First-time author Stephanie Suga Chen wants to lift the lid on the glitzy lives of expatriate wives.
Her light-hearted novel, Travails Of A Trailing Spouse, takes readers behind the polished veneer of this privileged circle to reveal trouble in paradise, from culture shock to marriages falling apart.
Chen, 38, is herself an expatriate wife. In 2012, the Taiwanese-American mother of two gave up a career as an investment banker to follow her neuroscientist husband to Singapore when he was offered a position in local academia. She struggled to cope with the heat, humidity and her daughter, now 10, returning home from school spouting Singlish.
She began writing what she thought would be a memoir of her time here, but decided to expand it into a novel as fiction gave her more leeway.
“It is an inside look at expat lives,” says Chen, who pictures the book as a cross between Singapore-born Kevin Kwan’s pulpy bestseller Crazy Rich Asians (2013) and Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Expatriates (2016), about expatriates in Hong Kong; with just a dash of travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006).
The book follows the adventures of Sarah, one such trailing spouse, and three other expatriate wives she befriends in her Singapore condominium. (“We tend to keep to ourselves and we have found it hard to make friends with locals,” she explains.)
Like Chen did, the women go through a difficult adjustment period, often having given up high-flying jobs for domesticity in Singapore. “You begin to question your role in the family, your self-identity,” she says.
Some incidents in the book are based on her own experiences, such as when Sarah, unprepared for the humidity, discovers her entire wardrobe of clothes has turned mouldy.
Others are more inventive, such as the revelation that one of the women’s husbands goes on weekend getaways in the region to visit prostitutes, or a scene in which Sarah’s husband and friend get caught up in a drunken brawl and are arrested as a result.
Chen did her research in some unusual places, such as online platform Reddit, where she discovered a thread in which an expatriate had been arrested in Singapore and was asking for help. He had even posted his bail agreement and court transcripts online.
She also gained a lot of information from Facebook groups for expatriate wives – one has up to 16,000 members – where members debate topics from “where can I find graham crackers in Singapore” to coping with absent husbands and fertility issues.
Chen, who is working on a second novel about an investment banker trying to close the deal of her career during the worst haze Singapore has seen, acknowledges that many locals see expatriates as “entitled and annoying”.
She mentions the likes of Briton Anton Casey, who was forced to leave Singapore in 2014 after his online posts mocking locals sparked a furore and cost him his wealth management job. “We have to be sensitive that this is not our country and we are guests,” she cautions her fellow expatriates.
Still, she hopes the book can start a conversation with locals and give her fellow trailing spouses a voice. “I hope it resonates with anybody who is feeling lost and unsure of what her place is in the world.”
And Chen herself? She hopes to remain in Singapore for the foreseeable future.
Get your copy of Travails Of A Trailing Spouse at your nearest bookstore.
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, / Updated August 2019
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