Written by Christin Gustafson and photograph by Michiko Quinn
Chances are you’ve seen Lori Cahill’s smiling face at an AWA book club, a crafty hands meeting, on a home tour, or been welcomed by her at a morning coffee. Unfortunately for all of us, her time as an expat will come to an end in June 2020 after she living, over the years, in Germany, Brazil, Greece, Italy, and Singapore. While she is sad to go, she’s looking forward to living closer to family in the US. Over lunch I listened to Lori’s thoughtful reflections about parenting and her years as an expat.
After so many years abroad, were you ready for one more expat assignment in Singapore?
When I first found out we were asked to move to Singapore, it was such a pleasant surprise. My husband’s contract was ending in Stuttgart, Germany and we thought we were moving back to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I had not travelled at all in Southeast Asia so it was going to be a new experience for me.
What is your secret to getting to know Singapore and the other countries you visit?
In Singapore I ask my taxi drivers where the best place to eat is and what he thinks about his life in Singapore. I get such a cross section of answers. It is very expensive here and it seems the local working class feel the pinch more than most. They work very hard all day long to cover their expenses. Most sound very positive about the changes that have occurred over the past 54 years.
I travel frequently with my husband, I love exploring the city we are visiting but I really enjoy talking with the people; the hotel staff, bartenders, waiters, shopkeepers, taxi drivers. They are a wealth of information. We love to visit antique shops and markets, we talk to the owners and ask advice on where to eat and shop, we usually find better local options than what is listed in guide books. I also love to pick up local clothing and jewelry on my travels, and I wear them here in Singapore (it will be interesting to see if I wear them when I go back to the States). I try and scope out vintage pieces from estate sales or antique shops. These pieces have a story and a history.
What have you enjoyed more about Singapore than you thought you would? What has been the most pleasant surprise? Conversely, what have you struggled with that you didn’t expect to be challenging?
I did not realize how many friendships I would make here. I am surprised how fast the bond is formed and how long-lasting they are. We are all in the same situation; living away from friends and family. We tend to rely on each other, just even knowing they are here is such a comfort.
I struggle with the heat here. I enjoyed the walks when I first arrived, exploring all the neighborhoods in Singapore. The tours that AWA offers are amazing to get a person out and about. But, at some point I had to accept that the heat does me in.
How many houses/apartments have you lived in as an adult? Do you still hang all the pictures and decorate all the rooms? Have you unpacked all the boxes from your move? Why or why not?
I have lived in too many places to count and I always try to make our living conditions feel like home. Even in hotel rooms or serviced apartments. A bunch of flowers and some fruit go a long way to make a space feel like your own. Unopened storage boxes drive me crazy, I have to unpack it all and find a place for my treasures and get it in order. I feel so scattered when I am unorganized. I hang pictures and decorate and collect treasures from all of our travels… I know when I am old and grey I will be sitting in that chair that we bought in India, drinking from that glass from Germany, that was sitting on a table from Kochi, under a chandelier from Belgium!
What habits and items in your Singapore home-away-from-home make you feel the most settled?
I have moved almost every 4 years, what makes me feel settled is such a good question. I think having a routine and being around people who are interesting and sharing their life experiences. I am also always working on a cross stitch project. I can carry my lap quilts everywhere and it makes me feel productive and relaxed at the same time. Charisse recommended listening to audio books so now I can stay current with my book lists while I sew. Multitasking at its finest.
What hobby have you been able to enjoy in Singapore that you didn’t previously? How do think this has influenced your time as an expat in Singapore?
My new hobby has been watching new arrivals experience a new hobby. Tennis and working out seem to top the list followed by lazy days poolside, due to the fact that each complex has beautiful swimming pools! I have enjoyed the crafting group and belong to two book clubs. Members are quick to share helpful information on a variety of subjects, be it sewing, cooking, traveling, or everyday life.
What assumption or belief about Singapore did you have that was wrong? Do you think that assumption impacted your adjustment to life in Singapore?
I attended a cultural awareness class to help me adjust to the lifestyle in Singapore. So much cultural nuance that you are not aware of that can be misinterpreted as insulting or rude. The awareness made my adjusting to Singapore everyday life go a little more smoothly.
What about Singapore culture has surprised you the most?
Singapore Culture is an amazing blend of so many influences from neighboring peoples. I am so interested in the Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian way of life and how they all blend together here in Singapore. I love how all the religions are respected and honored. I have a bird’s eye view of how life can work in harmony, with respect for the different cultures and religions in Singapore.
What has been your funniest or worst expat mishap while living in Singapore?
I can’t believe how lost I can still become after living here for almost 5 years, between the one-way streets and circular routes of the buses I get so turned around.
Have you adopted a habit as an expat in Singapore that you hope to take with you to your next home?
I have adopted taking the public transportation systems and walking so much more than I ever used to in the United States. Walking here is a means to get somewhere; in the US walking is a way to get exercise. I balance out my surefire way of getting lost by taking a cab to my destination and public transportation home. The best of both worlds. It will be difficult to continue this back home since everyone drives, public transportation is not very reliable and almost non-existent in more rural areas.
What did you do to meet people and form friendships as an expat? What advice would you give first time expats?
My advice to first-time expats is to get out of the house! My first week here in Singapore I took the bus to the AWA office and met lovely Kim Nee. She had time to take me on a tour of Ion, as I had arrived in June and most expats travel when the kids are out of school. I had never joined a club in my other expat experiences, I was traveling so much in Europe and had children through whom to network in the early years, it was easier to stay busy. Here in Singapore, I jumped at the chance to join the AWA and signed up for as many tours as possible.
What life lesson have you learned during your time in as an expat?
I know my travels have changed me and my family. We share all of our travel insights and adventures. We send postcards and pick up little treasures; something as small as a tea towel, scarf or playing cards, means so much to loved ones back home. My perspective on the world and my day-to-day experiences make me a more well- rounded person
What do you miss from home that you can’t find in Singapore? How would having that item in Singapore change or improve your experience?
I miss finding anything with ease. In the States when you need something you hop in the car and run to the store or, now as I have found out through my children, order it on Amazon Prime and it will be delivered in a day! Here not so much. It is such a random thing, but so frustrating. An oval Crock Pot, a can of crushed pineapple, Baker’s brand soft sweetened coconut, embroidery floss, Cheez It crackers…lol.
What is your favorite Singaporean holiday to celebrate (ex: Hari Raya Haji, National Day, Deepavali). How do you celebrate it? How do you think celebrating something from your new culture has helped you feel part of Singapore?
Singapore has taught me so much about the different holidays and to really be able to enjoy the cultural experiences. Chinese New Year is so colorful and full of fireworks and traditions. I never knew about Thaipusam; living in Singapore opens up your mind and lets you see the world and all its unique celebrations.