June 30, 2016

International Relocation: Expecting the Unexpected Abroad

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International Relocation: Expecting the Unexpected Abroad

There is a Chinese proverb that states “Reading 10,000 books is not as good as traveling 10,000 miles.” [读万卷书不如行万里路] It contends that nothing replaces first-hand experience, particularly when it comes to knowing another place. My recent visit to Singapore has convinced me of the truth of this statement. It also provided some clear insights on what many expats confront when arriving in their new location, and why recommendations like an initial “look see” trip are critical to successful settling-in. 

Despite having never visited the island in person, I thought I knew what to expect. I’d conducted some research projects about the country, interviewing about a dozen expats on long- and short-term assignments about their experiences, as well as reading numerous books (though not quite 10,000). My friends who’d traveled there were also more than happy to share their opinions and advice. Yet I still found myself surprised by much of what I saw when I visited Singapore myself. 

For example, which of the following would you expect to find in Chinatown– Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, a mosque that’s been designated a national monument, or a shrine containing a Buddhist relic? Actually, it’s all three. Similarly, I found Indian curry dishes in Arab Street and Chinese wares in Little India. To an American accustomed to more clearly-delineated ethnic enclaves, I found the integration surprising and delightful. The hustle and bustle also contradicted some things I’d heard about Singapore, which had been described to me as weirdly clean, even “sterile.”  Their impressions left me imagining an Emerald City of sorts–sparkling, beautiful, vaguely unsettling–but after wandering some of the neighborhoods, I felt that it was as real and alive as any other city.

I’d also been warned that the island was a “concrete jungle.” Singapore is a city-state covering 276 square miles (719 km2), with a population of about 5.5 million.  For comparison, that’s about 1.4 times the population of Los Angeles, in a space half as large. With so many people densely packed together in one of Asia’s business hubs, it’s no wonder that Singapore has been described as a glass-and-steel labyrinth. Yet it boasts four wildlife parks (Singapore Zoo, River Safari, Night Safari, and Jurong Bird Park), as well as a botanical garden, the world’s largest greenhouse, and a small nature reserve. Though these were small in comparison to the city’s urban developments and shopping centers, I was impressed by the space allocated to more “natural” attractions.       

That’s not to say that every surprise was a pleasant one. Sometimes, it was the things no one had thought to mention that caused the most trouble. I have a shellfish allergy, for example, so I was dismayed to find that shrimp was a common (and often unlisted) ingredient in many dishes. One woman I’d spoken to before my visit mentioned that she’d heard many positive things about the city’s modernism and convenience. When she arrived, however, she found the commercialism disorienting and intimidating. I received different perspectives on expats’ ability to integrate into local communities, too. Some people thought it was relatively easy, while others felt like they were always outsiders. Even a professional from Malaysia – Singapore’s closest geographic neighbor–remarked that he’d underestimated the difficulty of assimilation into Singaporean society.

Tips for International Assignees

What does this mean for candidates considering an international assignment? For one thing, a look-see trip is essential to making an informed decision. No amount of briefings, hearsay, or internet research can substitute for the “feel” of a place you get from an in-person visit. Assignees should also keep their personal needs, and those of their family, in mind, rather than relying on the “typical” experience. What some expats have found challenging about a location, others may find exciting. Finally, assignees should keep an open mind. Although it’s wise to learn as much about a host location as possible before arriving, assignees should still expect the unexpected and be ready to adapt. 

In the end, no matter how many books you read, they cannot add up to the experience of being there.    

For tips and best practices for assignees moving to countries around the globe, visit our On the Ground video series.

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Cartus Communications

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