Marina Bay Sands at night

Culture Shock

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.


Ceiling at the Jewel Changi Airport
Ceiling at the Jewel Changi Airport

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.


Merlion Park with my mask
Merlion Park with my mask

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…

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  • Sara Scott

    This sounds hard, my friend. Visiting is so much different from moving, and I think it would be strange if you weren’t experiencing culture shock. I don’t have any advice for you, but I do appreciate you sharing this, and I am “here” if you just need to be American for a minute.

    • Julia

      Thank you, my dear Sara! I agree, it’s a completely normal feeling and I was forewarned. I’m mostly through it now that there was a peaceful transfer of power and I am past the holidays. I was supposed to be in Vermont for Christmas this year so that made me sad and then all the craziness in Washington the last few months made me feel like my own country was just nuts! Perfect recipe for just feeling displaced. 🙂

  • Susan Jane Whittemore

    I enjoy reading your blogs and hearing how you and your family are doing. Julia, I can’t even imagine the stress, the changes and the new norms you are experiencing. It made me think about those I know living here in the US who are from other countries and how challenging it must be to adjust. You and your family are in my thoughts and in my spiritual daily conversations. Much love, sjw

    • Julia

      Thank you, Susan! It wasn’t until the election and realization that I would be spending Christmas without them really set in that I got homesick. It’s funny because I’ve been here so many times for Christmas but living here made it feel different. I’m actually ok and knew that this feeling would be coming after doing extended overseas stays in high school and college but I definitely was feeling pretty down around the holidays.

  • Mar

    Nice job synthesizing your experience with culture shock! The bank details are indeed very different than ours. I would be happy to tell them my HS GPA was a 9.91 and college was a 9.93, both unweighted. LOL! Those might be the only numbers I have a longer term memory for. I sure still wish they were 4.0s though, but I took challenging classes AND I think God uses it to keep me humble. Just think how extra puffed up I’d be with 4.0s in my past? Anyways, thank you for sharing all the examples that explained why you chose these subtitles for culture shock. Love!!!

  • Joyce M Nicholas

    Over my many years of living, I have coined my own reminder in times of newness, “beginnings are always hard.” Whether learning to ride a bike or the first few hours in a faraway country as a mind spins with jetlag or trying to play a new song on a musical instrument, nothing is initially easy. My mantra reminds me to keep going and to not give up. With each new difficult step, mastery is achieved and the feeling of triumph is very rewarding. Best wishes to you, Chris, and the girls.

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