By Christin Gustafson
I am a third-time expat who arrived in Singapore with my husband and two boys (ages 10 and 12) in July 2018. My educational background includes a PhD in Biochemistry. Depending on where we live and what opportunities there are, sometimes I teach college chemistry courses. As a family we’ve spent time in the UK, Switzerland, and the US. I love being an expat and recently began to examine the unique challenges and opportunities for personal development present in expat life. I’ve come up with some questions for this AWA Member Spotlight column to help us learn about each other and our expat experiences. I hope these questions give insight into your fellow AWA members beyond the standard getting to know you questions. It seemed appropriate to introduce myself first, using this Q&A format.
What have you enjoyed more about Singapore than you thought you would? Conversely, what have you struggled with that you didn’t expect to be challenging?
Before arriving, I was unsure if we would enjoy living in a big city apartment without a yard or car. I am surprised by our ability to comfortably fit into the apartment. My nightmarish visions of things piled up in corners, cupboard doors bulging open, were unfounded. I also find that I don’t miss having a car. My kids are happy with their bedrooms here but they do miss having an outdoor space. My unexpected personal struggle has been with the weather. Will there ever be a time that I’m not sweating? How do I keep the makeup from melting off my face? How can I look put together and still be comfortable walking around outside or sitting in air conditioning? I’m waiting for my body to adjust to the heat and humidity. Please don’t tell me if it isn’t going to happen–I need to have hope.
What habits make you feel most settled in Singapore?
I am a person who thrives on routine. That time in between moving out of your old space and being settled into your new space is always very difficult for me. I use routines as a way to ground and settle myself. Waking up, exercising, drinking a cup of tea every afternoon, reading with my kids at night are things I try to do no matter where we are. In Singapore, I’ve started walking with a group of ladies a couple times a week. Being a part of this very welcoming and generous group of ladies has given me a sense of belonging and a place to ask questions.
What did/do you do to meet people and form friendships as an expat? What advice would you give first- time expats?
We have never lived in the same place twice, each of our moves has involved getting to know new people, regardless of whether we are in the US or another country. I struggled the first time we moved and quickly learned that to make new friends you have to put yourself in proximity to new people AND you have to talk to them. I’m a nerdy lab scientist at heart and talking to strangers was hard for me. I’m not the same quiet person I was 15 years ago. Now I say yes to every invitation and sign up for all kinds of things for the first 6 months in a new location. If you put yourself out there for 6 months, by the end of that time you will have found a new group of friends. You might also surprise yourself because in trying new things and being outside your comfort zone, you will grow and possibly even find a new interest.
What item in your Singapore home-away-from-home makes you feel the most settled?
We debated long and hard about bringing our dog to Singapore. Our furniture arrived before she did and we had everything we needed to live, but we were still missing something. When she came out of quarantine I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding; we were home.
What challenges you the most as an expat and how do you deal with it?
I find being the mother of expat children who are getting older (10 and 12) and who are frequently moved and resettled to be challenging. I worry about gaps in their education, whether or not they will feel at home in their new schools. Handling my own adjustment and culture shock while also helping and watching them with theirs can be trying. I try to remember that things are not always as they seem and we all deal with things at our own pace and in our own way. The boy crying about his broken pencil might actually be crying because he misses his friends but isn’t able to verbalize it.
What aspect of your personality has been a strength you’ve relied on while an expat? Conversely, what personal weakness have you struggled with?
I am a curious person which is an asset, since I love learning about new places, new cultures, and even new languages. I’m also an organized person, which can be a blessing and a curse. This desire to be organized and in control has helped with the logistics of moving. But it also often means I’m stressed when things are not going the way I planned. I often need to remind myself that challenges pass like the seasons.
What has been your funniest or worst expat mishap while living in Singapore?
I love the saying “the worst mistakes often end up the best stories”. I believe this is particularly true for expats. I had a horrible afternoon where my boys and I rode in a Grab, took a bus, flagged down a taxi, rode the MRT, and then walked to complete a journey between Orchard and Woodlands. It was a comedy of transportation errors. All the while, one child was threatening to vomit from motion sickness and my husband was texting that he was going to be late joining us to meet the boys’ new teachers. At the time it was NOT funny, but now it is just another one of our crazy family stories.