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An Expat on Being an Insider-Outsider in Singapore

Years ago, Georgia Caney wasn't able to point out Singapore on a map. Now she makes content about being an 'insider-outsider' of the country.
By Delfina Utomo | 18 Oct 2022

Georgia Caney looks out of place at Geylang Serai Market. It’s not because the British expat is uncomfortable, nor contemptuous towards her surroundings. Her blue eyes and blonde hair stick out sorely among the piles of sawi, baskets of bawang merah and hanging bunches of pisang raja.

She tells me—while looking distracted by the array of shops in this five-decade-old establishment—that it’s not her first time in the market. She approaches a stall to check out some eggplant. Later on, she stops to sample buah duku.

She nods, processing the flavour, and then smiles at the fruit seller uncle. He convinces her that it’s the best quality and cheapest price you can find in the market but she politely declines his offer and looks around another stall.

Georgia tells me that she’ll never get over how expensive groceries are in Singapore (complaining is a very Singaporean trait she acquired) but she was more than happy to walk around and explore the market with us. She pauses every once in a while, inspecting closely any produce that caught her eye.

Her curiosity seems natural, even amusing. But, as I learned later, it was also hard-won. This is, after all, someone who didn’t know where Singapore was seven years ago.

Slowly, she’s made it part of her work – being an insider to a country she’s still getting to know, one local haunt at a time. An insider-outsider, as she calls herself.

‘I Wasn’t Even Able to Point It Out on a Map’

“I did a quick Google!” Georgia tells me about the time she first learned about Singapore, a place she now considers her home.

Over kopi, Georgia admits that the country’s reputation for being a ‘fine city’ came up first in the search, before its geography or even its food. She feared the oddball laws like getting fined for not flushing the toilet.

“I wasn’t even able to point it out on a map,” she admitted.

Today, however, she can order her favourite cup of kopi with ease in local lingo – she opts for a no-frills kopi o kosong. “It’s one of the first few things I had to pick up when I first moved here,” she says.

On her first night in River Valley back in 2015, she went to the nearest hawker centre to dip her toes in exploring the city. “I ended up being so intimidated by everything that I got all my words wrong. I ended up ordering something I didn’t even want!” she remembers, laughing.

But how did she get here in the first place? Georgia’s journey began unremarkably, just like any other expat you’d meet in the CBD. She received a job offer from a public relations agency.

After multiple Google searches, she packed up to leave her home behind, including her close-knit circle of family and friends. It marked her first time travelling to the country, let alone the rest of Asia.

Since then, she’s also untethered herself from the very reason that brought her here. She’s no longer in public relations. Now, Georgia is working, happily, for herself.

Market Adventures For The ‘Tube

The first friends she made in Singapore were also in the same boat as her – all having moved to an unfamiliar place, eager to make friends. “One night, I put up a post on an online forum explaining I had just moved here and wanted to make friends,” she says. More than 30 people responded. “We began our own little community.”

They met almost every week to eat and hang out. To her, there was a sense of comfort in knowing there were others who understood her experience. For a while, it was a pleasant bubble that they all had built, hosting casual dinners and gatherings at each others’ places.

But Georgia wanted to explore beyond the confines of her comfort. Fresh off the boat, she wanted to go out and see the city and learn more about her new home.

“I hung out with my local colleagues often at my first workplace who were really helpful with helping me get around,” she says. They then introduced her to their own group of friends. From there, her circle of local friends grew naturally.

How did they bond? Over Singlish. 

It was a whole new language to her. “Being the only foreigner at work, I’d sit with my Singaporean colleagues at lunch in silence. I just didn’t know how to involve myself in their conversations,” she says.

Unlike content creators on TikTok who mine their mastery of Singlish for virality, Georgia’s private efforts were focused on settling in at her own pace.

“In hindsight, this was the best way for me to immerse myself in Singapore culture and learn Singlish, which I’m so grateful for.” Six months after she started work, she knew just how to converse with them. Food, as she learned here, never fails to get any conversation started.

By then, she had been going on plenty of adventures and cross-city trips with her local friends. Some of these adventures are documented on her YouTube channel, something she started in 2015, not long after she arrived.

She says about making videos: ”As soon as I moved to Singapore the idea came to me to start making videos about my expat life in the city, from culture shock to a new working environment – I documented everything and anything that felt relevant for any expat moving here.”

Georgia ponders momentarily, hot kopi in hand. “I believe I was one of the first ever foreign YouTubers to start documenting expat life in Singapore back in 2015. So the initial response was great as it was something that locals as was as other expats hadn’t really seen before.”

In these videos, her presence is gentle, her countenance sprightly. She always takes her time to examine and document her Singaporean surroundings. These result in long montages, set to lo-fi hip-hop beats. They may not capture the hectic pace of life some of us experience here, but she presents a Singapore that’s full of quiet wonder.

She lets her onscreen guests – local friends she’s made along the way – hold viewers by the hand with interesting facts and anecdotes. She never holds herself as an authority on anything Singaporean; she’s just sharing her delight at every new sight with her viewers, who may or may not already be familiar with the things she showcases.

During our conversation, she tells me about the last time she was in Geylang – she helped a friend with last-minute Hari Raya errands. A bit “chaotic” yet “fun”, she says.

It was also her introduction to the festivities: “You read about these festivals and celebrations but there’s no better way than to immerse yourself in it.”

“It’s even better when you have friends to introduce their culture to you.”

As Georgia gushes about kueh and traditional garments, I begin to notice a pattern here: Georgia is a doer. Rather than spend time doing research, or overthinking stuff, she’s someone who would rather throw herself into the chaos–and find a way to emerge with better knowledge.

“It’s easy for some people to move here and stay wrapped in a glamorous expat bubble,” she notes, “but immersing yourself into true Singapore culture – whether that be with the food, talking to locals, having cultural discussions – is invaluable.”

Hop onto her YouTube channel, and you can find her eating kaya toast, durians and scissor-cut curry rice. On other occasions, she explores Kampong Lorong Buangkok and goes for a beach cleanup on a paddleboard.

She talks about her adventures fondly and can remember everything clearly. Most importantly, her subscribers love it. All 126k of them.

House of Georgia

She tells me an amusing story of how she met one of her followers, who’s now a close friend and regular guest on her videos. “He sent me a message on Instagram, saying he spotted me on the train but was too shy to talk to me,” she recalls. “We remained in contact, but, one day, he invited me to try out a traditional breakfast at Tong Ah Eating House with him.”

“Of course I’ve had a ‘traditional breakfast’ before!” she laughs. “But that was good kaya toast!”

Seven years may not be as long as seasoned expats who have been here much longer, but Georgia has made the most out of her life here. As her appreciation for the place grew, it was also reflected in her own personal projects.

After quitting her PR job to focus on content creation three years ago, she also started her own brand, House of Pangaea. Her inspiration for it draws on the experience of finding a home away from home. On its virtual storefront, you can find photographic and art prints by her and other local artists. “I hope to include more art from local artists in the future,” she shares.

Browsing through the catalogue of images ranging from surfers in the oceans of Uluwatu and the rainforests of Ubud to the iconic Raffles Hotel, you get a sense of nostalgia, grounding and history.

For someone who had never set foot in Asia merely years before, she seems to have a grasp on what people yearn to feel about the continent. Even if it comes from an outside perspective.

Lonely in the Lion City

While Georgia had all the support from her family and friends during the move, it took a lot of adjusting when coming to Singapore. Unsurprisingly, it was a culture shock.

Homesickness comes and goes, she says, even though she calls her parents every other week. “It was especially bad during Covid,” she reveals. With the travel restrictions and the restrictions within the country itself, it was a real struggle for her. “I felt really stuck and helpless during that period. Wouldn’t you?”

She threw herself into her work, inviting guests to share their pandemic experiences and home recipes. She even began to cook more at home.

On the day we met, she was adjusting back to our climate after a three-month trip back from London. “It was my first time seeing everyone in three years. It’s just very hard leaving again, you know?,” she says. “It’ll never get easier. Especially now that my parents are older.”

Being an expat often means learning, and even unlearning, certain things. You’re no longer in a place where you are constantly surrounded by people that (in some cases) speak your language and (in many cases) share your culture.

Instead, you revert back to the feeling of a lost kid, awkwardly trying to fit in with the rest on the first day of school.

It took some time to get where she is now. Even in the chaos of busy Geylang, it’s clear that Georgia feels at home. She talks about her ongoing application for Permanent Residency – it’s her second time trying – and how she would love to make Singapore a more permanent home and base for her now.

“Moving to Singapore,” she says, “is the best life decision I’ve made.”

From the Inside Looking Out

There’s no denying that eyes are rolled when you hear an expat wax lyrical about Marina Bay Sands or how beautiful Sentosa Cove is. Ironically, those are the places where you’ll find expats mingling among their own. All around the world, expats might appear to exist in cosseted bubbles, knowing nothing beyond their social circles. At worse, they might not even attempt to experience the local, authentic version of their new habitats.

But Georgia fully insists that she feels like an insider now in Singapore. It’s easy to believe it when she tells me that she loves a good “mooch” (that’s British slang for ‘a good deal’) at second-hand furniture spot, Hock Siong. That place is located in an industrial area in Joo Seng – it definitely wouldn’t cross my mind to be part of a perfect weekend.

Going solo and starting something on her own also contributed to her anxiety in Singapore. It’s a move not many would take in safe and practical Singapore.

That internal anxiety has now turned into a public-facing brand, one that she will continue as long as she sees a future here.

“Funnily enough,” she jokes, “a lot of my Singaporean viewers tell me that I know Singapore better than them!”

This article was brought to you by Singapore Global Network, an 80,000-strong community comprising family and friends of Singapore all around the world. Find out more at www.singaporeglobalnetwork.gov.sg.

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This article was first published by RICE, a digital media platform that tells Southeast Asian stories from the perspective of those who have lived and grown up in this region. 

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