Tale of a Trailing Spouse

American expat in Singapore. A career, friends, family, and place to call home–I gave up life as I knew it for the possibility of life as it could become. Seven years later as a seasoned and serial expatriate, I've lived in four countries on three continents. So far, it's been a wonderful ride!

The Disney Version

“How do you like living in Singapore?” the taxi driver asked.

“There isn’t anything not to like about it,” I responded. “It’s beautiful, clean, organized, and secure. People are very polite.” I replied cheerfully.

It was a safe answer.

He agreed with my assertions, and the conversation continued to other topics. But I was still mulling over the original question. I don’t feel qualified to speak about life in Singapore because, as an expat, I live the Disney version of it. Like many expatriates here on a work assignment, my husband and I have the support of a company to make sure we enjoy a standard of living that would be at least equal to what it would have been if we were still living in the United States.

This was not the reality of the taxi driver I was conversing with, nor is it the reality for the majority of people living in this country.

If I had wanted to be completely honest and delve into controversy (something I am told is taboo), I would have answered that my life in Singapore is good, even very good, but I will never love living here. Every city has a vibe that you either connect with or you don’t. For all its good points, there are aspects about Singapore which make it impossible for me to feel anything other than conflicted and even guilty sometimes.

For example every day at my condominium complex, I notice the pools are buzzing with activity. Residents are soaking up the sun, doing laps for exercise, or finding a way to briefly escape the 90 percent humidity. It’s a lovely way to spend a few hours and gives an idyllic impression. But if you look just beyond the pool grounds, you see that for every person sunbathing there are workers putting in a 12-hour day, to make the grounds immaculate, to care for the toddlers at the playground, to walk the dogs left back at the condominium, to prepare lunch and dinner for their employers. The contrast between the daily lives of these two groups is nothing short of striking.

Granted, there is nothing wrong with being a maid or having a maid, working as a landscaper, providing in-home childcare, or employing the services of a nanny. In the expat community especially, with families separated by oceans and because one partner is inevitably traveling most of the time, having help is more of a necessity than a luxury. This is not what I feel is amiss. It’s just that in a country where there is so much wealth on display, I don’t understand why I see, for example, the elderly hunched over pulling weeds from morning to night out of necessity and not because they wouldn’t rather be enjoying their golden years.

Admittedly if I were to look at my country, I would see great disparity in socioeconomic groups. But where I come from, there seems to be more in the way of social safety nets, which help those in dire circumstances. Most importantly, there is at least the possibility of the American dream–the notion that anyone, from anywhere, born under any circumstance, has the opportunity for prosperity, success, and an upward social mobility so long as they are willing to work hard enough to achieve it. And maybe because of this uniquely American ethos–one that my own family benefited from–I feel uncomfortable with what I perceive is going on around me.

Don’t get me wrong. I know the United States has flaws just like every other country. While there is an actual Disney World, life in America is far from a fairy tale for the vast majority of its citizens. As a guest in this country, I have nether the right nor knowledge base to criticize that which I do not completely understand. But as I live and breathe in the bubble of corporate expat life, I hope I never confuse this fairytale with reality or forget my roots, values, and ideals.

10 comments on “The Disney Version

  1. englandia
    November 16, 2012

    I agree with you…..of course I think of the US system and am saddened as well when I see elderly still working the cash register slowly or such….but if Singapore is even worse, ouch. :(

  2. Diana Mahmoud
    November 16, 2012

    I can’t say its worse because I really don’t know or understand the system here. It’s just a perspective from the bubble that is my life right now. I just don’t ever want to forget that this is a bubble…you know what I mean?

  3. ncholet
    November 16, 2012

    I understand exactly what you’re feeling. I also understand a bit of the other side as well. I’m not comfortable with it, but I understand it.

    I started to type my thoughts on this out but it was turning into something essay length. We should have lunch soon, it would make an interesting conversation.

  4. Roxanne
    November 16, 2012

    I loved this post. Being an expat in Barcelona sometimes I feel similar except that most everyone enjoys a month off with another 22 days of paid vacation a year no matter what their job.. Also here people are protesting they have to pay a euro for a prescription. That would be a dream in the US. Still, I felt that way, sad, in Hong Kong where I saw tens of thousands of Filipino women on a Sunday, their only day off, eating a picnic together in a park sitting on the ground. Very difficult to see families in Hong Kong have women from the Philipines taking care of their families while knowing these same women could not see or be with their own families for years. I guess it is economics but still it was uncomfortable to witness.

  5. janice
    November 16, 2012

    always love reading your posts/inner thoughts – probably because I really wish we were talking about this face to face over a good bottle of wine;) miss you tons

  6. kenju99
    November 16, 2012

    Well said!!

  7. Phong
    November 17, 2012

    Well said. I don’t feel comfortable living in a society with so many maids/helpers… It’s like the US under slavery time. You may not use maids, but its existence make us think that inequality is natural to human.

  8. Phong
    November 17, 2012

    This hilarious post is about cleaners at hawker centers: http://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2012/11/i-know-my-rights.html

  9. developingcityblog
    December 10, 2012

    I think every country has huge wealth gaps, it just depends where you look.

  10. SENORICA
    December 18, 2012

    Hi, I stumbled upon your blog and I must say I really relate to this one. I’m 22 years and I moved to Singapore from the Philippines. I’ve been working here for 6 months and I always have this nagging thought about third vs first world especially now that I’m experiencing both.

    I wrote about these insights after taking a walk through Geylang (probably one of the remaining non-Disney versions of Singapore). Anyways, great blog! http://senorica.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/the-unlikely-character-of-geylang-a-walk-through-a-red-light-district/

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