Reflections after 12 years as an expatriate in this city
Originally published in Rogue Magazine
To be a resident of Singapore is to be a resident of the new. Cars can only run on the roads for 10 years. There are more mobile phones than people. An apartment built 30 years ago is considered old. It’s a city of technology. What tech the government implements generally just works (although breakdowns in the newest train line forced commuters to walk the tracks twice in a week). My passage through Changi Airport, short as it is, is shaved further by electronic turnstiles that have replaced actual immigration officers. Scan my passport, recognize my right thumbprint, see you in a week.
When I arrived here over a decade ago, I was certainly grateful for the efficiency, as one is when establishing themselves someplace new. Singapore was riding the wave of the first Internet boom, and being in the midst of it, I felt that I had made the right choice by relocating here. But the bust happened soon after, and there were a few shaky months when I had to decide whether to stay or go. I elected to stick it out—also the right choice—and eventually recovered from that first year’s trauma. Singapore took a bit more time, hanging tight through an expatriate exodus, 9/11, and SARS.
So one can imagine that it took some time to build an affinity with this city. Three years into living here, it happened. I had been traveling two weeks. Work and laundry awaited. But as the plane made its descent, there was only one thing on my mind, and that was a simple plate of chicken rice with a dollop of that most important trio: dark soy sauce, chili, and ginger dip.
My Singaporean friends are an articulate, well-traveled lot (the red passport is welcome everywhere), yet they embody the city’s down-to-earth personality as much as the national dish. We got to know each other, invariably, over meals that cost less than $4 (that’s Singapore $, not US) — cups of milky teh tarik (pulled tea), breakfasts of chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish), and Fridays spent standing in a queue for bak chor mee (a minced meat noodle dish whose flavor is elevated by pork liver).
Everyone speaks “correct” English at work, accents cultivated at private girls’ schools, or at university overseas, but come a relaxed moment and out comes the Singlish. Nothing says “I belong” more than everyone around you chattering away in Singlish, forgetting for a moment that you don’t understand. Eventually, someone stops and explains a choice phrase, and through this tutoring I know when to use leh or loh over the elementary lah. Fluency opens up all kinds of dialogue, particularly with the older generation, whom everyone calls ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ as a sign of respect, who hold the strongest opinions on everything from how much rent I pay (I eventually learned to deflect the question) to the latest gah-men (government) policy.
It is these ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ that keep this city real. They are the 60-year-old taxi drivers, the ones who lived in kampongs (villages) two generations ago. They remember that before a 20-storey condo popped onto the street where I live, it was the site of the $30-a- night Soo Chew Hotel (air-conditioning and laundry included). The younger cabbies, day-trading on their smartphones, have no clue where anything is.
The auntie who runs a hawker stall in our neighborhood serves humble wantan mee (wonton noodles) elevated by her own chili-based sauce. She knows my sister (who also now lives and works here) because, at one point, my sister ordered the same fried dumpling noodle dish everyday. One day, auntie says, “I’m going Phuket for holiday, okay? Shop is closed tomolo (tomorrow).”
I’m not sure which is more impressive, that a hawker-stall owner can afford holidays abroad, or that we were considered regulars worthy of a heads-up. But the lesson is clear: To connect with a Singaporean, you simply need to show that you love their food. Learn to order your preferred variance of local coffee, and you’re in. Make mine kopi c siew dai (coffee with evaporated milk and less sugar).
Sometimes the idyllic bubble threatens to burst. Nobody has to hustle for tips, so customer service is worse than it needs to be. Creative thinking still has some way to go. In much the same way that there is no space to grow things, there are few venues to nurture ideas that have no clear commercial value. In other words, Singapore lacks a bit of an edge.
But I have to defend Singapore, because things are always changing, usually for the better. What it lacks in edge, it makes up for with access. It’s a place where you can just live a life. A bubble around the bubble of family, friends, a career, a hobby, a routine. Add on the visiting friends and international acts (these days, it seems everyone comes through town), the latest must-try wine/tapas/whiskey bar, the events so regular they are acronyms (CNY, NDP, F1), the vacation days everyone rushes to use up at the end of the year…and there you have it, some kind of life. Then when the need for inspiration demands a change of scene, one can zip through those electronic turnstiles, get a fill of edge elsewhere, then return to this reliable constant.