Living abroad can be the opportunity of a lifetime, and expat kids who move to Singapore experience a host of advantages, including being exposed to a rich and diverse culture. That said, there are challenges associated with making a big move, and expat children may struggle with some or all of the following:
1. The difficult concept of ‘home’
The concept of ‘home’ may not mean the same thing to an expat kid as it does to most others. When you have lived in more than one county, or perhaps multiple countries, which one do you call home? The place you were born? Where you spent the longest? Where you live now? Even entering a home address on an official document can be cause for pause. Living away from the country of their birth for a long time can leave an expat child feeling confused about their cultural identity.
2. Having an unidentifiable accent
This is an extension of the confusing cultural identity some third culture kids experience. A lot of people use accent as a cue to tell where a person is from. Expat kids, especially those who have spent long periods of time in multiple countries, might have an unidentifiable accent that is an amalgamation of the accents found in the places they’ve lived. It can lead to some puzzled questions about nationality that the expat kid may not be excited to try to answer.
3. The complexity of Mandarin
Singapore is a diverse nation that has four official languages, including English and Mandarin. This means that while an English-speaking expat kid will be able to speak their first language when they move to Singapore, they will also be exposed to Mandarin – in fact, international schools commonly include up to five hours of Mandarin instruction per week. This is a fabulous opportunity to learn a new language, but it can be intimidating.
Chinese sentence structure is similar to English and is therefore easy for English speakers. Grammar is simple because it does not have different forms based on gender or singular/plural. However, the huge set of characters can be daunting. Reading and writing, as well as pronunciation, take a while to develop.
Native English speakers seem to overcome pronunciation issues more easily than those who have Latin languages as their mother tongue. The four tones used in Mandarin are difficult for some, but can be mastered with practice.
4. Feeling torn about how to spend time off
Third culture kids usually have friends and family in multiple countries. Once they settle into a school and make friends, they may want to spend their school holidays with those friends. This can create a bit of distress or guilt, because they may also feel obligated to visit family ‘back home’ – usually where the parents are from. This can be especially salient in the teenage years when friendships are such an important part of a child’s identity.
5. High turnover of fellow students and teachers
Expat kids in Singapore attending international schools end up making friends with other expats who could move again at any time. Typically, expat kids might spend 3-5 years in a given country, which creates a huge turnover in the student body and therefore friendships.
The similar turnover of teachers provides a double-whammy. Typically, teachers in international schools in Singapore are on 2-3 year fixed-term contracts and a large percentage of these will move on after contract completion, either to experience another international school in another country or rotate back home.
The combination of this high student and teacher turnover can destabilise some children whilst others become very adept at coping with such change.
6. Learning to manage long-distance friendships
Having friends and family in other parts of the world means that a third culture kid has to put in extra effort to stay in touch and maintain those relationships. It’s easy to keep up a friendship when you see your friends in school five days a week – it’s not so easy when you might see them once a year. The same is true for family. Many third culture kids are living with their parents but have other relatives living elsewhere. Fortunately, we live in an age where social media and messaging services like Messenger and WhatsApp make maintaining long-distance relationships much more feasible than it might have been a decade ago.
7. Which passport?
Expat kids may have dual citizenship and hold multiple passports. This can save a lot of time in immigration lines at airports, but it can also be a source of confusion. Singapore is centrally located in Asia, with many exciting travel destinations being just a short direct flight away. Expat kids are quite likely to spend some of their school breaks travelling, and it can be hard to keep track of which passport they used to book which trips.
8. The climate
It depends on where they are coming from, but some expat kids find the ultra-humid, equatorial climate in Singapore difficult to adjust to.
Given it’s on the equator, the humidity is permanent with very little in the way of seasons that are so noticeable in Europe and the Americas. The absence of seasons to mark the progression of the year can be depressing for some and difficult to get used to.
9. Reluctance to discuss the reality of expat lifestyle
It’s probably hard to believe if you’ve never experienced it, but some expat kids might feel uncomfortable talking much about their lifestyle with non-expats. People who live in their hometown and travel maybe once a year often cannot relate to the lifestyle of a third culture kid. Explaining to a new friend that you’ve lived in three countries, visited a dozen, attended multiple international schools, speak three languages, and don’t know where you’ll be next year may sound a little strange. Indeed, often children living expat lifestyles will be worried about being seen as pretentious. This reluctance to share can make it hard to open up to people.
10. A craving to see even more of the world
Travel is addictive. There’s nothing like bursting out of your comfort zone and being immersed in a new culture.
Jonathan Lavercombe, co-founder of Schoolviews.com says: “Living on the other side of the world from where you have been brought-up provides life-changing experiences for expat families. Being in a place like Singapore, and for an unknown period, means that you want to make the most of travel opportunities and let your children experience as much of Asia as they possibly can. The mentality around vacation time is different and people just want to take the opportunity to explore as much as they can. This attitude means expat children typically get the bug to continue that level of travel and exploration as they get older and become more independent.”