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.)