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  Expatriate Writing Contest  2019 Contest Finalist
Expatriate Writing Contest Finalist

One Degree North of the Equator

Moving and Living Abroad in Asia

A section of the Great Wall of China
A section of the Great Wall of China.

My family and I had a decision to make. My husband’s pharmaceutical company made an agreement with the Singapore government to put together a laboratory on the island. They needed a scientist to set it up.

At first, my husband and I only talked privately about moving. Would this be good for our family? Could we live on an island of five million people in the tropics? Eventually, we shared the idea with our children. Often at the dinner table, we imagined and researched this smaller-than-San-Diego-County island. We liked the idea more and more, so my husband and I flew to Singapore on a scouting mission.

We investigated schools and places to live and did our best to visualize living 8,000 miles away from home. We spent days walking through downtown Singapore and visiting steamy, green parks. We ate dim sum and pepper crab. Impressed and intrigued by the diversity and lifestyle of Singapore, we decided to go for it.

I wasn’t afraid to move so far away. I saw a unique opportunity. Live in a new country? Experience a new culture? I was all in. We lived in Southern California and had a full life — good friends and family nearby. Many times I’ve looked back at the sweet life we were living and wondered how we could have ever chosen to leave it behind. Perhaps sheer satisfaction and contentment enabled me to go. I felt confident and ready for an adventure.

There was so much to do:  quit our jobs, rent the house, and sell our cars. And then there were all the decisions to make. What to take with us? What to leave behind? Should we store our things until we returned? We didn’t know what we were doing and had no clue how long we’d be gone. Frankly, the end wasn’t even in sight while we prepared to move. I did realize that the move was way too much work to justify leaving for just one year.

One-by-one my keys disappeared. I resigned from my job and sold my car. Tenants signed a lease to live in our home. I can still see the rented green van sitting in our driveway. We had eight large pieces of luggage, a backpack each for the kids, and barely a view out the back of our rearview mirror. Seat belts buckled, and off we drove to LAX.

Working in Singapore

I thought I’d be a stay-at-home mom, but realized with a husband at a new job and kids in school all day that I’d have lots of time alone on an island where I knew no one except my busy family. We toured the Singapore American School. When the Director of Admissions learned that I had a teaching credential, she suggested I apply for a job. If the proverbial light bulb can appear over someone’s head with the germination of an idea, then one would have appeared over mine!

After spending hours on the application, including phone and in-person interviews, I landed a fourth-grade teaching position for the 2004/05 school year at the Singapore American School (SAS), the largest international school in the world.

SAS educates almost 4,000 students from Pre-K to grade twelve. There are swimming pools, chemistry labs, climbing walls, well-stocked art rooms, and a palatial auditorium with a granite entryway donated by a wealthy family. I thought I had arrived!

Teachers new to SAS started two weeks before school began. With meetings filling most of my day, I walked back to campus after dinner many nights to get my classroom ready. Oil, technology, sales, and medicine brought parents abroad for extended periods, so their families came too. For most part, the student population was educated, smart, and wealthy.

Caring For Cambodia

A highlight of living in Asia was my involvement with Caring for Cambodia (CFC), an organization focused on changing lives through education. Our job was to train Cambodian teachers. On Thanksgiving break, we took the 4 a.m. Thursday morning flight to Siem Reap. We created lesson plans and provided all needed supplies. Lessons that didn’t require a whole lot of “stuff” were the most useful to Cambodian teachers.

My daughter and I jointly wrote a book for CFC.
My daughter and I jointly wrote a book for CFC.

Throughout the long weekend, we’d teach the students the lessons we had created, while the Cambodian teachers observed us. Then, we’d teach it again to the Cambodian teachers as if they were the students. The next day, we watched them teach the same lesson to a different group of students. All communicated through Khmer translators.

The first year I went to Siem Reap, we focused on asking questions to get kids thinking. When I was teaching a lesson and wanted to emphasize that it was thinking time, I’d put my two fingers to my temple. When I saw my Cambodian teaching partner tap her temple while she was conducting the lesson in Khmer, I knew she understood. An indelible moment that made it all worthwhile.


Bali cremation 1 Bali cremation 2
Before… and during a village cremation in Bali.

Travel was a big part of our international way of life, and Singapore is a great jumping-off point for exploration. We visited ancient temples in Cambodia, witnessed a cremation ceremony in Bali, and watched talented artists at work in Vietnam. With four national languages, many cultures are honored in Singapore, so the holidays were numerous. Chinese New Year at the end of January, Muslim Ramadan in June, and Indian Deepavali in October. And all the traditional American holidays as well.

Before each long break, I’d sit my students in a circle and ask where they were going. Paris, Seoul, and New Delhi were common replies. The worldliness of the students was a part of what I loved about my job. Though the majority held American passports, there were many nationalities in my classroom, including Indian, Japanese, and European.

An artist in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A talented artist in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Equatorial Sun

The biggest adjustment to living in the tropics was the heat. Singapore lies one degree north of the equator, and though locals might claim there are seasons, the climate doesn’t change a whole lot. It is hot, wet, and sticky year-round, often in the 90s, with 95% humidity during the day. It cools down at night, but it never gets cold. Most of us slept with the air conditioning on or windows wide open and fans blowing.

Sundays were our family scouting days. We’d explore a new part of the island each weekend. We’d start with three or four things on a list—the Bird Park, train to lunch, taxi to the beach on Sentosa Island—and never manage to get to them all.

We learned to surrender to the heat. There was comfort in remembering I could always take a shower when I got home. Rivers of sweat ran down our backs. With pink cheeks and drained energy, many times we’d change our plans and head home. Our lists often shrank to just one activity because we melted in the equatorial sun.

Industrious kids collecting plastic and cans on the Mekong River

Industrious kids collecting plastic and cans on the Mekong River.

Cultural Differences

Many Singaporeans and expat families had a fulltime, live-in maid. At first, I saw no need to hire someone to do our chores. With a grocery store, ATM machine, and hawker stalls—essentially a food court—right across the street, who needed help? I’m not sure if it was the long hours, the heat, or the intense pace, but I eventually changed my mind.

Having someone live with us and work for us was another adjustment. At first, I invited Cora to dine with us, but she never did. That just wasn’t how things were done. Cora was Philippine and had left her three kids at home in search of a higher-paying job. I paid her $500/month plus room and board. Every two years I’d fly her back to her home as part of our contract. College graduates often leave the Philippines for better employment. Wise and hardworking, she was part of why living in Singapore was one sweet deal. 

Lessons Learned

Living abroad changed me. I'm more tolerant of others and myself, more compassionate and curious as a result of my travels. And so are my kids. We learned a very important lesson; the American way isn’t the only way. A thousand paths lead to a good life.

The world awaits. I recommend going all in.

Lake Toba, Indonesia

Lake Toba, Indonesia.

Related Topics
Living Abroad in Singapore
Living Abroad in Asia by Country

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