InterNations Featured Blog
Crystal: Expat Bostonians
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Singapore, etc.
My name is Crystal Nanavati. I’m from Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. I’m a writer and a stay at home mom of two girls (aged 3 and a baby born in October 2011). We moved to Singapore in April 2010 for my husband’s job (software development for an international bank).
I am a first time expat trying to make sense of a life I never expected to live.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Singapore sounded like such an alien location. Apart from my in-laws and a few of their friends, I didn’t know anyone who had even vacationed here, much less lived here.
I started the blog before the move with the intention of sharing pictures and stories of our new life in Singapore. It has become so much more than that for me over the past two years-it has been a source of community, a place to puzzle out the oddities of my new home and existence, and a home for my new expat self.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours (please insert URL as well)?
- Two entries are mentioned in the question below about how I would do things differently - Stuff I wish I hadn’t brought to Singapore and My Misconceptions about Expat Life.
- Maids, Cultural Expectations and the importance of Modeling (expat to expat advice) – In this post, I discuss how having a helper comes with a lot of tricky territory and how an employer must be sensitive to the issues of cultural clash when hiring a maid in Singapore.
- Lessons learned from my negative maid experience — After being burned by our live in helper, and having to fire here, I took some time and then reflected on just things had gone wrong. You hear a lot of horror stories about maids in Singapore, but I wanted to not just blame my ex-maid, but really take ownership of my mistakes as well in hopes that it would help others learn from them.
- Tips for Flying with babies under a year of age
- Validation - A very personal entry when I had my first professional fiction acceptance for publication.
- Just what is in all those suitcases part 1 and part 2 which detail the stuff we bring back to Singapore after visits home to the US.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Singapore differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Every time I have the hubris to think I’m over culture shock, something will happen to throw me back into the midst of it. I have a blog category just for culture shock.
Singapore is often called “Asia for beginners” because it is the easiest posting for an American. English is the lingua franca, American chains proliferate the malls, and American food is readily available in the grocery stores. On the surface it seems like it should be easy to slip into life here.
The reality is far more complex — everything you take for granted is called into question. When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I was scolded for drinking ice water by an aunty, who thought it was bad for my unborn baby. After she was born, I was lectured by another aunty for taking her out during what should have been my “confinement month” in her eyes. Neither would have caused anyone to look twice at me back home.
The first few months when I didn’t know anyone, where anything was, and our shipment was somewhere in the world that wasn’t Singapore, were absolutely the hardest. Something that should have been simple, like doing a load of laundry, was so hard.
We had a live in helper for the first 20 months we lived here. The whole experience of having a helper was surreal, and a constant source of cultural misunderstandings. It also forced me to face the uglier side of life in Singapore—the conditions set for foreign domestics (the typical maid’s room is smaller than most American closets, 1 day off a month was all that was required by law until recently, the average wage per month is less than I was paid per week at a job I held in college) and made me try to reconcile the image of Singapore with the reality of Singapore.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Singapore? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I think several blog posts I wrote last month address this…
I absolutely was not prepared for what awaited me. I read all the “culture shock” and “so you’re moving to Singapore” books I could find. While they gave me some generic advice, it absolutely didn’t prepare me for life in Singapore.
It’s a lot like talking to expectant parents—you can tell them what it’s going to be like, but you have to experience it to really get it.
I wish I had packed better (i.e. brought less useless stuff). I wish I had understood how certain things like ATM’s and such worked… that would have been far more useful information than some of the stuff in my books. I think the biggest misconception we had was that there were no options other than having a helper or not having a helper - there ARE cleaners, baby sitting services, etc.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Just because I speak a common language with someone doesn’t mean that we actually understand each other. When buying my dishwasher, I asked if it would connect to my faucet (meaning my kitchen faucet). They said yes, it will connect to your faucet (meaning my washer connection). I explained this with pictures in the post “That Does Not Mean What You Think it Means.”
Customer service is by the book in Singapore. Which means that even if your laptop dies, they will spend 10 minutes trying to turn it on after you’ve told that the problem is that it won’t turn on… then they’ll tell you that they can’t run the diagnostic to find out what’s wrong because the laptop won’t turn on.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Singapore?
- Bring your patience and your sense of humor - life as an expat (especially in the early days) is so often full of confusion and frustration that if you can’t keep perspective (or find something to laugh about) you will burn out very quickly.
- Really weigh the pros and cons of domestic help, and don’t let the crowd push you into hiring someone if you’re not sure you want to (the way that Singapore works will assume you have a helper who can just be at home to take a delivery or wait all day for a handyman to show up). Figure out what will work best for your family.
- Keep a credit card billing to an address in your home country so that you can keep access to the kindle/nook store for e-books and iTunes for movies/TV/music access. You will miss your home country’s entertainment, and books/DVDs/music is expensive here.
How is the expat community in Singapore? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community here is huge - we make up 40% of the population. With a crowd that large, you’ll be able to find your niche. Most expats are very warm and happy to help pass along tips, as we all (mostly) remember what it was like in the early days. It takes some courage to go to an event or contact a blogger, or even just to start a conversation at a grocery store or in the Botanic Gardens, but once you break the ice, it’s easy to build community.
How would you summarize your expat life in Singapore in a single, catchy sentence?
Motherhood in malls - my life in Singapore.