An Expat’s Easy Return to Singapore: It’s a Tale of Two Cities

Published on January 13, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

By the time I was 10 years old, I had lived in five countries across three continents: Ireland to London to Tokyo to Singapore to New Jersey. By the age of 23, I had picked up my American citizenship and an American fiancé who was willing to move to Singapore with me. But I had no illusions that I was returning to a lifestyle I knew.

There are few territories on earth that have changed as quickly or as drastically as Singapore has over the past two decades. I can count on one hand the landmarks from my childhood that still stand. My experience as an expat in Singapore now differs sharply from my parents’ experience in the mid-90s, when the island nation was just shedding its rank as a hardship post.

During the two years my parents lived there, two notable incidents placed Singapore in the consciousness of both Americans and Europeans: Briton Nicholas Leeson caused the spectacular collapse of Barings Bank from his position in Singapore, and 18-year-old Michael Fay became the first American citizen to be sentenced for caning under Singapore law for vandalizing cars and public property. Despite negative media, Singapore’s economic wealth continued to grow at a rapid pace as the onset of the Japanese recession sent many international firms searching for other footholds in Asia. Nevertheless, many expats in the finance sector, including my father in his role at J.P. Morgan, were obliged to take frequent trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong, who retained their reputation as financial powerhouses in the region. These days, Singapore can hold its own as a center of business.

Even without Singapore’s explosive growth, technology like Skype and WhatsApp have transformed the previous alienation of expat life into a far more connected existence. My parents made the costly phone call home once a week at most; I can see my family’s faces and hear their voices for hours every day if I choose. Mom mailed photos of us to my grandmother; I’m friends with most of my family on Facebook. With the exception of a handful of guidebooks, my parents arrived in Japan completely blind; I had the luxury of turning to Google to explore life in Singapore before I stepped on a plane.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same. Life in Singapore was as easy for expats then as it is now, particularly when contrasted to the self-contained and still somewhat xenophobic Japan of the 1990s. Singapore was a smaller, less congested city than Tokyo and presented a wider range of Western food. They spoke English. Mom formed easy, close friendships with the other expat mothers in the condo, while we children played in the pool. That condominium surprisingly still stands. When my dad visited in 2012, he noted that although Singapore’s outer shell had changed, the people fundamentally had the same attitude and disposition. Mom commented that Singapore’s rigidly regulated multiculturalism, where everyone celebrated everything, had created a diluted culture 20 years ago and that today the city feels even more sanitized; in many ways, Singapore no longer feels like an Asian city.

Ironically, the move from Singapore to the U.S. was the hardest by far. When we were in Asia, we were expats and thus part of an instant group. When we landed in New Jersey, we needed to make friends in an already settled community, where we were simply faces in an extraordinarily diverse crowd. Immigrants and their descendants were ubiquitous; it was not a small, supportive club. Our Irish accents and penchant for British spellings garnered prejudice more than once from neighbors and teachers. Despite the difficulty in adjusting, the U.S. remains to date the country my parents have lived in the longest.

When I was considering a move to Singapore in 2011, they were enthusiastic. There was no fear around it; Southeast Asia was familiar territory and Singapore was the safest country in the region. My parents’ experiences had long ago taught them that living abroad gives you a perspective and an appreciation that traveling alone cannot. Although it’s tough being 12 time zones away, to my parents’ eternal credit, they encouraged me to go out and explore the world. I will always remember what Mom told me when I was getting emotional on the day I left: “This isn’t a good bye. It’s a see you later.”

Tips for Settling Into a New Job

Written in February 2014 for Aureus Consulting:

For recent graduates fresh to the professional world, you may be comforted (or disappointed) to learn that starting a new job is rather similar to the first day of school. You’re eager to appear intelligent yet likeable. You wonder who you will eat lunch with. You worry about how you will handle the workload. In the beginning, you will need to learn everything: where the bathrooms are, how to submit expenses, whose toes not to step on, and so forth. During my first decade post-graduation, I worked at a non-profit organization, a high powered New York City law firm, an Irish software company and an Australian one, and at an English school for Japanese expats in Singapore. Every single time I moved into a new role, I encountered a fresh set of lessons to learn, difficulties to overcome, and-in some cases-cultural norms to adjust to. Since many young professionals come to Aureus Consulting seeking guidance on how to move their careers forward, I thought it would be helpful to compile a few of the tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way.

Ask questions. It’s tempting to try and impress your new boss with how sharp you are, but no one expects you to know the ins and outs of the company in your first few weeks. It’s important to ask questions if you don’t know something. If you’re too busy pretending to appear competent, you won’t actually learn how to be. This is something even more experienced professionals can struggle with. You might worry that if you require help, people might think you’re stupid. Or worse, that by asking for advice, you might somehow cause people to dislike you. Recent studies have discovered that that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Wharton professor Adam Grant, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, and persuasion specialist Robert Cialdini are among the large number of experts who now consider seeking advice to be one of the most effective strategies for encouraging others to warm up to us. So, ask away!

Accept that you will make mistakes. It will happen. It will be embarrassing. It’s okay. Mistakes can be forgiven and forgotten. However, one thing your superiors will not forget is if you try to cover up a mistake. Let me give you an example. Back when I was working as a paralegal in that New York City law firm (my first paying job after college), I once accidentally moved an important file from my team’s shared network drive to my desktop. When I attempted to return the file to its original location, I found that it would take over two hours. Instead of informing my superiors of the problem, I just prayed that no one would notice the discrepancy. Of course, they did and I was reprimanded harshly, not for accidentally moving the file but for failing to own up to my mistake. The error was a minor one but my poor handling of the situation caused me to lose the trust of my team, which took far longer to repair. If you do make a blunder, the best course of action is to admit it, apologize, and ask how you can avoid repeating it in the future.

Be aware of your own limits. You might be tempted to say yes to everything during the first few months on a job. It’s easy to understand why: you want to demonstrate that you were worth the chance the company took when they hired you. And while you should absolutely be tackling your new role with gusto, taking on more than you can handle can backfire, since the quality of your work is likely to decline. A growing body of research shows that people are at their most productive when they are allowed take short breaks during the workday and when they obtain six to nine hours of sleep every night. To quote Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything: “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” So when your supervisor asks if you can take on another project when you already have ten on your plate, don’t be afraid to (politely) say that you won’t be able to at this time.

Be willing to adjust to a new office culture. Culture shock can happen to even the most prepared individuals. After all, it’s impossible to know quite how you will fit into a new environment until you’re smack in the middle of it. Whether you’ve relocated to another country or simply to a company with a different work ethic, I highly recommend you take note of the business habits of your colleagues. Are important decisions reached in a weekly meeting or through casual email dialogues? What is considered an appropriate manner of communication within the office? What are the leadership styles of your superiors? Does everyone attend the annual company baseball game even if they’re not required to? While you shouldn’t have to completely alter your work style or personality upon entering a new position, being aware of your company’s socio-cultural norms can only help you.

Find a mentor (or two). Who are the people at your company you wish you could be like? Ask them for advice on your projects and offer to help them with theirs. By actively getting involved in certain tasks, you’ll not only improve your knowledge base but you’ll likely gain a reputation as a supportive coworker. This isn’t just smart networking; this will also create a congenial work atmosphere that you can grow in. There is, however, a fine line between being helpful and being a brown-noser. If you’re not genuinely interested in emulating your boss, she or he will catch on sooner or later.

Don’t get discouraged. The honeymoon phase will wear off and you may realize your new job isn’t perfect. No job is fun every hour of every day. At some point, you may even feel like quitting. If you get to that point, take a few deep breaths. On tough days, remind yourself of why you took this job in the first place and what your long-term career goals are. Even if you do decide that this role isn’t the right one for you, it always behooves you to base such a choice upon rational consideration rather than your emotions of the moment.

The learning curve of any job is hard to predict from the outset. And much like the first few weeks of school, the amount you need to learn can sometimes seem overwhelming. The most important thing you can do is be open to absorbing new information, even if it’s as inconsequential as where the bathrooms are or what the trick is to getting the printer to work.

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