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. Five years later as a seasoned and serial expatriate, I've lived in four countries on three continents and currently reside in Singapore. So far, it's been a wonderful ride!
“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.