Part 2: Why Asia Can Be Great for Single Women

I started Part 1 by covering how much easier and simpler it could be to live as a single woman in Asia but the post started to wander into full-on essay mode, so I broke things up to continue the thoughts on why Asia is a great place for single women as expats… Just a reminder that my perspective is that of a Western woman at mid-manager level (about 14 years into my career.)

2. Everyone looks/acts so differently that you have freedom to be exactly who you want to be.

I am tall. 5’10” to be exact. And while in the US I encounter both tall women and short men, in Asia I am taller than all the women and most of the men. I am not as comfortable as I could be with my height. It’s not my favorite feature. But because I am so consistently tall in Asia I’ve started to lose all sense of comparison. From my curly hair to skin color to height to curves, I am so clearly other that there’s more freedom to just be me.

More than that, though, because I live in a culture with values and history that can be so different from my home country, there’s much less comparison on a daily basis. In fact, it’s not a smaller basis for comparison, it’s an entirely separate pattern. Instead of the daily “how do I compare to that model, that advertisement, to that woman?” there’s more of, “how do I look compared to yesterday?” I have much more freedom to judge and evaluate myself based on my own standards because it’s so impossible it’s ridiculous for me to try and match the local beauty standards. It’s wonderful for grounding my own beliefs and evaluations.

Tiong Bahru condominium towers single women in Asia

I would post a picture of me with my staff so you could laugh at how I’m head and shoulders taller, but didn’t feel comfortable doing that without their permission. Instead, enjoy this photo of Tiong Bahru and condo towers. Aka a metaphor for how I sometimes feel when in a group of locals.

“There is such a small basis for comparison that it’s an entire separate pattern. This paradigm shift gives me more freedom to judge myself on my terms, instead of in comparison to others.”

3. In terms of wanting to be both beautiful and brainy at the office, Asian women can set an excellent example.

A number of the men I spoke with before moving to Asia alluded to the fact that there were many attractive and ‘available’ Asian women here. In fact, as a complement to all the dating-warnings I received, I heard many extended accounts of how common it was for marriages to be damaged or broken as a result of a move to Asia (usually as a result of infidelity.) This could have been one more reason to be self-conscious; not only was the island apparently filled with attractive women, so was the office! And not only that, apparently a number of men were finding that quite distracting. (Side note: the most inner-office infidelity I’ve actually heard of in SG has been between Westerners.) And once I arrived, I did note a change in the office atmosphere. Instead of fueling fears though, I actually found it inspiring.

I work in a male-dominated company and industry and that can come with a lot of tricky navigation. Add in the complexity of gender and changing expectations and management and leadership sometimes feel like a combination of tightrope acts and gauntlets which I barely complete successfully. Sometimes I don’t. But I work hard so that it never occurs to others to question me or my female staff on whether we are succeeding for any reason other than merit.

Fullerton Hotel expat woman in Asia

A pretty lady dressed up for the evening with wonderfully sculpted features.

You can imagine it was a bit of a shock then when I arrived in Singapore and not only were there many women leaders in the office, but on the whole they were very attractive and well dressed. Some of them are truly stunning. But even more – on the whole the women in the office are feminine.

It’s sad that this is an aspect of my culture shock into Singapore, isn’t it?

Here’s why: I’ve met many women in the US who work for very large corporations like mine and many exude confidence and power. Sometimes, rarely, it’s a distinctly “female” power but it’s almost never a “feminine” one. More often than not it’s a gender-neutral vibe where women are trying to downplay their femininity so we can fight for respect on grounds other than appearance. I do it too. It’s one of the ways most of my peers have chosen to pursue opportunity in large, older, companies. Take appearance out of the discussion.

But sometimes in shops I look longingly at the dresses, more sharply tailored suits, and jewelry and wish I could dress more to please myself, rather than to minimize appearance as a topic of conversation. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t spend so many minutes of my mornings carefully considering my skirt length or whether I was revealing the appropriate amount of cleavage.

Somehow, many of my Asian female coworkers pull off age-appropriate femininity and style without sacrificing one ounce of intelligence, success, or title.

It’s quite impressive.   

No. It’s REALLY impressive.

And these ladies are smart. They don’t hesitate to run, say, complex back-of-the-envelope calculations off the tops of their heads in front of a room full of men or question strategic direction in the midst of an Executive Committee meeting. You’d think the pretty, demure, and deferential Asian-stereotype wouldn’t do such a thing.

You’d be wrong.

Of course that’s not every single woman, but it’s the majority of the leaders, and in this office there are quite a few female leaders to watch. As a woman coming from an environment that felt murky and difficult to navigate, it’s freeing to be able to loosen up and let my wardrobe be more feminine and my speech be a bit less guarded in a business discussion. In fact, I’ve found this incredibly empowering. I don’t worry here that my coworkers (men or women) will find me too smart, or that I’ll have to watch them get distracted in a presentation while they try to reconcile a pretty dress with an intelligent analysis. I have a bit more room to be me in the office than I ever used to in the US. 

(Lest this sound like nirvana, you should know that tone, body language and interpersonal interactions are significantly more subtle and complex than in the US. And that can make interpersonal interactions and personnel management quite challenging in other ways.)

Next up in this series…. why a ‘sensitive’ woman can be the most successful as an expatriate.




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