The First Time I Felt At Home in Singapore

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

With 2012 still fresh and new, this month’s NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches examines beginnings from the four corners of the globe:

Linda/Yours Truly www.adventuresinexpatland.com in Netherlands is NORTH

Russell www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com in Australia is SOUTH

Erica www.expatriababy.com in Japan is EAST

and Maria www.iwasanexpatwife.com  in Canada is WEST.


This month finds Erica at I Was an Expat Wife, writing of her love of new beginnings

Russell is over at Expatria, Baby, dreaming big and of taking an even bigger bite out of 2012

I’m down under visiting In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, playing Expat Jeopardy and exploring the moment when an expat’s new life begins

and Maria is visiting here at Adventures in Expat Land, remembering when she first felt at home in Singapore

So get comfortable, pour yourself a glass, and join us in saluting 2012. Many new and wonderful beginnings to all of you!

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  The first time I felt at home in Singapore

What is expat life but a never-ending series of firsts? I remember my first sentence in French — “Je voudrais un pain, s’il vous plâit” — when I was 19 and terrified the formidable-looking madame behind the counter wouldn’t understand my request for a loaf of bread. I remember my first time in the surf, at Manly Beach, when this non-swimmer ended up with a lungful of the Tasman Sea and a wardrobe malfunction that makes me blush to this day.

What I don’t remember is my evolution from ice queen to heat junkie.

Moving to Singapore is not exactly a hardship posting. What’s not to like? It’s gorgeous, it’s modern, and English is widely spoken. But there are still plenty of cultural differences to keep an expat on her toes. Just to make it more interesting, each of the three ethnic groups that dominate the island — Indian, Malay, and Chinese — has its own customs, superstitions, and taboos. The opportunities for messing up are myriad.

Newcomers to Singapore don’t care about any of that. It’s hard to worry about niceties like the Left Hand Rule (http://www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com/2011/08/lost-in-nonverbal-translation.html) or how to use a squat toilet (http://iwasanexpatwife.com/2010/07/16/squatting-in-singapore/) when you’re busy trying not to die of heatstroke.

Yeah, Singapore is hot. Less than 150 km from the equator, it has a tropical rainforest climate with an average temperature of 30° and 85% humidity. Year round. There’s lots of rain, but when the sun shines, man, does it shine. In fact, my dermatologist tried to talk fair-skinned, freckle-faced me out of moving there. (She wasn’t the first to bet against me in the skin cancer sweepstakes; when I lived in Australia, a doctor took one look at my skin and gave me some free medical advice: “Go home.”)

The heat, as I mentioned, is of the sticky variety, which meant changing clothes more often than a Kardashian, wrestling with unruly hair, and ODing on deodorant. Forget about makeup — five minutes outside and it would slide off your face like hot wax down a candlestick. I once begged a perfectly made-up Singaporean to tell me the secret of wearing mascara without looking like Alice Cooper. “It’s so hot,” I whined.

She shrugged. “I guess I’m just used to it.”

Another time, I arrived at my daughter’s school and watched in alarm as a group of 8-year-olds practised soccer drills in the noonday sun. “How can they run around like that without dropping like flies?” I asked the coach.

He shrugged. “It’s hard for them at first,” he said. “Then they just get used to it.”

They might not notice that they live in a perpetual heat wave, but Singaporeans do love their air-conditioning (or “aircon,” as I learned to call it.) A penguin would feel right at home in any of the frigid shopping malls along Orchard Road. I’m not much of a shopper, but I soon became a total mall rat. Takashimaya was my oasis in the desert.

One day my friend Kate and I were sitting on the patio at Starbucks, chatting idly and watching the parade of people passing by. Kate leaned forward suddenly and said, “Have you noticed that we don’t sit inside anymore?”

Woman sitting at table outside a Starbucks in Singapore www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Outside (!) at Starbucks in Singapore


“The people-watching isn’t as good from inside,” I said.

“But remember when we first arrived in Singapore? We used to sit inside Starbucks, shivering in the aircon. Now we’re sitting outside, drinking hot coffee … and we like it.”

It was a defining moment. Kind of silly, I know — climate is not culture, and adjusting to extremes in temperature doesn’t mean you’ve adjusted emotionally, functionally, or culturally to a new country. But I felt that I’d turned a corner, somehow; that by acclimating physically, I’d taken one step closer to my goal of understanding and feeling comfortable in — belonging to, even — this beautiful country. I felt, for the first time, at home in Singapore.

Looking back, I’m sad that such a red-letter day flew under my radar. I don’t recall the first time Kate or I said, “Hey, why don’t we try sitting outside today?” and yet it was a milestone that cried out for celebration. That made me realize how important it is for expats to chronicle their progress as it unfolds. Recording your triumphs and setbacks — through journaling, blogging, or whatever works for you — gives you a tangible sense of how far you’ve come. Every step forward is a victory that should be commemorated. 

When we invited a woman who was new to Singapore to join us for coffee, she balked at the idea of sitting on the patio. “It’s too hot,” she said. “How can you stand it?” Kate and I looked at each other and shrugged.

We just got used to it.

[Image credit: Maria Foley]



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