December 14, 2007

Ask an Expat

This is a diary I wrote for Street Prophets' "Ask a..." series. You can go to the original diary by clicking on the title above. This is actually the second "Ask a..." diary I've written there, the first being "Ask a Muslim," written back in June. I'm more than happy to entertain questions here on this topic, but I think you're more likely to find many other questions being asked and answered over at Street Prophets, so please visit there as well.

For this "Ask a..." diary, I thought I'd go over ground that's not necessarily religious or political, but should (insha'allah) be of interest to people. I've been an expatriate for over six years now, having lived in two countries, South Korea and Singapore. I was in South Korea for a little over one year, and have been in Singapore ever since. (I've also visited Malaysia a number of times, and have gotten to the point where I feel confident traveling around Kuala Lumpur.) I am now a Permanent Resident (PR) of Singapore, equivalent to the US's "Green Card," and am expecting to receive a letter in the mail sometime this month from the government, offering me citizenship. (Singapore will grant citizenship to PRs who have lived here for two years; this month marks the second anniversary of my PR status.) I get a fair number of questions from people who are interested in where I live (or have lived), what it's like, what it takes to become an expat, and so on. I thought I'd write up a small FAQ of my own, and then answer any questions y'all may have.

So, how do you like Singapore?
This is perhaps the most common question I get here, especially from taxi drivers. Being a Caucasian, I'm very much in the minority, ethnically speaking, so it marks me out somewhat. Most taxi drivers will know that I'm a PR (especially if they pick me up in front of my apartment block; I live in a very "heartlander" type neighborhood). What they don't know is how long I've lived here. And because I've been here a long time, S'pore has become "home." It's a nice place; it has its ups and downs, just like any other place, but there are more good things here than bad, at least for me.

An alternative question I get is "What's it like in Singapore?" The short answer is, "Hot, wet and green." (This is the jungle, after all.) Another alternative question is "What's the weather like there?" And the short answer, once more, is "Eternal summer." Seriously. There's only one season here all year long.

How did you become an expat?
I had gotten into a disastrous online relationship with a woman in Europe. Everything had gone well up until the point I met her at the airport; after that it went downhill. So I returned to the US with a brand new passport and a reawakened interest in traveling. I had always loved traveling, doing quite a bit of it when I lived with my parents. But I hadn't gone hardly anywhere for most of my adult life. And I felt like my career had stagnated. So I asked myself, do I want to resume my career? Or do I want to try something completely different? I chose the "different." I had come across an ad for English teachers in Korea. On a lark, I sent my resume to this agency, which responded very quickly. Yes, they were willing to help me find a job. And, in fact, they worked rather hard trying to land a position for me. Two schools were interested in hiring me, but things fell through. Then a third school became interested, and they contacted me. (Called me at three o'clock in the freakin' morning. My aunt: "J, someone's calling you from Korea!" Told her the next morning that I was thinking of working there. Her response: "That's crazy!" But she had said the same thing when I told her I was a Muslim, and that had worked out just fine, too. :) )

However, in all honesty, I had been really struggling with the idea of whether to work overseas in those weeks when I was waiting for a job to come through. One week, I would be, "Yes, I'm absolutely going to go work in Korea," and the next week I would be, "There is absolutely no way I am going to work in Korea!" I asked quite a few people for their opinions. Finally, I talked to my Dad. "What do you think?" And he said, "Go!" He had been stationed in Japan in the '50s with the Air Force, so he knew somewhat about being an expat, especially in Asia (granted, his knowledge of Japan is completely out of date with what it's like there now). But his main argument was that, by going, I would grow, intellectually, from being exposed to the new culture. And that was very much the case. (Interestingly enough, when I talked to my Dad's twin brother a few years ago, asking him what he would have said, my uncle said that he'd have said the same thing.)

So I arranged a flight to Korea - and then 9/11 happened. I was scheduled to leave the US on the 14th or so. But with the disaster, I had to rebook my tickets, so I actually left for Korea around the 22nd. The flight to Korea took 14 hours. I flew into Incheon in the evening, and was rushed to another plane by some woman from the agency. I was the last passenger on my next plane (they had held up the departure so I could get on board). From Incheon it was a one-hour flight to Busan, where I was met by several people from my new school, including a young American teacher who was acting as the "HOD" (head of department). And we drove into Busan, where I got a room at a "love motel" (the other teacher actually recognized one of his female students coming out of the motel - alone), and then we went to a coffee shop for a couple hours where I started to get my bearings about what life was like in Korea.

How can I become an expat?
Find a job overseas. Seriously. Unless you have a small fortune tucked away (usually a quarter-mill at the minimum), the only way to live as an expatriate is to work for a company in another country (that is, until you get your PR status). The two most common routes for finding work overseas is either by working for a multi-national or to become an English teacher. Surprisingly, the latter strategy is not a bad option. Teaching is the type of job that's in fairly high demand around the world (especially in eastern Asia), and can be fairly rewarding, both professionally and perhaps even financially. You won't get rich working as a teacher but, depending on the country and its cost of living, you may be able to save a significant portion of your paycheck. (I saved a heck of a lot more money working in Korea than I ever did from working at my jobs in the US.) Working as a teacher can also lead to free travel around the world. Many schools offer free airfare to and from their country for their expat teachers, in addition to a 13th-month bonus if they complete their contract. One colleague and his wife (and their dog) went from country to country, seeing the world while he worked for a year in each country.

What's the food like?
In Korea, Korean food is by far the most common type of food available. A lot of restaurants specialize in a very limited menu, even as low as two or three dishes. So if you're feeling like eating a specific type of food, you have to go to the restaurant that serves it. One other thing that was unique to Korean restaurants was "service." Many restaurants and coffee shops gave "service" after a meal, meaning, you could get your choice of a free cup of green tea or coffee, or a small container of ice cream. (Actually, speaking of "service" as we normally use the term, many of my colleagues thought that, if we should ever open up a restaurant in our home countries, that we could make a fortune if we ran the business like the Koreans do. The level of service that Koreans provide, even at the tiniest restaurants, is far superior to anything you'll find in the US or Canada.)

In Singapore, the type of food available is much more wide ranging, as would be expected from such an ethnically diverse country. Because the country is primarily made up of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians, those three types of food are extremely common here. A lot of food is also served here at "hawker centers" or by "hawker stalls," which are tiny hole-in-the-wall kitchens that, once again, serve a very limited menu.

Three other things to note about food: In both countries, spicy food is extremely commonplace. Koreans tend to favor red pepper paste; Singaporeans (and Malaysians) chili sauce. Also, seafood is much more common here than in the US. Squid is highly favored in both countries. Koreans often eat dried cuttlefish with mayonnaise and red pepper paste. Finally, if you just gotta have western food, that's also fairly common in both countries. The tentacles of McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and a whole slew of other American fast food restaurant chains are spread throughout Asia.

Do I have to obey the law there?
This is a controversial question, for some reason, that some people find hard to grasp. The obvious answer, of course, is "yes." If you commit a crime here, you will be tried, sentenced and then (probably) deported after you've served your sentence. It doesn't really matter that you're a foreigner; you'll go through the legal system just like any local citizen (and the embassy almost certainly won't help you either). Each country has its own set of laws and punishments, and some of those laws and punishments can be very severe. If you should have, for example, over a certain weight of drugs in your possession, Singapore (and Malaysia) won't hesitate to execute you. Singapore (and Malaysia) will also cane prisoners for certain offenses, as Michael Fay found out in 1994, and the caning often produces permanent scars on the prisoner's buttocks. Moreover, various countries have certain taboos that will cause legal problems. For example, in Thailand, it's illegal to deface a portrait of the King. Last December, a Swiss man drunkenly spray-painted over the Thai King's portrait. He was caught, tried, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. This past April, the King pardoned him after he spent a few weeks in jail, and he was deported. Moral of the story: Do as the Romans do.

When are you going to come home?
I have no idea. I have no plans at the moment to return to the US, and fear that, the next time I do come back home, it will be for someone's funeral. Other than that, I'll probably be here for a long, long time. (Insha'allah.)

1 comment:

Gavin said...

Hi, I'd chanced upon your blog while researching online. I am a final-year journalism student at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and I'm currently working on my final-year project about new Singaporeans.

I understand that you're currently a PR, and are considering citizenship (?). If it's not too much trouble, would it be possible for us to meet up? I would like to interview you to find out more about your Singapore experience. Thanks.

Please email me at for enquiries or suggestions.