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Life in the Lion City: An American expat on relocating to Singapore

The global expat community is formed of people who have moved to and from countries on every continent, and in every time zone.

Their individual experiences are as diverse as the community itself, whether relocating for work, family, adventure or a combination of the three.

Sarah Shumate, author of The Wanderblogger, has become a source of advice and inspiration for many expats around the world after documenting her own experiences, first in relocating from the USA to London, and then on to Singapore, where she has now lived for two years.

Here she talks about culture shock, expat mental health and the challenges of relocating to a foreign country. 

American family standing in front of a house in Singapore American family standing in front of a house in Singapore

Photo by Sarah Shumate

Why did you first decide to move to Singapore, and how long have you lived abroad for now?

“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend several of my teenage years living in Singapore, and always hoped that one day I’d be able to return and experience living here as an adult as well. And so, when an opportunity arose with my husband’s employer to transfer from London to Singapore, we jumped on it. We’ve been living in Singapore for two incredible years now, but have been expats for a total of five including three years in London.”

Tourists and natives seeing the sights in Singapore Tourists and natives seeing the sights in Singapore

Photo by Sarah Shumate

What would you say is the best part of international life in Singapore? (How does it compare to London?)

“One of the best parts about living in Singapore as an expat is the opportunity to experience life in Asia while still enjoying many of the conveniences we’re accustomed to back home. Public transport is easy to navigate and efficient, medical facilities are top of the line, grocery stores offer many familiar UK and US brands, and almost everyone speaks English in addition to their mother tongue.”

“All of these things make it much easier for expats (especially first-time expats) to settle in and feel comfortable before embracing the many things Singapore has to offer that are different than what you might be used to back home — e.g., the food, the culture, traveling in Asia, the weather. (While Singapore and London share many similarities in regards to modern city living, they are worlds apart weather wise!)”

What was the biggest initial challenge about moving internationally?

“Before moving to Singapore, I thought our biggest challenge with this particular move would be living within a new culture. While Singapore is quite “westernised” in comparison to many other countries in SE Asia, a distinctive culture still exists here and adherence to religious and cultural traditions is important for all Singaporeans. Thankfully, our local friends have been very gracious in forgiving our cultural faux pas (we made quite a few comical mistakes our first Chinese New Year!), and taking part in Singapore’s customs and celebrations has ultimately become one of the most rewarding parts of living here for us.

“Instead, our biggest challenges in Singapore have been more practical in nature. Acquiring a bank account, signing up for mobile phone service, finding an apartment — all of these things were far more complicated and time-consuming than we’d anticipated and were prepared for. It made our first month living here rather stressful, but as we’ve learned in previous moves (both abroad and stateside), patience is key and these things usually end up working themselves out. Ask any expat and they’re sure to tell you the initial challenges of making an overseas move are quickly forgotten once you’ve settled in and started enjoying all the countless things that make expat life so gratifying.”

Expat family and friends eating in Singapore Expat family and friends eating in Singapore

Photo by Sarah Shumate

Was there anything that came as a surprise about living in Singapore?

“Coming into this, we knew Singapore would be an expensive place to live. (Singapore regularly ranks in first place on various Most Expensive Places To Live lists.) We fully expected to spend a pretty penny on rent, a car if we decided to lease or buy one, and dining out, but what we underestimated was the cost of all the little things that add up over time. The biggest shock for us was the cost of fresh produce and meat in the grocery store. I had never seen vegetables going for $15 a piece until moving here, that’s for sure! Reworking our budget has been helpful, but even two years later, I’m still often surprised by the sky-high prices for things that are usually much cheaper back home.”

Read Aetna International’s top money-saving tips for life in Singapore

Do you feel that there's a strong international community in Singapore? (Should others moving there expect to spend most of their time with other expats, or is it easy to immerse yourself in local culture / harder to find other expats than you'd think?)

“The international community in Singapore is diverse, extensive, and incredibly welcoming. Making friends with other expats in this country is super easy, especially if you have school-age children who attend one of the international schools. Other than school and work, one of the best ways to make friends is to join one of the many expat Facebook groups available. Covering a wide range of groups and interests - women’s groups, stay-at-home moms, book clubs, running and walking groups, natural living enthusiasts, and so on - you’re bound to find somewhere you fit in.

“Making friends with locals is a little bit harder, but well worth the effort as Singaporeans are some of the kindest, most generous people you’ll meet. They’re also an excellent resource for advice on understanding some of the more confusing aspects of Singapore’s culture.”

If you could have one wish granted in relation to your life abroad, what would it be?

“That the U.S. and Singapore weren’t so far apart geographically. An impossible request, of course, but it is the one thing that makes living in Singapore the most difficult for us. We’ve missed a lot of important events back home by living so far away. It’s something we’ve learned to accept as a natural part of expat life, but it never gets any easier.”

Tell us a bit about becoming an expat blogger: why did you decide to start blogging/how does it feel to be a bit of a 'community voice' for people who live and work internationally?

“I originally started blogging for the same reason many others do — to be able to keep a record for ourselves of our expat journey and travels. But over time, as my site grew in popularity and I learned how to write articles that could help others through our experiences, blogging became more than just a hobby. Every week I receive messages from readers who have used my site to help plan their holidays and those who have been inspired to live abroad because of our story, and it makes all the hard work that goes into writing a blog totally worth it. This is definitely the best job I’ve ever had.”

Expats are apparently more prone to mental health issues because their support network and familiar things are often absent in their new home. What advice would you give for maintaining good mental health while living abroad?

“That fact doesn’t surprise me in the least. If you’re not proactive about it, expat life can be very isolating. To keep from feeling overwhelmed by people you miss back home or things you’re finding difficult to adapt to, it’s imperative that you make friends (it helps if they’re also expats and can relate to the same struggles) and regularly get out and do things that will help you get to know your new home better. If you moved abroad with a partner or children, be sure to keep lines of communication open with them as well. (Not everyone adapts to a new place at the same rate. Children are just as susceptible to loneliness, if not more so, as adults.)

“It also helps to touch base with friends and family you left behind from time to time. These days, with FaceTime, Skype, and a whole host of social media options, you’ll find no shortage of ways to keep relationships strong with those back home.”

Are there any extra challenges involved in raising a child as an expat in Singapore?

“One of Singapore’s best selling points is how family-friendly it is. It’s clean, safe, and offers an abundance of activities designed specifically for kids. For expats, the only real challenge raising kids in Singapore (and it’s mostly only challenging for your budget) is finding the perfect school. Open spots in local schools are usually reserved for permanent residents, so as an expat, you’ll most likely be enrolling your kids in one of the private international schools available, most of which come with pretty steep tuition fees. The good news is, being a part of an international school is a great way for both you and your kids to make friends and start feeling connected to the expat community in Singapore.”

What key piece of advice would you give to someone who was thinking about relocating internationally? 

“Once you’ve decided to move abroad, really live there. Get involved, and not just with work. Visit your new city like a tourist and then learn to live in it like a local — join clubs, volunteer with a charity, participate in as many celebrations and events as you can, and travel. Having the opportunity to live within a country and culture different than your own is an extraordinary gift — don’t waste it!”

Moving to a new country can be a challenge as there’s so much to think about, from finances and family to education and health care. Ensuring you stay physically and mentally healthy while you’re there is essential — though many people leave buying a health insurance plan until they’re ill, which can result in excessive costs and bad health outcomes. Aetna International provide high-quality international health care (from health and wellness benefits to international Private Medical Insurance) for expats like you — giving you access to health care whenever you need it, wherever you are. Get a quote, and see how Aetna International can help you keep healthy in your new home.

Further reading about expat experiences abroad:

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