Our home in Asia.

One of the key ways your life changes when you live abroad is that you discard old habits.  Sometimes you do this deliberately as you change your priorities in light of differences in local values.  Other times you do this out of necessity because your old habits are simply not as easily supported.

Here are 5 American habits I mostly discarded while living in Singapore.

TV

When we moved to Singapore in early 2011, Singapore was still airing Lost – season 4, Smallville – season 7, and Veronica Mars- season 2 for the first time.  Shows were advertised as “For the First Time in Asia,” which meant they had concluded a few years earlier in the US.  Additionally, streaming TV shows through Hulu and Netflix is blocked unless you use a cloaking device on your computer, which is shut off by the government as soon as it is detected.  Invariably a family member changes a setting and reveals to the censors that the PC is in Singapore, resulting in lost access.  There is no satellite TV permitted in Singapore.  Having limited or delayed access to TV shows for 2.5 years made me much less interested in keeping up on TV shows.  Upon return, I have picked this up again to some extent, but I mostly missed the phenomenon of shows like 24 and The Wire, and I watched Breaking Bad in one go.

Cheese

What happens when the merlion eats cheese.

For the most part, Asians do not eat dairy.  While I have never been a milk-drinker, I remember thinking at one time several years ago that everything was better the more cheese you put on it.  That is definitely a habit I broke.  I still like cheese, but not nearly as much of it.  A little goes a long way.  I actually can’t eat as much cheese as I used to without getting sick.

A good friend of ours in Singapore works for a European food company.  One of her assignments was introducing cheese into China. While Chinese people living in large westernized cities like Beijing and Shanghai are familiar with cheese, she found that many in outlying cities don’t know much about it. She surveyed people asking how they thought cheese would be used.  Some thought it would be good in coffee because after all, it’s milk-based.  In general, Asians were less familiar with cheese and other dairy.  At one of our business meetings, we had some triangular sandwiches provided.  A Hong Kong colleague endearingly offered to serve me as we filled our plates, asking me if I wanted “ham with butter” (ham and cheese sandwich).

Potatoes

One of our favorite weekend haunts in Singapore.

I had potatoes a few times in Singapore, but not like in the US.  Potatoes and bread are to American cooking what rice and noodles are to Asian cooking.  I think I took potatoes and bread for granted as an American.  Now I find them fairly bland and not worth the calories and carbs.  Potato chips, meh.  Flavorless crispy carbs.

Buying stuff

This one is an unusual change, perhaps unique to us, given that Singapore is a huge shopping culture and currently the most expensive city on earth.  There is a high end shopping mall attached to nearly every MRT (train) stop.  People do just a handful of things for entertainment in Singapore: shop, go to the movies, eat, and drink.  Our American “shopping” habit was not for Prada and Chanel, but rather for trolling the clearance racks at Target, trying on shoes at DSW, checking out the current items at Kohl’s or browsing and grazing our way through Costco.  Since those types of “megastores” don’t exist in Singapore, we got out of the habit of just stopping by to look and ending up buying a bunch of things we didn’t know we needed.  I am no longer tempted to browse the stores like I used to be.  The whole idea sounds exhausting.

Driving short distances

Our US home in AZ. Compared to Singapore, nobody lives here.

With all the one-way streets, tight parking and traffic, it often took us less time to walk to nearby places than to drive there, including the nearby mall (about a kilometer) and even the emergency room (about half a kilometer).  Even going downtown we found public transportation to be quicker than driving in many cases and far cheaper than parking.  Since we don’t live in an area with great public transportation now that we are back in the US, we have to drive when we want to go somewhere, and I find that I just don’t want to go as often. I’m irritated by the time spent in transit, sitting in a car, waiting at stop lights.

As T.S. Eliot said: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

  • How has travel changed you?  How has it solidified your choices about your life?  How has it challenged your thinking?

Discuss.