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?