After the failure of Plan A, our total immersion plan for living in Portugal, it made sense to apply the exact opposite rationale when moving to Singapore: embrace with gusto the expat way of life. Oddly enough, the flip side of this approach has its own drawbacks.
We became friends with a couple who owned a rather swanky hotel in the south of Portugal. She was Singaporean Tamil and he was Swiss German. They once offered my husband a job selling villas, apartments and hotel rooms on their resort, but since he had just started working for the largest hotel group in Portugal, he declined.
As a present on my 40th, they invited to stay at their luxy hotel. Over drinks Mr. Swiss German said to my husband, ‘Now James. I’ve offered you a job before, and you turned me down. So I’m not going to offer you another, but I am going to tell you a story.’
He explained that the Mrs. still had strong family ties in Singapore, where her father was the undisputed ‘popadom king’ of South-East Asia. Based on an entrepreneurial spirit (as well as her father’s existing warehouse space in Singapore), the two started a business selling Portuguese wine into Singapore and Malaysia.
Business was ok, but it could be better– under the right management. ‘Have you ever considered living in Sing…’
No need to finish that sentence. We’d already talked about moving to Asia, believing it would be a great place to educate our girls. Plus, the economy of the West was sinking in comparison to the growth in the East. We wanted in.
Planning this move to a new country required an utterly different approach, however. We learned a lot in our 10 years as expats in Portugal, plus we now had children.
So here’s what we did for Singapore, effectively heretofore known as Plan B:
1. Firstly, when moving to Portugal, we intended to learn Portuguese. But the official language of Singapore is English. Done.
2. Secondly, for Portugal we wanted to immerse in the local culture totally avoiding expats. But that didn’t work out so well, and Singapore is full of professionals from all over the world — expats moved into the financial hub by their large corporations. Why avoid the inevitable?
1.a. Although not an official language, Mandarin is taught in schools and widely spoken, so instead of gearing up for our own fluency, the focus was on our kids. We enrolled them in local schools, a fact that is generally met with surprise from both locals and expats– it’s simply not the norm. Then again, we’ve never really fit into anyone’s description of ‘the norm’.
2.a. We moved into a condo development, which is something we never, ever would have done in Portugal. Ever. It would have surrounded us by exactly the wrong type of expat in Portugal. But in Singapore, there was little alternative, and were actually trying to surround ourselves by expats.
2.b. We also actively sought out expat groups and organisations. Wow are they expensive to join. Even if there’s no membership fees, the activities they sponsor are equally expensive. So… how else could we meet other expats? Well, we were here to sell wine, and that means– wine tastings! Surely we would meet some nice expats like ourselves?
I have to say wine tastings are not a good way to meet people. Hangovers, blurry, nonsensical conversations, an over-inflated ego that crashes about you the next morning when remembering fragments of the hi-larious jokes you told… Not the foundations of a solid friendship.
In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that the wine business didn’t work out (Singapore is already saturated with French and Australian wines). My husband luckily found his way back into the property world and we then tried more conventional means of meeting new people. Which is to say that we didn’t. We couldn’t afford to.
But here’s the truth as I see it anyhow: the typical expat in Singapore is either too wealthy or suffers from ‘temporary expat syndrome’. In either case, they’re just not like us. Their kids go to international schools — ours go to local schools. They own or rent houses or central condos — we rent outside the city. They have luxury SUVs or sports cars — we take the bus.
They may reside here, but we live here, which is what I mean by ‘temporary expat syndrome’. My husband has had a few conversations that went something like this:
‘Where are you from?’
England. (Or Australia, or America, etc…)
‘Do you live here in Singapore, or are you just visiting?’
I work here, but I live in England.
‘What, you commute??’
No, no, I have a place in Singapore.
‘Oh. So your family is still back in England?’
No, they’re here with me.
‘So… you live in Singapore…’
No, I just work here– we’re going back home in two years.
It’s hard to see the point in investing time and emotion with someone you know is leaving as soon as possible. For those expats who have truly moved in to Singapore, it’s often the case that their total fantasy world of wealth and circumstances is either intimidating or so far out of our reach that there’s no common ground. When they’re local hangout charges SGD$300 for a bottle of wine, where can you make plans to meet up? Honestly, it’s embarrassing when you’re consistently invited out and you consistently have to decline for a lack of funds. How may times will they want to go for a free walk in the park or a dinner on the cheap at a local Hawker?
Fortunately, we’ve found a few exceptions with a couple of neighbours who panned out, a wine tasting that resulted in at least one friendship, and a few business associates who became friends. But unlike the expats we befriended in Portugal– who became our family– we’ve struggled to find similar connections in Singapore.
On the other hand, this does make the friendships we do have that much more valuable.
There’s one more drawback to Plan B that I haven’t mentioned: friendships with locals. It’s not like we intentionally avoid locals while embracing an expat way of life, but as a result of Plan B, we ended up with no particular ‘in’ with locals either.
So to sum up–
Plan A for Portugal: failed (but in a good way). Plan B for Singapore: failing.
Plan C may be in order. What is Plan C? See Plan A.