52: Singapore's Magic Number (this year anyway)
It's some sort of incredible coincidence that as I hit the milestone of 52 weeks* in Singapore, Singapore is celebrating 52 years of independence. I mean, what are the chances? Really? (*52 weeks being a year of officially living in Singapore. I haven't actually been in Singapore for a solid 52 weeks. But that's just details, details)
So to celebrate the big five-two, here are 52 things I know now that I didn't know a year ago...
1.When meeting someone new be prepared to answer the following four questions (they're all people want to know about you). What do you do? Where do you come from? What school does your kid(s) go to? Do you have a helper?
2. Be prepared to be seen as some sort of anthropological experiment when you tell people that you don't have a job, don't have a helper and are *sharp intake of breath* homeschooling your kids. Can the woman actually survive this experiment? Pour a glass of wine and watch the show...
3. There are a handful of Facebook groups that are the equivalent of Google (or any other search engine of your choice) for expat women. The fact that some women will go to the effort of logging into Facebook, accessing the group and posting a daft question PUBLICALLY will never cease to amaze. But go with it, amongst the drivel are some absolute gems of advice.
4. Importing goods becomes second nature. Not the illegal kind, obviously. But just wine / meat / cheese mainly. Because bringing a suitcase full of frozen / defrosting meat and vacuum packed cheese is suddenly quite normal.
5. It's really hard to make friends in this transient existence. I mean, sure, it's easy to make casual friends. But close friends who you can call on in an emergency? Or one's that rally around you in a tough moment? Those are a little harder to find, and not because they don't exist here. But when you know someone is here for a finite amount of time, say one or two years, it's human nature to protect yourself by not getting too close to them.
6. In lieu of all your usual glossy magazine purchases ($13 for an out of date copy of Grazia?!?) you will find yourself increasingly entertained by Expat magazines. Expat Living being the obvious one, but in SG The Finder is also pretty good (and has featured me so they obviously have GREAT taste).
7. Homesickness can be suppressed with a box of goodies from home. There are several excellent reasons why British Corner Shop is my go-to on a down day. Marmite and pork scratchings being just two of them.
8. Even though technology allows for instant communication with anyone anywhere in the world, people who send snail mail are the best. I don't know why, but seeing someone you love's handwriting is the best feeling. People should write more.
9. Expat life isn't a glamorous daily existence. It's like life anywhere else in the world - work, bills, parenting fails, lame attempts at adulting and not enough quality sleep - but with the addition of timezones, language barriers and culture clashes.
10. You will become adept at online shopping, knowing which sites ship for free internationally and how long shipping times take. You will also know who doesn't (Boots and Marks & Spencer, what are you doing?!). I know, it doesn't make sense, but it is what it is.
11. Time zones become second nature and it is possible to know what time it is in several countries right now. And this continues to blow your mind.
12. You will live two lives, sort of. Home you, and other home you. Because you have two homes now. So two phone numbers with two different country codes, two bank accounts, maybe even two purses. It can get a little confusing, and at times can make you feel like an international person of mystery (which is quite exciting in a sort of Frank Abagnale Jr. sort of way). But it's also almost unavoidable. Sorry about the admin.
13. August and September are the main months of goodbye's, and then hello's. Which also means cheap second hand furniture / kitchen stuff / electronics swamp the Facebook groups. Despite the stereotype of expat's being super affluent, we still all love a bargain. Sorry to see you go friends, but thanks for your bread machine!
14. (probably) No BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub or Channel 4OD means you're left with whatever cable TV channels you can get, and local TV. It takes some getting used to, but who doesn't love re-runs of Flip or Flop on HGTV. Every. Single. Night.
15. International driving licences. Enough said.
16. Appointing a relocation agent is not as stress busting as it sounds like it should be. You just have one person telling you how much money you need to throw at a situation instead of several different people, basically. And yes, they might drive some hard negotiations on your behalf, but they'll also cost you. But then that's expat life summed up!
17. You're never really at home anywhere. In one place you're at the mercy of your Visa. In another you're an exotic stranger who comes and goes. It sounds quite romantic and like something from a novel. It's not. It's an effort to maintain friendships wherever you are, in whichever home you're in. Worth it, always, but a conscious effort nonetheless.
Travel With Kids
18. One long haul flight with kids is all it takes for you to realise that technology is in fact your best friend. And that all those articles you read decrying the rise in screen time were clearly written by someone not trapped in a tin can 36,000 feet up in the air with two pre-schoolers for fourteen hours. Just saying.
19. Singapore Changi airport is great and worth arriving at a good few hours prior to the flight because there is just so much to do to tire kids out before the flight. Dubai airport on the other hand is a bit of a nightmare and, although great for breaking up the journey midway, will leave you exhausted and on the verge of tears whilst begging to be allowed onto the next flight asap just to escape the bright lights / noise / stuff for sale everywhere.
20. Plane food is a nightmare with kids. From experience, the main meals on Emirates are better for kids (pasta or mash with a side of veggies and something meaty) than Singapore Airlines (soggy nuggets and chips), but the accompanying snacks on Emirates have not been provided with the parents / guardians in mind. On a recent Emirates flight one (economy) kids meal came with a pack of cookies, a piece of cake, a pack of yoghurt covered dried fruit, fruit juice and a small chocolate bar. Very popular with the kids but packed with sugar, which as anyone who has sat in front of a small child on a long flight knows, does not help their restless legs.
21. Freebies for kids on flights though. That's a serious game changer. Emirates ace this one and we've got more animal blankets and other amounts of tat than I could ever have hoped to strategically forget as we disembark. Because that's the thing, it's all fun and games whilst you're on the flight. But try and get yourself, your already bulging amounts of hand luggage, plus two small sleepy / grumpy kids off a plane without losing your cool over having to carry even more stuff and you're doing better than me.
22. Jet lagged children are the worst versions of their normal selves. They're either super grumpy or absolutely wired. And guess what? There's absolutely nothing you can do other than grit your teeth and survive. For maybe a week. Jet lagged kids take a while to get back into routine.
23. If you're travelling long haul don't take a Trunki filled with "stuff to do". They're great for short haul / weekends away, but long haul? Just an absolute no-no. Imagine getting yourself off a plane whilst carrying one, maybe two, sleep deprived children (you're not exactly feeling fresh either) and now add a couple of Trunki's slung over your shoulder for maximum effect. Not worth it.
24. However, when it comes to filling the "stuff to do" void (other than in-flight entertainment and ipads), do yourself a favour and order a Keep 'Em Quiet pack (per child, obviously). If you're really clever / forward thinking, ration the contents over the course of the flight to ensure you have adequate activities for jet lagged children once you've got off the plane.
25. Kids plane tickets are outrageously expensive considering their bums take up half the space and they spend most of their time on the flight splayed across their parent(s) anyway. But apparently you can't buy a (cheaper) adult ticket for a kid because....profit.
26. Frequent little flyers might enjoy the VIP treatment by having the pilot (or a member of cabin crew) help them fill in their flight log book. Play it well and you might even land yourselves an invite into the cockpit. The stuff of kiddie dreams!
27. Travelling with kids is a bit like giving birth. It's hectic, at times noisy and stressful, there will be a distinct lack of sleep and a high possibility of pharmaceuticals being administered. But like giving birth you learn to overlook the horror (and pain) because of what you gain from it. So you might do it again, and again.
28. There are several ways to deal with travel sickness. Some of them totally organic and wholesome no doubt. But there's a medicine available over the counter that works a treat. You may have heard of it as a parenting hack...Phenergen. Get the dosage right and it knocks 'em out flat with zero sickness. Get it wrong and they're high as a kite.
29. When staying in a hotel with kiddies, don't assume you're aceing parenting by booking adjoining rooms. Especially if the adjoining rooms have a door between them that can be locked FROM THE KIDS SIDE. Deadlocked. This is a lesson learned the hard way that involved climbing through a window.
30. Tropical travel with kids is fun, there's no doubt about that. The beaches, the wildlife, the freedom...the mosquito's though. We've tried most anti-mosquito products available at this point, and the one we keep going back to time and time again is Tiger Balm. No super harsh chemicals (but still a great stink), and very purse friendly. Definitely one to stock up on (plus it can go in hand luggage).
31. Get a GoPro. Strap it to your kids. Put it in a waterproof case. Take photo's. Make video's. Pretty much anything. But whatever you do, record your adventures with your kids.
32. Resorts with kids clubs exist for a very good reason. Take advantage of a couple of hours whilst the kids are entertained, cared for and safe and do what you've got to do. Napping, mainly.
33. But also, don't overthink the power of nothing. As in doing absolutely nothing. Kids are pro's at inventing fun, so let them go wild. Give them space, give them freedom and give them time. A wide, safe, clean beach is the perfect antidote to hours spent cooped up on best behaviour travelling between countries and continents.
34. Most major airport terminals and major ferries offer softplay areas for kids. A win win situation, yes. But also worth remembering to pack a few pairs of socks in your hand luggage. And antibac hand gel. Because...hot little kids running around harboring and sharing germs? Gross. And not what you need when embarking on a long trip.
Living In Singapore
35. You will have never experienced personal sweat levels like those of people in Singapore. Similarly, you will never have experienced the sweat related odour levels like those of *some* people in Singapore. And some days you won't even know whether the smell is coming from your own sweet body. Welcome to Singapore lah!
36. Remember that episode from Friends when Monica's hair went crazy in the humidity (let me remind you)? Yeah well, who's laughing now? Humidity hair is real. And it's biiiiig.
37. Get ready to learn the lingo. No not an actual official language. SINGLISH. It's even got it's own dictionary (and v.helpful Wikipedia page) to get your confused little Ang Moh head around.
38. Not only do you need to understand Singlish (or at least the terminology used by taxi Unicle's), but you need to take note of cultural habits too. A good first one to remember is the art of chope-ing. That is, when at a hawker centre (typically, although any eating establishment will do), if an object has been left on the table it is reserved. As in bagsy-ing a table, but often with a packet of tissues and not an actual bag. I don't know why it's some half used tissues either, but anyway, this HuffPost article is a great crash course in Hawker Centre survival for first-timers.
39. Singapore is an expensive place to live. I mean, wine costs ALOT more than it does in the UK. So even though taxes are vastly reduced here, it all balances out.
40. Get ready for some (at times heavily) censored TV. Most shows are still watchable, if a little jumpy scene to scene, and I'm pleased to say western stalwarts such as Sex And The City are no longer banned. But to begin with the censorship of familiar TV programmes and films does take some getting used to. I mean, 50 Shades just ain't the same here... (jokes, I don't actually know, I haven't watched the UK version and the SG version alongside one another).
41. Taxi apps will become your life. If you don't use Grab, Uber, and ComfortDelGro on the regular are you sure you even live in Singapore?
42. Ok fine. If you don't use apps for almost everything, are you sure you even live in Singapore? Redmart for your supermarket deliveries and HonestBee for virtually everything else. Singaporeans (real or adopted) ain't got time to hit the shops.
43. Hawker centres and food courts are life. Chicken rice (although the national dish of Singapore) is not. Sure, a good chicken rice is like nothing else, but you don't often see that many Singaporeans tucking into a plate of chicken rice. Follow the lead of the locals and try something else, you'll (probably) be delighted with the outcome.
44. Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by The Bay, Sentosa, Singapore Flyer, pepper crab at East Coast Park, the F1, a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, National Day celebrations...there are things that just HAVE to be done when you're in Singapore. Make a bucket list, start ticking it off.
45. Even though your little white kids are average size (for little white kids) they're above average size for Singaporean kids. It will never get less weird explaining politely that your not very advanced seven year old is, in fact, a pretty bog standard four year old.
46. Speaking of, you can forget clothes sizing for adults as you know it. Your big western bone structure and chicken rice padding will need a larger size than you're used to. Sure, being a UK size 10 but a SG size XL is pretty horrifying initially, but you'll get used to it. Or just stop shopping locally.
47. Pool life is Singapore life. And pool life means swimwear. As much as I enjoy this dedication, Speedo's will never be appropriate for men. And ladies, hair removal will become the bane of your existence.
48. Sunday's are typically the helper's day off. Expect to see an influx of stressed looking parent's trying to keep charge of their unruly offspring ON THEIR OWN at any brunch establishment on a Sunday morning. Sorry, but it's true.
49. Old Singaporeans are my favourite people. They're unapologetically honest about the number of expats in their country, and they've seen enough new money come and go that they literally have zero time for the bourgeois try-hards.
50. Singapore is home to some exciting wildlife, Well, exciting compared to the UK anyway. I'm not sure anyone (apart from Singaporeans perhaps) get's used to sharing their home with gecko's, snakes, sunbirds, occasionally monkeys and, if you're unlucky, a cockroach or two. But Singapore is their home too, so stop squawking about your uninvited house guests.
51. Choosing and buying live fish / crabs / lobsters in the supermarket I can get my around no problem. But buying a whole chicken (albeit dead and plucked)? That's a supermarket experience a world away from Sainsburys.
52. MRT, PIE, ECP, KPE... SG certainly does love acronym's. Don't try and use the long form name, people will just stare at you weirdly and then check again what you're referring to. Embrace the efficiency of the Singaporean approach!
PHEWF! We made it! Happy 52nd birthday Singapore!!!