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.”