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. Also, things that I miss and don’t miss (from living in the States). And the top most interesting, awkward questions I’ve been asked whilst living abroad.
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.
This practice 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’, and being called ‘sister’ by strangers. Are ways to address our elders or others in similar age, when we don’t know each other’s name. For example, when asking an elderly attendant (when out shopping, dining, hawker center, etc). Say, “Excuse me, auntie (or uncle), how much is this?”
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. The social calendar starts to fill up with 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 on opposite ends of the planet. 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). Before that, I was living a little over an hour away from them and saw them every weekend (when I had my horse riding lessons – which I MAJORLY miss).
I miss living in 4 seasons. A pumpkin latte and hot soup 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). Which has me craving for mountainous epic views with gorgeous ocean cliffs.
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 and the smells of forest.
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 but doable. 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.
Reasonable prices on alcohol. Oddly enough, 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 stranger courtesy. I’m pleasantly surprised, when I see someone hold the door for someone they don’t know. Especially an elevator door (not counting hotel staff).
Read 64 Unwritten Rules in 14 Countries given by expats. A German expat who lives in the States. Has noticed in her experience that Americans make it an effort to hold doors for each other and finds it to be a really thoughtful act.
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 invoke my 80’s fashion sense and start wearing shoulder pads?
Saying, ‘excuse me’ when walking in front of you (especially in grocery stores) is not a practice done here, either.
Just to be VERY CLEAR, 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).
Because of the general friendliness of the States. I do get a little homesick after each visit.
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 driving 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 my personal 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 windows, slashed tires and property stolen (all at separate times and mostly in California). Even the amount of times our packages were stolen from our front door, was definitely a skid mark.
The gun violence is a definite CON. Years ago, I was driving on Interstate 95 and another driver pulled a gun on me. Super no bueno and thankfully myself and my friends in the car all drove away with our lives (yet we were all terrified, and 18-19 years old at the time). The amount of gun violence that was in our neighborhood in California, and the surrounding areas. Definitely had us carefully picking out when and where we would go.
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.
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, Japanese, 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 before 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.
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 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 timestamp on the contract, so it’ll be interesting how long or where else we venture to.
3. “How do you fill your days?” Is a common question, usually followed by, “What do you do for 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 nationality, religion, if I have tattoos, gender, marriage status, and if I have children.
When meeting a locals father here in Singapore, he asked me, ”What is it like being an African American?”
A good expat friend, from South Africa asked, “Do you fear being shot when you go back to America?”
At a 4th of July celebration here in Singapore, a local 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 their 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 was not pregnant (happily still not) and I burned that dress.
When I arrived in New Zealand, an Immigration officer 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 still has me laughing 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.