There’s a long-standing rumour circulating that expat life is inherently glamorous. Would that it were true! I’m sure some people do lead terribly exciting jet set lives in their host countries, but if my experience is anything to go by, an international move doesn’t guarantee you’ll be swilling Cristal with the Beautiful People. I lived overseas for seven years, and Diddy never called once.
Yet the idea persists. Whenever my friends back home pressed me for details of my dazzling life, I was forced to confess that I was too busy getting on with the business of day-to-day existence to have one. I don’t know how they thought I was spending my time, but they refused to believe it could possibly be as prosaic as I claimed.
As expats, we have only ourselves to blame for perpetuating the stereotype. We’re the ones who move to exotic locations and send home breathless missives of our adventures as we try to find meaning in an onslaught of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and customs. Most of us, I’m willing to bet, wax rather more poetic about the positives of expat life. We tend to focus on those aspects that present us in the best light, while playing down the bad, the ugly, the discouraging — anything, in short, that would lead those back home to doubt the wisdom of our decision to pack up and move clear across the globe.
It’s easy to see why the illusion endures despite evidence to the contrary. If that’s the face we choose to show to the world, why wouldn’t people buy it? It’s human nature to accept things at face value, especially if digging too deeply might take us places we don’t necessarily want to go.
Because we travelled, I suppose my humdrum expat life may have appeared slightly tinged with glamour to those on the outside. (It’s a stretch, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, anything is possible!) A closer look, however, would have revealed a pleasant but emphatically ordinary existence.
The disconnect between perception and reality is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. This hit home for me the day I walked past the hulking Sikh doorman at Raffles Hotel, and into its celebrated lobby. Named after Sir Stamford Raffles (the father of modern-day Singapore) the iconic landmark, which opened exactly 123 years ago today, has a long and storied history.
It’s said the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot there; whether in the Long Bar or the Bar & Billiard Room remains in dispute. It’s also widely accepted that the Singapore Sling was invented there by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon. Scores of the rich and famous have slept within its walls, including Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad, Michael Jackson, Noel Coward, Elizabeth Taylor, Beyoncé, and various monarchs.
Raffles has also had its dark times. During the Japanese occupation it housed senior officers, and later became a temporary camp for released POWs. The hotel has suffered numerous financial setbacks and has changed hands several times over the years, always managing to emerge stronger and more vibrant than before.
I’m a sucker for stories like that, and just walking by Raffles used to give me shivers. The first time I ventured inside, I was thrilled to the core. After everything I’d heard and read and imagined, I wanted — so very badly — for it to be perfect.
And at first, it was. Entering Raffles is like walking backwards in time. It’s the epitome of old-school colonial glamour: its high, chandeliered ceilings and crisp white tablecloths evoke a more civilized era. But a palpable sense of history isn’t enough. The sad truth is that Raffles is more about style than substance. The food and the service weren’t bad… just average. When your expectations are jacked up by more than a century of hype, it’s hard not to feel deflated when the reality fails to measure up.
Maybe that’s why so many people cling to the smoke-and-mirrors myth of the Glamorous Expat. In a world where “reality” is a fluid construct and widespread disenchantment is breeding a new generation of cynics, it would be nice to believe that fairy tales really can come true. An ordinary family leading an ordinary life in an extraordinary locale doesn’t quite feed the fantasy.