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What Expat Life in Singapore is Really Like

An American Expatriate Living in Singapore

This month I’m celebrating my 2nd year living as an expat, 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.

Read my 1st year and the Top 10 things I’ve learned

Instead of posting a Top 10 List, of what I’ve learned this year. I’ve rounded up what I love about Singapore, its’ quirkiness, what 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

Things That I Really Love About 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. While going to 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 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.

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 to Indonesia.

What I Miss about Living in the States

I have learned to live without, or I’ve forgotten what’s still 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.

Cheap prices on alcohol. It’s cheaper to buy local the local Singaporean Tiger beer, in the States than it is here in Singapore. 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. It’s like they are in a horror film, being chased and trying to close the elevator door as fast as they can.

Saying, ‘excuse me’ when walking in front of you (especially in grocery stores) is not a practice done here.

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?

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, is definitely a skid mark.

Years ago, a driver pulled a gun on me on a freeway. 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 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.

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 it 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. 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.

Big grocery stores, big cars (2 or more per household), big food portions, homes, 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. We have a lot of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Malay and Indian food in Singapore and sometimes a good óle juicy BBQ, or cheeseburger just hits the spot.

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

Sarah Emery Thriving Expat Lifestyle

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

Top 3 common questions:

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

2. “How long will you live in Singapore?” Was usually 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.

We don’t have a contract, so I’m excited to see where this life takes us next.

3. “How do you fill your days?” Is a new common question, usually followed by, “Do you work?”

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, a friend asked me, “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. 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.

Just to be VERY CLEAR – none of the questions above, in no way offend me. They were all answered …… with a smile 🙂

Year 2 in the 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.


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