Lessons Learned From Living Abroad

Two Singaporeans who have relocated share their stories

What does it mean to be a citizen of the world? The dictionary defines it as “a person who is at home in any country” — a description that sounds so simple, yet is one that very few people can lay claim to.

Sure, given no choice but to move to a foreign land, we could probably force ourselves to adapt to the living conditions there. But to be truly at home outside the country you were born and brought up in is quite a different matter. This state of mind doesn’t come to everyone easily, no matter how much time one spends trying to achieve it.

Aside from facing the differences in food, weather, language and culture, there’s also the question of national identity. Does a person really need to feel a belonging to a single country — whether or not it’s the one he or she was born in? Or perhaps, for increasingly well-travelled people living in a super-connected world, do boundaries between nations no longer exist, leading to a broadened perception of national identity?

Two Singapore women who have relocated to other countries tell us what it’s really like to live overseas today. Whether it’s work or love that sent them abroad, they’ve each experienced joys and challenges that opened their eyes to a side of the world they’ve never seen.

Sarah Chang, 28

Having joined her husband in Jakarta half a year ago, Chang, a former entertainment writer for 8 Days magazine, is currently freelancing for a luxury magazine based in the Indonesian capital.

What spurred you to relocate?

My husband’s work. We’d thought to “rough out” his five-year overseas posting, but his company wanted him here for longer. We were in a “long-distance marriage” for one-and-a-half years after our wedding. He would come back to Singapore once a month for meetings, while I would try to head to Jakarta on most weekends. Needless to say, it was exhausting for our relationship.

What was the biggest sacrifice you had to make in order to move?

My job, definitely. I enjoyed my work as an entertainment writer so much, and I was learning a lot at work. I was very reluctant to give up my dream job, but I decided that our marriage is worth much more than anything.

What is the most challenging part about adapting to life there?

I’m a typical Singaporean — I like to do things quickly and efficiently, and I love our cleanliness and greenery. Jakarta offers just the opposite. Things move slower here and the city is mostly a concrete jungle with plenty of pollution. I took a while to get used to it. Communication was also a big issue. Thankfully, things became better after I picked up the language. These days, I’m also a lot more patient with the pace of life and I try to take things in my stride.

Is there something that you appreciate about Jakarta?

I like how dynamic it is. There are plenty of opportunities for business and networking. That said, I can’t wrap my head around the huge disparity of wealth in the city. You see the people shopping at the city’s most extravagant malls; and then there are homeless people slumming it out with barely enough. It’s heartbreaking to watch and I cannot reconcile these differences in my head.


Jessica Tan, 37

Work brought Tan to the United States, where she lived for 11 years and met her husband, before moving to China two years ago. Her entrepreneur husband now divides his time between China and the US.

Did you have any hesitations each time you moved?

Not really. The biggest sacrifice of each move is the same — leaving means you will have less history with the people you love in the previous place, in exchange for experiences in a new place. That doesn’t get better with practice!

Did your work contribute in any way to your willingness to relocate?

I began my career with a global company and fell in love with learning about and working with cultures and businesses around the world. Fortunately, my husband shares my values and world views. This allowed us to stay connected as we pursue our diverse professional paths, literally around the world.

You’ve lived in both the US and China — the differences between the two must be dramatic…

Adapting to life in the US was mostly a pleasant cultural experience. It’s a truly innovative and passionate nation — so much more than hamburgers and reality TV. Adjusting to life in China is tougher — looking ethnically similar to the majority [of the population] but having been raised in multicultural Singapore shed light on interesting cultural differences.

Such as?

I can navigate work in reasonable Mandarin but am helpless when faced with answering the electrician’s questions in the same language — simply because I studied Mandarin in school but didn’t actively use it in my social or family life. Still, it helped me expand my comfort zone and improve my adaptability. 

Any advice for those who are considering relocating?

Know why you are doing it — always move towards some place of desire, not because you are running away from some place nasty (it helps on those tough days when you wonder why you moved in the first place).

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