How a Dumb American Moved from Tokyo to Singapore During a Pandemic

It felt like we were scientists on our way to dissect E.T.

We were walking down a wide concrete sidewalk within the courtyard of an industrial schoolyard. The grass was sunburnt brown. The walkway was covered by an awning. On both sides plastic tarps were tied to white pillars, hanging haphazardly like blue curtains at a post-apocalyptic wedding.

In reality we were a family of four, given temporary leave from our seven-day hotel quarantine to have cotton swabs jabbed up our nostrils by white-coated physicians in the former cafeteria of a decommissioned Singapore junior high school.

No photos please.

“Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea. That’s great. But more of a long-term thing. I mean, first we have to focus on more immediate goals.”

– Jeffrey Goines, 12 Monkeys

In October 2021 we were close to the end, but also at the beginning, of our move from Tokyo to Singapore. The first round was a four-month ordeal that included four relocations, email threads that read like the Dead Sea scrolls and enough PCR tests, vaccinations and blood-lettings to cure a gonorrheal lycanthrope.

Still, our move was easier than most. We were transferred by my wife’s company. The company hired a relocation company to handle the visa documentation and coordination of nearly aspect of our move. If you are looking for a how-to guide for moving to Singapore, this ain’t it.

I have no idea how I got here.

However, if you are wondering how a family of four transitioned from Tokyo to Singapore while a pandemic was raging around our ears, then by all means, continue on.

First off, the decision to move to Singapore, despite all the obstacles, was an easy one for our family.

Our kids are at the age where their core personalities (which reside solely on goofball island) are in the development stage where they form lifelong beliefs and principles.

As such, being exposed to diverse cultures is imperative at this age (5 and 7), and their new classrooms in Singapore are filled with kids that are half-American, half-Indonesian; half-Italian, half-Canadian; half-Ortolan, half-Jawa; half-everything.

Back in Tokyo they were the only hafu kids in the class.

“In your heart, in your soul, you are alone. That is why you separated your sexes, for that brief union.”

Drac, Enemy Mine

With the big decision official, the first order of business was to submit visa documentation. Thanks to Covid, and a fairly big clerical error, it became a long, arduous process. 

We were slated to move on September 4. But due to Singapore law, it was required that the position be advertised for one month on government-approved websites in order to give qualified Singaporeans a chance to apply. When the position was advertised, the relocation company advertised the wrong salary, and they had to advertise the position again, delaying everything by one month.

Due to the pandemic, Singapore allowed only a certain number of entry passes per country per day. So even though we had our visas approved and all of our immunizations and vaccinations doctor-certified, we had to wait for the first date available for the entry pass to be approved. Which was October 19.

In the meantime, since we planned to move in early September we had ended our rental lease in Tokyo on August 31. Thankfully our landlord allowed us to extend our lease until the end of September. Still, that meant that on September 29 we shipped 90% of our belongings to Singapore and 10% to an airbnb in Tokyo where we stayed for three weeks.

The Airbnb had a hammock hanging in the kitchen, so the boys were well entertained.

This made the packing process quite confusing, considering we didn’t yet have a home in Singapore and we had to quarantine in a hotel for seven days, then stay in a service apartment for one month (which became two months).

I wore the same khaki shorts and Airism T-shirt a lot.

The movers showed up at our Tokyo residence early on September 29. We suddenly had to decide what stuff would stay in storage in Tokyo, what would be shipped by boat to Singapore and arrive three months later, and what stuff we would take with us on the airplane.

Thankfully my wife had a plan of action in place. In my head I had all my shit organized. In reality, I was playing Connect Four on a Chess board.

The movers swiftly started packing boxes while I was trying to find matching socks. Nevertheless, everything was packed and removed from your house. Yet today I have a collection of flannel, fleece and hoodies hanging from a closet in a former jungle swamp located on the equator.

(Tip for other pudgy guys moving to Singapore – you only need one pair of long pants and one long-sleeved shirt and those are merely for decoration.)

Amidst all this, we had to attend digital tours of Singapore schools, research housing, schedule dental appointments, get our vaccination records in order, and schedule a PCR test to be taken within 24 hours before our departure from Tokyo. All the while doing our best not to catch Covid.

Our two boys were not as much help as one might think. My wife is still trying to figure out how we all made it onto the plane.

“We have clearance, Clarence.”

Roger Murdock, Airplane

The plane ride was the easiest part of the whole experience since the plane was nearly empty. Our kids were allowed to roam about with reckless abandon and I was able to watch Avengers III: The Return of Shrek in peace.

Upon arrival we didn’t get a chance to explore Changi Airport. We were herded through customs in swift order. The agent flipped through our stack of paperwork and waved us through.

After months of preparing documents and paperwork, I had hoped he would at least have the professional courtesy to thoroughly review our homework. A thumbs up and a “job well done” would have been nice.

But nope, we were on to our next leg of the Amazing Race. Next on the docket was taking another PCR test at the airport. Walking bleary-eyed through the quiet corridors, dragging four suitcases taller than a labradoodle with pituitary issues, we passed a sign providing notice that there were no more toilets beyond this point.

One hundred feet later our youngest announced that he had to pee.

Now, I am not a good traveler. I am laser-focused on getting to the next step. I growl at my wife when she wants to browse the duty-free shops rather than squat outside our boarding gate for two hours and read a Rolling Stone magazine dated from February 2019 (Lady Gaga nominated for an Oscar!).

Thus, in my son’s greatest hour of need, I failed him like Watto failed young Anakin. I forced him onwards and during his PCR test, as another nice lady tried to jam a Q-tip up his nose, the poor guy wet his pants, and my lap.

Welcome to Singapore, little dude.

“Republic credits? Republic credits are no good out here. I need something more real.”

Watto, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

With everyone dry, and 75 percent of us wearing underwear, we found our driver and headed to the hotel for our quarantine. It was close to midnight by the time we shuffled through security and to our room.

The relocation company’s mistake with our visa documentation turned out to be a blessing in disguise because within that monthlong delay the Singapore government reduced the quarantine period for people coming from Japan from 14 days to seven.

Still, our hotel rooms were tiny. I had read online reports of new arrivals who were able to stay in four-star hotels, build small gyms for their kids, convert their kitchen sinks into laundry machines, etc. We had none of that.

We had two bedrooms that barely fit the two queen-sized beds, two toilets, two TVs, and that was it. No kitchenette. No couch. No mini fridge. No booze (thank goodness for Grab delivery).

My wife had to work, so she was sequestered in the room with small cubby for a desk, while the boys and I spent our days in the smaller room.

I set a schedule for them for each day. We started with an hour of exercise, followed by one hour of English lessons, then an hour of arts and crafts.

Before we left Tokyo, to my wife’s chagrin, I spent four days sorting through millions of itty-bitty Lego pieces so my sons could rebuild their favorite models during quarantine.

I also bought a Nintendo Switch and a few games. On day three of quarantine I broke out the Nintendo and introduced a new game every day. Other parents recommended Dance Party as a good way to get some exercise during quarantine so we shook our booties every day for an hour.

On day five the boys discovered a lifelong passion for MarioKart. One morning I woke up and our five-year-old was standing next to my hotel bed. “I love MarioKart,” he whispered.

The one bonus of the hotel was the food provided was pretty good, at least in my opinion. Breakfast alternated between pastries and eggs and hashbrowns. Lunch and supper was usually rice, steamed vegetables and fried fish or chicken basted in a chili sauce.

It was a good introduction to Singaporean food, though the boys are not a fan of the spice level. By day seven we were definitely ready for some real food, and personal space.

The day after we were escorted to the aforementioned PCR testing clinic at the junior high school (and all tests came back negative), we were allowed to roam about Singapore freely – at least as freely as you can in a country amidst a strict pandemic lockdown.

Once set up in our service apartment, the first thing we wanted to do was buy fresh groceries. However, at that time, to enter any business in Singapore you had to show proof of your vaccination status.

We downloaded an app to our iPhone called TraceTogether that showed a little green checkmark if you were fully vaccinated. To get that checkmark, my wife and I had to take a government-sanctioned serology test. Our app couldn’t be updated until the government officially recorded the results of the test. Until then we had to carry around our vaccination documents from Japan everywhere we went. 

For vaccine passports, most countries just put an extra stamp your passport. But not Japan – the country where you need a stack of paperwork just to ship a box of Christmas presents overseas. In Singapore we had to carry around this A3 printout document, written all in Japanese.

A couple of times we were declined entry to the supermarket because the Singapore security didn’t recognize the document. Most times the security had to go get a store manager to approve our entry. It was a big day once our TraceTogether apps were updated with the green checkmark.

When we first arrived in Singapore, only two people were allowed to dine together at a time, so we had to split up our family among two tables. That rule quickly changed to five people at a time.

By the end of March, ten vaccinated people could dine together. Masks are still required indoors, but masks are voluntary outdoors. Also, we no longer need to tap in with the TraceTogether app.

If you are not familiar with Singapore, the city-state is essentially a string of shopping malls connected by underground walkways. You could probably travel from one end of the country to the other just be wandering from mall to mall through the labyrinth of underground passageways.

Anyway, when we first arrived, the shopping malls were reduced to one entrance. We had to meander outside these metallic monuments to 21st-century commercial post-modernism searching for the one entrance where an elderly security guard watching Indonesian gamelan music videos on his iPad was the only person preventing a pandemic from entering the hallowed hallways of the Singapore shopping mall.

It was a beautiful day when these restrictions were lifted and it was no longer a guessing game as to which door would allow me the quickest access to frozen yogurt and young women in mini-skirts and blonde hair weaves accosting me with perfume samples.

“I was warned about you. Take it easy before I have you removed from the mall.”

Steve-Dave Pulasti, Mallrats

In the meantime, the company hired a real estate agent to help us find a condo. Rental prices are skyrocketing in Singapore due to high demand (during the lockdown a lot of Singapore families realized they need bigger apartments).

Usually people will visit a condo two or three times before making an offer. Now because of the demand, people are making offers without even touring the place. So when we found a place that fit 90 percent of our criteria we made an offer before the first house tour was over.

However, the family living in the place wasn’t moving out until December. So our stay at the service apartment lasted until Christmas (keeping in mind we were originally supposed to reach this point in our relocation by October 1).

So yes, it took six months of planning and relocation, and another six months of navigating Covid restrictions to finally feel like life is normal here in Singapore. The timing couldn’t be better since all travel lanes are now open out of Changi. Singaporeans are flying out of the country like it’s Rex Manning Day in Bali.

If we had stayed in Japan, I would essentially be stuck there since international travel for non-Japanese is tightly restricted. Instead next month I will travel to America to see my family for the first time in three-and-a-half years.

It is difficult to compare Singapore to Tokyo. Japan has thousands of years of history and culture. Singapore has 70. Singapore’s economy depends on immigrants so they are more welcoming to expats. Tokyo at best tolerates immigrants and can make daily errands overly complicated.

Still, we miss family and friends in Tokyo, the food, the customer service and the quality of goods. Most everything in Singapore is imported from China or Australia. All of our shit keeps breaking. We find ourselves doing most of our shopping at Don Don Donki the only place selling Japanese produce. I shopped at Donki maybe a handful of times in Tokyo, now I’m going there weekly.

The cleanliness and public safety is comparable to Tokyo. Dare I say the public transit is more efficient, comfortable, and affordable in Singapore, a statement that would be sacrilegious in train-worshiping Japan.

I could keep going and that will most definitely be a future blog post, especially as we approach our one-year anniversary in Singapore. Suffice to say, life is new and different here.

As new arrivals who abandoned a cozy life in Tokyo to come to Singapore, we are still looking at everything through rose-colored glasses. But it felt like for the last year we have been holding our breath as we moved through each step of our relocation process, and now we can finally exhale.

“Did you ever reach a point in your life, where you say to yourself: ‘This is the best I’m ever going to look, the best I’m ever going to feel, the best I’m ever going to do,’ and it ain’t that great?”

Mitch Robbins, City Slickers

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