ON BEING AN OUTSIDER


Singapore - a beautiful place where I have learned so much... but still sometimes feel in the dark!

Singapore – a beautiful place where I have learned so much… but still sometimes feel in the dark!

It is easy not to feel like an expat in Singapore. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, the tiny country is home to over 2 million non-Singaporeans – over one third of the population. While this might suggest a smooth process of acculturation, it turns out there are plenty of subtle and less-subtle reminders that I am in fact 9,500 miles from home.

 

 

 

How would you interpret the following sentences (variations of which I hear every day):

“He take go already.”

Or: “You don’t anyhow say leh.”

This is ‘Singlish’ (yep, Singaporean English), and the phrases loosely translate to: “He has taken it with him” and “You shouldn’t say baseless things.”

Language is one of the most obvious cultural markers, and is a large part of why relocating to Singapore felt so seamless at first. English, one of four national languages, is spoken by all but a very few people here. It’s the language spoken in my office. It is what we use for all internal and external documents. Our clients speak English, our vendors speak English, and my counterparts in other countries speak English.

 

However, English is not the only language spoken across these different groups. Actually, I am probably one of the only people on my floor – and likely in my 32-story building – who speaks only one language. If all the work is done in English and if all the communications are written in English, you might wonder what the problem is. Well as part of a client coverage team, my role is to build relationships. The informal chats, the inside jokes, the colloquialisms, the references to

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local food or television or news? These matter, sometimes even more so than the official pitches.

 

Ever wonder how to make an outgoing young professional feel like she’s back to being a wallflower in a middle school dance? Stick her in a client’s drinks reception where 95% of the room is speaking Filipino. Suddenly, her (ok, my!) English proficiency was irrelevant. I felt inadequate and awkward, and the full impact of my ethnicity struck me like a punch in the stomach.

 

What to do? I could sit down and try to learn every Southeast Asian language. That would make those conference calls with my colleagues and clients in Thailand a bit more intelligible, given they’re conducted 98% in Thai! But, even if I were some linguistic genius, I’ve realized that it still wouldn’t be good enough. I would still be American. My favorite sport will still be football (the kind with helmets, pads and a field goal). My favorite comfort food will still be pizza (New York-style, thank you). My favorite holiday will always be Christmas – the snowy, Santa Claus-and-eight reindeer-Bing Crosby version that has nothing to do with religion. Try as I might, I won’t ever

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fully get what being Singaporean, or Filipino, or Thai really means.

But, all hope is not lost. A few years ago, I was asked to move to Dubai with my senior boss (who now sits on my company’s Board of Directors), thanks in part to my strong English language skills. My role in Dubai focused on being his “voice”, preparing speeches and briefs for meetings. On his behalf, I wrote important emails (to the our Group CEO, senior clients, even heads of state), drafted speeches for him to give at conferences like the World Economic Forum, and crafted papers to be circulated to top management.

After a few months in the role, he would just grab the notes on his way to the airport, and tell me to send the emails I had drafted directly from his inbox. I – and my writing style – had gained his trust, and, importantly, allowed him to focus on the myriad other tasks he was juggling. It was an amazing job, and one that I may not have so easily gotten if the market were full of candidates with great English language skills.

Challenges, confusion and scrutiny notwithstanding, working abroad has been one of the most exciting experiences in my life and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Of course there are still days when I miss Sunday football games and times when I don’t understand the purpose of ending every phrase with “lah”. But I’ve come to appreciate the Singaporean way, while leveraging my American style, to build up some valuable career experience.

What do you think? Would you love to make the move to a new country? Comment below and let us know what’s stopping you.

 

Originally from the US, Allyson is currently a junior banker in Singapore and has previously lived and worked in New York, London, and Dubai.

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