Do you Speak expat? Meeting Expats in Singapore

Published: 11 Jun at 3 PM
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Filed: Meeting Expats,Singapore
Day One: a swimming pool in a small condo in Holland Village, west Singapore. I am on my back looking at the blue, blue sky and listening to the roar of the main road just metres beyond the hedge: it is not unlike London’s Westway, I think, and the thought is briefly comforting. It is 1pm on a Thursday and most schools have gone back after the long break but not ours, we still have a week to go and my boys (one grown-up, one small) are napping in the afternoon, still jet-lagged after the long flight from London.

I float about on my own, enjoying the look of the leaves above and musing on the future, as you do when you’re new, when a girl on a sun-lounger beckons me over. This is good, I’m wearing a nice new swimsuit and I’ve time to adjust my fringe as I wade to the side. We exchange names, family details, duration of stay here in Sing. We are both new to the apartment complex – and so is the building itself, and so are all of the other occupants – and this is a good thing, we agree, no tight-knit pre-formed groups to break into. And then I swim off: one person well-met, a small breakthrough but it feels momentous.

The next day a woman from the next block walks past with her kids. I’d seen her earlier, she looks friendly. I try not to stare but I do position myself on the patio in such a way that she might notice me as she walks past, and I set my face into an expression that I hope is both welcoming and not too needy. It works: ‘Hi!’ she says, and they walk on by. It’s a start.

That weekend a large group congregates by the pool with cool-boxes and beer-holders, splashing kids and chips and dips: this is more like it. We join in and it is pleasant and welcoming. More connections tentatively forged, again through swim goggles and watery squeals. And when school starts that Monday the same people, now wearing clothes, wave off the bunnies at the bus stop and we trudge back up the path in that together-but-not-with-each-other way that is now so very familiar but at the time feels so remote, and there are distant promises of coffee but the only urgency seems to be that we all get back indoors and so that is what we do (in a rush, no doubt, to hop online and Skype our families back home). I cannot Skype, the time-difference is all wrong, and I return flat-eared, go straight to the fridge, eat some Cadburys then lie on my bed and have a small cry.

I knew it would get better and it did, not long after our arrival in fact, as soon as I warmed up and made myself open to comment. Most times it was a simple case of bagging a sun lounger and looking smiley, such is the nature of life lived out in a sunny state, where so many friendships are forged in the big outdoors over cool drinks.

Life in a new land rocks between sharp jags of homesickness and sweetly sociable brunches and lunches and you take what you can and you make your own fate. My husband had work, my son had school and that was them sorted, and nicely so. Previous associations by email from forums seemed a very good route in for the [hideously-labelled] trailing spouse, especially if you were all transferring to a country at the same time, and I had found a good website for Singapore connections before we moved out and as a result had a readymade group when I got here, thanks to making contact in advance. And so it went.

Fast forward ten months and I am well into the hectic social rhythm of Singapore, buried deep in a diary over which I no longer have any control. Last week I fought a desperate compulsion to hide behind the sofa at the tweep of the phone. This week I have had to reschedule two things already after careless double-booking. The party scene in this town is relentless, electric and all-encompassing: even if I did have a job, how would I ever have time to do it?

We decide we need a rest, so we add a few extra days on to a public holiday and fly to a desert island, looking for mindless relaxation after the buzz of the hot, muggy city. Our pretty, stilt-propped hotel holds its brochure promise and we sleep, eat and catch up on conversations half-started and unfinished. Small boy, initially bored on arrival, is soon thrilled with the extra time we allow him to knock himself out in cyber space, and we in turn enjoy the silence that comes with three all-inclusive meals per day and nothing to do but sunbathe and snorkel.

Our beach resort, one year old and still finding its feet, hasn’t quite worked out its typical clientele yet but I’d say the guests are predominantly honeymooners and divers, not backpackers or expats: busy European high-enders choosing South East Asia for a precious two-week holiday. I remember them, we were like that once: pre-kiddie couples with bags full of books and all the time in the world to read them and no compulsion to befriend anyone. There’s not a lot of chatting but this is fine. There isn’t even much eye contact and if you tuck in your chair to allow your neighbour easier buffet access, not a huge amount comes back in the way of thanks, but this is all OK as well, it just means we whisper a bit more than we might have been doing for the last ten months. After the clang and bang of our busy expat life, the silence is a little strange but we soon adapt and in many ways it is a lot like the old days, when desert islands were rare things that we saved up to see perhaps every three or four years – not something that we now rock up to on a Thursday afternoon with just three weeks’ notice for booking.

So we laze and we nod at people and they nod back and we engage a German family in a brief snorkel chat and it’s amazing to think they have flown all the way here from there – fancy! – because we have become accustomed to people who, like us, live here in South East Asia under bright white skies and hot balmy breezes, and it’s really nice to see people from miles away and pick up on their holiday excitement. But after a while they too have drifted back to their quiet family table and we return to ours and soon we are once more shrouded in companionable peace, unfurling as the days pass like stiff beach towels fluffing up after months in the cupboard.

We reach Day Three and travel guilt gets the better of us so we book a boat trip to a nearby waterfall that is buried deep in greenery, runs beautifully cool and is deserted apart from our little family of three splashing giddily in the bubbling shallows. We lie flat on rocks, drying off to the sounds of swishing trees, keeping an eye out for slithering snakes and enjoying the odd mad bird call. I play a game in my head, imagining a Robinson Crusoe type scenario in which the boat never comes back to get us and we have to live on fallen fruit and monkey brains, and I’m getting into it in such a way that we have just appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail when KABOOM, up the vine-clad trail comes an almighty clatter.

Through the thick rainforest and waterfall rush wafts a new noise, a group of men and women and accompanying kids, calling to each other excitably with picnic-gingham names straight from the green English countryside. I detect a twang of other accents as well (NZ? South Africa?) but it doesn’t really matter where they’re from because I know who the visitors are straight away: they are relocators, like us, and we are about to make a brief friendship, I already know it.

The groups turns out to be a happy crowd of four or five families, like us from Singapore (I knew it) and making the most of the same public holiday (I knew it). They’ve block-booked the adjoining hotel and as they put an end to our holiday solace, crashing through the undergrowth with their pink-skinned, Cath Kidston hooting and honking, I know I’m already pleased to see them.

A year ago this would not have been the case; my instinct would have been to pack up double-quick and retreat from the gaudy intrusion, complaining as I stuffed towels into bags and sulking all the way back to the boat, but not now. We beckon the usurpers in, return the wide grins with bigger ones back, budge up to make room on our towels, squidge in to allow the happy scampering kids to fling themselves dangerously off the mossy stones and into the waters below.

It comes so naturally, this letting in of a group of total strangers, because they have used the code, the invisible and utterly acceptable expat ticket that allows the holder to bash through cultural settings and pare communication right down to the basics: Middle of nowhere? Total stranger? Want to talk? Great, then let’s do it!

The crowd turns out to be a genuinely jolly lot and we have a fantastic time showing them round our secret pool. In return for towel-sharing they give our son a banana; it’s all very pally.

I had them sussed the second I caught an earful of those Hush Puppy boots stamping up the flattened trail. Of course they were expats, they had to be, they displayed the language that only expats display: that ability to approach any social setting and blend, that natural coupling with total strangers that gives away the fact that you, too, are living out a life that won’t last forever and that you are all in it together, enjoying a privileged state of being in a new place with the backdrop of the expat time-clock ticking quietly away. We are all bobbing about in the melee and when we meet new people we are able to instantly throw aside social caution and grab fistfuls of conversational happiness for as long as we need to, and we do. I love how our pristine silence was broken that day. I love how I’m now a girl who craves noise, babble and chatter. This is how it is.

I speak the language fluently now and I know the next time a new person moves into our block it will be me who wades across the shallows and extends a dripping arm, pushing back the goggles and adjusting my best ‘welcome’ smile. I don’t speak Mandarin, Indonesian, only the smallest bit of French but I know this one inside out, this Expat Brogue – it is quite the loudest language of them all but the easiest to pick up, and amen to the precious friendships it is helping me forge.

To close, a few simple Singapore rules to help the meeting and greeting along (in fact they translate to pretty much anywhere)

• Share the conversation. No one likes a chat-hog
• Here in Sing it is perfectly fine to get a business card made even if you have no business (and with a name like mine, long and Celtic, it actually makes life easier). Just remember to deliver it with both hands
• Homesick? Making friends helps but careful not to harp on about ‘home’; you need to make friends, not alienate them (and besides, this is now your ‘home’)
• Coffee mornings are great but stick to the decaff if they’re happening every day. Getting the jitters in this heat won’t help you settle
• Got a nice little group? That’s lovely, but do look outside from time to time – you’re here for the experiences, remember? Not to trade your home crowd for a new one
• Lastly, life in Singapore is busier than you will ever imagine, so take it steady and savour the friends you make. This is a great city to explore, and doing it with a buddy will add a happy flavour. Enjoy!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingMorwenna Lawson is a British expat living in Singapore. Blog description: A two-year Singapore sling with a dash of school and work thrown in. This is me keeping my brain alive while my husband works and my son learns. I also write from home and try to see as much of this energetic island as I can
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