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American Sarah Emery talks about Expat Life in Singapore

Expat life in Singapore has become the best sight-unseen, moving decision I have made to date. It has enhanced my traveling lifestyle, exposed me to new experiences and vastly increased my worldly outlook.

The path that led my husband Tim and me to this unforeseen route, was a career opportunity. This opportunity was the bridge that linked us to expat life in Singapore.

Within a month of deciding to move abroad. We both quit our jobs, sold most of our possessions and put the remaining items in storage. We said our farewells to our loved ones and to the Bay Area of San Francisco, California.

Together we arrived in Singapore with 2 suitcases each, in October of 2017. Suddenly my daily routine in America transformed to expat life in Singapore.

What is Singapore like?

I echo the same sentiment of what many others have noticed at first observation. Which is, how clean the city is. It is intriguingly beautiful. Many buildings, hotels, and residences have designed lush greenery within their architecture. It’s a reflection of Singapore’s vision, being a City in a Garden. The array of temples, skyscrapers, and colorful shophouses adds to the unique landscape.

Singapore is a small, dense city-state that provides a lot of conveniences. There are vast amount of eateries, shopping and yes, the hot, tropical, steamy, sauna-like weather. We’re still getting used to the humidity.

We live close to the CBD and in walking distance to every convenience. Apartment rentals and the cost of food is comparable to San Francisco, California. Both, the educational system and healthcare is ranked as one of the highest globally but expensive for non-citizens. Car ownership is astronomically expensive but there’s an efficient, clean, and inexpensive public transportation. Tim's work commute is a combined 15 min's walk and subway transit time. Taxes are extremely low in comparison to California and being in one of the safest countries in the world, is a huge welcomed difference.

I still consider myself a newbie expat, because during my first year I traveled for 22 weeks (not consecutively). I visited 16 countries (a few of them twice) which quickly filled up all of the pages in my passport. Tim's work demands a lot of traveling and I'm fortunate to piggyback on his trips.

Traveling is a big part of our lives as expatriates. Singapore is a busy hub that provides easy access to neighboring countries. It's been a blast to share our new home when friends come to visit and we explore new countries together as well.

What about the language?

English is one of the official languages of Singapore. It’s very common to hear a plethora of languages throughout the day. The MRT, the public subway, makes announcements in 4 different languages (English, Tamil, Chinese, and Malay). Hang out with locals and you'll be trying to make clear of Singlish. Eat at a hawker center and see Hokkien characters. Other languages are Tagalog, Cantonese, Bahasa, Hakka, Hainanese, and Teochew. Interesting enough, my favorite grocery store is Japanese. Even though it's a guessing game of what 80% of the packaged goods are. It has definitely broadened our meals.

Learning a few nuances:

  • Taking shoes off before entering one’s house (and sometimes a temple).
  • Where to stand on an escalator (tip: stand on the left).
  • To ''chope'' in public eating areas; placing a business card or a packet of tissues to reserve a spot at a table.
  • Voltage outlet changes.
  • Alcohol is very expensive.
  • Constantly converting numbers. Celsius to Fahrenheit, kilometers to miles, kilograms to pounds, time zones, money and military time.
  • The flow of entering & exiting a bus (enter near the driver, exit using the door closest to the back of the bus).
  • Waiving to staff for service at a restaurant (rather than waiting to be approached).
  • Not getting in on the drivers' side as the front passenger in a car.
  • Flipping the order of the written dates - day/ month/ year vs month /day/year.
  • And lastly, this is more of a first timer expat realization; I'm the one with an accent.

We’ve learned to embrace a lot of do not’s as well. For the first time in my adult life, we do not own cars. We do not own a home. We don't shop in big box stores, like Target or Costco (I miss you, Tar-jay). And we definitely don't ask the introductory question, "What do you do for a living?" Thankfully, it has been replaced with a more meaningful question of, "Where else have you lived?"

The secret to easing into expat life.

The driving force that has helped ease our life abroad, is the meaningful friendships we have developed. Singapore hosts a revolving door of expatriates and there’s a fantastic expat community that has helped us navigate around our new surroundings.

Our local friends are equally amazing. While we continue to celebrate American holidays, our local friends have been so welcoming by integrating us into the culture and introducing us to new traditions and customs.

What are my days like?

Routine is definitely no longer part of my daily grind, which I absolutely love. Currently, I do not have an employer, nor do we have children. I’m here as a trailing spouse. A title that doesn't define my identity. Rather, it’s a supportive reason why we are here.

Back in the States, I was a buyer and demand planner for large retail companies. I loved my career and the people I worked with. For now, I've put away the T.P.S. reports and replaced office life by setting my own personal daily agenda. It's a new lifestyle change that’s absolutely amazing!!!

When I'm not gallivanting around South East Asia, converting kilograms to pounds, spending time with friends, or trying to understand Japanese labels at the grocery store. I allow my curiosity to be the driving force that leads my day. I've been learning how to sew, how to read and write in Japanese, I've published an adult coloring book and I'm building my blogging website. I immerse myself in learning. It provides me with unique and purposeful days.

Do I recommend becoming an expatriate?

Absolutely! It's a decision that can pivot life experiences into an extraordinary lifestyle.