Review: Great Expatations

Reviewer: Adey Tan

Speaking as someone who’s never been out of the country for anything over a month and who started whining for roti prata one week after landing in Australia, I have to find it in myself to commend expats for being able to condense their life into a couple of 17x17x14 boxes, buy a one-way plane ticket and set down roots somewhere completely different from all they’ve ever known – especially in context of a shift to our sunny island.

We’ve grown up accepting void decks and hawker centres as undeniable facts of life, complaining about the heat all year round and holding conversations with our peers peppered with local flavour; aspects of daily life that expats need to grapple with when they set up shop in Singapore, for worse or for better. We have never had to learn how to cope with Singapore, but these people have in some way or another; and perhaps this is what makes the book work.

Cheeky, humorous and heartwarmingly candid, Great Expatations provides some insight into what our non-Singaporean counterparts experience when they start to call our country home. Through a series of rueful and reflective recounts, anecdotes lifted from their professional or personal escapades, these expats tell their vastly different stories of what it’s like to move from halfway across the globe to our little red dot.

Admittedly, it’s equal parts enlightening and amusing to take a look at Singapore from the viewpoint of people who are still figuring out how to use the tag ‘lah’ in conversation and panicking about getting their passport ‘chopped’, especially when these same people’s stories revolve around praise, appreciation and celebration some of the most mundane, everyday things we take for granted as citizens with a pink IC. It is a refreshingly new take on what it means to live in Singapore when you’re not Singaporean, easy to read and good for the (Singaporean) soul.

It’s easy to thumb through these little slices of life, many of which paint Singapore in a lovelier light than most of us are used to being privy to, and snort a little derisively when holding these experiences up against the fast-paced, stressful lives we lead in this concrete jungle.

But perhaps we ought to read this book with a different mindset – forgo the cynicism and apathy so common in our society for a while, and just relax and let ourselves see Singapore in the eyes of people who have only known it as a destination, not a springboard; and maybe, just maybe, we could learn to appreciate our home from another point of view, too. 

9789814361354

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Ning Cai is a Singapore Literature Prize nominated author, who was also long listed for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. A bestselling writer, she is also recognised for her illusionist/ escapologist stage character Magic Babe Ning, and recognised by Channel News Asia as South East Asia's first professional female magician.

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