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Finding my way when the map is not always so clear

Many times in life you may find that you are in a new place, job, town or country or even relationship that may feel new or just unfamiliar. So much of that new feeling can be incredibly welcoming but can also off-putting. Much of it depends on your expectations and outlook but also your individual circumstances.

When I first got to Asia, I felt lost in a way that feels scary but also exhilarating. You don’t know where you are going, everywhere you look is new and no assurances as to what or who is around the corner. You curiously look around to try to discover as much as you can possibly take see in between blinks. You almost relish the idea of not finding your way for a bit because you want to experience as many new things as possible.

Then you begin to slip into everyday life. You are now the main parent, taking on a much larger role than you had before. Where you may have had a village before to help fill in, now the family is looking at you for all of their needs. Do they need some special outfit for “sprit-celebrate-wear your special color” day at school? Or do they have a birthday coming up or want to find donuts that taste like the ones back home or need to find more outfits that actually breathe with us in this equator weather? Well MOM, you’re at bat to make that all happen (don’t think about complaining, your family doesn’t care much about the logistics)

So I had to learn to navigate my way and try to make the move as seamless as we could for everyone to keep this operation moving along smoothly.

Navigating the streets

Whenever navigating your way around anywhere, I always try to either view a real map or make a mental map of where it is that I want to go. You know, look for the little red balloon that tells you “You are here”.

Airports are actually brilliant at this kind of signage, as one of my usability experience designers liked to point out. And it’s because you may be there for the very first time, but in an extreme rush to get to your next gate, pick up your luggage or need a bathroom before taking off. So they design the airport with exactly that in mind. Signage everywhere, in multiple languages and mostly using stick figure infographics so that you don’t even have to think.

But what happens when you have no sense of where you are. You feel like you were dropped into what seems like the “middle of nowhere”. Yet, it’s not the middle of nowhere, it’s the middle of someplace fabulous and there is definitely a lot of logic involved in the design. But it still feels overwhelming, confusing and just a bit nerve-racking because you’re not sure you have enough bread crumbs to get you back home. Oh well, here goes nothing…

The first time that I stepped out onto the streets alone and I noted how disorienting it is to see everyone driving on the left side of the road which(or as my Aussie friends like to say “the correct side”). So that means a lifetime of looking left before you look right, needs to be reversed. It’s not the easiest to thing to undo, especially for the kiddos, but you better learn quick because the next big lesson is that drivers expect pedestrians to yield to them. No pause or slow roll as they come around the corner, because they are coming around fast and believe they have the right of way. That still makes little sense to me, but I’m not about to get into a fight with a car, so I learn to yield, teach my kids the same and let the cars pass us.

As I walk around, I see some stores on the other side of the road that look promising. I walk ahead for 1 block, 2, then 4 but still no crosswalks to get to the other side. Is this a joke? How are people supposed to cross the road? There are hardly any cross walks in the downtown area, which definitely makes the traffic move quickly but can be disorienting when you can see what you want but just can’t quite get there (little did I know that this was preparing me for a life as an expat)

What I did finally figure out is the amount of tunnels that have been built to help you get across and over throughout the city, both helpful to avoid the sun, traffic and torrential rains. Once you figure those out, the navigating comes pretty easy. (Clue #2 on how to be an expat)

My last bit of navigating a commute came when I saw that every subway stop had about 4-6 different exits to help you get to your next location with as much “ease” as possible. But which one is right? How do I know where my friend will be waiting? Why didn’t I ask if she would be at Exit B or D? Ugh! This last fact made me start studying the maps and where I was going with much more fervor. I really wanted to start tracing the city without looking like such a tourist. I was studying my mobile map and I think the only reason I didn’t look like a complete tourist is that everyone else walked around with their heads in their phones too. (Seriously, there is a “no talking” rule on the subway, so everyone is on their phone furiously typing a WhatsApp message or doom scrolling Instagram.)

Thankfully Central Singapore is very easy to figure out once you take a breath and start to appreciate the logic in the design. I found that taking several routes (subway, bus, walking and cars) helped me become familiar and the more I was able to find where I was going and feel at home.

Navigating a birthday party

My first test of my navigation skills was putting together a small family party for my son’s 5th birthday. This was a big deal for him especially since it would be the first occasion when our larger family wouldn’t be there alongside us. Not having friends around was the first big blow, but not having Grandma and Grandpa around? That was going to be tough. I better bring it.

So finding presents was absolutely not an issue. We moved to the shopping capital of Asia. Shopping was their cardio, weight lifting and meditation wrapped into one activity. I found much more than I would ever need in that department. So no issues, right? Not so fast.

Where was the wrapping paper and greeting cards? Back home I would go to the local pharmacy (CVS or Duane Reade). Ok, I’ll just run over to a pharmacy and get some. First one, then another, then another. No wrapping paper, no cards, no stationary. Each place just had soap and cold meds. Ok, so where can you find wrapping paper? I soon learned that Singapore is much more precise in their inventory and verbiage. If they say this store is for food or soap that’s all you’ll find. Target or the “big box” mentality has not found Singapore.

So after what seemed like hours of searching I finally found wrapping paper, but they wouldn’t sell me a big roll, just 1 sheet at a time. By this point, I didn’t care. I bought 7 pieces of paper and prayed I had enough cuz I had already had enough with the searching.

The next obstacle to making this the “best birthday ever” was the cake. We are a family of sweet tooths and if we can’t have cake on our birthday, you might as well just wait until you can find cake to resume the festivities. So we set off to find a kids cake. We are known for ordering ridiculously good cakes that rival some people’s wedding cake. We aren’t playing around. This is serious business!

Well these bakeries must have smelled that “new-to-Singapore” scent on us because the price we paid still makes my wallet ache. Don’t get me wrong, things are pricey all over Singapore, but I have since found much more reasonable prices for cakes that are better tasting and larger than that first little cake. At the end of the day, none of that mattered. All that mattered was that he felt loved, appreciated and showered with attention on his 5th bday. The rest mattered only to me and I needed to let that go.

You live, you learn and you (hopefully) stop taking turns down dead ends…

The student becomes the teacher

Given that I was actually figuring things out a bit, I started to get lost on purpose, to find that new route to my favorite coffee shop, see what was down at the end of that road that I haven’t gone to yet or find another way back home. It made me start to understand the area more, see some new things and break out of the discomfort zone that is life in anywhere new. I remember feeling this way when I went to college, visited a new country, or even moved into a new neighborhood. It doesn’t start to feel real until you are able to know where you are on the map and at least 2 ways there and back. Then you start to feel like you are more “in the know” and can keep adventuring out just a bit further each time.

But the really exciting part of the journey came when the other day, someone asked me for directions! This is exiting for several reasons. It meant that I a) wasn’t lost in a map myself b) had my “I have my sh*t together look on that day” and c) was in fact able to give her not just 1 way but a whopping 3 ways to get to where she was going. Then as other expats have started to move here, I've been able to embrace others as we all move along this path.

Finding my way through my physical surroundings has now given me the space and energy to find my way through life’s other challenges. It may seem like a small step but the effects have been huge. With time I've been able to orient myself both physically and mentally, then begin the work of finding joy, challenges, friendships, adventures and love.

There is much more ahead of me, but so grateful to know that “I am here”.

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