Expats, Change your Modus Operandi

An expatriate in Singapore was recently charged with the murder of his young son. The tragedy has sparked a series of letters and articles in the local press about the expat lifestyle.

Most focused on the “hardships” of being an expat. To many locals the words “expat” and “hardships” do not always go together.

Inhabitants of this ex-colony has seen way too many expats living lavish lifestyles with their noses up in the air, and looking down on the “natives.”

But there are two sides to every story.

Having worked and lived internationally, I admit that being away from one’s own country is not an easy thing. It can be rather stressful.

It is true that uprooting and moving to a foreign land is stressful. Added to that stress is having to face the resentment of locals who harbor the impression that “foreign talents” are robbing them of their jobs and worse, seducing their women. I hear many locals lamenting that they now feel like strangers in their own land.

My 30 over years of working with and providing counsel to expats have also shown me the potential harm an expat posting can do to marriages. I have seen with my own eyes how expat men who are otherwise happily married succumbing to local girlfriends, resulting in “trailing wives” suffering immeasurable pain and anguish. (Truth be told, there are local women who only have eyes for the white men.) Divorces often follow as a result and spouses, having to return dependent passes, are often forced to leave the country. The emotionally-wrought issue of child custody then comes into play.

While there is no easy solution, expats themselves can minimize the strain that an expat posting can bring. I suggest making a preliminary trip as a family before deciding on a posting. Residing for a month or two before deciding on a more permanent stay also helps tremendously. There is a big difference between being a tourist and being a resident – when a shoe becomes unglued, when you need a luggage repaired, or a tooth fixed, is when you discover that difference and your own ability and propensity to change, adapt and adopt.

Once re-located here, hanging out in expat “enclaves” is the worst thing to do, locals are friends you haven’t met, so integration is key. Misery loves company so rather than gathering and socializing with your own kind in your expat-only clubs and grumbling about the inconveniences of local living (such as disappearing taxis when you need them – a problem not unique only to expats but a blight inflicted on all of us who live here) or about the “restless natives” who stare in awe at you, do make an effort to befriend locals. Most Singaporeans are more than happy to show you the way, take you to good food places hitherto “unknown” even to other locals (we love boasting about such knowledge don’t we?) and even open the doors of their homes to you.

The expat who fits in well and enjoys his tenure here is the happy and well-settled person – you can tell when he loves our laksa and chicken rice, eats mooncakes and durians, shops at wet markets, speaks Singlish and chills out by cycling or shooting the breeze with us at our void decks instead of ensconcing themselves with other expats in the American or Tanglin Club. Those who visit such expat “ghettos” only do so to keep in touch with news from home, and to mingle with their own – but even that is a poor excuse to visit such enclaves of exclusivity. For bliss and happiness and peace of mind and comfort, the expats who do well here mostly socialize with locals and are blended into local life. Some like it so much and fit in so well, they are reluctant to leave when their posting is over. Many have even opted for local employment terms or even work for local firms and have chosen to become permanent residents. Hospitable Singaporeans welcome them all but it is the expats themselves who must make the first move.