Note: I’m in an informal, childfree, cis, heterosexual relationship and, just as many other expat women in Singapore, I moved here for my partner’s career. The following post contains some general advice, but there are many aspects of expat life that I never had to deal with. Visit these websites for tips on being an expat mum in Singapore, a trailing husband’s story, and same-sex parents’ perspective.
I am many things and being a trailing girlfriend is one of them. My little feminist heart is still conflicted about the power imbalance inherent to this situation but that is the truth: I packed up my life twice and moved abroad to follow my partner’s career. This decision had an extreme impact on my personal and professional life and allowed me to learn a lot about myself, but it definitely wasn’t easy. After three years of living an expat girlfriend’s life, I decided to put my experience into writing hoping that it might help some of the couples trying to move.
What they don’t tell you
The reality of being a trailing spouse may seem glamorous through the social media lens and it obviously has its perks. You get to discover a new country with someone you love and enjoy the relative financial safety guaranteed by your partner’s new job. The move allows you to travel, make new friends, perhaps explore new professional opportunities. You might start noticing positive changes about your personality as well: expat life usually makes you bolder, more open, more adventurous. Overall, it’s an incredibly powerful experience and it may be just the change you needed in your life.
Unfortunately, this shiny coin has another side to it. The fact is that following your partner across the world can also be quite dreary. The culture shock, different climate, distance between you and your family and friends can all cause stress and affect your wellbeing. You might feel lonely at times, even if your relationship is strong and loving. What is more, abandoning everything that was important to you in order to follow your partner’s career may make you feel like you’re leeching onto someone else’s life. Leaving behind your job, friends, support network and very often investing your personal savings in the process can deeply shake your sense of self. All of that might put both of you under a lot of pressure and force you to re-examine your relationship with your partner and with yourself as you’re adjusting to your new life.
The trouble begins long before your plane lands in Singapore, so you’ll need to start planning early. One of the key things you’ll need to figure out is what your immigration status is going to be after you arrive:
- Will you get married and ask your partner’s company to sponsor a Dependant’s Pass for you?
- Are you in a common law relationship under the laws of your current country and you’re eligible for a long term visit pass?
- Another solution (which is risky and ill-advised but nevertheless chosen by some, myself included) is entering the country on a tourist visa and hoping to find a job. That can put you in a vulnerable position and requires you to exit and re-enter the country regularly, which might raise suspicion from the immigration officers. While I have my reasons for choosing this particular option, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, as it is quite stressful and will definitely make your life more difficult.
Whichever option you decide on, make sure you have officially translated copies of all the required documents, your education certificates, etc. Singaporean authorities have become a bit more strict in the past few years so expect a thorough check.
Another thing you’ll need to consider is transporting your belongings across the world. When we decided to leave our London apartment, it was quite easy: we didn’t own any furniture and most of our possessions fit into six large boxes that were later shipped to Singapore by Seven Seas. Whatever didn’t fit into the boxes, we either sent to our friends and family back in Poland, or left at the Red Cross charity shop. Some people decide to go full-on minimalist, sell all their belongings, and relocate with just one suitcase. This requires more planning (some suggest starting 6 months before the move), but can bring you some extra cash.
There are many relocation checklists available online and I found them very helpful while preparing for our move.
Finding a job
Finding a job in Singapore might be tricky. First of all, the job market differs greatly from Europe or the US. Since a minimal salary of S$2,200 and S$3,600 is required for an S-Pass and EP class visas, respectively, expats are rarely eligible for most entry level positions and lower paying jobs. Companies need to prove to the authorities that they couldn’t find an appropriate candidate in the country before they hire a foreigner, and they also need to pay a special levy when they do. That means many smaller companies simply cannot afford to hire a foreigner.
That being said, there are hundreds of companies hiring in Singapore and with a right set of skills finding a job is not an impossible task. Make sure you have officially translated copied of your education certificates, an up-to-date LinkedIn profile, a spotless CV, and that you’re prepared for experiencing rejection over and over again. It might be easier to land an interview if your network is strong, so it’s good to participate in professional events organised by chambers of commerce, private companies, communities and NGOs. Check The List regularly to learn more about upcoming events and start following women’s networks such as SheSaysSG and Singapore Women’s Network – they often invite recruiters to events and advertise open positions on their Facebook pages .
Unfortunately, even getting through the interview process and being offered the position does not guarantee success. Ministry of Manpower (MOM) became more thorough in the past two years and they reject more and more applications now. Your potential employer may appeal that decision but the process will take time and lots of your energy, so make 100% sure that all your documents and translations are in order before the first application.
Networks and friendships
Maintaining long-distance friendships and staying in touch with your family via email and Skype can be comforting, but nothing can replace a strong support network on site. Finding new friends and mentors, as well as connecting with your compatriots can mean a world of difference when you feel all alone in a new country. Luckily, Singapore is very open that way: it’s a home to over 1 million immigrants of different nationalities, most of whom will understand your joys and struggles. You can easily find groups and meet ups that will match your specific needs: there are mommies’ groups and knitting circles, computer programming meet ups, a fermentation group and a grain exchange for home bakers. The number of social and professional events is staggering.
Sadly, for many of your new expat friends Singapore will be a stopover rather than a final destination. Saying goodbye to those who chose to move on is a constant part of living here, but the upside to that is you will gain friends in the most remote corners of the world.
Finding your way
Struggling with your sense of self can be a very frequent side effect of an international move. This is why it’s so important to keep doing things you like and discovering new passions and hobbies. While it’s understandable you’ll want to focus on creating a new home for the two of you and your partner’s new job and colleagues will become a major part of your social life, having a space that is only yours will provide the necessary balance. Instead of doing things that feel familiar, consider getting out of your comfort zone and try something completely new. Dragon boats, architectural photography classes, and coding bootcamps are just a few things that Singapore has to offer. Courses and professional trainings can be quite pricey for foreigners (Singaporeans and permanent residents enjoy significantly reduced fees in places such as General Assembly and HyperIsland), but you can find many learning opportunities that don’t cost an arm and a leg online and through apps such as MeetUp, Eventbrite or Peatix.
Plan for the worst, hope for the best
One thing that I think all trailing girlfriends should consider is personal financial health. Even the best relationships can hit a hard patch or end suddenly so you should always make sure that you have some of your own money, a way out if you need one, and that you won’t be stranded in one of the most expensive cities in the world. There are many resources that will help you get financially fit, but a book that I’d recommend personally is When Love And Money Are Gone by a Singaporean author and money fitness coach, Elsa Lim.
Another thing that I can personally recommend is finding a good therapist. While it can be quite expensive, it can be of great help if you’re struggling to adjust of if you just want to be prepared and have a safety net just in case. Huge lifestyle changes will inadvertently affect our mental health, so even researching the topic might give you some additional peace of mind.
Be scared… and do it anyway
As my mother said when I was preparing for my first move, “Stay safe and enjoy it. You might be broke by the end of it, the relationship may or may not survive it, but you’ll be richer for the experience and you will see incredible things.” Following your partner on such a journey might not be easy, but you can turn it into the opportunity of a lifetime.