It’s been six months since we packed up and boarded a plane to live in Singapore. The frenzy of getting a new life set up has died down and now, it’s time to actually live here. You’d think this would feel refreshing… but no, instead culture shock has reared it’s ugly head! Despite many trips to Singapore over the years, it’s a different culture and I’m still having to learn and adjust.
I’m sure, anyone who has moved to a different country has gone through some version of culture shock. While most expats will talk about experiencing culture shock, it also hits everyone in a unique way. Here’s what it has felt like for me.
Our arrival in Singapore began with a 14-day quarantine, confined to a hotel room until it was clear that we were not bringing Covid-19 with us. Looking back now, it feels like a blissfully, dreamy time in my memory because it was a forced rest after the stress of leaving.
After completing quarantine, we were suddenly pushed into a world where shopping malls were teeming with people, restaurants were crowded, social distancing was 1 meter and everyone felt like they were much closer than they should have been by U.S. social distance standards. I was so disoriented those first few weeks. My husband and I spent our days just trying to crank through a list – find food the kids will eat, get a phone number, get a long term stay visa, open a bank account, etc. That time is almost fuzzy in mind.
The fuzzy feeling gave way to frustration once we unpacked, and began to feel a little more settled. I wasn’t frustrated at the big things but it was all the tiny, little things that you think don’t matter. Like — why does all kids’ pasta come with mushrooms? My kids just want plain pasta with butter and cheese (a childhood staple in the U.S.) but each time we ask for it, the server always has to ask the chef if it’s possible. Why is the pizza sweet? Why does the bank need to know my grades from 25 years ago and how much I made at a job 10 years ago? I wasn’t asking for money or a credit card, I just wanted to deposit money in. No one understands me when I say the word, “can’t” so I have to say, “cannot.” Everyone looks at me (quite literally) when I am around the neighborhood.
Ordinarily, when I travel these little things make it fun. Everything is a little different but then I pack up and go back to normal. Changing countries, makes you wonder when life will ever feel normal. Every simple task takes three times longer than it should which only adds to the frustration. It’s not that each thing is a big deal in itself but when it just gets tiring.
All of these little frustrations gave way to a feeling of sadness, particularly over the holidays. I missed home. I missed the common, fundamental understanding people share when they have culture in common. Things like, how to celebrate holidays, understanding me when I say “can’t,” or even just trying to find barbecue sauce that doesn’t taste like steamed pork buns (char siew).
I started reflecting on who I was, what makes me American or even Western. I started thinking about which things I needed to change and which things were going to remain part of who I am in this new place. I guess, it’s a bit like shedding your skin. You are sad to see your old skin go but you don’t quite know what the new skin looks like.
It’s definitely a work in progress but I’m reminded that I’ve changed more than I realize anytime I talk to friends back in the U.S. Somehow, some things have become normal for me and I never even realized it. I’ve heard that you start to feel more at home once you cross the year mark, I’m only half way there so stay tuned…