They say you’ll cry when you come and you’ll cry when you go, but what they don’t tell you is that you’ll start crying about six months into your stay as you begin to say a series of goodbyes and you’ll never really have dry eyes again.
It’s mass exodus month in Singapore, my least favorite time of year. Some people are returning home, some are moving on to another expat posting and some know they are leaving Singapore, but have no idea where they will go next.
I’m not going to lie, I’m really sad. When I first arrived, I met loads of old timers who were not interested in being my friend. They’d seen so many people come and go and they just didn’t want their hearts broken again. They were polite, gave a nice smile, said the let me know if you need anything perfunctory response to our introduction, but they did not open their hearts to me. I got it. I get it more now.
I opened my heart as wide as it would go, stuck a crow bar in it just in case it tried to self-protect and snap shut and I ventured out to find who my friends would be. I tried to remind myself that I wasn’t looking for a best friend, just the best in a friend. And whoa, Nelly! did I find the best. Somehow I managed to worm my way into the lives of a few old timers anyway and I met plenty of women who had just arrived like me and we all began the long road of getting to know each other. A few hundred lunches, walks, talks and shared experiences later, my life is full of amazing women – many of whom do not know each other. My friendship practice resembles a wagon wheel more than it does a tidy circle of trust.
Friends to exercise with, friends to shop with, friends to travel with, friends to pray with, friends to eat with and even friends to go to the fake, not-nearly-as-good Costco with! My heart and schedule are full and, well, I was recently thinking how I might not want to meet an eager newbie who will throw me off balance with her neediness and incessant questions. Gulp! I’ve become an old timer.
I sat with my friends from ladies’ Bible study last week and we explored the roles of mentors and encouragers in our lives. I thought back to people who had influenced me from the time I was a teenager to those who have walked the tough stuff with me in more recent years and I whispered a prayer of gratitude for them. I looked around the room and saw a few faces that had been my cheering squad when I needed it during my time in Singapore. One of them reminded me about the saying, A friendship isn’t real until you’ve cried together and boy have we had chances to cry together as we’ve prayed for children, husbands, finances, travels, illness and more. That room was filled with encouragers.
Living abroad is a wacky experience – some days I fly so high I can’t believe I am the lucky recipient of this adventure and I fall into bed those nights exhausted and smiling. Other days I burrow under the duvet in my overly air conditioned room and can’t face the world of foreignness, constant change and different-from-homeness for another second. Through those ups and downs, it’s been friendships that have helped balance me out. It’s always been the friendships….
And now SO MANY OF MY FRIENDS ARE MOVING AWAY. And I am deeply excited for their next adventures – some are empty nesting for the first time, some are moving to cool places, learning new languages and readying guest rooms for me to sleep in when I visit, some are finally moving back to their hometowns, to their houses waiting on their cul de sacs with the neighbors who will throw welcome-back-bbqs for them on grills filled with pounds and pounds of meat that didn’t cost a week’s salary.
I’ve attended goodbye parties – pool parties, brunches, coffees, dinners and lunches to say goodbye. I’ve written cards, contributed to group gifts, tried to express my sentiments to each of them and wished them well. And the tiniest, pettiest part of me can’t help but think, “Harrumph. Come August, I’ll be here. Right back here. Car sick in the back of a taxi, sweating through my clothes, chasing groceries and harassing waiters for more ice water, please.”
Deep down I can tell that some of these adorable women who have made an imprint on my heart will be friends for life, and some of them will have been friends while we both lived here. We’ll keep in touch on facebook, but we won’t see each other again. I’m trying to be okay with that. I learned when I moved away from San Francisco – my first move in almost fifteen years – that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t take everyone with me. Not everyone has the keep-in-touch gene. And yet, I remind myself, I am okay.
I will draw closer to the friends who are not moving – I have more lunches, brunches, walks and talks ahead of me with those ladies and perhaps a trip or two to plan. As many as I can count heading on to other things, I can count more who will be sticking around. Let’s make some dates, girlies.
And here’s a tricky part: there are new friends I have not met who will arrive here in just a few months. Sure, they will be needy and have a million questions, but won’t they remind me of someone else who came here – sweaty, messy, emotional and lonely – just two years ago? And if I can keep that crow bar in my heart jammed into place a little longer, keep my heart open and searching who is still here? who is my next friend? – well, there’s no telling what my friendships will look like by this time next year.
And for the ladies leaving, I’m letting you go. I learned a long time ago that open palms receive way more gifts and blessings than closed, gripping-so-tightly-til-my-nails-prick-those-palms ever will. Like other things I’ve wanted to cling to – cities, comforts, possessions, communities, I now place these friendships into that palm and hold it as open as my heart – they are free to go without worrying about me, free to embrace their new lives and make room in their hearts for their new friends. Perhaps I’ll be sleeping between the sheets in their guest room next year, or perhaps our time in each other’s hearts was meant to be simply a gift of Singapore. However our stories continue on – of them with me, and me with them and us on our own – our time together has been nothing short of magical.
Now forgive me for sharing aloud my farewells… Au revoir, my Michelle. Thank you for loving me before you met me and letting me just be me around you. Rachelle, you welcomed me into your inner circle without question and thank you to you both for bequeathing Cheryl to me. I promise to take good care of her. Kris, I think you will be popping into Singapore at times next year, right? Yes? Please? Christine, Hong Kong is not so far away so I think I might see you before too long, and Divya we know we can meet up in the Bay Area anytime. Melissa, DC! I go there every summer! Nida, you’ve certainly traveled well during your time in Asia – I’ll miss our movie dates! Kie, I am beyond excited about Taipei – it’s my favorite city! You have a bedroom whenever you need/want to come back and visit! And if Emma and Rachel keep jumping, IASAS track and field will be in Taipei next April! Sarah, you’ve modeled for me the me-I-want-to-be: your hospitality, graciousness, energy and non-judgmental open arms have affected so many of us at St. George’s. You are a true example of using our time wisely. Diana, the UK awaits and I know you are ready for this next step! Ivy, you have to give up your sunrise views and your beloved elephants, but I wonder (with great anticipation) what adventure awaits you back home in the desert? Gayathri, I think our paths might cross in Chatham! Melissa, may you continue to help women discover their strengths in New Jersey and Charlotte, time to conquer Europe! Hannis, I have you for a little longer, yes? Suzy, second Mom to my boy, keep on truckin’. Your smiley family will keep drawing us to PA. Therese, grace be with you as you transition. May you find the gifts of Seoul quickly; be on the lookout, dear, because they will be waiting for you there. And I will come hunt them down for you if they don’t reveal themselves fast enough, because I need to try bibimbap in its natural habitat.
And of course I am likely to have forgotten a few and that doesn’t mean I will not miss them, just that I am feeble-minded. I will think of you in your new places and I will pray for you and your families as you find your footing in whatever is next.
To all of you who have blessed me with generous friendship and shown me the way to be a welcoming, openhearted Singaporean Expat:
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace. (Numbers 6: 24-26)
Fare thee well!
I’m having an affair with Fear. He’s been with me for a while and I’ve come to depend on his voice and assurances like a drug. He’s raised my kids with me – he even attended a few parent teacher conferences, good fellow that he is – and he usually sits alongside me while I drive. He goes to doctor’s appointments with me and he always accompanies me to social gatherings where I am bound to meet new people and he spends the evenings whispering sweet nothings into my ear. Heck, he dropped what he was doing and followed me around the world when I moved to Asia. He can’t keep his hands off of me. We’re like that obnoxious couple making out in the dark at the movie theater or staring longingly into each other’s eyes while roller-skating to love songs. We are entwined, Fear and me.
Here’s what dating Fear offers me.
He keeps me from making dumb mistakes: When I am ready to leap before looking he says, Do you really want to ask that woman you just met if she’d like to go for a walk or coffee? She might think you are a friendless loser. When I consider initiating intimacy with my husband, he steps in swiftly with, Just turn off the light and roll over, Sweetie. Let’s not have you rejected tonight by a man too exhausted to think. Also, he’s probably noticed those extra pounds you’ve put on. When I want to offer my services as a fashion consultant, he steps between the woman and me and says Shhh! She’s going to think you are one of those pushy pyramid scheme people. Just let her go to Nordstrom! See, if he weren’t my boyfriend I’d go around making a fool of myself all the time.
He keeps me safe and the same. With his voice in my ear, I am able to plan, strategize, consider, ponder and talk, but I never need to act. Action takes risk and he has a no-risk rule and I’ve learned to follow it. As I lean toward a new direction, he forms a knot in my stomach. Lean back, the knot disappears. Forward, knot, back, no knot. Fear hates failure and he is always keeping me away from it. Don’t try that new exercise program because you’ll probably quit by the end of the week. Don’t attempt a new leadership plan for your team; no one will follow it. Don’t travel to that country; you’ll catch a disease. So I stay safe and just dream.
He helps me focus on the future. Fear is very in touch with how it will all turn out. He is sure and positive and firm in his predictions. And I believe him. He doesn’t need to wonder, hope or trust because he can see into the future and just knows. It’s spooky sometimes how right he is. I mean, we never really know for sure how other options might have turned out because we always follow his plan, but it’s because he knows best. He’s been a parenting coach for me in always looking ahead and deciding what particular scenarios mean about my kids’ future. He was definitely present and in agreement with the coach that said she’d never play in high school if I didn’t let her join a travel team in fifth grade and he was speaking as loud as my heart was banging about how the bullying would never stop for the rest of my son’s life. He’s keen like that.
There are some downsides to dating him, I know. My girlfriends think he is a drag and are so sick of my showing up with him at my side. And they swear, if I talk about him to them one more time …
He gets boring after a while. I have a taste for adventure and novelty and I want to experience everything the world can offer me. He’s a downer when it comes to exploring new places, new relationships and new opportunities. Always yap yap yapping in my ear about the what ifs, the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, the ways it might possibly tank, the embarrassment and shame I might feel, and how I might be financially vulnerable if I proceed. His routine is so predictable it gets old.
Giving my heart to him closes it to others. He likes to occupy my whole heart and makes sure there is not a lot of room for anyone else in there. He helps me read signals and cues that indicate others don’t like me, think I am dumb, are laughing at me or see right past me. Honestly, when I give him my ear it makes sense not to let anyone in. There are good reasons to be suspicious and I don’t like having a broken heart anymore than the next gal. I keep it closed and watch people walk by and sometimes I just wonder how my life could have been enriched if I let them in.
But the biggest downside to loving him is that I don’t grow. There is no need to attend any lectures or courses for personal development; they won’t amount to much anyway. Because I don’t seek out new experiences or meet new people, my viewpoints and perspectives are never challenged or enlarged. I have a hunch that there is more out there for me, but he keeps holding me back, keeping me safe.
I’ve heard Fear’s voice for so many years that sometimes I forget I have a choice. Sometimes my own voice offers up words I know would make him proud. Occasionally the people who love me want to keep me safe and whole and so they speak some of Fear’s best lines too.
I dream of breaking up with him. I wonder what would happen if I played the field and dated around. I dunno if I’m up for it though. Could be fun. I hear Hope and Trust are currently single, available and looking for dates.
Recently, I made a whirlwind trip to the States and in addition to working longer and harder than any other twelve days in my life, and mamma-worrying constantly about my kids, I had a chance to catch up with a few old friends. One asked me why I wasn’t writing more on this blog. I stumbled and mumbled a few excuses about how busy and exhausted I’ve been and then I came clean. This move has been hard. Like, r.e.a.l hard. Most of what I’ve been writing sounds so sad and depressing that I haven’t wanted to share it and let the record reflect it. A lot of what I’ve been thinking and feeling would be a bit of a buzz kill. As a family we are making wonderful memories and stretching ourselves in lots of directions with travel and adventure, but also experiencing our share of homesickness, culture shock and adjustment issues that come with such a big change. I promised my friend that I would write more often, and maybe even share some of the sad bits, but that my goal was to be fully honest while staying positive. So for today I will keep it peppy and tell you about a few of my favorite things….
Singapore was Christmas crazy!
Literally, everywhere I went from November til mid January, I saw tinsel, sparkle, lights and flashy motifs. Even the most off-the-beaten-path shops had outdone themselves in holiday garb! At home, I always felt as if the month of December was a mash up of celebrations, and so “Happy Holidays” was our inclusive way of recognizing that not everyone believes in Christmas. NOT HERE AT ALL. Everyone’s holiday happens here and much ado is made about each one. Christmas is definitely the biggie and it seems lots of people get in on the fun whether the Christmas Story holds religious meaning for their families or not. The Christmas season felt fun, upbeat and joyful and not a bit political. And it’s really, really hot. Imagine Christmas lights, Christmas music and sweat rivulets at all times. I went to a fancy Christmas Ladies Luncheon and had such a hard time finding something to wear. All my normal holiday dresses and outfits felt too heavy, so I settled on a silk blouse and a taxi but after the walk home that blouse should have been burned.
Traditions are still traditions, even in a new place.
We bought a live(ish) tree and decorated it with the same bundle of hodge-podge ornaments we’ve been carting around and adding to bit-by-bit for 19 years. By doing this, we connected this life of “after” to the life we’d been living in San Francisco, otherwise known as “before.“ One of the difficulties about moving that caught me off guard is the blank slate feel. We arrived hopeful, but without a sense of what to look forward to and be excited about. Turns out, it’s exhausting to enter each day and situation with no sense of expectation. We are learning so much about what the calendar year looks and feels like, and beginning to relax a bit. I had not realized that in the past when I anticipated Thanksgiving, dishes, smells, table linens and dinner guest’s faces would all subconsciously flash through my mind. And if the event or holiday turned out a little differently, that was okay; it was just a variation of what I had been expecting. This move made it so we expected nothing. There was nothing to look forward to, only the present to appreciate. And that’s good and grounding in a way, but hard to live every single day. Now that we’ve had six months under our belts, we are beginning to feel a rhythm, and especially now that we’ve had one Christmas season to walk through, it feels somehow connected to past Christmas seasons. My children have each celebrated a birthday here and they got to pick their breakfast and their special dinner and we dragged out the numbered candles we’ve been using since they turned one. Honoring family traditions has helped stabilize us a bit. Even attending a Lessons and Carols service did its part to heal the hearts of our holiday homesickness. Scroll to the bottom for a glimpse of St. George’s Lessons and Carols and the opening song.)
Fresh start syndrome.
As much as the blank slate can cause me anxiety, (who am I without a full calendar?) I wouldn’t trade it away. I’m really starting to dig my Singapore self. Obviously, I have the same personal habits and character traits as before, but I have much more freedom to choose my actions and how to fill my days. I pace myself better here. I am taking better care of my family and I’m being much more intentional about friendships, both keeping up with the ones from home and investing time in new ones here. I do have a slew of lovely ladies here in Singapore that I’d like to get to know better in 2014. There are about ten women I just know I will like, but we’ve had trouble getting on each others’ calendars. The old Joy would feel super stressed out about this and create ridiculous scenarios to fit in a coffee, a walk, a tag team grocery shopping trip, just to make sure we got it checked off the list. The new Joy just believes it will happen as soon as it can and relaxes into knowing that those women, or others will eventually become my people.
Guys, I’m not gonna lie…. it was rough in the beginning. I felt like the four of us were spinning in different directions and I was just trying to hold onto the metal bar of the merry-go-round. But yesterday, I had a really bad day and let a lot of anger fester for hours. (I won’t bore you with the story, but it involved getting the total runaround about how to repair or replace this tiny remote key that is supposed to open the electronic gates to my house. Can you think of a more boring way to spend your morning? Me neither.) Yesterday was significant because it made me realize I am beginning to acclimate to this country and its habits because that down, blue, I-hate-the-way-Singaporeans-don’t-give-straight-answers-or-offer-helpful-suggestions sulk felt odd, like it didn’t quite fit me anymore. It was a feeling I used to live with and now it’s a rarity. (Except when we eat out at restaurants I usually feel it for the entire meal. I don’t think I will ever get used to restaurant service here, so we eat at home most nights.) Once I processed the anger away and remembered how much face-saving is at play – always and forever it’s there in the conversation and my western mind tends to forget that – I was able to brush past the experience and enjoy a night with my son. That’s some serious acclimation, friends.
Friends who visit
Yeah, we kinda run a B&B around here. Book your trip now or there won’t be room for you in 2014. In the space of three months, I will only spend a handful of nights on my own in Singapore, and I am loving it. There is nothing more fun than finally getting out and exploring my new city with people who really just want to see me happy. When I gleefully point out a temple or a chicken rice stall that I’ve come to love, my guests are tickled pink to experience it all with me. And it makes me happy to be here in this new life, sharing it with my old life. Somehow showing it all to someone who knows me really well helps me believe it’s really true. I have moved to the other side of the world, see? Here are the Chinese characters on the street signs to prove it. It’s been affirming to share my new life with old friends.
The kids I brought here.
They were amazing individuals before we moved and the transition has helped them blossom even more. I see these tall, tan, semi-adults sharing my house and creating the lives they want and I think… Wow, Singapore has grown them up. They are both taking athletic, social and academic risks that make my head spin, but somehow they quickly realized, we’ve got this opportunity and we can make the best of it if we don’t hold back. And they are taking the bull by the horns in every direction. I just sit back and watch it happen and feel honored to be close to the flames. If I were forced to give each of them a new middle name I wouldn’t hesitate; Confidence would stick.
Being in the club
No matter where we’re from or how long we’ve been here, whether we have children, or if we are blue or afraid to drive on the left, or if we work full-time, we are all living away from our home country. The expat club is inclusive and has embraced me. I am grateful. I met a sweet gal named Charlotte at church recently. She’d been here all of nine days when I walked up to say hello. I lost track of her and bumped into her about eight weeks later and she said “Thank you for being so warm and welcoming to me when I first moved here.” For real? I’m already on the welcome wagon? I can tell someone where to grocery shop, where to buy new soccer cleats and a wallet for your son that will fit the odd sizes bills. Looks like it homies – I am an old timer round these parts!
My CAbi work has been a lifeline. When I could have stayed at home in my jammies all day watching Netflix (who am I kidding, of course I did that a few times in the Fall) I had a business to focus on. There are CAbi consultants across the US who need me (or at least pretend to and I am grateful for their trickery!) and customers who eagerly await my return trips to San Francisco. Guys, this is HUGE for a woman who went from an over-engaged life to a quiet one. And CAbi has helped me meet women here. Clothes are very expensive and cut for a smaller body, so it turns out that there’s a market here for my work. So far, I’ve mule-d some CAbi orders back in my luggage for pals here, but time will tell how fast this business grows.
I might have to save this topic for a future post because there is just too much to tell. But for now… omgoodness we adopted two of the cutetest littermates on the Earth. Go ahead and Google “how to potty train two puppies at once” and you will know a little about what my life is like right now.
More soon from planet keeping it real and positive.
Your Singapore Joy
Oh friends… it’s been too long. Friends and family who rely on this blog to keep tabs on us, I am sorry for the delay. No news is good news in this case. Anonymous readers who connect with my heart and writing, I promise I will be back soon. Who was that girl who thought moving to the other side of the world would give her the time and focus she needed to write?
Here’s the quick update for friends and family (anonymous readers you can skip down a few paragraphs; it won’t hurt my feeling a bit):
We finally moved into our “permanent” house and simply adore it. Boxes are still scattered here and there (my office just got unpacked this weekend and mornings find me sitting at my new desk typing away!), but we’re making good settling-in progress each week. We feel really fortunate to be in this house. It’s not fancy, but it’s centrally located in an area of mostly high-rise condo buildings. We can walk to the American Club, the main shopping district and tons of restaurants on Orchard Road, and to the most expensive grocery store I’ve even seen.
Emma’s soccer team traveled to Bangkok and Taipei and eventually won the gold medal in the league. They broke a record for not letting in a single goal all season or something very bigtimish like that. Her soccer team fully embraced her and I adore the girls outside of sports who have welcomed her into their circles. I never see her on the weekends as she bounces from one event to another.
Louis played American football this season and his team will play in the championship game this coming Saturday. It feels very “Texas,” this football thing, and it’s been one big ball of fun. I love cheering him on and can see how much he’s learned over the last few weeks. His fitness and stamina are amazing and he’s gotten even taller! I can’t keep him in shoes that fit! He has a big boisterous group of friends from church and enjoys the novelty of being the only American.
Brad is exhausted. He travels somewhere each week, works really long hours when he is in town, and there is always something for him to figure out or fix for me at home. We hugged last weekend and he whispered into my ear “there is so much not getting done. I haven’t called my Mom in ages, I need to look at our US mail, we need another bank account, we need to set up US tax payments…” The list of things we need to do right now seems endless.
So that leaves… me. People, I am good. But, I still have ups and downs. Daily life continues to confuse me, but the days are getting easier and my routine is beginning to come together. I’ve been on a slew of first-dates-for-friends and am beginning to make round two with the women I liked. It takes time to develop deep relationships– even with women I really click with and admire!
A few weeks ago, I realized that my family seemed to be missing a deep sense of gratitude. Back in our old city by the Bay we loved our home, each other, our friends, our city, our church…. I could go on and on. It just wasn’t very difficult to wake up each day and feel a sense of blessing hovering over our lives. When we moved here it felt like the rug had been pulled out. We were struggling just to find anything to like a little bit! Everything smelled and tasted unusual, the heat and new rhythm sapped us of energy and we missed home viscerally. Before meals we’d join hands to offer grace and honestly, some nights I could barely say, thank you for the food we are about to eat and I’d have to leave it at that. During my round of dates, I met a few women who’ve been here a lot longer than me and they hate it here. They are deeply unhappy and spent the time we had together expressing their disgust at local customs, the heat, the food choices, the prices and everything else that takes getting used to. Over an American steak house date night with Brad, (highlight of the month!), I recounted some of their words and said, “I don’t want to end up like that.” It scared me to see that raw face of bitterness up close. All of their complaints resonated with me, but I think the way through this hard time is to embrace the difficulties with a sense of curiosity instead of judgment. So, I’ve been making a concentrated effort to get grateful in a hurry. I’ve never been good at faking much of anything. Faking one’s feelings only hurts the faker and usually doesn’t fool any onlookers. The gratitude I am hunting down needs to be the genuine kind. Some days it’s easier than others. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with so far.
After God’s grace, our health, my marriage, the particular kids I was given, our jobs and the love of extended family and friends, here are more just-moved-to-Singapore specific things.
Our House. I know I covered it already, but I feel like it was sent from heaven as a gift, wrapped just for us. In a confessional moment, our realtor shared her belief that this house represents God’s favor on our lives. I know that my happiness is not the intended end result of God’s blessings. This makes me curious to see how this house fits into His plan of work for me to do. We must be the only Americans in Singapore paying less in rent and living in a larger space than we had in the States. I have a guest room for the first time in seventeen years! We all have room to spread out and heaps of teenaged boys can play video games in the family room and we hardly know they are there. We’ve hosted our first dinner party and had seating for nineteen people. Emma’s entire soccer team slept over a few weekends ago. We are close to living the social hosting life we were accustomed to in the States.
Our non-car. Emma and Louis are very independent and can get themselves anywhere without my help. I don’t drive them to practices, games, youth group or sleepovers. Only a Mom who has eaten lunch in her car and picked up burritos for dinner three nights in a week can appreciate how liberating this is. I am very grateful for the opportunity this offers me and what it has done for my kids. In the same breath, I have to offer gratitude for the plethora of taxi-cabs. The drivers very often have no idea where my destination is, and they drive in a way that makes me very carsick, but they are usually very easy to find and cheap to pay.
The safety of Singapore. Dude, you don’t want to do anything wrong in this country. You’ll get caned and thrown in prison so fast you won’t be able to say can-can-lah. This means my teenagers can walk the streets at midnight with little fear and their mamma can fall asleep watching Law and Order without the frantic texting and cajoling them to get to wherever they will sleep now. We still have rules and curfews, but these kids have tons of freedom because it’s safe here.
Travel Opportunities: I’m a little ashamed, but I’ve never really had a travel bug. My parents took me to loads of places when I was a kid (Africa, Europe, all over the Caribbean) and I know it opened me up and changed me for the better. But as an adult, I just felt complete. Take me to Hawaii or Mexico and let me read by the pool. I certainly never had a desire to travel to Asia. But here I am and all of the sudden I am ablaze with desire. I research all the local airlines and places I can get to from Singapore in one flight. (There are many, many options!) I ask my potential new friends about their travel experiences and everyone has something to share. When Emma and I were in Taipei, we had one afternoon to see some sights and we were one hundred stories over the city looking down at the busy streets, mountains and mist, just pinching ourselves. Can you believe we are in Taiwan? In the near future, my kids we will go to the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Cambodia on vacations or service trips. That’s just the beginning. I have plans for this family!
Our helper: Nan-Nan came to live with us when her British employers had to leave the country suddenly. Some day, I will tell you more of her story, but suffice it to say we love having her in our home and she takes great care of us. We’re having tacos tonight with the corn tortillas I brought back from my last trip to San Francisco and I can hear (and smell) them frying right now. When the kids get home on the late bus I will turn my computer off and we’ll go downstairs to dinner. Yes, I am very grateful to have Nan-Nan with us.
Church: We are still spread out over a couple of churches, but everyone likes where he or she attends each week. We miss City Church down to our core, but we are all getting the reminder of God’s love and grace every single Sunday. We go for the reminder, Fred says. Gotta be grateful for that.
Tuesday Bible Study: This group is full of really loving women. It’s not anything like the Pause group, but it’s life-giving in its own way. Here’s proof that I am making friends and settling in. They met at my house this past week.
The American Club: Killer salad bar and a teen scene. Need I say more? I’m doing the final proofread by the pool today.
Real grateful living involves being thankful for everything, not just the fun stuff. I read One Thousand Gifts with everyone else and I believe it. But I’ve got to start somewhere and these were the easiest places.
I’m sure there is more… I will keep thinking…
I’ve been getting some cheery messages from friends in the US that say things like: Love seeing you all so happy! Glad everyone is settling in so well! Seems like Singapore agrees with you! I read these notes with confusion. Where are people getting this information?
After the fifth email like this, it dawned on me: Duh! I’ve only posted happy faces and upbeat statuses on Facebook! That’s common FB etiquette, probably – keep it real, but not whiney or complain-y. But it can give the impression that everything is super-duper when really it’s just fine.
All those posts and pictures are true; we’re not forcing smiles out of the kids or ourselves. But in between those smiling moments, we’ve been living a lot of regular life too, the kind that sometimes feels like a grind. Except here, it’s a brand new grind where everything is different, overwhelming and exhausting and although the language is supposedly the same, no one can understand me when I ask for help and I certainly cannot understand the answers they give as they are trying to help the poor, sweaty, befuddled woman.
So, for real, we’re all OK. We laugh around the dinner table, tuck each other in with kisses at night and we’ve even gone to a movie and found a great steak frites restaurant. But life here in Singapore is not exactly what I thought it would be.
The weather: It’s easier because, as it turns out, I like the heat! I’ve spent too many June nights at Off the Grid in my puffer coat, shivered through nearly every single Giants game I’ve been to, even with a wool blanket wrapped around my shoulders, and forced myself to go down to the nearby beach, bundled in a sweatshirt. I am ready for warm weather! Here, I sit and read by the pool in the late afternoons and marvel at how comfortable it is to be outside in a bathing suit as the sun goes down. I never have to look outside or ask Brad – what’s the weather like today? Do you think just this cardigan will be enough? It’s always warm. But it’s harder because it’s impossible for me to look pretty in this weather. Imagine that you’d just gone to your favorite spin class or bikram yoga class for a solid ninety minutes, and then added an extra twenty minutes of high intensity cardio. Afterwards, you’d skipped the shower and instead donned your favorite silk blouse. Then, you’d walked next door to lunch with friends and noticed that everyone is non-sweaty, their hair is coiffed and their makeup is right where they put it. This is me, everyday, except there is no workout involved. I’ve just left my house and walked ten minutes to the American Club, down to the grocery store or to a coffee shop to meet new friends. Brad and I almost had a fight one Sunday because I wouldn’t walk the two blocks to a better intersection to hail a taxi. We were on our way to meet new friends who’d graciously invited us to lunch at their club and for once I wanted to appear cool and calm. Looking pretty is much harder than I imagined. On back-to-school-night for my 8th grader I accidentally exited the subway a stop early. The ten-minute walk turned into a rushed thirty-five-minute one once I realized my mistake. I entered the school theater a red-faced, splotchy, soppy mess with teensy bits of tissue sticking to my skin from my brief mop up in the ladies room en route. Hi, I am Louis’s Mom and I’m looking for friends… It’s cool; we don’t have to hug hello.
The air-conditioning: It’s easier because it’s everywhere and for the first minute after I enter a room it feels like heaven, but it’s harder because before the sheet of sweat even dries, I start to shiver. I carry several cardigan options in my purse at all times for the quick added layer inside, but then I immediately strip off outside. When I work in the business center of our apartment building, I have to bring a sweatshirt with a hood because it’s that cold and I cannot think with my ears stinging. I have a constant sore throat and I think it has something to do with living in air-conditioning.
The bureaucracy: It’s easier because I am not required to think. There is a method and a way of doing everything. But it’s harder because there’s only one way to do it, and the game is to figure out that right way. I filled out an on-line form and entered my name as Joy Elizabeth Libby and it was rejected without stating a reason. Days of research later I learned that it was because in that particular system, I am listed as Libby Joy Elizabeth. Now I understand how corruption can flourish (not here! Too much caning, I think) because I would gladly hand over $100 to anyone who could help me figure out why Brad’s local debit card from Citibank cannot be used to make government fee payments online, but my Citibank debit card from California, the one that will incur a foreign exchange fee with every transaction, works just fine. Anyone? Bueller? We’re fortunate to have relocation experts helping us with various aspects of the move (handling paperwork for the employment and dependents’ passes, overseeing our container clearing customs etc.) and a fabulous realtor handling the reams of paperwork needed to rent a house, but in other areas we are on our own. It took Brad three weeks and lots of frustrating phone calls with Citibank to open a local bank account and as I mentioned above, the card really only works to get cash from an ATM (and not just any ATM; it has to be a Citibank one.) And apparently there is no way to connect us to our Citibank account in the US, even though Brad first opened an account with Citibank in 1986! (I know, right! I was only 13 years old!) I’ve been here for a month and we still haven’t had the wherewithal to add my name to the account; we are dreading the process. So, Brad gives me cash and I dole it out to the kids. If he travels, he leaves his debit card just in case we need more, and that means that while he is in India and needs cash himself, he has to take it from our US account which sets off a trip wire of potential fraud and then our US account is frozen and not even my US debit card will work for a simple $30 transaction. These things are sort of wearying.
The relocation company has given me a deadline to move out of our serviced apartment but the same company cannot confirm a definite move-in date for us for our new house, and no one sees that this is unsettling. I’ve asked them five different and creative ways why they’d secure an end to the temporary housing without first securing the date the container will arrive at the door of the new house, but this is the clearest answer I have been able to get: Kindly be informed that the custom [sic] clearance & delivery of shipment will takes [sic] about 2 to 3 working days from the date of shipment arrival. The earliest delivery date for the shipment would be 05 Sep 2013 if shipment arrive [sic] on schedule as [sic] 02 Sep 2013. So, yeah, whatever you can make of that.
While we’re on the topic, communication is harder. Though English is the official language, Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, so English is spoken in many accents and with different phrasing. Singlish, local colloquial English, is what’s spoken by many taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hawkers, security guards etc. (Someday soon, when I comprehend more, I will write about Singlish). We’ve already discussed the bank people. The housekeeping staff at the temporary apartment don’t speak much English at all – they come from all over Asia and are likely new arrivals. Then there are the expats: the number of accents coming at me in a school meeting or at church is remarkable: we have Kiwis, Aussies, South Africans, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh, plus tons of non-native English speakers from all over Asia, India and Europe. And of course there are American accents, from Texas to Maine.
The Expats: It’s easy because they were all new to Singapore at some point, so they all understand what we are going through. Any question I have, someone has asked it before me. There are forums, associations, clubs and Facebook pages galore to help get me settled quickly. One church we’ve visited even offers a class each fall for new families to Singapore. It’s hard because, well, some of the ex-pat women are so … smugly settled and know-it-all-happyish here. I heard before I left that the expat community would be very welcoming and warm. Well… I dunno. Jury’s out.
[Side note: One of the signs of culture shock is constantly making comparisons to your previous city. God bless our realtor, Woon, who had to listen to me do this at every single house we viewed. In San Francisco, the landlord would probably have done this, and oh boy this is what would happen in San Francisco. Ha Ha (knee slap) let me tell you about this one time in San Francisco …” Gag, I know, but she endured it all with a smile.]
I make (what I think to be) interesting and curious comparisons between Singapore and San Francisco and no one here is the slightest bit interested. In my current state of adjustment, it feels as if some of the gals might be forcing themselves to like it here. Like, methinks thou doth protest too much, pale blonde perfectly made-up dearies … Frankly, there are moments of some days when I don’t like Singapore at all, especially when I am sweaty, late, using the subway system at rush hour, or staring in disbelief at the prices in the supermarket. And I want to say, Nope, not gonna jump on your fake cheery band wagon sista, I’m digging my heels in. But last week I met a room full of (mostly) British women and they were just as expats had been described to me. They were vulnerable, genuine and generous with their time and stories. They were clearly my people and I know as time goes by, more of my people will cross my path until I have a tribe of women around me again. And then I will be telling the next gal who moves here, expat women are the best and life in Singapore is greaaaat!
Singapore American School: It’s easy because it’s American and the accents are what we are used to hearing, the curriculum follows the same path my kids have been plodding, and it’s just a really great school with really fabulous teachers. It’s harder because many of the American kids have never lived in America and there are significant cultural differences that are nuanced and difficult to name. Some of the teachers got this gig because they want to see the world, not necessarily because they want to nurture the next generation, but for the most part the teachers are incredible. At back-to-school-night it was unclear if we parents should stay to the right while walking (as we do in America) or to the left (as people kinda, but not really, do here). The stairwells and hallways were mosh pits of parents trying to get to the next class. It’s easy because no matter where kids live on the island, the school will send a bus. It’s harder because that bus might not take a direct route to school and kids can be on a bus for a really long time very early in the mornings and very late into the night.
Moving with teenagers is harder because they have opinions! They want to have a say about where we live, where we go to church, what we do on the weekends and where we eat dinner. They are super polite about what they like and dislike, but we are more like four adults re-settling in a foreign country than anything else. My little kids just went along with my plan, but my teens help create a plan. It is easier because they’re mature enough to make a go of this huge and un-asked-for change in their lives. They’re really our heroes at the moment (not least because the bus picks them up at 6:48 a.m. and Emma returns home after soccer at 7:15 p.m. and Louis returns home from football after a long walk from his bus stop, at 8:15 p.m.) It turns out we’ve raised troopers!
Finding a church is harder; of course we were spoiled in San Francisco, so we have high standards. We’ve visited two so far and Brad and I would be fine at either one. During our visits, each of our kids found a church they like, but not the same one. Brad and I prefer the music at “Emma’s” church, but the sense of community at “Louis’s” church is stronger. I prefer “Emma’s” church because it has air-conditioning; “Louis’s” church is literally open-air, with ceiling fans that don’t do much, but the place is strikingly beautiful. The building has a roof and some walls, but no windows! Given that we are more like four adults now, having everyone choose a church on his or her own doesn’t seem like a bad idea. It’s good practice for college when I won’t be around anyway to make that choice for them, and at both of these local churches, the teens go directly to a separate service, so they’re on their own anyway. After a Saturday night sleepover, text a taxi and get yourself to church. We’ll meet you at lunch, kids.
The American Club: It’s just easy. Tacos, diet cokes, salad bars and lounge chairs by a pool. Seriously, the only downside I’ve discovered is that it’s a bit of a teenage hangout on the weekends and I cramp my kids’ style when I go there for dinner on Friday nights.
I could go on, and I will soon, but for today I wanted to give you just a bit of the real deal of my life here so far.
Singapore-Joy (this is the name my mom has entered into her phone with my new contact information. I think it has a good ring to it.)
Recently, I told my closest friend, “I don’t know why women have a reputation for back stabbing and competing with each other. I couldn’t survive without all the women in my life who love and support me. I know nothing about this female combat everyone refers to.” She thought my outlook indicated that I had been pretty blessed in life and that I probably send out a vibe letting women know that I won’t be participating in that kind of play.
But a few days later, I was listening to school-age girl friendship stories, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that. That, I do remember. And it hurts. ”
I’ve been tossing around ways to support my daughter (and her friends who have trusted me with their stories) through the crooked path and rough terrain of friendship. Should they grow a tough exterior and keep their guard up never trusting each other? Should they keep their heads down and focus on their work? You probably remember versions of these stories…
Anne: We were sixteen, best friends and at sleep away camp. She borrowed a dress, but when she tried to zip it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was too small. She got red in the face and sneered, “Well, I guess this settles the debate; I am bigger than you.” I froze. I had not been aware of our unspoken competition. She was cold to me for a few days. I heaped my plate full for her to see. I complimented her endlessly. I tried to make myself less pretty, less desirable. Eventually, we grew apart.
Kirsten: We were in college; I was a sophomore and she was a junior. We both were recommended for a leadership role and she hated that I was on the advisory committee with her. Before I came along, she’d been the star of department. She stared straight ahead when I took a seat next to her. When I spoke in front of the group, she rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. She refused to laugh when I made jokes during meetings. Later in the school year, overwhelmed by my full load, I missed a few meetings. She cornered me in the cafeteria to confront me in front of other committee members. “You think you’re entitled to do this any way you please?” she hissed. “Now it’s clear you are not who everyone thinks you are.“ I can still feel the sting of those words as I type them. Humiliated, I tried to explain that I wasn’t slacking; I was just a little under water. I mumbled apologies; I shuffled my feet. I promised to try harder. I still remember her smug smile as she saw me become smaller, less confident and dynamic.
Kathleen: I was working my first post-college job. She’d been at the company a year longer than me. She was sparkly, funny and the most likeable gal on the floor. I spied her on my first day, noticed our similar dispositions and thought we’d be great friends. She created distance between us. She belittled me in front of superiors, brushed me off in front of clients and was dismissive when we were alone. I was miserable around her. At some point we reorganized the department and I answered directly to her. I learned that if I acted dumb and confused she was kind to me. If I had a great idea or suggestion, she was mean to me.
Victoria: For my 35th birthday I had five celebrations. I had a widespread friend base, and several of them, unbeknownst to each other, hosted little somethings special for my big day. Everyone who threw me a party invited her. After the third one – two lunches and a dinner – she sniffed and loudly said to me, “We sure are doing a lot of celebrating of Joy these days, aren’t we?” I apologized for the attention. I joked about it and acted as if it were all such a bother, all of these parties, all of these moments about me…. A month later we had a small misunderstanding and she hasn’t spoken to me since.
Once I began to think about it, I came up with many stories of my own that show how tough we women are on each other and how tricky our relationships can be. No wonder a friend of mine recently wanted to keep her professional success quiet. “I just don’t want to give anyone a reason to hate me,” she said. Even Sheryl Sandberg once asked her friends to stop mentioning it when her name showed up on the Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.
As I’ve grown, I’ve been lucky (or intentional enough) to find ways to navigate around these women and make room for the ones who love me – all of me. Now I can hardly remember the me who willingly made herself less-than so that others felt more secure. But I did, Lord knows even though it never really worked, I tried. When I think about those gals now, I still feel a little sting, but I also can muster up some compassion. Common threads in the stories of all those women are childhood pain and fearful outlooks. Deep down they just didn’t feel pretty enough, smart enough, or liked enough unless they put me down. Seeds of insecurity grow into large roots or even tree trunks of poor behavior. I happened upon them before they figured out the universal truth that brings peace to all women: I am enough. There are enough slices of pie in every area of life to go around.
How about those girls of all ages who are getting the first taste of the underbelly of female friendships? They are experiencing the this-is-a-two-person-game during recess, the gossip, the put-downs, the you-are-my-best-friend-today-but-tomorrow-i-will-inexplicably-shun-you, the friend-until-a-boy-is-around behavior. I dunno…. It’s so clear from a distance that those girls are sad, lonely and scared, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to be around them.
If I could speak to the girls on the confusing, receiving end of this treatment, I guess I would say that if you have a friend who needs you to be less than yourself in order for her to feel good about herself, tread lightly. Love her from whatever distance you need to create so that you can still feel comfortable being fully you. Know that somewhere deep within she feels wrecked and from her wounding comes all the dark, ugly stuff you see. With enough love and support, someday she’ll heal. For now, you can be a beacon of hope in the love you show her, but go forward knowing it’s probably not a two way street. Someday she’ll look back and recognize that you were true blue and maybe that will serve as a guide for her. But for now, pick your head up and look around, my darlings. There are so many other girls and women out there for you. Most all of us are broken in big and tiny ways – you are too – but that’s why we need each other especially more. There are girls who will inspire you and who will feel inspired by you; there are girls who will feel lifted up as you soar and who will drag you even higher. Run as fast as you can in their direction, wrap your arms around them and spread your wings together. I love how Paul F. Davis instructs us with such clarity, “If you don’t feel it, flee it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.”
But look with compassion on the mean ones. Someday you will realize that in a particular relationship you are the mean one. Shocker, I know, but it’s likely to happen. Insecurity does not discriminate; it seeks us all out over time. If you see mean girls now through the eyes of grace, you will have an easier time showing it to yourself and changing your course later.
We girls are complicated and hold the capacity for a full spectrum of emotions and behaviors – love, hate, greed, passion, loyalty, honor and betrayal just to name a few. But we are all also yearning for the same things – grace, mercy and sanctuary. Sweetie Pies, do your part to offer these gifts to the world around you… even to the mean girls.
PS – What’s your friendship story? Tell me tell me tell me!
A few days ago, I loaded into a gondola on a spontaneous one-day ski trip with my 13-year-old son. In order to ride up the mountain forward facing, I sat next to the small boy who had boarded ahead of us, rather than next to my own son.
Now that I am back in the city, returning to regular life, I keep asking myself, how long can a gondola ride last? According to the ski resort’s website, just under 10 minutes, which was long enough for me to see the pain on his face and hear it in his voice.
“Are you guys just getting started?” he asked us casual and friendly. Louis and I giggled and quickly recounted pieces of our morning of misadventure. Among other delays, Louis lost one glove somewhere between the car and our first gondola ride. After a thorough retracing of steps we gave up and bought a new pair. As we were about to board our first chair lift, a man behind us called out “Hey, you dropped these,” and handed us Louis’s goggles. I said, “After many delays, we are finally going skiing, yes.”
I think Louis and I were projecting a pretty heavy, mother-son-on-an-adventure vibe without realizing it. It seemed to strike a cord with this boy and he leaned into the warmth and charm of it. He shared that he was in high school (this was surprising because my 13-year-old was physically much bigger), that he attended an East Coast boarding school, was on a three week school vacation, had been skiing in Tahoe for 10 days and that this was his final day. He was climbing the mountain to meet a boy he’d made friends with earlier in the week.
He was sharp and quick-witted. By asking only a few questions he deduced that we were from, (his words) “San Fran,” and that my son attended an all boy’s middle school.
He bristled at the description, all boys. “I am in a co-ed boarding school now and it’s so much better. When it’s time for you to find a high school, go co-ed for sure.”
I asked if he started high school first at a single sex school and he told me no, he had attended a Jr. Boarding school that was only for boys and it had been a terrible experience. Without shyness or fear of vulnerability he shared some of his experiences and explained the difference between bullying (picking on people for no reason) and hazing (a brotherhood of love continuing abusive traditions that had been done to them.)
I was stunned into silence while he shared stories of being the “little kid” on the hockey team and some of the nightmares he’d endured.
I mentioned that I had looked at various middle schools that might be a good fit for Louis and had come across the idea of boarding school for sixth graders. “It’s more common on the east coast, I understand,” I concluded, and he concurred. I asked why he’d gone to a Jr. boarding school in the first place. He turned to Louis and said, “You are so lucky she didn’t send you away.” My parents just…” He made a repeated motion with his hand as if brushing dirt off his ski pants. “I guess my Dad works all the time and my Mom, well, I think she wanted freedom to travel.” Brushing hand motion again.
“Have you shared with your parents some of the experiences you had?” I asked. “Yes, and they feel terrible, but it still caused some real attachment issues for me.” Clearly this kid had been to therapy, but he had not finished processing his pain.
We sat in silence for a few minutes and then I quietly said, “Middle school can be a really difficult time in a boy’s life.” We looked at each other, goggles to goggles for a long moment and then he said, “Yes, and it’s a time a boy really needs a Mom.”
We sat in silence some more until my son quietly said, “What’s your name?” His name was Patrick and he is now a sophomore in a different, more gentle sounding boarding school. He and his parents continue to work on their relationship. “My parents love me, don’t get me wrong, but they just…” and he did that motion with his hand again.
For the whole ride, his knees were almost touching Louis’s knees, and I know his words were imprinting themselves on Louis’s soul.
He didn’t know that Louis was a kid who has had a rough time in middle school as well. I am not sure how Louis would describe his own experience: bullying, excluding, ostracizing…. He chose not to open up on that gondola ride. Whatever happened to Louis in the past, we lived through it together. I have suffered inside for not being able to rescue him from it and no efforts on my part seemed to stop the behavior of other kids. While listening to Patrick speak, something clicked into place in my heart. All Patrick regretted was that his Mom hadn’t been there for him. He didn’t seem to have any anger or resentment for those boys (he was quick to defend the hazing rituals he had endured) he just wanted his mom to be a part of his life. Patrick wanted a mom who could pick him up each afternoon and absorb all the details. Remind him that his identity was not placed in what the boys said or did. Name the treatment as wrong and unfair. Spend time with him on a Friday night instead of going out. Support his interests and love him just as he was, skinny and short.
Understanding my role as a parent of a teen can be challenging. He is pulling away from me emotionally, and I am resisting the urge to helicopter parent, (s)mother and over-manage. But Patrick-of-the-Gondola reminded me of a powerful, under-valued and still-necessary ingredient of parenting: Just freakin’ show up. Sometimes there isn’t anything specific to do and holding still and being nearby is the hardest thing of all. I need to honor this kid I’ve been blessed to have, step up to the role I asked for, and simply be present. The rest, well, it somehow-someway takes care of itself.
- Louis loves his school and chose to stay there from Kindergarten til 8th grade (next year). I am sure he made the right choice and I am happy I listened to him.
- There are loads of happy kids at boarding schools whose parents “show up” in the right ways in their lives. I know this is true, but Patrick is not one of them.
- I will be praying for Patrick and his broken heart for years to come. I hope he knows or learns how valued and loved he is by God.