As a Filipina who’s spent all her life in Manila surrounded by a huge, supportive family, moving away was a challenge. I made the decision to move to Singapore not long after I turned 26 in May 2012. The two months after that was all about mental, emotional and financial preparation in lead up to my move in August. I spent weeks auditing my prized belongings – packing, unpacking, re-packing shoes, garments and other ‘stuff’ to fit two suitcases, which somehow was symbolic of ‘my life’. I printed my CV 30x and tucked them in nice clear sleeves each with sample work and disc copies of my demo reel, neatly packaging all the paraphernalia I could use to showcase my work and make me an attractive hire worthy of a two-year work visa.
It was all nerve-racking. My schedule quickly filled with good-bye lunches, good-bye dinners, good-bye hangouts, and good-bye parties. The last few weeks was a blur and everything felt really strange.
On the morning of my departure, I played ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry, the song my sisters and I loved to dance and sing to in my room on repeat. I put it on full blast while I bawled my eyes out. It was really happening. And I couldn’t change my mind and back out now.
I boarded the plane with my family, who bought return tickets on the red eye flight back to Manila to stretch out the painful parting as long as they could. My heart sank as the day progressed into night and hours turned into minutes and hugs turned to longing glances. I knew that this one-way ticket would change me forever.
Now here I am, celebrating three years in 50-year-old Singapore and feeling like a foreign local: lived here long enough to appreciate way of life, but not long enough to understand the ins and outs. Friends and friends of friends who have considered moving or have moved here for a job or a spouse, have always asked me, “What’s life really like in Singapore?” Here’s a short, more practical guide of life in the Lion City:
- Be picky & save on rent
I realized later on that I could’ve gone cheaper and scrimped on where I lived without sacrificing the important things like: location, neighborhood, convenience and proximity. I like to live somewhere quiet, with large windows where I can look out and watch the lightning during the thunderstorms; have a pool and be surrounded with lots of trees and be a walk away from a bus stop, MRT station and a grocery. This is all possible but you just need be patient and look hard. Have a ceiling amount allotted for rent so you can keep the rest for a rainy day. While a room or an apartment is more than just a place to sleep and dump your stuff, you don’t want to be shedding lots of hard-earned cash every month to a place you can never call your own.
- Buy alcohol in the airport and stuff your bag with shopping goods
Grab the opportunity when you are at Changi airport to stock up on your poison of choice because drinking is an expensive sport in Singapore. This year, liquor tax has increased 25% to $88 per litre of alcohol content for wine and spirits, $60 per liter of alcohol content for beer. Stock up on groceries as well because cooking is another pricey hobby. Singapore doesn’t actually produce anything so fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat are all imported and grocery receipts could easily go by the hundreds – especially if you have a few mouths to feed. Good news is you can always pay the local food centres or ‘hawker centres’ a visit. They are pretty much in every major district in the city and $5 can get you a decent meal and maybe even a fresh fruit juice.
I’m not very good at reading maps and my sense of direction is as terrible as my Filipino (or maybe worse). For the first few months, I took a taxi everywhere and tensed up every time the driver would ask, “So which way you want to go lah?” Because of that, I didn’t bother getting to know the city and I shuttled myself from home to work to gym. Looking back, I wish I did the exploring early on because you can discover so many interesting places and things outside your daily route relatively cheaply using the impressive public transport system.
- Don’t expect culture; nurture new interests and hobbies
They are not too big on cultural events here, but they are working on it. The art and film scene feels sterile, artificial and pretty much powered by Singapore’s neighboring countries. Same thing goes for theatre and dance. Common recreational activities are boozy brunches, eating in new restaurants and shopping. After a while, that can get a bit old. If you’re like me, I need to have multiple outlets to release the creative energy and do challenging skill-building activities outside of work. I took interest in mixed martial arts, got licensed as a ZUMBA instructor, and hoping to get certified as a personal trainer. Singapore is a great place to rekindle hobbies or stumble on new ones. Most residents say “Singapore is boring,” but I find only boring people get bored.
- Make friends and keep yourself informed
It is relatively easy to make new friends in Singapore because of the huge expat community – you are all foreigners and end up having a stronger unspoken bond no matter your background. Having local friends is always good, but it takes longer to assimilate and Singlish is a language I just could not pick up. Nevertheless, it’s the locals (especially the cynical ones) that provide you with cultural context and give you a different perspective on reality because local media are directly or indirectly controlled by the government. Stay observant and use your own gut as a compass to help you stay grounded.
I thought I’d live in Singapore for two years tops. But like many, I too have grown accustomed to the ‘easy life’. My choice to make a soft-landing in the city has made growing up less painful and more comfortable. I’m not sure when or where my next adventure will be but for now, thank you, Singapore.