Culture Jolts (“Jolt” is less than “Shock”, right?)

A few days ago, I had lunch with my second-cousin-in-law.  [Yes, that is a relationship – and yes it is the same s-c-i-l who shared his NYC Marathon race report last month.]  As some of you may recall, he’s a Kiwi who relocated to the US about six months ago.  One of my favorite parts of lunch was pestering him with all the questions people have been asking the adjusted version of questions I’ve been fielding for the past year:

What do you miss about New Zealand?
What is the silliest question someone in the US has asked you about New Zealand?
What is the silliest question someone in New Zealand has asked you about the US?
What was the hardest thing to adjust to in the US?
What surprised you the most about the US?

This conversation – comparing our answers and experiences – finally prompted me to sit down to write this post.  Each time I’ve been back in the US, I’ve intended to write something similar.  I’m often asked by folks in both the US and Singapore what I find weird or strange about going back “home” (meaning the US – although Singapore is my home, too – I have LOTS of homes!).  I’m often asked: “Do you have culture shock when you go back to the US?”

And the honest answer is no – I don’t experience culture shock.  Singapore really is a genuine “East Meets West” city, and on the surface, it bears a lot of similarity to the US and Europe.  Of course, when you live here for awhile, hang out with Singaporeans, observe carefully, and take the time to dig deeper – there are plenty of subtle differences.  But nothing is strong enough to make me feel “shocked”.   I do, however, experience a more mild version – one that I’ll call a “culture jolt”, when I return to the US.

These “jolts” are usually times when I am struck by all the small changes I’ve made to adapt to life in Singapore.  These are things that I no longer consciously think about doing or seeing in Singapore – they are just a seamless part of my life here.  But when I return to the US and forget to recalibrate, I have a little jolt (and usually a good laugh at myself) when I realize I’m acting or thinking Singaporean in America.  Here are five of the most common jolt-worthy situations:

1. Crossing the street.  Singapore’s history as a British colony means that traffic drives on the left.   I don’t drive in Singapore, but when we first moved, it took me about 2 months to reliably convert my “left-right-left” traffic check pattern to “right-left-right” when crossing the street.  [My husband habitually kept a tight grip on my hand when we were out walking in the beginning, and pulled me back from an oncoming car more than once.]  Switching back in the US proved way too complicated, and I ended up standing on the street corner, trying to reason out which way to look.  This is ridiculous, so in NYC, I always obeyed the Walk signs, and everywhere else (out for a run near my parent’s house), I just checked back and forth about three times, really fast – then crossed the street quickly.  Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale.

This lefty “driving” habit extends to escalators.  I first learned city escalator etiquette in Singapore: Stand to the left, walk to the right.  Well, on this most recent NYC trip, I was startled several times to realize that I was clogging up the “walking” side of the escalator – the left side, in the US.  This makes sense.  In US driving, we pass on the left.  Ditto for escalators, of course!  Duh.  Sorry NYC, I’m not ignorant, I’m just becoming a lefty.

2. SPACE.  I haven’t forgotten about the vast areas of green, and space between houses, and American driving distances, so these don’t “jolt” me.  But I am suddenly very aware of how much space, and personal space, matter in the US.  I used to be rather sensitive to crowded, busy places – but as I mentioned in this post, going to the supermarket with my Dad a few days before Thanksgiving didn’t bother me one bit.  The US supermarket didn’t even feel full!  I had space to steer a cart, two carts could pass easily in an aisle, and I wasn’t dancing around or leaning over someone to grab an item off the shelf.  Even crowded supermarkets and busy streets in the US feel enormous compared with their counterparts in Singapore.  Aisles in stores are spacious, parking lots are big (and spaces are WIDE), bathroom stalls are large enough for a dance party (trust me, I found them so comically large that I tried), and tables in restaurants feel like they are miles away from each other.  I was in the US for two weeks, and I didn’t have to use my “lift your bag up, suck in your tummy, shuffle sideways between two seated patrons” move once – not once.

3. The two-handed pass.  In Singapore – and much of Asia – handing over money, a credit card, or a business card is often done with two hands, as a sign of respect.  Before moving to Singapore, I’d always hold my wallet in one hand and pass money with the other – so I had to learn a different sequence of movements to use at the cashier in Singapore. This was awkward at first, but is second nature now.  In fact, it’s so natural that I found myself making a two-handed-money pass to countless cashiers in the US, and chuckling every time – “He must wonder what’s so special about my credit card, the way I’m reverently handing it over!”  [You don’t think you have a payment-motion habit?  Put your wallet in the other hand the next time you pay for something, and see what happens.]

4. Oh, the politeness!  “Hi, my name is Lisa and I’ll be your server today! Can I get everyone started with some drinks?” *big smile*  On this recent trip back to the US, I couldn’t help giggling every time a server introduced him/herself, thanked us for placing an order, checked in on us, and brought over refills or extras without being asked.  I equate most service in Singapore with New Jersey diner service – you usually feel like you’re slightly inconveniencing your server, who is perpetually somewhat annoyed at you.  And if you feel like your food is being flung down on the table?  Totally normal.  I don’t feel bothered or offended by this service in Singapore, but I do find that service in the US feels so over-the-top polite that it’s funny to hear the things they say, oh-so-cheerfully.

For example, I went out to eat with my parents a few nights before I left, and our server wasn’t especially awesome.  She was totally unhelpful, mixed up the menu, and was rather rude.  My parents were definitely displeased – but it wasn’t until I saw the annoyance on their faces that I realized how inappropriately she was acting – for a server in the US.  It appears that Singapore has significantly lowered my standards for service.  This is a good thing…I think?

5. “Is it?” This is an expression that Singaporeans use approximately the same way Americans use, “Oh really?”  It serves to acknowledge that someone said something, and to indicate a bit of surprise or mild skepticism.  It could be interpreted as a request for elaboration or further explanation, depending on the circumstances.  For example:

Friend: “And tonight, I’m driving all the way to *random location 5 hours away*.”
Me: “Oh, is it?”

I generally try to curb my Singlish-speak in the US, but this phrase snuck in a few times when I was back this time.  And it’s an especially funny one, because to an American ear, this sounds like an incomplete sentence.  I’ve even had a few people respond, “It is WHAT?”  What’s slightly funnier (or scarier?) is that it takes me a few seconds to realize why they are confused.  Whoops.   [There are one or two other Singlish-isms that sneak into my American vocabulary, including “Can” and “How do you call this?”  But neither elicits the same confused look that, “Is it?” does.]

So there you have it: A summary of my “culture jolts”.  I think tomorrow I’ll do a quick wrap-up of Things I Miss.  But for now, it’s after midnight – and I’m feeling sleepy.  After just 24 hours back in Singapore, this is quite an accomplishment. Singapore time and EST are 13 hours apart, so jet lag can sometimes be quite pesky.  So I’m going to roll with this sleepiness, and head to bed.  ‘night!

Ever experienced any of these “jolts”?  How about any other “culture-jolt” type situations?

If you’ve traveled internationally, which country that you visited reminds you most of your home country?  Which seems the most different?

34 thoughts on “Culture Jolts (“Jolt” is less than “Shock”, right?)

  1. Kristen @ Happy Running Mama

    I love reading these! I’ve spent some time abroad where driving is on the left and agree that crossing the street is the hardest thing to get used to! I can’t imagine having to switch back and forth every time you come “home” for a visit. The money thing is really interesting, though. I can’t imagine handing a credit card over with two hands. Funny!

    I used to be fluent in Spanish and spent six months in Madrid in college. I found switching languages back and forth to be difficult. But mostly, I experienced a culture “jolt” when I realized how truly laid-back the Spanish people are compared to many big cities in the US.

    Thanks for sharing — always so interesting to read about cultural differences!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hahaha – I spent a month in Madrid during college, and I had a similar experience – except that the laid back attitude DID cause some culture shock for me, on what was my very first trip abroad!

      The funny thing about Singlish is that it’s more of a Creole than a different language all together – many of the words are the same, although there are additional words from Mandarin, Hokkien (Chinese dialect), and Malay thrown in. And the sentence construction, word order, and cadence are very different. Most Singaporeans speak lots of different “levels” of Singlish – from lightly accented, almost British-sounding English all the way to very slangy, heavily accented Singlish. The depth of Singlish depends 100% on the company they are keeping. My husband speaks one way to American colleagues, another to Singaporean colleagues, another to his high school friends, and another with his elementary school friends. SO fascinating!

      Reply
  2. misszippy

    This was fun, and I’m sure it’s fun for you to reflect on these subtle differences as well. We were in Sydney a couple of years ago and my biggest (silly) fear was my kids crossing the street b/c of the traffic directions. And I noticed the walking/passing differences as well.

    This post also got me thinking about our own little cultural differences in the U.S. Where my husband grew up in extremely rural Ohio, they think our area (central MD) is incredibly congested and that all the houses are too close together. They are also much more friendly and ready to strike up conversations with strangers than we are on the E. Coast. And so it goes in countless other small ways.

    Good luck getting back to your time again!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      After living in Singapore, I have come to appreciate the diversity of the US even more. Singapore has a lot of diversity, but it’s all trapped on one tiny island – and so can’t get THAT diverse. I do love that, in the US, you can travel hundreds or thousands of miles without a passport, and feel like you are genuinely in another country!

      Reply
  3. Char

    That was really interesting. I’ve noticed a lot of foreigners have problems knowing which side of the path to walk on – they mustn’t be from Singapore because we’re lefties too.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Walking is one topic I avoided mentioning. Because although Singaporeans are VERY clear about which side of the escalator is for passing and which is for standing, they are substantially LESS clear on which side to walk on. I try so hard to remember left-left-left, like the cars here. Left-left-left…but inevitably come upon someone who is charging ahead in the opposite direction, on my left (their right). So I’m really, really confused on the walking issue. And maybe those confused folks ARE Singaporeans.

      [I just haven’t decided if Singaporeans are worse at it than Americans, or if I’m only acutely aware of it here because I’m trying to hard to do it RIGHT – while in the US, I just do what feels natural. Although, as the street crossing example indicates, I’m not even sure what’s natural for me anymore!]

      Reply
  4. Sarrilly

    Such a fun post! You know I could pick your brain forever about cultural differences! 🙂 I had to bite back a really loud laugh (sleeping baby) with that line about the two-handed pass (“what’s so special about her credit card?”) hahaha! 🙂

    Random note: I never knew the whole two-handed pass thing growing up – my parents didn’t really make a big deal out of it (even though they’re very big on respect in other ways), so ironically I found out about it while in Korea after college – from reading a book written by a Korean-American! HAHA I felt so rude because I hadn’t known and had been one-handedly passing dishes at the dinner table left and right… And now I can never forget…

    Also: this is kind of the opposite of your last question, but when I was in Hawaii for H4H, I had to keep reminding myself that I was still in the States, not somewhere abroad, because it is so rich in culture!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      And we could talk forever about it – between our combined time in different parts of Asia, and upbringing in the US…gah! So fascinating. I wonder if this kind of thing will get lost as there’s more inter-marriage and cultural ‘meshing’?

      And I’ll be honest – I know that making a payment, handing over a name card, and giving a gift are all done with two hands. But I never really thought about passing food dishes. Whoops! Another one to watch out for! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Kim

    Oh I absolutely have a payment motion habit! I will switch my wallet to the proper hand or hold it under my chin before I pay with the wrong hand!
    Also, I have a big issue with personal space. I can’t function without it! In Publix the other day, I was on line for the deli counter. Someone came behind me and stood ridiculously close. Now, I don’t like people standing behind me at 6 feet away… I simply freak out at 3 inches. When I turned to stand at an angle, there was someone really close on either side. I was screaming inside. I think I’d pass out in Singapore with a lack of personal space.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      It’s amazing what you can/will get used to. I still occasionally have a moment on the subway or crowded street, but I’ve taught myself a few tricks to help me handle the confined, crushing confines of a rush hour subway car (close my eyes, imagine I’m somewhere else, control my breathing). And at the time when it does become really overwhelming, I step out. I get off the subway, or step into a quiet doorway, or whatever – until I feel ready to handle the people again. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Nicole @ Work in Sweats Mama

    Love this! It reminds me of going out to dinner with two German colleagues on a biz trip to California. They couldn’t get over how overbearing our server was. So different from Germany where the server basically ignores you unless you jump up & down to get his attention.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      I actually used to get a little embarrassed in the US, with how exuberantly KMN used to wave down a server sometimes. Me: “Why can’t you just make eye contact and give a little nod? Why do you have to wave your hand in the air like an over-enthusiastic school kid?” When I finally started visiting Singapore, I realized that this was one of his very few hold-over-from-Singapore habits.

      Reply
  7. Debbie @ Deb Runs

    It was fun to read about your “jolts.” Picturing you having a dance party in a restaurant bathroom stall cracks me up!

    When Bill and I first got married we moved to Utah for grad school. The difference in Virginia and Utah was pretty funny just with what we called certain items vs what they called them… soda vs Coke, jeans vs Levis, etc.

    Reply
  8. Karen@ La Chanson de Ma Vie

    I remember it being a culture shock moving from Alaska to California. Alaska basically operates under the law of natural selection. “Do stupid stuff and you die, that’s cool with us.” California has a LOT of rules. You can’t just hike wherever you want, you need permits, etc. Also, living in Humboldt County, people are a lot more open about their public marijuana use.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Never been to Alaska, but KMN and I laughed about this phenomenon over and over again while traveling in New Zealand: They’ll just let anyone hike there? It’s OUR job to get a clunky rental car back to the agency? There’s no safety railing at this overlook? WHAT?!?!

      Reply
  9. Jess

    This made me laugh I can relate to all of them! I’ve lived off and on in the States and it always takes me a few weeks to figure out which way to look to cross. I actually find driving easier then rd crossing.

    The first time after I came back to live in Australia I couldn’t get over how rude the waitress was, I’d forgotten!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      At first, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t rude, it was just how things are done here. Nowadays, KMN and I joke (not really joke, we’re actually pretty serious about it) that you can tell if a Chinese restaurant in the US will be authentic by the attitude of the wait staff. 🙂

      Reply
  10. Paul

    Brilliant piece of writing, Holly! Nicely done and you know how much I love when you blog about all these.

    Its always interesting to read about the subtle differences from someone who is not local; because it make me reflect on why we do some of the things to do.

    A few comments:
    #3 The two-handed pass. I’m pretty sure this is limited to only changing business card so I dun know where you picked up doing it for credit card and money too. It’s perfectly acceptable to do a one-handed pass when you hand over money and credit card to the cashier. What is not acceptable is the causal ‘flip the card/money on the counter’ move which is generally regarded as rude and obnoxious.

    #2 Space. Being born and bred here, its not something I can truly appreciate unless I go overseas for vacation. Of cos there are advantages and disadvantages of space. I think many Singaporean takes out compact size for granted some times. Despite living in what many would regard as cramped condition, I never really feel stiffed living in Singapore and actually appreciate that its compact nature makes daily commute a relatively quick and convenient.

    #5 “Is it?”. This one just cracked me up. Frankly I think I will be a little freaked up if a Caucasian woman like yourself start sprouting Singlish-speak. Actually, I think I had being a little freaked out on a few occasions. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      And I do enjoy your comments and thoughts, Paul!

      Funny about the two-handed thing – when my husband (a Singaporean) read this post, he had the same response that you did. So I’ve thought about why I have this feeling that two-handed passing is the “right” thing to do. Truth is, no one ever told me that it is or isn’t – I just somehow picked it up. At first, I thought I learned it by watching other people. But obviously that person wasn’t my husband (Hmph, could’ve fooled me!). And then I realized: Cashiers usually hand back cards and receipts with two hands (in the ‘business card pass’ style). So if they show respect handing back my change, I should show respect in handing them money, right? For me, ‘receiving’ that kind of respect without giving it feels very awkward and somewhat rude. [Doubly so since they’re usually aunties!]

      Don’t get me wrong – I actually like a lot about the compact nature of Singapore – and the way each community has its own center (hawker center, shops, etc.) is a great model of sustainability that most of the US fails MISERABLY at. I also love – and appreciate – that I can work with a runner, meet a prospective client, and teach a class at two different gyms – on all four corners of the island – every day, without losing *too* much time or money to transport. But I do think Singaporeans are adjusted to accept more cramped stores, more tightly packed restaurants, and “cozy” subway rides than most Americans. =)

      My Singlish not perfect one. 😉 But most locals find my speech pattern funny, not scary. I recently took a class with 15 Singaporeans, and myself. They kept asking me to say things, and laughing at how I “sound exactly Singaporean!”. Other fun tricks? Calling a restaurant to make a reservation, then showing up to claim it…if the person who took my original call is there, he/she struggles to match my appearance with the voice on the phone. 🙂

      Reply
  11. John

    that one also can. never fails to elicit very confused reaction, it’s my personal fave. Although I do use ‘is it’ too often as well.

    I would add to the list ‘slow singapore walking’. I never realised how fast people from the northern hemisphere walk until I moved here!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hahaha! I also like “So how?” Do you adopt a local accent when speaking with locals too, John? We could start a club! 🙂

      OH THE WALKING. YES. But that is a jolt in the other directions – I’m jolted when I’m in Singapore. I loooove (even forgot to appreciate) the brisk, efficient, motivated pace of East Coasters. Dude – we’re going somewhere! Let’s get there!!! But yes. The walk pace of Singaporeans drives me BONKERS.

      Reply
  12. Allison

    This was a really fun post!
    I have not travelled internationally much, but everywhere I’ve gone has been pretty Westernized.
    I am big on open spaces. We lived on 30 acres, but moved to a
    dallas 3 years ago, and now we live in a suburban negiboorhood and it feels way to close for me. Plus, there are so many people here, but not nearly as many as where you are though.
    I have been known to quote Dwight from the office and say ” there are too many people, we need a new plague.”

    Reply
  13. Meagan

    You know I love when you write about “Singapore-isms” and the difference between the culture in Singapore and the culture in the US. So I loved this post! I would totally be messed up, too, trying to cross the street in a country where they drive on the left side of the road. And it would be really confusing traveling BACK to a country that drives on the right, after having mastered crossing the road for left-sided drivers. I don’t think I’d do well in Singapore based on your description of a typical trip to the Singapore supermarket. Road races aside, I really don’t like crowds and I get aggravated when it’s really crowded in a store, making it hard to maneuver.

    I experience a “culture jolt” when I go to visit my dad, who lives outside of D.C. Everything is a lot faster-paced there than it is here, and it’s more of a melting pot. For example: Up there, people honk at you if you don’t peel out the second the stoplight turns green. Around here they’d probably wait up to 30 seconds before lightly tapping their horn to let you know it’s time to go. But it’s okay, because I refuse to drive around there while we’re visiting him and my sister, anyway. I leave that up to my dad or Barry. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      You’d be surprised at what you can adapt to. 😉 And although I can’t make the aisle wider or the mall less busy, I CAN (and do) choose to shop for necessities at off-peak hours. And honestly…KMN and I don’t do much other shopping in Singapore (mostly just food and an occasional gift). Mostly, we order things we want (or want to gift) and have them sent to my parents in the US. Then, we just pick them up the next time we’re around. This takes some forward-planning, but except for the most urgent items, it works great – and save some stress.

      However, I do still travel during peak hours, and sometimes a tightly crammed bus or subway car will really get to me. I just close my eyes and pretend I’m somewhere else…. 🙂

      Reply
  14. Cait the Arty Runnerchick

    i’ve always wished i traveled more so i do love hearing these stories!! i’ve only been to italy once and the biggest shock i had was (i’m running around the streets like i do in the US) that cars drive CRAZY!!! like insane, and that pedestrians do NOT have the right-away…it scared the poop out of me multiple times!! 😛

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hahaha – YES. Europe is like that! My husband and I used to joke that, in Athens, folks parked their cars on the sidewalk, and pedestrians walked (VERY CAREFULLY) in the road. It was true! [But there weren’t any cars near the Acropolis. And running up there was freakin’ awesome.]

      Funniest thing? For the first 3-4 months that I followed your blog, I was *sure* that you were Australian. I don’t even know why, but I remember being really surprised to learn that you lived in the US! [Although maybe it was the odd hours you kept – you were always posting and commenting in the afternoon – the wee hours of the morning in the US.]

      Reply
  15. Alyssa

    As a pedestrian, non world traveler, I found this post fascinating! I have found even moving to a new state can be somewhat different. Someday I’ll travel internationally and experience it myself!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      One thing that Singapore (a teeny tiny island) has taught me to love about the US is how we are all one country, but with so many different segments and mini-cultures! I do really appreciate that you can travel just a few hours in the US, and step out of the car into a totally different-feeling world!

      [Side note: I think this is one reason that Americans who’ve never had a passport can still be “well-traveled”.]

      Reply
  16. Sophie @ life's philosophie

    I know I’m SO behind on this post, but I was saving it for a day I could actually focus and read it! I love reading your cultural jolts! People ask me about living in Singapore all the time (even though it feels like a lifetime ago for me), and I always tell them, “Singapore is Asia for beginners.” Everyone speaks English, the food is exotic (and extremely varied) without feeling like you can never get a “normal” meal, and the environment is tropical and clean. The crossing the street jolt is SO true. I’ve almost gotten killed on several occasions! Another one I would add: no tipping. This was more of a reverse culture shock, and I’m still getting used to it. No tipping in Singapore (GST instead) versus tipping everywhere in the U.S.. I used to forget all the time!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Yep – I usually that Singapore really is East meets West! And if you really wanted to (and were willing to pay, and close your eyes and mind to the locals), you could live an American-feeling life there. It’s really only when you start to look a bit closer that you see the Asian parts!

      The no-tipping thing came really easily to me!! But you’re right – that part of returning to the US was a bit jolting! 🙂

      Reply

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