Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Adjustment to Life as an Expat in Singapore

Now that I'm in my final days as an American girl in Singapore, I wanted to share with you my honest to Jeebus experiences of expat life here.

And I will be honest. I feel there are too many people who paint the picture of a perfect Singapore and a continuously happy life for everyone that lives here.

I'd like to say that those people are full of it. I'd also like to know if they get kick backs from the Singapore Tourism Board.

Now, I'm not saying that Singapore isn't a great place to set up shop. I'm just saying that there is not one single place on this Earth where everyone is happy. There are cool places to live and neat experiences, but not everyone is happy...all of the time.

That's what I experienced and I felt very alone in my experiences of a less than perfect Singapore.

Gregory Trivonovitch, a Researcher and Associate Director of the Culture Learning Institute at the East-West Center in Hawaii, has determined that most expatriates experience four different emotional stages of acclimating to their new culture: The Honeymoon Stage, The Hostility Stage, The Integration/Acceptance Stage, and The Home Stage.

When I first read about these stages in the first year I was here, they meant squat to me. I just knew that I was (insert random emotion here) and I was fairly sure I was going to feel that way forever. Or until I left this island.

Now that I'm in my last moments of expatriate life, I am able to look back and form a more accurate assessment of my time in Lion City, as a whole.

I'll go through each of the stages as I experienced them.

1) The Honeymoon Stage - characterized by excitement, exhilaration, and anticipation. The newcomer will be fascinated by everything new to them in their new culture.

I experienced this stage from the moment I got to Singapore and for about two months after that. I wanted to see everything, do everything, and learn about everything. I loved the weather. I loved the Chinese New Year celebrations. I loved every green palm tree that lined the side of the street. I just loved loved loved Singapore and the fact that I lived somewhere so exotic and far away.

2) The Hostility Stage - characterized by frustration, anger, judgmentalism, fear, and sometimes depression.

Unfortunately, this stage came on for me at month three and stayed around for many, many months. I even remember the exact day that it came on in full force. It was an unsuccessful trip to the grocery store. Followed by three other unsuccessful trips in the same day. I could not find any ingredients for the things that I knew how to cook. I also did not have a car. So a quick trip to the market to pick up items for a potluck dish I was bringing to a get together, ended up being a six hour ordeal that ended with me in tears, empty handed, at our front door.

Going from a lifestyle in which a grocery store is a five minute drive from your house to a place where it's a two hour trip on public transportation is a big change — to say the least. Add in the fact that Singapore is insanely crowded and public transportation is a claustrophobic nightmare during rush hour. I had a tough time.

I had a tough time for a long time. There were many tears shed in my house, and on the walk home from the bus stop, and at work, and various other random places in Singapore.

I'd never lived outside of the States. So the culture baffled me at times. I didn't get why people shoved me on the train. I didn't get why customer service representatives didn't want to make customers happy. I didn't get why I had to wait in line for everything.

I just didn't get it.

3) The Integration/Acceptance Stage - characterized by the person feeling more comfortable and relaxed in their new surroundings

This stage, for me, came about a little while after I got my second job in Singapore, almost a full year after I'd arrived. It was after that time that I finally felt a sense of familiarity with Singapore and I had finally realized my most important lesson.

I needed to stop trying to make Singapore into my version of America and appreciate it for what it is.

I know for most people this is a "duh" statement, but for me, it took a little while to realize. Instead of me searching for every American restaurant I could find and being depressed when I couldn't get a Taco Bell Gordita or a Wendy's cup of chili anymore, I needed to embrace what Singapore did have to offer. It was then that I learned that I loved Indian food, briyani and mutton curry to be exact. I found that I really enjoyed Asian-style bean sprouts and iced Milo. I also loved the Love Letter cookies during Chinese New Year. If I hadn't finally opened my eyes to what was actually around me rather than looking for what wasn't there, I would have never found out any of this.

4) The Home Stage - this occurs when the person still retains their allegiance to their original culture, but also feels "at home" and functions well with their new culture.

I'm not quite sure when I slipped into this stage, but I know I'm in it. When we returned back from our trip to Thailand, I called my mother to tell her we were "home". It was the first time I'd ever referred to Singapore as "home". Of course, she promptly corrected me and told me that home is Kansas and that I'm merely in Singapore. My mom's pretty protective like that. :)

To me though, it was a pretty big deal that I used that word. It spoke volumes to me about my comfort level with this culture I've submersed myself into. I was proud of myself. As self-absorbed as that sounds. I was.

I still miss my family and the wonderful things back home (like Target, Five Guys burgers, and Cold Stone Ice Cream), but I'd come a long way from the person I was two years ago.

And now it's time to go back. It's bittersweet. But I think I'm ready.

But you better believe I'm not leavin' until I hoard boxes of Milo powder, some tablecloths from Arab street, a few pieces of Blue and White pottery, and various other things I may never find again.

In conclusion, I want to note that
Trivonovitch says, "these four stages are cyclic in nature, not linear, and a person will encounter periods of adjustment continuously as he or she moves from one situation to another." I completely agree. There were many times when I felt like I was fully in the Integration/Acceptance Stage and I would completely lapse back into the Hostility Stage after a lousy day.

As an expat, you may experience your stages in a completely different order or in a completely different way. Your expectations are the most dynamic tool that shapes your experience in this new culture.

Expect to be happy. Honestly believe that you will be. And most likely, it'll happen.

In the meantime, feel free to comment or email me any questions, concerns, or frustrations you may have in your experience.

I've been there too. And if I haven't, I'll listen. (or read.)


Brad Farless said...

Hm. This is a really cool list and when I think about the time I've spent here, I can very clearly see the points where I hit all of these.

I went through the Honeymoon in about 4 months, then went to Integration. Since then I've been swinging back and forth between Hostility and Home. I don't know where I am now though, because with my being so close to leaving, I can't really think of Singapore as home. I'm not feeling overly hostile right now either.

I sort of think of the Philippines as home, because I've been there quite a bit, and my wife's family is from there, but I know it'll be another culture adjustment and probably involve these steps again. On the upside, the Philippines is a lot more American than Singapore, so it should be a much smoother transition.

Thanks. This is a pretty neat post.

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful post. I can completely identify what you're going through, although for me it's in reverse. I'm a Singaporean living in Boulder (CO) since Fall 2008. Although, like Brad, I still swing between hostility and home, I've slowly come to accept and appreciate the U.S., especially Boulder, as it is. Thanks for the wonderful post again.

Anonymous said...

15 years stuck in 2) (or somewhere between 2 and 3: resignation)
What is wrong with me?

(can't take the difference in income in Singapore society)

ML said...

Thanks, Megan, for this very insightful sharing. Like the other poster above, I'm in the "reverse" situation from yours (Singaporean living and working in San Jose, CA), but can nonetheless identify with all the stages you described.

I guess I'm still mostly in the "acceptance" stage myself. While I love California for its people and lifestyle, I'm not sure if I'd ever truly think of it as "home" though. But perhaps I'll get there eventually.

It does make things a little easier that Singapore is relatively Westernized and that English (or at least a not-too-unintelligible variation!) is the lingua franca there. Culturally, it allows S'pore and the US to meet halfway, as it were. I'm sure the adjustment would be starker and more difficult in, say, inland China or Nepal.

Anyway, all the best for your imminent return home. It's been a pleasure reading your delightful blog!

fong said...

Hi Megan, I discovered your blog today by clicking on a link from another blog. I chuckled when I read this post (as well as your other posts) because I am a Singaporean girl living in the United States, and I've definitely gone through the stages that you mention here. I used to take two hours on public transportation to get to grocery store in Chicago -- because I wanted to buy Asian food, even though there was a regular grocery store just five minutes away. I used to fixate on new Asian restaurants open in town, even though they were pretty mediocre and I could get a perfectly good meal from Chipotle down the street. I feel I only started enjoy living in the U.S. when I moved into the "integration" stage, and I started to appreciate what was around me.

I've been living in the U.S. for 11 years now. When I first came for college, I thought I would stay for a few years, but I ended up marrying an American boy. The longer I was away from Singapore, the murkier where "home" was for me. I now live and enjoy living in California, as well as visiting my family in Singapore, and I would just say that for me, "home" is I am with my husband. I hope that you will adjust well to life back in the U.S. and love home wherever you find it.

P.S. In addition to also finding cold pizza for breakfast weird, I also find cold fried chicken to be weird. And ranch dressing! Eeek. That said, I think Singapore is a food paradise for ... Singapore food. It's true you can't get very good non-Singapore food in Singapore restaurants.

Anonymous said...

Love this post. I for one will be sad to see you go. It's funny that you posted this, I was just having a conversation with a friend yesterday about we are at with Singapore. (We status often on this). I told her I turned a corner when I realized it's never going to be like life back home. When I stopped trying to force it to be, I had a big "ah ha" moment too.
Now I try not to let those little things bother me so much and I can honestly (and surprisingly) say I am enjoying this "simpler" life. I am happy to have made it to this point. It's taken me time, but for whatever reason recently, it really is feeling more and more like home. I know now I will be sad when the time comes to leave.
Thanks for sharing your insights with everyone. I really do hope you continue some sort of blogging when you go home. ~Karen

Anonymous said...

ahmahmam well said; Im so lost not even sure which stage im stuck at

I realy miss peoples love around

Shawn Phillips said...

There will also be phases going back 'home'. The reintegration is harder than most think. Time and experience changes people and this has happened to you and the people you will be coming back to.

Anonymous said...

So the gist of the lesson learned is to live like the locals do wherever you go to. That's how the place is set up, to meet the needs of the locals. So if you cannot adapt, then life will be tough.

Megan, are you going to try some of the more "scary" local food such as pork offal soup, snake soup or turtle soup before you leave? Not sure whether you have tried roti prata? This is a croissant type of Indian pancake. Don't think that you can find this in USA. Do wonder in a hawker centre (not the air-conditioned food court in shopping malls as the stalls are more or less similar in all malls) to try some of the less common food. You may be surprised.

Megan said...

Thank you to everyone who has shared their experiences and for the really nice feedback about the post. I find it incredibly interesting how differently we experience similar situations. I guess such is the beauty of humanity. :)

To the last anonymous commenter: Yes! I do plan to try some more local foods that I've been too chicken to try so far. However, I do have a personal policy of not eating animals that I once kept as pets. For a girl who lived in rural Kansas for a time, this list is pretty extensive. Therefore I cannot eat turtles, hamsters, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats, snakes or gerbils. I just can't eat them. It'd feel too cruel, like I was eating their cousin or something. I'm ridiculous, I know.

As for the pig organ soup, I just can't do it. It's too gross to think about eating coagulated blood and intestines.

I also won't eat shark's fin soup because of the inhumane way that they obtain the fins.

So my list of things to try is a little on the short side. I do promise to be extra adventurous in my last few days! (within reason)

Brad Farless said...

I tried sharks fin soup on two occasions. Once was at a restaurant and once was at a wedding dinner.

Considering how brutal the collection tactics are I expected to feel like I'd just put a small bit of heaven in my mouth, but it wasn't even that good. Certainly not good enough to justify the killing of a whole animal solely for its fin.

I tried it twice to see if there was any great difference in quality, but there wasn't, and I don't think I could eat that again. It's just too inhumane.

I love my cats, but I would probably try cat and dog once anyway. I've eaten snake. I don't think I'd eat rodents, and I agree with Megan about the pigs organ soup. I've never had any desire to eat intestines. You can get that in the US anyway. I've had roti prata! It's great!

I think my food adventure is pretty much at its end for Singapore, but unlike her I'm moving on to yet another foreign country.

There's a food item in the Philippines that's basically a baked brick of blood. It has a real name but it's known commonly as a "Betamax" because it looks like a Betamax cassette I guess. With things like that on the menu, who knows what I'll get to try while there?

I really miss Cracker Barrel and other foods from home!

Anonymous said...

"For a girl who lived in rural Kansas for a time, this list is pretty extensive. Therefore I cannot eat turtles, hamsters, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats, snakes or gerbils. I just can't eat them."

What? You're in Singapore, not an episode of Fear Factor. They don't eat hamsters, or dogs, or rats, or etc etc, for goodness sake. You've been there how long?

Megan said...

Ha ha, yes I realize they do not eat all of the animals I listed in Singapore. My point was that to eat even one animal on that list was as weird as eating ANY of them. To me, eating a turtle or a snake is just as barbaric as eating a dog or a guinea pig.

Joleene said...

Loved this post! I am glad that you were able to have the full experience overseas. I also know that Cori wont let you have too hard of a time adjusting back to being home.

Anonymous said...

hey! stumbled upon ur blog recently and have been reading every since! even tho i don't know you i feel a bit sad that u are leaving (maybe cos there wont be a meginsing blog post anymore?). but have a safe and wonderful trip home!!

anyway, im from singapore i i would never, ever eat turtles, snakes, sharks' fin or anything on ur list too. >.< though i admit, i do love pigs organ soup. heh

Anonymous said...

ever* since. pardon the error! my fingers type faster than my brain can edit. haha.

oh and i wanted to add in to what someone above said, do try roti prata! it's not too strange for someone who hasn't eaten it before and i do think it's awesome. though of course u may not trust someone who loves pigs organ soup. ^^

Megan said...

Oh just to let you all know, Roti Prata was the second thing I tried in Singapore and by far my favorite! It's so delicious that my husband has been begging me to learn how to make it for when we're back in the States.

We even have been buying the frozen stuff from CS to make at home. That stuff is addictive.

mae said...

aww Megan. this post is heartwarming. and i'd be so sad to see you go back. do continue to blog will ya? maybe now about life back in the states so now we know how you function there!

Anonymous said...

When in Philippines, eat balut. No, I shall not tell you what it is but I cannot bring myself to even think about it but the locals tell me that it is absolutely delicious. Don't think you can find Balut in Singapore but in theory you can get it everywhere. It is from egg (can't remember whether it is chicken or duck) ... no, shall not elaborate anymore ... just tell a local to buy balut for you and eat it !

Brad Farless said...

My wife is from the Philippines. I know what balut is. It's the stuff of nightmares and should come accompanied by the sounds of wailing and the screams of dying children. I shall never put that grisly horror anywhere near my face.