Experiences of an American Expatriate in Singapore
My first day in Singapore, after an eighteen-hour flight from Chicago, I arrived to an outside temperature that made a sauna feel like a fall day in New England. I was immediately faced with air that had a tangible thickness to it and brought about immense perspiration like nothing I had ever experienced before. Singapore was clearly going to test my 24-hour deodorant.
My husband, Sid, arranged for a taxi to take us to our hotel and suddenly we were off on this great adventure. I was cautiously optimistic that the decision to move our family to the other side of the world was going to be great. Although, at this point, I would have been happy to settle for somewhat tolerable.
We stepped into the wonderful air conditioning of a typical Singapore cab, and finally the world had purpose again. “Okay, I can handle this,” I told myself. “It cannot be worse than summer in Atlanta, can it?” I guess I would just wait to see what tomorrow held. The scenery on the ride from the airport into the city was incredibly beautiful. The trees were immaculately trimmed, so the interwoven limbs were visible. The median of the highway was full of flower boxes, filled with vibrant colors and vines. I was starting to believe I was actually in a tropical paradise. “Given how pretty everything looks, could it really be such a bad place to live?”
It was shortly after midnight when we arrived in our hotel, a little over a block away from my husband’s office. I just wanted to go straight to bed; I was exhausted from the trip and also the stress of relocating to another country. We awoke early and Sid (along with his friend, Ken, who runs a company of movers in Singapore) headed to his first day of work in the Singapore office. He told me I had to stay up the entire day or else I would be ruined from the jetlag. I agreed reluctantly. He was correct of course, but I wasn’t making it easy for him. I know, I know – it was horrible to do that. However, he was a little too chipper, this early in the morning, considering the jet-lag.
A few hours later, he called me in the room. Much to his surprise, I was actually still awake. He told me that he was stopping by so that we could join his coworkers for lunch. I was excited to finally start exploring Singapore and to meet its inhabitants. I tried to find an outfit that would make the best first impression. I wanted to start our new life in Asia on the right foot, or at the very least, without offending someone. As we walked out of the hotel, however, the Singapore sun slapped us square in the face. Yikes! The heat was real — the arrival experience the night before had been no fluke. I comforted myself with the knowledge that we were headed to a Chinese restaurant–something we already knew.
The menu was a fantastic collection of delectable dishes, in theory, but I didn’t recognize any of them. This was not the Chinese food that I routinely ordered from our local neighborhood joint in Chicago. What was I going to do? I had no idea what to order. It was a good thing that one of our companions wanted to order family style. I was game given how much I liked to try different kinds of foods. As the dishes started to arrive, I was pleasantly surprised. Everything looked so fresh and colorful.
Then it happened…..the peppered chicken’s feet made their appearance at the table. I tried desperately to hide my expression, but it didn’t work. I was shocked that this was indeed something that people ate….on purpose. “Why did I have to say I will try anything?” Oh well, I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it.
“Okay,” I said, “how do I eat this?” Our companion told me to just put the whole foot into my mouth and suck off the skin and cartilage. He said, “Don’t worry about spitting out the bones.” He then proceeded to tell us a story about a business associate, from a few years ago, that held all the bones in his mouth. Embarrassed to spit them out in front of his coworkers, this poor man ended up looking like a chipmunk. Our companion stated that in eastern cultures it is perfectly acceptable to spit out the bones onto your plate or spoon. “Great,” I thought, “not only do I have to eat a chicken foot, but now I have to forget everything I have learned about dining etiquette in the West.” I decided to take the leap. My mother would be so proud. I picked up one of the feet, with my chopsticks, and proceeded to place it into my mouth. The taste was just slightly peppery, but the texture was that of boiled chicken skin. It wasn’t exactly my idea of delicious, but I ate it, not wanting to offend the host. I stated that it wasn’t bad just not particularly my cup of tea. We continued with the rest of our lunch and everything else was delicious. The flavors popped and the cooking was spot on.
That day I learned my first of many lessons, about the cultural differences between the East and the West. I realized that by accepting and embracing our differences, people were more willing to share and open up. I started everyday remembering this lesson before stepping out on a new adventure.
This was just the first day of our three years living in this wonderful city-state. For me, Singapore is the perfect way to start experiencing Asia. It is extremely safe, easy to navigate and most of the people speak English. This small island nation has many things to offer, from various cultural precincts with small shops and temples to luxurious retailers. But, the best part about Singapore for me is the food (apart from the chicken’s feet, that is). Singapore has everything, from fine dining to delicious, yet inexpensive hawker stands. Stay tuned for the next article about our expat adventures. For more information on travelling to Singapore, please check out this link.