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*
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?