(This article was originally published by the BBC – written by Kate Mayberry on 03/08/17)

Tanglin Mall sits just west of Singapore’s swankiest shopping street; a four-storey building that’s home to a gourmet supermarket, a clutch of cafes and boutiques selling European toys and books. Every Christmas, families bring their children to play in its annual snow show.
For many Singaporeans, it’s the “expat mall”.

“I’d no idea that was what locals called it,” says Jennifer Gargiulo, an Italian-born lecturer of humanities and literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, whose blog musings on her family’s life in the city-state have been published as the Diary of an Expat in Singapore.
Expatriates the world over are often seen as existing in cosseted bubbles – but the reality is complicated.

Expatriates the world over are often seen as existing in cosseted bubbles, living and interacting only with those who share their nationality or language. But the reality, like the nature of the expat world itself, is complicated and changing. Nowadays expats are just as likely to be Asian as they are Western and an increasing number of professionals are moving abroad independently, instead of on a company-sponsored posting. But are they sticking with their compatriots or mingling with locals? And, if you want to get to know the people and culture of your host country, how do you break out of the expat bubble?

Gargiulo says that while her friends are “mostly” expats — for example, the other parents at United World College where her children go to school (and is open to Singaporean children only in limited circumstances) — she has got to know some locals, and their culture, through her colleagues, her work contacts and even her students.

“You could live in a complete bubble, but you would be losing so much,” she says.  “If you want to get something out of it; the food, the culture, you have to know local people. To me the opposite is hard; to make a conscious choice to stay insular and stick within the bubble.”

Life in the bubble

Of course, in some places, where the expat population far exceeds the local one, sticking within the bubble isn’t so difficult. In Dubai, the overall foreign population makes up about 88% of those living in the emirate, according to the International Organisation for Migration.  In nearby Qatar, it’s 76%, the IOM data shows. Unsurprisingly, in these places expats are more likely to socialise with each other (65% in Qatar and similar levels in the UAE and other Gulf states), according to InterNations, the global expat networking group.

In a country like Saudi Arabia, the demographics aren’t so stark, but strict rules govern society, making it hard for expats to make friends among the local community. Some 61% of the expats InterNations surveyed there said they found it difficult to make local friends. In Kuwait, 31% went as far as to describe the process of making local friends as “very difficult.”

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