9 unforgettable experiences from living overseas ✈️

A memorable and pivotal experience that everyone should have: step out of our comfort zone to appreciate the world and understand people

My neighbourhood, Shanghai, China

I am a Singaporean and have been living and working in Singapore. I spent several years doing quite intensive regional work in South East Asia, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Sub-Saharan Africa while based in Singapore. In 2016, I was given the opportunity to work in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, and in 2019 in Shanghai, China. Previously, I had resisted several times being posted overseas; attributing my inertia to being comfortable in Singapore where everything is familiar and convenient, and where family and friends are here. The change represents my hesitation and resistance.

To live and work overseas turns out to be a very valuable, memorable and pivotal life experience, especially coming from a very small country like Singapore compared to being a tourist and travelling for work.

1. Friendship everywhere

2016 Singapore National Day Celebration, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

四海之内皆兄弟 — 子夏 (Zixia), a prominent disciple of Confucius

When one’s attitude towards others is respectful and courteous, brothers are everywhere.

My social circle has been mainly of family members, schools, work, and interest groupings; hardly step out of the social circle.

Once overseas, I had to network to make new friends. Initially, it was out of necessity to know the basics of getting things done such as renting apartments, buying or renting cars and places for good comfort food. I went to many social gatherings to network. I got to know many Singaporeans and foreigners from diverse backgrounds that I would not usually meet, such as oil & gas, aviation, civil defence, property development, healthcare, airlines, and civil engineering. They helped to orient and to settle down in the new country and for social gatherings. They provide a much wider perspective than ever before. Great friendships were forged that make my overseas stay very memorable and the friendship continues thereafter.

2. Not born equal

Randomness, chance, and luck influence our lives and our work more than we realize. It’s more random than we think, not it is all random. Chance favours preparedness, but it is not caused by preparedness (same for hard work, skills).

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We cannot choose which parents, which country, and which period to be born into. However, we do have opportunities to strive for a better future and grab the few windows of opportunity that come.

I had met many who come to the United Arab Emirates because their countries are not politically stable (Iraq, Syria, Bosnia, Afghanistan) and/or had economic challenges that they uprooted for a better future for themselves and family. They strive hard to overcome hurdles to provide their families with a good standard of living.

Every life story told was fascinating and left a deep impression on me. An Iraqi colleague related how his family fled to UAE after the fall of President Saddam Hussein. Holding an Iraqi passport makes him difficult to be accepted in many countries. With his home country unable to go back, he has to make things work out in UAE.

What are the taxi drivers, construction workers and domestic helpers working for? It became a question we pondered among ourselves being overseas. They may get to visit their countries and families every two years for a few weeks. We do earn more with a possible better future. However, often, it is a huge personal sacrifice. It is more for the parents, siblings, spouse, and children to have better lives and a brighter future; a life purpose for the better of others.

Volunteering at a kindergarten organized by Rotary China, Shanghai, China

In Shanghai, I met an impressive young lady in her twenties from Yunan (about 2,600km away from Shanghai) whose parents are farmers. She started as a waitress and become a sales executive. She said that her starting point was at a disadvantage; either she accepts the fact to be a farmer like her parents or she works hard and strives for a better future. She came to Shanghai to prove herself. When asked how she transited from waitress to sales executive, she said stoically chance favoured the prepared. Despite her starting point, she is very determined to catch up.

3. Empathy: Embrace diversity

I will always remember a fellow Singaporean (Indian) who commented bluntly at a social function that being a majority race (Chinese) in Singapore, we lack the understanding of how being a minority in Singapore is like. Many Indians (as a race) who are born and bred in Singapore are mistaken as Indians from India by their own countrymen and at times, they may not feel like being in their home country.

Hence, as there are few Chinese in UAE — at the workplace and social gatherings, I understand the feeling of being a minority and the importance to accept diversity regardless of skin colour, hair colour, accents and religion. The world will only become more diverse and hence, we have to appreciate, accept, work and live with diversity.

All great countries are judged by how we treat the smallest among them.
A unity that is not based on diversity is a brittle one. Unity begins with respect for the individual as a unique creation.
It is important to see Singapore’s diversity as integral. It requires Singaporeans to have big hearts and minds so that we accept those who are different from us as also being part of us. We are one, not despite, but because of our differences.

Extracts from George Yeo: Musings – Series One

4. Empathy: Seek to understand the differences, then be understood

Religious awareness talk at Jumeriah Mosque, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Our different upbringings in different education, work, social, political, and economic systems evolved with the country’s development and its governance will develop us into having different beliefs and values systems, priorities, and expectations. Everyone can have different beliefs, standards, common sense, common knowledge, logic and even the concept of time. Everyone is different. It can add to confusion and misunderstanding. We need to clarify to understand and then be understood. These do add to a more interesting and memorable experience.

As a foreigner working overseas, I can better appreciate what is at stake compared to a local — their family, apartment rental, children’s education, loans, and sometimes, not wanting to relocate back to the home country, especially when they have been overseas for many years and their home country is more foreign to their kids. Many will make sure they are in the good books of the bosses and with different approaches. They will work hard to ensure their relevance in the organization. Some hoard information and critical works to themselves, avoid “risky” tasks and projects that will jeopardize their careers and be yes man than say what is right. In organizational right-sizing, foreigners are usually the first to be affected. Being a foreigner with a lot at stake, survival matters. By understanding the context better, their actions will be more understandable to me.

Being able to work with people of various nationalities in different countries also allows a better understanding and sensitivity of race and religion in societies and how they can be stereotyped. What is the status quo in the home country can be very different in another society. It can also be difficult to fathom how human beings of different nationalities, races and religions are being treated differently in various societies. It is good to be empathetic and open-minded to make friends and understand each other regardless of race and religion.

5. Gratitude: Love your country after you have stayed in another country

2019 Singapore National Day, Shanghai, China

一出国,就爱国 — Zhang Weiwei (张维为), Professor of international relations, Fudan University, China

Professor Zhang Weiwei commented that with the development of China now especially in Tier-1 cities such as Shanghai, people will appreciate China better when they live in another country.

This is also very apt for Singaporeans. No matter how well-developed a country like Singapore is and how good the government policies are, people will find it not good enough. There will be people unhappy with the government and the system. We take things for granted and many expect perfection. We lack comparison and empathy for the world at large.

Living abroad provides good reference points to compare and appreciate the different countries and governments. Being overseas, I can appreciate Singapore better and felt being grateful for being a Singaporean.

“The positive cannot exist without the negative.”

Alan Watts

6. Relationships: Not taking things for granted

Being away gave me a much deeper appreciation of family, relationships, and friendship and to treasure them more. I missed being with the family, the meals and outgoings together, and important moments of the family members especially during festive seasons and birthdays. There would be a sense of helplessness whenever there are problems back home. Often, we may not share the challenges faced and let them worry; we worked on our own to resolve them.

7. Be immersive: Enjoy the country!

Spring in Shanghai, China

When we visit a country as a tourist, we stay in hotels, visit its key attractions and landmarks, buy their local produce and souvenirs, enjoy the weather, and eat the local delicacies. We do not interact much with the locals to get to know their lifestyles, culture, and perspectives.

Living and working overseas, we engage people daily and we make good friends. We learn about their history, their government, economy, social system and their culture at a much deeper level. To be effective at work, we have to understand and appreciate the local operating environment, cultural nuances and local business practices. There are many opportunities to tour and enjoy the country. All these make it a very immersive experience to understand and enjoy the country!

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

8. Appreciate the value of money

I was determined to achieve to save as much money as possible for the sacrifices made by relocating overseas alone. It was a huge sacrifice of working overseas and having the family back in Singapore. The monies earned were not for me and to spend on myself extravagantly.

The kids also have a better appreciation of money. It is often families migrate to Singapore to work; it is rare for Singaporeans to leave their families behind in Singapore to work overseas alone.

9. Opportunity to learn

Being alone means plenty of personal time. I am determined to learn things that I wanted to learn but had been unable to. This was the best opportunity that I did want not to waste and regret.

I have always been interested in investing and want to improve especially with the savings being built up. Indeed, the monies earned and saved together with the investing skill learned helped to compound the money earned and saved.