A little advice from a former expat brat
“Like, oh my gaaaaaawd! What do you mean I can’t spend a week skiing in Gstaad!? I so totally hate you!”
I grew up an expat brat in Geneva, Switzerland. My friends had maids, personal body guards, holiday homes in places like the Amalfi Coast, St Moritz and Martha’s Vineyard. They were picked up from school in Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces and Aston Martins. Their homes included subterranean swimming pools, photos of royal relatives, and live-in domestic staff. Our school field trips included Venice, St Petersburg and Cannes to name a few. There I am above on my friend’s yacht, sailing from her family’s summer home in Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard.
Meanwhile, my dad worked for the UN and was on a public servant’s wage. I took it as a personal affront when, one winter, he told me I couldn’t spend the week skiing in Gstaad, we’d be going to Verbier instead. I wore Benetton instead of Versace, caught the tram home instead of being chauffeur driven and didn’t own a pony. I sometimes felt embarrassed by my family’s ‘situation’,
My own child now lives in a condo with more facilities than a luxury cruise liner, he has a helper who would literally do anything for him and his first-ever flight was in business class. One day we’ll go home where we will be average Joe-Blows who do our own laundry. Terrifying.
Here are my tips for minimising the expat brat factor in your life:
Get to know the locals. Chat with them and involve your kids in the conversation. Go to wet markets, cultural festivals, hawkers centres and national events. Strike up a conversation with the taxi uncles. Catch public transport, coo over other peoples babies. Visit Geylang, Joo Chiat and Tiong Bahru with just your kids. Have your kids pay for things in the shops, ask for directions or ask for the time, have them interact with shop Aunties and Uncles.
Caring for the less fortunate
Get yourselves and your kids involved in charity work – there are also plenty of volunteering opportunities in Singapore, some especially for kids. Or join a local fund-raising drive. Local charities tackle issues that are close to home and are very relatable and real. As well as doing good, it helps kids empathise and understand real problems.
Be good to your helper
Be mindful of how you and your family interact with your helper. Children model our behaviour. Helpers have often had limited access to education and many less employment opportunities than our own children will ever have. Show interest in your helper’s family and home life and show your children that her story is important to you. Make sure your children respect your helper’s privacy and their time off. Speak to your helper with respect, use pleases and thank-yous and save any reprimands for when the kids are not home.
Live the real life from time to time
Go laid-back at a family-friendly airbnb, or stay with friends and family when you go home instead of a hotel. At least for part of the trip! Visit your old street, or, if your have a house that’s rented out back home, see if you can pop in to visit. Spend time in your neighbourhood, go to the local library. Talk through the differences between Singapore and ‘home’. Try not to go into shock yourself!
Talk to your kids about money
If possible, use cash. When age appropriate, have a budget for your day and ask your kids to hand over the money when paying, then sit down and talk through how much is left and how much things cost. As they get older, involve them in monthly budgeting and talk through how your family budget is spent. (And talk about how you can save money together too!)
Get everyone involved in family chores
With helpers it’s sometimes hard to remember how to use the washing machine (no judgment!). But chat to your helper and assign some age-appropriate chores for the kids to do. Spend some time on Sundays doing some chores together as a family. It might be cleaning out a closet drawer and donating unwanted items to charity.
I finally made it to Gstaad, by the way. There I am second from the right in my generic branded one-piece and Benetton knit accessories, braces and 1980s bouffant.