An expat is defined as someone living as an immigrant in a country other than the country of his or her citizenship. Traveling has taught me a lot, but living overseas is a lesson in life you simply cannot get anywhere else. You learn so much about yourself and are forced to challenge all previously conceived notions, especially about yourself. Before coming overseas I traveled quite a bit, but it was nothing like actually living and working long-term in a different country.
My first year living overseas I wanted to see everything. Not a 3-day weekend went by where I wasn’t on a plane or in a taxi going to see a place in the Philippines I hadn’t seen yet. And when just hanging around Manila there was always something new to try. In retrospect I spent a lot of money, but hey, it was the first time I actually could afford it. I had a maid, a seamstress to make clothes for me, a manicure and pedicure every week, massages, laser hair removal, 3-D eyebrow tattooing. I tried it all. Everything was so cheap (but quietly added up). Still, I was making so much money in comparison to what I made before and the best part was that I paid no rent and zero taxes. On top of that I was now in a country where I was well above the poverty line and was surrounded by very wealthy families. One of my first weekends in the country I was invited to go to the beach. It turns out it was a private island owned by the family I was accompanying and we took their private yacht to get there. I had to hide the shock on my face all day. It wasn’t until I got home that I could finally say to myself “Holy $h!t.”
On the opposite end I couldn’t go across town without having a baby or blind man thrust into my view, literally. There was always someone parading the disabled, pleading for money. Being from L.A. I was used to seeing homelessness and poverty, but not on this level. From my high-rise apartment building I could see the slums just blocks away, and there wasn’t a part of the city where the poverty was really out of sight. I volunteered frequently and my cause of choice was a small orphanage not far from my apartment. Every time I visited I was always lifted by the smiles of these children, but saddened that some never got adopted or even left the walls of the house they were in. The fact that they would run to complete strangers just let me know how starving they were for affection. I came to know many of their names and saw them grow and
age out of the room they were in and on to the next.
Inevitably I would have days where I would breakdown and when I missed the comfort of home. These moments came at the strangest times, for example when shopping or trying to catch a cab. Having no cabs stop to pick you up or only agree to take you if you paid an exorbitant rate was so frustrating. Or while shopping I would have someone helping me who just refused to tell me no. I’d ask from something and rather than tell me they didn’t have it, they’d have me wait for what seemed like hours only to later say “Sorry, mam.” Or heaven forbid trying to get a technical issue fixed. The concept of saving face annoyed me to no end. Why couldn’t I just get a straight answer?!? The sheer inefficiency of the society I was living in would get to me and I just couldn’t take anymore.
Those moments of frustration came and went, and the newness of it all faded rather quickly. After all, I wasn’t on vacation. I lived there. I learned my way around, I learned a (very) little Tagalog, I settled into a routine and a budget. And that’s when I really started to notice where I was. I developed friendships, stopped going to tourist traps and started to pick up on some of the nuances of a society that you only get from living there. That is really where all my fond memories are. I fell in love with my job and with the people who had come to be my family away from home. Somewhere along the way I learned to focus more on quality rather than quantity. I wasn’t trying to do everything and instead did what mattered or made me happy.
What I thought would be maybe a two-year contract before settling back home in the United States has turned into 6 years and counting. Stay tuned for Part II on life in Singapore.