Expats Around The World – Interview With Madhurima Dutta – The Other Side Forever

Biography 

A marketer by profession and a traveler by passion, I consider myself a cultural purist at heart. After studying Economics for 5 years and working in start-ups, I finally moved into Digital Marketing.

Reflecting my ideology, my travel blog aims to go beyond tourist guides. It is not just a checklist of the places you should visit and the things you should do. They are description of real experiences as I take on the world and immerse myself fully into unknown cultures. My blog talks about the off beaten places I explore, the highs and lows of my journeys and interesting insights into different cultures and customs.

I believe that 90% of the world’s problems would be solved if you simply understand people’s habits and views from other cultures, races and religions. You don’t always have to agree with them but if you understand their point of view and respect it, the whole world becomes a more tolerant and harmonious society. In the process, our horizon broadens and our perspective matures drastically as well!

Born and brought up in India, I studied Economics for 3 years in India and then moved to Singapore for my masters. Somewhere along the way, I worked with two start-ups (one in Singapore and another in Hong Kong) and realized my interest lies somewhere else and put in a lot of effort to shift into digital marketing.

As a traveler, I like to think of myself as a cultural purist at heart. By definition, cultural purists use traveling as an opportunity to immerse into an unfamiliar culture, looking to break themselves entirely from their home lives and engage with a different way of living.

I believe this pretty much describes the way I travel. I began travelling to marvel at the unseen natural landscapes of various countries and in the process, I realized, I love experiencing things the local way. Why go to a Starbucks when you can have the local Luwak coffee in Bali, why go to an internationalrestaurant when you can savour fresh takoyaki in the streets of Osaka, why choose a hotel if you can live with a lovely family in a bamboo house in the middle of nowhere, oh I could go and on.

Experiencing things in their most authentic form is not always a pleasant experience but it definitely is an eye-opening one and that’s the beauty of travel!

 

Where are you living now and where did you live originally?
I am currently living in Singapore. Originally, I am from India.

How long have you lived your current destination or last destination as an expat?
Almost 2 years now.

How may countries have you lived in as an expat?
2 countries- Hong Kong (briefly) and Singapore

[In pic: Hong Kong skyline captured by me]

What made you decide to move to the current country as an expat?
Originally, I moved to Singapore for my studies, but after getting used to the convenient lifestyle and more importantly, after realizing it can help me save up more and travel to other countries in Asia more easily, I decided to stick by and find a job here.

What were your biggest fears of moving if any?
I guess I never really thought too much about it but I definitely knew I was going to miss my friends and family since I am very close to them. Although, when I moved to Hong Kong, I was more anxious, especially since the housing conditions in HK is extremely depressing to say the least.

For an honest account of my journey in Hong Kong, you can refer to this article:
Moving To A New Country Alone

How do you keep in contact with friends and family and do you get to see them often?
I normally message and call them from time to time on whatsapp/skype. I do get to see them from time to time, sometimes often and sometimes after long intervals.

Did you encounter any immigration or visa issues? 
Oh yes, lots actually.

In Singapore, I went through various uncertainties as well. Normally, a student would live in SG under student pass which would be converted to short term visit pass once the course is over. The short-term visit pass allows them to live in SG for 3 months and look for jobs but the moment they step out of SG, it gets cancelled. After these 3 months, they can also apply for a long term visit pass which allows them multiple entry and they can live in SG for one year and look for jobs but does not allow them to pursue internships/ any type of employment. Once the person gets a job, the employer will sponsor her visa- Employment pass which will allow her to work in SG.

Since I left Singapore right after my education to pursue internship in Hong Kong, I had to submit my student pass and I could not apply for a short term visit pass either. After my internship, I returned to Singapore on a tourist visa and applied for a long term visit pass and hoped it would get approved. Finding a house with such uncertainty was another issue. Eventually, it did get approved.

After looking for jobs for a few months, I finally accepted an offer and now going through the process of employment pass approval so that I can begin work.

 

Has there been any visa or immigration issues in any other countries you lived in? (what were the issues and how did you over come them). (visas / work permits)
Hong Kong! I applied for a multiple entry visa for my internship in Hong kong, so that I could also travel to China but they gave me a single entry visa which ended 3-4 days before the last day of my internship! I had no choice but to accept it.

I ditched my China plans and explored Hong Kong a lot more instead. It worked out well in fact because I really got time to explore some off beaten places and write about them.

[Pic from my blog on Hong Kong]

I wrote about these off beaten places here:

Discovering Hong Kong Off The Beaten Track

How did you decide what countries or country you would become an expat in?
Well, by chance actually. I was looking for the best university with the highest global ranking and a country that provides the possibility of job opportunities after education. NUS and Singapore just happened to match that criteria. My other options were UK and Australia but finding a job in UK as a foreigner was becoming even more difficult and NUS was more highly ranked than the university in Australia.

How do you make you living as an expat in Singapore? 
As mentioned earlier, I am just about to start my full-time job as a Digital Marketer, before which I was pursuing internships and studying. My parents supported me a lot during this period.

As of now, I am quite happy with the income I would be generating once I start my job but I would love to develop other skills that can help me become a digital nomad in the future.

Do you live the (nomad life or location independent life – work and travel freely?) If so how easy or difficult was it is do? 
Not yet, but definitely hope to do so someday. Some of the challenges that I can already see arise from my passport. Carrying an Indian passport does not exactly make it easy for you to be a world traveler or digital nomad.

Every time I enter a country (or almost always), I need to get a visa beforehand. At the airport, I also have to show proof of onward travel within a month or so. Visa extensions can also be difficult but most importantly, we are not even eligible to apply for working holiday visa.

[Pic from my Indonesia trip, where they needed proof of onward travel]

I would love to stay in a country for months, work in local places as well as do some freelance gigs and support myself and travel around. Sure, it would be extremely challenging but at least it would have been a possibility. For me, it’s not even a possibility.

As and expect i the current country your are living in or any previous countries (did you speak the languages or learn any of the languages) if so what languages do you speak or did you learn? Any tips for people wanting to learn languages (self taught sites etc) or any other tips?

Luckily, Singapore’s main language is English but it’s not exactly English. Its Singlish- a Singaporean variation to English. Although, it was certainly a relief that I did not have to learn a new language, I found it extremely difficult to understand their accent for the first few months.

The local variation is quite different as they tend to use simple present tense rather than using all the variable tenses. They also skip a lot of words and add suffixes like “lah”, “leh”, “lor”, “hor” etc after a sentence. These combined with a very unique accent gave rise to a lot of confusion when interacting with locals- specially in food courts, cabs and local shops!

Not to mention, I was suddenly in a country where I couldn’t pronounce or remember anyone’s name! Many of them have English names but many don’t and this has led to a number of embarrassing situations!

To familiarize myself with Singlish, I listened to them very carefully all the time and tried to understand. I also read a lot of local jokes, followed a lot of social media channels in Singlish and eventually pretty much got the hang of it.

 

What are the approx costs of living where you are now or any previous place you have lived as an expat?

This really varies a lot depending on how you want to live. You can live in the outskirts or right in the city or somewhere in between and the prices vary accordingly. You can indulge a lot but basic necessities are not always too expensive. While I was on budget in Hong kong, I usually live a moderate life in SG, splurge once in a while, go out during weekends but try to eat cheap food and live basic life during weekdays.

Rent + Utilities = rent is 750 SGD (a common room in HDB-public housing but far from the city), I might consider moving somewhere closer and pay around 1000 SGD perhaps per month. Utilities- may be 40-80 SGD varies

Transport (local or car) = public transport is great, so I almost always use that.

Weekly food shopping = may be about 20-25 SGD. I mostly buy snacks, milk, fruits etc and very less vegetables/rice since I almost always eat outside.

Health Insurance = provided by employer

Internet: can’t recollect at the moment but normally all housemates split the cost and it’s not too expensive

Phone:= about 20 SGD per month (including data)

Meals out: = restaurant prices start from about 14-15 SGD and go all way up to 200-300 SGD. We normally stick to the lower range of 15-30 SGD. However, majority of Singapore eats out-in local food courts called Hawker centres and those are extremely cheap. A fulfilling meal would be about 4-5 SGD.

Attractions: tourist attractions are quite expensive- may be 30-35 SGD each. Most parks and outdoor areas are free.

What is the tax system there like? (high taxes or low etc) please details if possible.
One of the lowest tax systems in the world I believe! It’s great tbh, especially considering infrastructure and public services are so developed.

What have been some of the pros and cons about living in Singapore? 

Pros:
Great standard of living and convenience- all public housing must have a food court nearby! Food is always available everywhere. Public transport is great. Everything else you need is always nearby.
Fresh air and blue sky!

Almost no traffic congestion- in most countries stories of congestion and leaving your house really early for work is quite common due to heavy traffic during peak hours but in Singapore, thanks to the government’s strict regulations to restrict the number of private cars and bikes, congestion is very less even at rush hours.

High income and strong currency- Being one of Asia’s financial hub, salaries are often higher than other Asian countries (perhaps with the exception of HK). The currency is also quite strong which implies that if you earn here and spend in other Asian countries, you will love the exchange rates!

Variety in everything- from food to clothes to festivals, you will find variety in everything. No matter where you are from, you will probably find things that remind you of home.

Multi-cultural society+ racial harmony- Singapore recognizes three major races officially- Malay, Chinese and Tamil community. All these three along with English are Singapore’s official languages.

Due to this unique combination as well as a high surge in immigration from western and Asian countries, the society is extremely multi-cultural and very open to foreigners. The government strongly encourages to brace this diversity through various promotional campaigns and encourages its residents to be proud of #OneNation despite its varied cultures and differences. While many other countries also have major expat population, the expats often live in separate groups depending on their country of origin. Here, everyone lives in harmony and peace. They help each other and trust each other.

English is used everywhere- it is such a major convenience, I can’t even begin to explain.
Unbound safety- It is no secret that Singapore is one of the safest nations in the world and the whole country is monitored by CCTV cameras. We leave our belongings in random public places, leave our house doors unlocked often and walk casually without fear even at 3am at night. We consider these normal.
A transit destination- Singapore is often the country that connects flights from and to other countries. Naturally, living here implies you get to enjoy direct flights to many countries across the world and really cheap flights to other Asian countries.

Island country- being an island country, the beach is just a few steps away. So, if you are ever bored, head to the beach! Lot of sport activities are available and interest groups are very active!
Green concrete jungle- yes, it’s undeniably a concrete jungle but the government has ensured EVERY part of Singapore (including all roads) are covered with trees. This not only gives a soothing effect, it makes your lifestyle so much better in ways you will never even realize till you actually end up in a concrete jungle (minus the trees). Also, half of Singapore is probably covered with beautiful parks.

[In pic: a park in Singapore]

Mix of East and West- Singapore is often seen as the ideal blend of the eastern and western world. Being here implies you enjoy good access to both and probably have a good understanding of both types of cultures.

What a westerner can’t fathom about China or Vietnam, you probably can and while there may be huge cultural differences between an Indian and an American, you can probably coordinate between them easily.
Progressive government and futuristic city- Being a tiny red dot on the map, Singapore has managed to transform from a fishing village to one of the strongest economy in the world. This has happened due to extremely progressive mindset of the government who embraces technology and plans ahead for the next 30-50 years.

Just one trip in Singapore will show you why I call it a futuristic city. From “Supertrees” that conserve energy and serve tourism purposes to ultramodern architecture and exhibitions that showcase “The future of Human species in the era of robots and cyborgs”, Singapore is not just witnessing the future, it is embracing the future head on!

[In pic above- a lady speaking to an actual Humanoid ie, a human robot]

 

Cons
Expensive country- The great standard of living does not come cheap. Singapore consistently ranks as one of the most expensive countries in the World, beating New York and London! To live here, you must earn enough!

Becoming a PR/ citizen is becoming difficult- At some point, foreigners were welcome to become permanent resident and citizens but due to the huge surge in expats, the country is now cutting down on the same. A lot of PR applications get rejected or are put on hold.

If you are not a PR, raising a family here is way more expensive than you can even begin to imagine and that becomes an issue in the long run for some people. Most importantly, if you are living in a country for years, would you still like to continue living there knowing you are not really welcome there in the long term?
Food does not taste the same- while the convenience of finding food from every country is amazing, the sad part is that almost nothing tastes authentic! Unless you pay enough and go to a restaurant. Although, over time you do get used to the Singaporean taste for most part.

Consumerism is too high- the huge amount of marketing dollars spent by brands combined with the lack of natural landscapes in the country implies consumerism is at an all-time high! You earn a lot but you also spend a lot and thus save little. Since there isn’t much to do on the weekend, you often go out to cafes, restaurants, bars etc and spend a fortune every time. You know it’s expensive but there isn’t much else to do and everyone does the same. To keep yourself happy, so do you!

The tropical weather- while some people may love the tropical heat throughout the year, I am a fan of 4-6 seasons throughout the year. I dread the heat and humidity and often crave for a winter.
100% urbanization and no countryside- in many countries, you can drive for an hour or two and end up away from the city in a beautiful countryside where time stands still. It is your escape from the hustle bustle but Singapore being a city state with 100% urbanization does not really have a countryside as such.
Consequently, the city is too small to get lost or just be adventurous! Remember those long road trips? Well, here those trips will simply take you to Malaysia! Sometimes, this makes life here monotonous and boring with no scope for adventure.

Skill based economy- while Singapore is transitioning to a skill-based economy, this acts as both a boon and bain. It’s great in many ways but it also implies you are always under pressure to upgrade to the latest skills and trends. These will affect you first before any other country! Simply put, the government wants to ensure that if you want to live here, you have to be really good at what you do and make yourself indispensable.
Cars are extremely expensive- no matter how much you earn, cars will always be very expensive. Sometimes, you may just miss the convenience of driving your own car around, especially late at night when cabs become quite pricey!

Safe bubble- this is a relative viewpoint but I feel living in the safe and convenient bubble world of Singapore makes you less prepared to take on the world. You get used to the convenience, safety and cleanliness. You don’t deal with challenges on a daily basis and over time your ability to deal with problems go down. You panic too quickly and your brain isn’t exactly used to dealing problems on a day-to-day basis.
Criticism is limited- you can’t criticize the government policies openly all the time. It’s not banned but there are restrictions. Moreover, it is a conservative society in many ways. LGBT rights are still not recognized and traditional values are upheld. Although, the society is becoming more aware and fighting for these changes, it is still far from becoming anything legal.

 

Do you have any tips for people that might want to visit or move to Singapore?
For visiting, check the Singapore tourism official website, they pretty much have all the information you will need. Fantastic marketing as well! The skyline is definitely something you should spend some time exploring and the Bugis/ Arab street area is great for photography. Be sure to have a good budget, SG is quite expensive, especially compared to the rest of SEA.

[In pic, Arab Street area]

For moving here, try to find out what skills and qualities you can offer to your employers that locals can’t and why they should hire you. If you want to bring your family along, you must earn more than a certain quota for a dependent pass. Check the Ministry of Manpower’s website for all information before you make a decision.

Do you have any future plans here to move somewhere else? 
Not at the moment but I definitely want to experience living in as many countries as possible. Vietnam, Canada, Norway, Peru would be some of my dream destinations but probably not at all feasible at the moment.

Can you give any insights into the local culture / customs where you live as an expat (either now you previously). How important is it for people to be aware of these when living here to visiting here?
Singapore is a multi-cultural nation with high racial harmony. All religions and races are welcome. Please understand and respect this. The three major communities (Chinese, Malay and Indian Tamil) all celebrate their own festivals and practice their own religions. How you dress is up to you. Nobody will judge you if you roam the country in shorts and slippers or in a beautiful gown. It is entirely up to you. Offer the same respect and freedom to others as well.

Despite being a small nation and only 52 years old, it does have some national pride. Don’t call a Singaporean from Chinese community a Chinese or a Singaporean from Indian community an Indian. They are Singaporean and take pride in the same.

People are friendly but you are still in Asia. Greeting people randomly in the subway or bus may surprise them as some gestures are uncommon in Asian cultures. Be friendly but not over the top friendly or loud.

Do you travel around from this destination where you are living as an expat? What are some places you have visited from here / any countries close by that you recommend / what are the travel costs like to these places?

Entire Southeast Asia is extremely accessible. I have been to Malaysia 5 times in 2 years! There are overnight buses and very affordable. Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand are some other accessible destinations.

[Pic of me in Malaysia]

You can also read about my Indonesia trip here:

What You Must Visit Lombok 

How are the locals where you live (were they easy to make friends with)? Are there any expat clubs or similar that you have joined? How easy was it to make new friends or associates here?

Locals are friendly but it really depends on how you meet them. If you met them during your undergrad, you would probably become great friends with them. If you met them during your work, then they are likely to be busy with their own circle of friends/family during the weekend or after work.

I made friends in my university. I also joined a lot of meet up groups through the website (meetup.com) and met people with like-minded interests! They are always very friendly and my experience with them has been great till now.

How is the nightlife where you live? Any recommendations?

It’s probably not the coolest in the world but then again I am not a party person really. However, there are huge areas that are dedicated to just nightlife, Clarke Quay being the largest stretch!

Clarke Quay, Level 33 (in Marina Bay Sands Financial Centre), Going Om/ Blue Jazz in Arab street or Haji Lane area, Holland Village are probably some of my recommendations. The good part is that even if you don’t go clubbing, you can still find plenty of places to hang out in, often with live music!

 

[In pic: view of skyline from Level 33]

How do you spend your time off here or at weekends (any day time recommendations)?

Chilling with friends, exploring the parks or just visiting other countries. Go to Lazarus island or Pulau ubin if you really wish to escape the hustle bustle of the city.

[Pic of Lazarus island beach]

What is the climate where you live?
Sunny and humid throughout the year with occasional unpredictable rainfall. Singapore does not have any seasons.

Please give a short description of your blog and what you cover.

As mentioned earlier, what inspires me to travel is more than just the astounding beauty of nature. It’s about understanding the people, their culture, their experiences, their habits and appreciating the differences. It’s about learning something new every day and really making each & every moment count. It’s about enjoying the adrenaline rush and also finding peace.

Thus, began The Other Side Forever, which is a travel blog that aims to go beyond tourist guides. It is not just a checklist of the places you should visit and the things you should do. They are description of real experiences.

Through my writings, I shall try to take the reader on a journey to see the world through my eyes. I shall attempt to make the reader feel at least 1% of what I felt during my journey. This is not to say that it will not include relevant information. It will include all tips and checklists that are required too but it will not be limited by these.

 

Please share one life quote or any quote you love.

“No amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams”

 

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Madhurima Dutta

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