Some Days, You Feel Like an Oaf

If you’re living in a new place (abroad, or perhaps just a very different area in the same country), no matter where it is or how flexible you are: Sometimes you have a ‘culturally bad day’.  This may or may not be tied to an acute feeling of homesickness (for me, it’s usually not), but it’s just one of those days where small idiosyncrasies that you usually take in stride…conspire to frustrate and annoy you.  Or, in this case, frustrate and annoy me.

[Disclaimer: These observations aren’t meant to be criticisms.  I love living in Singapore: The country is clean, convenient, organized, efficient, diverse, and lets us see family often.  The people (friends and strangers alike) have been incredibly good to me.  But every so often, things get hard for a few hours.  Or maybe just an hour.  So I share this story in the interest of full disclosure, because I want you to see the full experience – good and bad – of working/training/living-abroad life.  I want to be real – so here is a peek into one of my less-fine hours…]

This is how things went yesterday when I headed out to pick up a few items at Fairprice, one of the local supermarkets:

1. So. Many. People.   I like my protective bubble of space, but in a city (especially in Asia), all bets are off.  90% of the time, I’ve learned to handle the crush of people.  As I was walking through the mall to the Fairprice (yes, many supermarkets are in malls; malls are everywhere in Singapore), a woman carrying a bunch of shopping bags cut in very close to me and whacked me in the arm with her purchases.  She didn’t really mean any harm, and there was no permanent damage, but I had a minor internal grumble about “too many people, too small a space”.

Ironically, not 10 minutes later, I turned into the bump-er.  I was squeezing through a crowd of people in the supermarket, and accidentally bumped an auntie in the arm with MY basket.  I turned quickly and apologized, and asked if she was OK.  In return, she rubbed her arm and gave me a piercing look that made me feel about 6 inches tall.

I don’t know what she was muttering in her head, or if it was remotely culturally-related, but I felt like a giant, insensitive, American-oaf.  She didn’t respond to me verbally at all (only with a continued glare) and didn’t appear seriously injured, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  It is entirely possible that she didn’t really speak English and was also at a loss for words, so I offered one more apology, hoped my tone and body language conveyed what my words could not, and moved along, hoping to finish my shopping as quickly as possible and avoid running into her (literally or figuratively) again.

2. Why can’t I just find what I want???  One of the items on my list was “dark soy sauce”.  I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted: thick, sweet, dark soy sauce.  But when I got to the soy sauce aisle (yes, soy sauce takes up most of a short aisle here), there was super thin dark soy sauce, and thicker dark soy sauce, and really thick dark soy sauce.  Suddenly overwhelmed, I realized that I didn’t know WHAT I wanted, and left without any soy sauce at all.  So actually, I was a wishy-washy, giant, insensitive American-oaf.

I headed for the jam/jelly section.  Now, I really like the American staple of Strawberry Jam/Preserves for my PB&J.  Given a choice of fruit spreads, 99% of the time, I will choose some kind of chunky, spreadable, strawberry stuff.  But in Singapore, I have already eaten through three different jars of not-so-nice strawberry stuff.  The first was mostly made of strawberry juice and (I guess) artificial flavor.  There was nary a seed nor fruit spec to be found, although it was still labeled as “jam”.  The next was made with weird, hard, strawberries.  And the third was really sour.

I am yearning for a not-super-sweet,  spreadable jelled strawberry concoction that doesn’t cost $10 per small jar (because yes, those are on the shelf, too).  But among the mid-priced jams, I keep guessing WRONG.  And I’m tired of experimenting and guessing.  The fun has worn off.  I just want to enjoy a freakin’ piece of toast with strawberry goodness on top.  *cue near melt-down in the condiments aisle*

And this is what I ended up buying.  It's not even what I WANTED!  I think I was swayed by the homemade-looking label and checked cloth lid.  It made me feel like Bonnie Marie whipped it up in her home kitchen.  I'm convinced it's going to be delicious (that's why I haven't tried it yet!).

And this is what I ended up buying. I know, I know. Don’t ask. Really. Don’t ask. But it’d better be DELICIOUS…

I managed to get myself and my assorted groceries through the check-out and out of the mall without any further encounters.

Well, no further encounters until I was nearly home, that is…

3. Nosy “Neighbors”: Back story: There is a coffee shop (like, an American-ish coffee shop, with espresso drinks, cute tables, etc.) across the street from our apartment.  The place opened just after we moved in, and I, wanting to patronize a new small business, tried it one day back in December.  At the time, the owner had chatted with me, said she’d seen me around (anonymity is hard when you’re Caucasian in this particular neighborhood), and offered me a free piece of cake that I was unable to refuse.  Unfortunately, the latte itself was expensive, dilute, and tasted like the paper cup it was served in.  I haven’t been back for coffee, although I sheepishly walk past the store several times a day, sometimes with the bag of local coffee that I buy for $1 SGD from the kopi across the street.  I feel a bit guilty about not patronizing the coffee shop – although not quite guilty enough to over-pay for sub-par coffee.

But as I was walking home yesterday, the owner happened to be outside as I passed.  We exchanged polite hello-nods, and out of the blue, she asked me, “Are you on your way to work?”  Already feeling bruised and ornery, my American-self thought angrily, “That is none of your business!!  That’s not something you ask someone in polite street greeting. Why do you want to know where I’m going?  And furthermore, Why should I tell you??”  

I caught myself.  She’d asked a simple question, not intending any harm or insult.  And as a matter of fact, I was heading to work (which also happens to be home).  But I didn’t want to answer her questions. So I made some polite noises, wished her a good day, and took myself across the street.

When I related this last story to KMN, he saw nothing wrong with her question.  He also sees nothing odd about providing our national identification numbers on every form we fill out (running race registrations, paperwork for the doctor’s office, job applications), or the requirement of a photo on a job application, or the interest that so many people here take in state of my uterus.  I simply think that Americans and Singaporeans have different ideas about privacy and what is considered “nosy”.  For further evidence, see this post about the conversation I had with a taxi driver one day.  [That post is also evidence that I’m generally good-natured about this difference.  But yesterday, it just got on my nerves.]

What’s a privacy-hording, wishy-washy, giant, insensitive American-oaf to do?  Well, this one went home and hunkered down in her Introvert’s Hideout (aka, Our Apartment), roasted a chicken and did some work.  I know this is all small stuff, with no long-term impact.  In fact, by the next day (today), it’s almost comical.  So to those of you who are living in a place that sometimes feels foreign, I understand.  Hang in there.  The feeling will pass.  But in the meantime, if you have any really good strawberry preserves, could you send them my way?  Thanks!  [Kidding.  After the deodoRANT post awhile back, I realized how sweet you all are in your willingness to send me stuff.  But postage to Singapore is freaky expensive, and I’ll be back in the US in a few weeks anyway, and will probably snag a jar or two of known-to-be-delicious preserves to bring back with me.]

Does “Are you going to work?” seem like unusual or nosy polite-conversation question to you, or was I being too sensitive?

Have you had any unusual encounters in the grocery store lately?

What is your favorite kind of jelly/jam/preserves?

27 thoughts on “Some Days, You Feel Like an Oaf

  1. Annie S.

    Keep an eye out for the Bonne Maman strawberry preserves (they do exist!) – a personal favorite of mine. Enjoying the blog!

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Ah! I was initially drawn to the seemingly hand-made label and the picnic tablecloth patterned lid, I think. It looked like a good candidate for something good and chunky. I picked through the jars, looking for a strawberry and not finding one. BUT the aesthetic had already sold me – so that’s how I ended up takig home the blueberry. Think I’ll put some bread in the breadmaker tonight so I can test it in the morning!

      [Thanks for stopping by, Annie! :)]

      Reply
  2. Jean

    I don’t think “Are you going to work” is NECESSARILY a nosy question, but it could be. I think it depends on whether the person is actually interested in where you’re going (which, admittedly, is kind of a bizarre question if they don’t know you) or if they’re really trying to learn more about your job situation. But if you think about it, asking about someone’s job is one of the first things you don in the US (at least, in my experience).

    I really like seedy jam, but I hate having huge chunks of fruit in it. Strawberry’s my favorite, although I can’t say that I’ve had many other kinds. The only other I can think of is apricot, which I despise.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Well, it seems legit as a “get to know you” question, when phrased as, “What do you do?” or “What kind of work do you do?” or “Where do you work?” – and used in polite conversation, like, when I’m introduced to someone for the first time. I get that, for sure – I do it myself, of course.

      But when I walk past a shopkeeper adjusting tables on the sidewalk in front of her store, and she asks, “Are you going to work?”…to me, that’s a random person asking a nosy question. I mean, I don’t even know her NAME, and she’s asking about my work situation? Does THAT happen in polite, getting-to-know-you conversation?

      How about raspberry? Usually lots of seeds in raspberry…

      Reply
  3. Jess @thefitspirit

    It most definitely would be tough living in Singapore! Such a big change. I travelled in Asia for 4 months and the first thing I thought when I got back to Australia was how quiet and calm it seemed. I got so used to the crowds and the noise!

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hahahaha! The crowds and general “coziness” are definitely an adjustment for a former country mouse like myself. Singapore is a pretty easy place for a Westerner to live, all things considered. And I cheat a bit, as my husband is culturally Singaporean and all his family is here – so I’d been to visit lots of times before moving, and I have lots of help/consultants if I get stuck. But I think any time someone lives away from home, there are days when the little things pile up to feel…overwhelming. What was your favorite place in Asia?

      [And thanks for stopping by! Headed over to check out your blog now! :)]

      Reply
  4. Silas

    I don’t think “Are you going to work?” is a terribly intrusive question. After all, if you didn’t want much interaction, it is potentially a yes or no question. Then again, the owner may have just been trying to sell you coffee.

    -“Are you going to work?”

    -“Yes.”

    -“Do you want to pick up some coffee on the way?”

    Some people really like coffee, and if you weren’t carrying any, maybe you would like some.

    For my part, if I was asked that by someone, I don’t think that I would be offended. To me, it strikes me as trying to empathize a bit, but tone is always hard to judge when reading.

    Then again, you had just had a series of unpleasant events, and in your situation, I think my shields might have come up at an unusual question, as well.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      You’re probably right – it’s not terribly intrusive. And I’ll admit, part of me was just uncomfortable because I was worried she was going to ask me about coffee, and I was going to have to admit that her coffee wasn’t that great (to my taste buds). 😉

      I guess I also found it a bit weird because it was the middle of the day – about lunchtime, and I was running errands in my running clothes. I wasn’t exactly dressed like I was going to work a traditional job. [Although as a running coach, ironically, I was dressed for work!] In fact, I looked a lot more like a housewife running errands than a professional headed to the office. But heck, maybe that’s what piqued her curiosity.

      As you say, my annoyance was not for any particular incident, just the combination of a lot of small things in rapid succession. And I’ll admit – it wasn’t entirely rational/reasonable/fair. But, I think it’s a feeling most people experience sometimes while living abroad, and I want to be ‘real’ about it.

      Reply
  5. Silas

    Totally forgot to answer the jam question, though…

    Our trip to England really spoiled me for jam, and now I have to buy lots of fancy jams (no more simple jelly for me). In the last year or two, I have become a huge fan of apricot preserves (and black currant is also excellent). Unfortunately, I can’t seem to recall brand names, though… just flavors.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      I’ve heard that England will do that to you. 😉 I do enjoy apricot preserves (no matter what Jeano thinks, see above comments), but I’ll admit I’m a bit scared of black currants. Not sure why (again, totally unreasonable), though. If I can pry my nose out of the strawberry preserves jar, perhaps I’ll give them a try one day! 🙂

      Reply
  6. stridingmom

    My grocery store encounters are usually pretty hilarious. Despite living in a fairly large area with plenty of people, everyone always seems to see me running, so every time I’m at the grocery store the clerks ask how many miles. 🙂 And yes, living in another country can be hard – even to the most flexible of us!

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hahaha! Are there a lot of runners in your community? Where I lived growing up, there weren’t a lot of runners – so if you referred to “that woman who runs” (not me, someone else – I was just a kid) – everyone knew who you meant. Thankfully, these days, she’s joined by lots of other runners! 🙂

      It’s also very cute and small town-ish that the clerks ask you about your training. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Allison

    Ok, so that was funny! It was just a long bad day. I think if I were living outside the states, I would have a lot of those type of days.

    I don’t like jams or jelly. I don’t really eat things that are sticky. Weird I know.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      There are definitely harder and easier days; thankfully, for so many reasons, there are a lot more easier ones than harder ones. 🙂

      So, I take it you don’t use gu to refuel, huh? 😉

      Reply
  8. Amy

    Oh boy. I did research surveys at Chinese supermarkets for longer than I would have liked. I even had research assistants helping me. I never want to enter a supermarket in Asia. Ever. Again. Chinese people always ask “Have you eaten?” as a greeting. It is not nosy (even though we interpret it as such) but simply a greeting and not meant to provoke conversation. You can answer politely and move on.
    I am not a jam person. At all. Give me salty butter on my toast any day of the week.

    Reply
  9. Jules

    I don’t tend to eat jam but if I do, it’ll be a Bonne Maman. The frenchie living in my flat has jars of all BM flavours in the fridge and cupboard so it’s definitely his jam of choice! I guess being French, you would expect nothing else from him..

    Nah, I wouldn’t feel too badly about someone asking me that question. But then again, I’m relatively used to how and what ppl in SE Asia like to ask – age, weight, marital status, all quite the norm. 😉

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hm…if the Frenchman concurs, then perhaps I made a good choice? Gonna pop some bread in the breadmaker this weekend, in order to test it out. 🙂

      I’ve sort-of adjusted to the odd questions, but…obviously not completely. :-/

      Reply
  10. Meagan

    Depending on my mood, I would either feel like that was a nosy question or a really random (as in not polite “making conversation about the weather” conversation) question. I haven’t had any unusual encounters at the grocery store, but I did have an odd exchange with a lady while waiting to use the restroom at a coffee place. They had two unisex single toilet restrooms. Both doors were locked, so I was standing there waiting. A lady walked up to me and said “are you waiting?” I replied “yes.” Then she looked at the doors and said “are they both in use?” I wanted to say “No that one’s free, but this one’s better so I’m just waiting for this particular one.” But instead I just said “yes.” It was so odd, and it doesn’t really matter, but it was strange she felt the need to clarify both restrooms were occupied.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hahahah! In your place, I would’ve had the same urge to give a smart aleck remark, “No, that one’s free, but the feng shui of this one is so much better!” Sometimes here, I’ve had people push to the front of the line to check, for themselves, that all of the stalls are filled. It’s a bit funny, especially when they have to slink back into line after realizing that most of us can, in fact, identify an occupied stall. 🙂

      Reply
  11. Sarrilly

    Awww, sorry to hear about your “culturally bad day”! 🙁 Thanks for sharing and keeping it real though.

    Just wanted to relay some of my experiences – believe it or not, I could most relate to #2 – except I actually had a near meltdown a couple years ago in the hot pepper paste aisle of the Korean grocery store HERE IN THE STATES. It was sooo confusing and such a wide variety of prices and labels (which took me forever to sound out as I feebly attempted to read the Korean) and I didn’t know what I wanted…just that I didn’t want the kind I had bought the previous time (I guess kind of like your trial and error purchasing of the strawberry jams)!

    Oh and if I remember correctly, when I was in China, a common question people asked when I met them on the road (or passing them in a hallway) was “Where are you going?” (after the initial greeting of “Have you eaten yet?”) It was really strange at first to me…but I guess in that light, it is somewhat related to the coffeeshop owner’s greeting.

    I’m a strawberry jam gal too! Glad you’ll be able to pick up some when you come to the States later this month!!! 🙂 (btw let us know the verdict on the blueberry kind you picked up!)

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Do you know what I REALLY want to pick up when we’re back in the states? A BABY ABIGAIL!!!! =D [And J, but he’s probably mostly too wiggly for that now!]

      I think I need to start taking photos of the ones I try, because I also had a moment of, “Was THIS the one…?” It also seems like hot pepper paste could take awhile to work through, if you buy the wrong one! 😉

      I probably would have also found “Where are you going?” to be intrusive on this particular day. And I still don’t really understand how to answer “Have you eaten yet?” The smart aleck in me wants to say, “Well, yep, three times a day, plus snacks, most days!” 😉

      Reply
  12. Allee @ Griselda Mood

    I am definitely not a person to ask whether or not the question was nosy because most people just annoy me (another reason I couldn’t be in a crowded city!). Small talk with strangers (especially ones that could be potentially selling me something) generally make me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps she was trying to get to know you, but eh…you guys can make friendship bracelets another day. Plus, who wants to be friends with someone that makes bad coffee?! No way!

    I’m sorry about your jam situation– dang, that sucks. The things we take for granted! Please tell me the peanut butter situation is okay there. I couldn’t imagine not getting a decent jar of creamy Jiff.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      “you guys can make friendship bracelets another day”…You crack me up, Allee. Interestingly, the peanut butter situation looks pretty good here – plenty of choices, many with familiar labels. However, I will confess that, in fear of being stuck WITHOUT tasty peanut butter, we brought several Costco-sized jars of peanut butter with us. We haven’t yet had to purchase any for ourselves. 🙂

      Reply
  13. Leigh

    I have had the same head-scratching moment in the jam aisle in the grocery store. I also ward of daily questions regarding if I’m going to work, am married, have a boyfriend, or have babies. Somehow answering no to marriage and a boyfriend doesn’t stop them from asking if I have a baby. Then they ask how old I am. Upon answering, 30, they ask again if I have a baby. Because, how could I not? at 30?!

    I know exactly what you’re going through, babe.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Ooooh, yes. It helps a bit that I’m married – but that makes the baby questions worse. In fact, today more than one person wished KMN a “Happy Future Father’s Day”…

      Did you find a solution to the jam problem? If so, can you send a photo, on the off chance that it might it be available here, too? 🙂

      Reply
  14. yang

    Hey,
    Have you tried ordering groceries from iHerb? They have quite a wide selection of groceries and the DHL express shipping rates to Singapore are pretty low.

    Reply

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