”

When entering a casino in Macau, China. A security guard asked me, “Excuse me, Miss. May I see your I.D.? Obviously the question isn’t interesting, but finding out the legal gambling age is 18, is. Either the guard needs to wear glasses, or I dress like a teenager. I was 39 years old at the time.

Just to be VERY CLEAR – none of the questions above, in no way offend me. All the questions were answered …… with a smile and I find having a sense of humour about it all, makes me laugh when I share these questions.

Year TWO of expatriate life is in the books, for sure.

I still find it a shape shifting experience, that is, in some ways a rapid, life learning journey that I hope to continue for many, more years.

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Outdoor enthusiast thriving in the expatriate traveling lifestyle. Looking to connect with your sense of adventure.

55 Comments

  • Kelly Martin

    This was really interesting. I love Singapore and I’ve often thought about what it’d be like to live there. It sounds great.

  • Krisy

    This is such an informational read! I’ve been to Singapore a couple times but only as a tourist and never for more than a week. It’s so interesting reading an expat’s perspective! The interesting questions cracked me up!

    • Natalie

      Many things resonate with me about your life in Singapore, though we’re in the Philippines. For example the rush to close elevator doors and yes sometimes means no.

      Like you, I’ll now try to not take things personally when asked very ignorant and direct questions about race, gender, origin.

      • Sarah Emery

        Yes, one can’t take offensive questions personally. It’s best to have a sense of humor about it all. I hope you are having a lovely life in the Philippines. Thank you for your comment, Natalie! Cheers!

  • Paula Schuck

    I have never been to Singapore. It is on my list though for a future adventure. Sounds like I better save the Money now though. It sounds as if drinks and food are a lot of money there.

    • Sarah Emery

      Yeah, it’s a bit weird. Although the one thing I have learned that’s a huge difference (from the States) is hosting. I’ve been the recipient of hosting by the most generous, kind and felt like I was a celebrity or royalty – kind of hosting. I’m not talking about receiving hosting from a (luxury or not) hotel staff kind of hosting, but by friends in the area who have gone WAY PAST and beyond generosity. Yet, for some weird reason, doors between strangers seems absent in the courtesy.

  • Rosey

    I wonder how fast I would be able to use the metric system. I know most people do! Thank you for the insight to your thoughts on you move.

  • Bauhinia

    I can understand it is not easy to get used to the new environment, yet I am glad to know that you enjoy your stay in Singapore a lot. Hope you are spending your time there to the fullest, best wishes.

    • Sarah Emery

      Yes, the distance is not so great. It’s a major minus, especially when I would see my parents at least once a week. It just makes my personal time with them, more special. If you come to Singapore Autumn, let me know 😉 Cheers!

  • Dreams Abroad

    Singapore is my favorite city! Do you know why? because of the view from Marina Bay. The waterfront views don’t get any more breathtaking than it. Especially at night! Also, you are so very right about negotiating with local vendors. Unless you have money to spend never ever take the first offer.

    • Sarah Emery

      I think, generally speaking, never take the first offer for anything! Ha! Yes, the views from the Bay are quite beautiful. It’s really the mark of Singapore. Thanks for the read and comment.

  • Kristin

    I have never been anywhere outside of the U.S.. I really had no idea Singapore was such a great place. You really have inspired me to travel there one day. I don’t think I could ever take the leap to live outside of the U.S. but I’m so glad you did it! I find it really awesome when people can handle such a big change. Thanks for sharing!

    • Carol

      Great insight! I’m not sure I could deal with “no manners” but I guess you get used to it or being run over by a car. It sounds like a great experience overall.

  • Betsy Carter

    I’ve never been to Singapore before; it sounds like a beautiful place to visit. Just be careful about those cars nudging you, I can’t imagine, but it seems like you know how to get around and to look out for them — wishing you a ton of fun and the best experiences possible while you are there!

  • Thuy

    The longest I’ve been out of the United States was only 6 months, I am so envious that you’ve had two years to experience another culture. I’ve always wanted to visit Singapore

  • Subhashish Roy

    This was such an interesting read. Having just come back from a week long trip to Singapore, I could so much relate to many aspects. The hurry in closing the elevator door is one of them. I too did not like the sultry weather although I loved my stay otherwise.

    • Sarah Emery

      Ha ha! Yes, the elevator door gets me, every time. When I enter an elevator, I know I don’t have to worry about the door closing if someone else is in their with me. LOL! I’m so glad you enjoyed your stay in Singapore. There’s quite a lot to do and see. Thanks for the read and comment.

  • Erica (The Prepping Wife)

    What an interesting read! I find the whole leaving a purse or phone alone and not having it stolen to just be weird. Or the elevator door closing. I personally can’t imagine walking out of my house without a weapon either, and am insanely careful of my surroundings at all times. You’re the second person who has mentioned how safe Singapore is, and that is impressive. I use military time because it is normal to me, but I would forever be trying to figure out kilometers and Celsius. Those are like a foreign language to me. I had a ton of fun reading how different your life is in Singapore, and look forward to seeing where your journey takes you next.

    • Sarah Emery

      Thank you Erica. Yes, there are some things of life, that are …welp…just different. Like you, I must get used to military time as see it as the norm. One day, it will click. LOL! Thanks Erica for the read and your comment.

  • Alexandra

    I loved this article. This was written in a unique style; different from how people usually write travel pieces. I can’t believe the differences. I would love to live somewhere where you could put your cell phone down in a restaurant and not worry that it will be stolen. And I also love the family feel, like at restaurants or calling people auntie and uncle. I would, however, miss the natural beauty of the outdoors. The ocean and the mountains, though I would love to see wild monkeys! I get the humidity, I live in Florida!
    However, I also used to live in Northern Cal and I love that weather too! You really did a great job describing this place. And I love the horror film analogy that you used to describe how people are when they get on an elevator!

    • Sarah Emery

      Thank you Alexandra, what kind words 🙂 Ahhh a former NorCal resident – The weather is simply perfect! Yes, the differences are what makes it all interesting and I have to say, I really do love it. Even though, things are different, I feel comfortable in it all. You must come visit 🙂 Thanks for the read and comment, Alexandra.

  • Luna S

    The dining sounds interesting! Does it work the same if you are dining alone though? I also like that they generally leave you alone when you are eating, it is always annoying that the servers seem to come over to ask how your food is right when you have a mouth full of food.

    • Sarah Emery

      Dining alone is a nice experience. You still can leave your personal items on a table, while going to use the loo or have a cigarette. Which is nice. Yes, I find the difference of service more attractive verses being interrupted ever so often (asking if the food is okay, can I be brought anything else, would I like to see the dessert menu, etc). Thanks for the read and comment Luna.

  • Clarice

    This is a great read and I’d like to thank you for sharing these great insights.

    Happy to know that you were able to adjust already with their practices.I also felt bad before when they don’t really say excuse me but I totally agree with you. They’re not really rude but instead, it is just not part of their culture.

    • Sarah Emery

      Thanks Clarice. Yes, it’s something that I’m still getting used to and staying mindful NOT to start myself. Yes, it’s not a rude thing … it just…. isn’t something done/said. Yet, it’s still weird to me. Thanks for the read and comment, Clarice.

  • US Visa Interview Guide

    Singapore sure is a great country with a progressive and stable economy it is one of the richest country around the world. Although living in the country can be very expensive there are still ways which you can cut cost beside that living in this country is very safe and people are very nice as well which is why it’s preferred to live by many expats.

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