Sunday, September 7, 2008

Feeling Pensive

It’s early September, the end of school holidays and the beginning of a new season (at least in some parts of the world). It’s a time when many expats are in transition. In the last month, I’ve run into people moving to and from the UK, Denmark, Poland, the US, the Philippines, Ecuador, and others. Most have talked about new beginnings, new cultures, new work challenges. I am reminded of our own first experiences in Singapore - and the adjustments we’ve made.

We’ve learned to live with the transient nature of our situation (and have begun to accept the basic truth that any situation in life is inherently transient, no matter what our plans may be). But we haven’t quite gotten used to having the circumstances of our life more closely tied to my company than I ever thought possible. When sales are rolling and Cristal is flowing from the water coolers, expats may get perks that are unusual by headquarters standards. But the flip side is that during tougher times, the cost-cutters back at HQ may view expats as Hummers among hybrids.

We also haven’t quite adjusted to logistics (taxes, rent, etc.) that are hopelessly muddled, what with company policy and the laws and rules of two vastly different countries. It’s been 18 months now, and I’m still confused by my pay stub. It probably has more lines than a 1040 tax form. All I know is that allowances and adjustments are generally good (read: more money), and obligations and contributions are generally bad (read: less money). If I’m ever on the stand for receiving a few more dollars than I should have, I’m going to look awfully stupid. “Yes, Your Honor, I have an MBA. Yes, I did take accounting (and passed). No, I have no idea exactly how line item 24b on my pay stub was calculated . . . can I just start my prison term now?”

But otherwise we’ve thoroughly adjusted to Singapore’s expat life. We’re used to the way things work here, the way the environment looks and feels. Consequently, many of our blog posts have lost that wide-eyed wonder. It also means our next move, whenever that is, will be filled with its own re-adjustments. With one eye toward our eventual repatriation to the US, I have to admit: we really do like some things better in Singapore.

I’ll miss having US$2 lunches of noodle bowls or nasi padang. The lush greenery and sunshine also come to mind. And international air travel in Asia, especially through Changi Airport (ranked the world’s best for good reason), is so much more tolerable than flights in the US. I’ll also miss the community of expats and permanent residents (some with Singaporean spouses), where our differences serve as our common thread - not just to be tolerated but often to be acknowledged and talked about. Having lived this way for some time, I’ll probably blurt out a few politically incorrect things back in the States.

I’m sure there will be other things that sneak up on me - you never know exactly what you’ll miss until you actually make the transition. But at least I realize that more than a year of trying to adjust to and embrace living in Singapore has changed me. And for better or worse, it means I’ll probably think of life in the US differently than when I left.