I won’t be so presumptuous to claim that I’ve discovered the key to everything in being an expat, but “A Key” just doesn’t have the same dramatic feel for a column title as “The Key”1Shocking nobody, I have a flair for the dramatic.. But it is a key that I’ve found, riding down the escalator into Holland Village MRT, waving to Jeff, a guy Bev & I met at a SOMA event that lives in the neighborhood. Or again, running into Deb, our quiz night teammate at Coffee Bean, where Emma and some of the writers’ group meet every Wednesday to discuss our projects and find new ways not to write. When I chat with Dan, a fellow American who lives across the street and is often seen out walking Hugo, an affable and ginormous yellow lab.
When a friend of mine texts me from Oregon that her mother will be in Singapore for a few days as she travels South East Asia, and could I please arrange to meet her for lunch and show her around the city a bit, I can see the key there too. When I think of Shaun and Ken – coworkers of Bev’s – that have moved back to Oregon, I can see it, feel it keenly, the rotating cycle of discovery and parting, of friends.
Life as an expat has this curve, as Julie, the most excellent expatriate counsellor at Nike, explained. You ride a high when you move, a honeymoon phase, when everything is new and exciting and you are scared out of your mind, riding the crest of adrenaline and the reward for overcoming the smallest of victories. Imagine, suddenly you have no idea where to buy laundry detergent, or household goods, or where to get a haircut. While everything in Singapore is mostly in English, that’s no proof against cultural unfamiliarity. Speak with anyone who’s moved to the United States from England, or vise versa, and you’ll find a wealth of differences we didn’t even know we had. Overcoming those frustrations becomes a rush, the tiny victory over the force of an alien culture’s unfamiliarity. You try new food, you meet new people.
That high, like all in this world, comes down. Usually around the six-month mark, give or take, when the novelty wears off and all you’re left with is the still unfamiliar, the differences, the remainders. Homesickness begins to sink in as a daily event, not just a wistful feeling, but a weight, constant and always tangible. I’m sure this manifests in all sorts of ways. For me, in this city, so near to the equator, so unerring in its daily hot and humid climate, the onset of autumn, the pictures of fallen leaves in the wet streets, the thought of hot food in cold weather, those images bring me to tears as I mourn a lost Oregon fall, something I’ve come to treasure so highly.
You adjust. You adapt. I put my $15 coupon with honestbee to use, opting to have grocery delivery for the first time in my life. I decided that it was the proper time to stock up on heavy items, bulk water, tp, stuff like that, but also threw in some small items – tomato sauce and paste. Cayenne pepper. Kidney beans2sue me, purists. I walked down to the wet market, not trusting meat delivery, and bought a pork loin. Bev had Trader Joe’s cornbread mix brought over from Oregon with her coworkers, as well as a few 22’s of good Oregon IPA. I made chilli, not having hatch chilis but using jalapeño and cayenne to get the flavor and heat I wanted. I forgot – mis-ordered, actually – chipotle powder, something I will bring back from the US on my next visit, but the result, the result was good enough. We watched replays of the day’s earlier college games in between episodes of terrible reality television. We drank the Breakside IPA – fantastic, by the way – and for a day, as it rained off an on, it felt a bit like home.
But it’s not quite.
And that’s the point, of course. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make Singapore into my beloved Oregon. Not with a million flannel shirts and beards could I do that. But we didn’t move here to have Oregon with chicken rice3besides, we have good chicken rice in Portland, we moved here to live in another country, on an unfamiliar continent. The comforts of home are just that, comforts.
Friendship, however, is universal. As sappy and hallmark-y as that sounds, it is truth. And it is the best weapon an expat can have against homesickness. It’s what makes home, after all, not the weather, not the creature comforts, not the house, or the deck, or the flight of ducks overhead every October, or the chili or even, god forbid, the beer. What makes home is the affection and comfort of familiar faces, of community and continuity. My friendship with Emma4which is so odd to refer to her by her ridiculous pseudonym, given how close we’ve become has been an anchor, as we’ve met several times a week for writing and just general chatting, been on vacation together with our spouses, and have just instantly clicked as two like souls. However, it’s the friendships of community that has really turned the tide, I believe. Jeff, for example, is not someone I’ve seen much of – we have different schedules, different lives, different situations, but for people that have shared a beer and a good few friendly words, it gives a certain sense of “I live here” to run into each other on our way through Holland to share some words, catch up and give each other a friendly wave before moving on. Or running into Deb, Paul or Keri, our quiz night team members, on the streets or at a cafe, outside of our semi-regular quiz night meetups.
It’s those senses of the familiar that make a neighborhood, well, a neighborhood and not just a few blocks in a city with the same name.
Hey, we’ll likely move back. My heart still yearns for high up views of the Gorge, cold rainy nights and the comfort of a hoppy beer. Though I will always remain a Californian by birth, the foray into the tropics has if nothing else, reenforced my love for the cold, cool climates of the Pacific Northwest. The immaculate and meticulous city planning of a city-state government and its conservative policies have kept the flame of social justice stoked well within me, to the point where, should this whole writing thing not work out, I feel that I will not return to the career I left but engage the various organizations working towards progressive causes within Oregon and truly begin to work within them5BRO people, take note, y’all – I am fucking talented – you want someone like this. So, baring something monumental, I think we’ll be back in Oregon this time next year.
Which will not happen without some heartache. It will rend me to leave the friends that I’ve made thus far, as it will rend me when those friends too move on to their next phase in their lives. And though through the power of Mark Zuckerberg we will remain in close contact – as many of us do with friends and family – that sense of community gets altered through each move, each coming and going. Not lessened, but altered, for with all the social networking, email, WhatsApp, you’ll always stay in contact with the people that come into your lives.
Case in point, then, because providence and life don’t often hand you material like this; while writing this piece, Paul happened to walk by and find me in my usual Monday morning spot, face down in a laptop, banging away at my keys6I would say “like Beethoven”, but we’re trying not to be immodest here, aren’t we?. I laughed, and remarked, at the coincidence about me writing about running into people here in town. Paul had mentioned he also had run into Beverly at one point, rather, happened to spy her at a work dinner the other night, but with her back turned, opted not to say hi.
These are the things that make a city of five and half million seem a lot smaller.
However, the truly remarkable comment came when we discussed Carlos, a newly arrived American expat who lived in England near where Paul & Deb are from. A friend of Pauls had emailed him, he told me, that Carlos had lived in the area, recently moved here, and didn’t know many people. So Paul and Carlos met up for a beer, and Paul invited him to quiz night. As quiz night approached, though, Paul had some friends come in town and had to bow out of quizzing. So instead of letting Carlos hang high and dry, he send me Carlos’ number, and vise versa, to connect us.
Carlos and his brother Alex showed up and we had a great time. I had invited Lia, an Italian biologist that we’ve teamed up with a few times, to join us, and her and Alex hit it off well when he revealed that he is a teacher of literature. An upbeat and immensely likable Singaporean woman named Chandni7this is the expat quiz night, however, Chandni disclosed that even though she’s Singaporean by birth, she just recently moved to her “homeland” joined our team as well, and by the end of the night, we had all of us exchanged phone numbers.
And just like that, another few circles connect.
I’m not “contractually obligated” or anything, but I do feel somewhat obliged to comment some on the experience of ordering my groceries online via Honestbee. My apologies to all for the awkward inclusion, but since it came up above, and because I don’t think I can fill an entire column about ordering toilet paper and tomato sauce, I’ve chosen to include this here.
As I mentioned, I ordered some basic household goods via Honestbee over the weekend. The scheme8hee is that they provided me with a carrot in the form of a discount to order, and I give them a little “internet press” by writing about the experience in an organic manner. A mutually beneficial collaboration which I was definitely more than a little hip towards. Honestbee is a new player in this space and they’re trying hard to get their name out there. I can easily say that their hard work is paying off, that their service is exceptional, and their site one of the best user experiences I’ve seen in e-commerce in a while. Fast, responsive and clean, I found it easy to order, browse and checkout with no issues.
The whole experience of ordering groceries is completely foreign to me. My first reaction to it is that it’s a practice of extreme decadence, more privilege aimed at a very privileged class of people. Many expats are single income families, like ours, so it’s not like I can’t just get off my lazy ass and walk down to the market. However, after talking to Dan, he raved about one of Honest Bee’s competitors, whom he uses for large items or bulk, due to convenience. That made a lot more sense, especially if you don’t have a car here. Plus, the ability for Honestbee to shop at multiple outlets and multiple stores does make for an easier way to find what of which you are looking for. The Cold Storage that they’re shopping at might have something that the Cold Storage near me might not. That’s pretty helpful.
However, the oddity of having a personal shopping concierge is that if one of the items you want is out of stock, you then need to worry about what product you want to replace with. Honestbee has a great interface for that, but one that needs a bit of intelligence behind it. I tried it out to suggest replacements for tomato sauce, a key ingredient that I needed for my chilli, and while the search interface was fast and easy to use, I would have liked some better related products to come up initially. The initial list of items was seeded with a search for the same brand – not exactly right. This is the downside to not having warehouse-based resale approach like most e-commerce stores do, though I’m sure the upside is, you don’t have to pay for a warehouse, and real estate here is much more expensive than labor.
I mentioned that the site was responsive and incredibly well done from a UX standpoint. This is true. I would say that the only issue I found with the interface is that when browsing through a listing of products within a certain department, the left-hand navigation should scroll with you. Too many times I found myself needing to scroll back up to the top of the page to go hunt down the next item I wanted in a different category. A minor change, but when looking through a listing of 100+ items, a very welcome one.
As I mentioned, this process might not be for me for food shopping. I often enjoy walking down the supermarket aisle, letting inspiration hit as I browse. However, for bulk items, especially stuff like dog food, water, or paper products, I think I might use this service again. Given how touch and go parking can be around the supermarkets, I think this is a welcome service.
All told, the process was simple, swift, and within a few short hours, I had my stuff, and was happily making pork chili, which turned out fantastic.
This time next year is looking pretty definite? Then I must come along Wednesday and tell you about this new way I found to not write.