Things I Don’t Love About Living in Singapore
A list, one year in.
I have not written a lot this year, but what I have written has mainly been positive about our expat experience. Which is appropriate, as the experience of our move overseas has mainly been positive. I don’t expect that’s going to change for a long time, particularly since outside of family and friends there is absolutely nothing attractive to us about the prospect of moving back to the United States. Seriously, here is what the US looks like from outside of it right now.
Of course, largely positive is not uniformly positive. Singapore is a place, and all places have problems, no exceptions. Here, at the end of the first year of this life, a question that has come my way a few times has been “what don’t you like about living here?”, so I’ve been thinking about it. Here’s the list:
- Personal Space Etiquette in Public. This is easily the biggest day-to-day annoyance of life in Singapore. Notions of personal space are quite different from what I’ve come to expect after 38 years of life in the US. People squeeze into spaces, even when those spaces are very close to your space. This isn’t really an issue because generally, things aren’t too crowded. But when things are crowded (particularly busy MRT rides, or elevators), you’re going to have a lot of people in what you might consider “your” space. As annoying as that is, it would be more tolerable if the rules of loading and unloading from confined spaces worked the same way here, but they don’t. We have spent most of the past year moving around the island with a baby in a stroller. Typically in the US, babies in strollers and the parents that tow them are given a wide berth and a default priority of movement. Not here. While the Singaporean culture is one that absolutely adores babies, you don’t get any exemption from the default space-impingement for having one with you. Again, this wouldn’t really be a huge problem either, except that loading and unloading from confined spaces are handled quite differently, too. A life spent in NY has impressed upon me that the natural order of how one enters a confined space (ex. an elevator) is to wait for those people who are exiting to do so BEFORE you load on, and to do so in the order that you arrived in the queue to make your particular movement. This is not how it works in Singapore. Here, people entering don’t care if you need to leave, or if you were there first. They just push past you (SUPER fun when you have children with you). It’s lame. And it’s weird because generally speaking Singaporeans have much better manners than Americans. But this particular behavior would get you spoken to in New York City (not typically known as a bastion of politeness). In Singapore, it’s just how things work.
- Elevator Logic & Usage by the Able-Bodied. Similar to #1, but slightly different are two items related specifically to elevators. The first is that I swear that the logic of elevator programming here is different from how they are programmed in the US. Frequently we will hit a button for an elevator, and watch the floor display indicate that the elevator is on the way to us, only to see the elevator stop before it gets to us, and then reverse direction. This happens a lot, and for the life of me I can’t figure out the logic of the program that it’s following. It would be one thing if the elevator was coming to me, and stopped before my floor due to an input-priority issue, but that would explain why the elevator might change course once. It doesn’t explain why it would change course several times in a row without ever getting to my floor, or at least it doesn’t explain it to me. A related issue that makes this all the more difficult is that elevators are generally used by everyone here. I have never seen more able-bodied people using elevators in facilities with perfectly functioning escalators (to say nothing of stairs) than I have in the time that we have been in Singapore. So when the elevator gets to you, it’s generally full of people who sure don’t seem like they need to use the elevator. Combine this with the previously-discussed lack of loading & unloading etiquette, and elevators become pretty annoying spaces.
- Particular and specific foodstuffs. You can pay a good sum of money and get a decent, European, Artisan-style pizza here (the kind of thing I used to eat on the regular as I made my way through France and Italy as a kid). Or you can pay normal prices and get “pizza” made by a chain restaurant (Pizza Hut, and it’s Asian equivalents). But you can’t get NYC-area-style pizza, which is inarguably the best pizza in the world. Similarly, this place has high-priced, decent bagels (overly chewy, but decent), but it has pretty terrible cream cheese. And it’s the only place in the whole country that even comes close. Dairy products, more broadly are either less-than what you would get in America, or just really weird. You can get an okay burrito if you want to pay a premium for it, but it’s not going to approach the caliber of what you’ll get for much cheaper in the states. And let’s not even talk about burgers or other beef options. They just don’t exist at a typical US price. Beer and other alcohol? Super pricey. Iced Cream? It has to be imported, so it’s ~US $10 a pint when it’s on sale (that number is NOT a joke). Singapore is not a place where you are going to eat these foods a lot. Of course, Singapore IS a place where you are going to eat incredibly well, as long as you are willing to dwell firmly in the realm of Asian/Southeast Asian/Indian cuisine. You're also going to need to do so with the understanding that what those cuisines actually are is not what you think of when you think about Western-style “Asian” food. If you’ve lived in the US your entire life, there are things in Singapore that are essentially the national dish, that you have never heard of. So as long as you are cool with chicken rice, nasi lemak, and laksa, you’ll eat well for cheap.
- Proximity to home. Home (the east coast of the US) is very far away from Singapore. Almost exactly as far away as you can get on the globe. Which sucks. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks much less than it ever has in human history up to this moment. Until 100 years ago, this trip would have taken months, and you would have maybe made it twice in your lifetime. Now, you can get there in ~17.5 hours of non-stop air travel. Even when you break it up, you’re still basically looking at only a single day's worth of travel to journey 10,000 miles around the planet. It’s incredible. It’s also a long time to be in airplanes, especially with small children, and the incumbent amount of jet-lag that you are going to experience. So even though you’re connected to friends and family via all of the normal, modern methods, you’re still pretty far away. It’s not unmanageable, but it’s difficult. Then again, I’m writing this fresh on the heels of a Singapore --> London --> Boston travel-fest, so plane-related unpleasantness (and airport-related unpleasantness, as Heathrow’s security line is perhaps only rivaled by Logan’s passport control system for sheer stupidity) is pretty fresh in the brain. Give it a few weeks and give the kids a few years, and I imagine it won’t seem quite as bad to me as it does at this particular moment.
- The weather. It’s always 82 degrees with 90% humidity. 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. I mean, it’s not ALWAYS this, but it’s pretty darn close. Seasons aren’t a thing in Sing. Sweating through your clothes absolutely is. If variety is the spice of life, the climate of Singapore is maybe the most boring one available on Earth.
There are the "big" annoyances of living in Singapore for this American expat. And really, they aren’t that terrible. For each one of them, there are multiple benefits for myself and my family that clearly outweigh the difficulties. And any other place on Earth is going to have its own problems (not least of all my ancestral homeland). Pound for pound, Singapore is better than most places. It's just not perfect.