Starting Somewhere: A first step into the expat community in Singapore

February 2008

Tales of Transition

By Patricia Tan

Just keep breathing

It takes an hour to shower, blow-dry my hair, and apply my favorite burgundy shade of lipstick. After another hour of trying on nearly everything in my wardrobe, I select an outfit – perfectly fitting boot cut jeans, a black v-neck top with delicate floral embroidery around the collar, and a pair of shiny black leather boots with 2-inch heels. Then I sit on my sofa, palms pressed on my thighs, and breathe deeply for fifteen minutes. It’s time to take a taxi to the meeting area.

I’m going on a blind date, but not the romantic kind. This is my first outing with a social group called Young Childless Female Expats (YCFE). After stumbling across their online forum, I became intrigued. Women in their 20’s and 30’s living in Singapore away from their home countries and seeking friendship are reaching out to other women in a similar situation. The YCFE has been in existence for a few years. They post daily messages on their forum to organize weekly activities like having coffee, dinners, dog walks, book club meetings, and barbecues. After a month of reading forum posts, I force my fingers to type and arrange to join them for dinner and a movie.

Originally from Australia and in my late twenties, I’ve been living in Singapore for nearly seven years. Initially, the only person I knew was my husband, a Singaporean. Gradually, I made some local friends at work and through a volunteer group I participated in. It was enough to have some people to go to the pub or movies with during precious moments when I wasn’t working 10- to 12-hour days at an office, volunteering or catching up on sleep.

Photos by the Glimpse Foundation.
All rights reserved

I began working at home, pursuing a new career path, during my sixth year in Singapore. Since then, there have been no colleagues to greet in the morning, no department meetings, no one popping up in front of my desk to suggest a coffee break. There’s just me, my computer and a quiet flat. There’s more time to wonder what family and friends are doing back in Australia, to wish I could be there for the next birthday party. Local friends are busy with their own jobs and can’t catch up on the phone or have lunch as frequently as I’d like. Former colleagues forget to call me when they make last-minute plans to go for drinks after work. My husband is usually the only person I speak to on any given day when he comes home from the office. It’s almost like he’s the single person I know here, like I’ve just arrived in Singapore. My social circle definitely needs widening.

Just keep breathing, I remind myself in the taxi. At a party, I usually hang around the fringe, converse with a couple of people I already know, and leave when “So how are you?” and comments on the weather are exhausted. How I envy people who can walk up to strangers and strike up a lively conversation. Why am I meeting the YCFE? Will they like me? Will I like them? What will we talk about? Deep breaths.

When the taxi arrives at Great World City Shopping Centre near Orchard Road, the driver has to nod his head at the door to encourage me out of the car. There’s a bench outside the bakery where everyone agreed to meet. But no one is there. So I wait at another bench ten steps away with a clear view of the designated area. Soon, a brunette arrives wearing an orange top, just like someone on the forum said she’d be wearing.

Photos by the Glimpse Foundation.
All rights reserved

This is it. I can either run back home and curl up on the sofa in front of the television, or I can introduce myself. With a deep breath, I pull back my shoulders and start walking.

Dinner, movie and conversation with strangers

After a whirlwind round of handshakes and saying “Hi, nice to meet you,” I’m sitting at a table for ten in the Country Manna, a family restaurant serving oven-baked country meals. My voice quivers and sounds an octave higher than usual. But my regular speaking voice soon returns when I see the beaming smiles of my dinner companions. Most of them are also new to the YCFE.

They come from Brazil, Britain, Japan, Norway, and the U.S. I’ve been here the longest. Everyone else has been here for periods ranging from a month to a year. A couple of ladies are expat employees who work for finance companies and came to Singapore on their own. The others resigned from their professional jobs back home so they could follow their partners with expat postings. No one frowns when they say their careers are currently on hold.

“I’m just happy to experience life on a tropical island for a while,” comments Kari, a 28-year-old from Norway who has been here for a couple of months and worked in public relations back home.

As we tuck into chicken breasts, smoked ribs and cottage pies, everyone admits they generally like Singapore. Its streets are mostly free of litter and grime, there’s a huge variety of shops along Orchard Road, air-conditioned trains and buses arrive on time, and it is near other Southeast Asian countries that make great getaways. Each person mentions a place they want to explore: a dog park in the West Coast, an Irish pub in Boat Quay, New Asia Bar with panoramic views on the 71st floor of a city hotel, a spa resort on Bintan Island less than an hour’s ferry ride away. Their eyes light up and they grin from ear to ear when others express interest too. I smile, feeling my stomach flutter even though I’ve already been to most of these places.

“I miss my mum. I used to see her every day,” sighs Laura, a petite 29-year-old from Britain who has lived in Singapore for nearly a year. Her eyes look misty. Everyone else admits to missing family and friends back home too.

“I’m glad we started the YCFE,” says Laura with a giggle. Her initial expat days were spent slumped in front of the computer, surfing expat websites and looking for information about restaurants, shops and activities to do in Singapore. But she had no one to discover these places with. Cleaning the flat and waiting for her partner to come home from work was unappealing. So Laura and two other expat ladies she met online took matters into their own hands. They arranged to meet at a café in the city. And the YCFE was born.

Photos by the Glimpse Foundation.
All rights reserved

“Before I found the YCFE forum, it was hard to make friends outside of work,” shares Michelle, a svelte blonde from London wearing a well-cut grey suit who has been working here as an investment banker for a year. She mentions an e-mail she received from a former member who returned to the USA two weeks ago.

“The expat life is transitory. People often leave just as you’re getting to know them,” notes Laura. This opens a discussion about encouraging Singaporeans to join the group—women familiar with local life, who know the best places to eat and hang out, who are more likely to stay in Singapore as the years go by and keep the YCFE alive. Before the movie starts, we go en masse to the ladies restroom. I repress a giggle. I’ve missed this girly ritual.

We watch The Stepford Wives, starring Nicole Kidman. My husband didn’t want to see this “chick flick”. But it doesn’t matter. I’m here watching it with a group of friendly girls. While munching popcorn, I grin.

What happens now?

After the movie, we gather in the cinema lobby.

“What happens now?” I realize I’ve said it out loud when the rest of the group replies. Everyone’s going home.

“Well, it was nice to meet all of you. Thanks for a great night out!” I wave. They all smile and wave back before I turn and head off to the taxi stand.

There’s an urge to run back and confide in them. If they only knew how I sigh while eating dinner alone when my husband works late. How sometimes I stay in my pajamas for three or four days before finding a reason to step out my front door. If only they could see my head fall after a friend I’ve known since high school e-mails me about the latest party I missed in Australia; the hot tears after an ex-colleague has another urgent meeting and cancels our lunch date for the fifth time in a row. If they knew, perhaps they’d realize how much I’ve appreciated their company.

My eyebrows rise when I glance back. Women who met less than a year ago are hugging like long-lost friends before going their separate ways. Perhaps they do understand how I feel.

There’s a huge smile plastered on my face during the taxi ride back home. I did it! I took a deep breath (or rather, several breaths) and made contact with new people. It takes effort to make new friends, particularly when living in a foreign country. Tonight I met women around my age who relate to the homesickness I feel, are enthusiastic about discovering Singapore, and are interested in keeping their social lives alive whilst living abroad. A night well spent.

What happens now? I don’t know if we’ll become lifelong friends or not. But, for now, Singapore seems a little less lonely.

© 2007, 2008 by Patricia Tan. All rights reserved.

To apply for membership in YCFE, click here .

Patricia Tan is a freelance writer from Perth, Western Australia, who moved to Singapore in her early twenties for love: her husband is Singaporean. After eight years in the tropics, the couple relocated to Sydney, Australia, where they now enjoy life with their young son. See her work at .

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