Category Archives: Singlish

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?

A Post That Needs A Fish Pun (but I can’t think of one)

After all the preparation, then the race, then reliving the whole thing to write the race report (Part 1 and Part 2), I’m ready to talk about something besides “The 50K“.  [Cue all my readers breathing a sigh of relief.]

Since The New Blog Plan has designated Wednesdays as “Singapore Stories” day (or some other recurring feature), let’s try a short story for today yesterday (I actually wrote most of this on Wednesday, I swear).  And I promise, this post will be less than 600 words.

I should preface this story by noting that the standard for customer service in Singapore sometimes feels….somewhat low to someone who was born and raised in the United States.  This is not to say that I haven’t had any good customer service experiences here, because I certainly have.  [Although admittedly, unlike in the US, the fastest and most polite service often comes from government agencies, as opposed to private businesses.  But I digress.]  Regardless, a number of my “Singapore Stories” will be rooted in customer service experiences, as they are often the ones that leave me scratching my head.  So without further ado, let’s go to the supermarket.

Scene: The fish counter at the local supermarket.  This is similar to the fish counter at a US supermarket, except that instead of fillets, whole fish are sitting on ice: head, scales, guts, etc.  You choose the fish you want, then ask one of the staff behind the counter to gut it and remove the scales.  [Incidentally, you do still get the whole fish: head, fins, etc.]

I select a small pomfret (it only needs to feed KMN and I) and hand it to the auntie behind the counter.  A small bit of some organ is protruding through the kill-cut (I think), but I don’t think twice about that, since I’m going to ask for it to be gutted anyway.

[Don’t mind the approximate Singlish.]

Me: *hands fish over counter* Can clean for me, please?
Fish Auntie: Don’t want this one.  *points to protruding innards*
Me: Ahh…it’s OK.  Will clean anyway, yah?
Fish Auntie: *shaking head* No, no – don’t want. *takes fish from me, buries back in display ice*
Me (assuming she knows something about fresh fish selection that I don’t): Ooook.
Fish Auntie: *digging around for another pomfret*
Me: Small one, please.  Small.  Just for two people.
Fish Auntie: *holds up somewhat larger pomfret*
Me: Errrr…smaller one can?  That one a bit big.
Fish Auntie: *puts fish on scale* 400 (grams).
Me: *shakes head* Mmmm…a bit big.  Smaller one can?
Fish Auntie: *nods, prints pricing label, takes fish back to cleaning counter*
Me: Sigh….

I have no idea.

Language barrier?  Possibly, but her English seemed pretty good to me.
Upselling?  Perhaps, but it’s not like she’s working on commission.
Overall misunderstanding?  Maybe.
An Auntie just being an Auntie?  Most likely…
[KMN’s Peranakan family has taught me to respect the matriarchy!]

There was a time (not too long ago) when this would have left me huffing and puffing and peevish.  Instead, I just laughed.  A few more grams of fish wasn’t going to break the bank.  So I came home that day with some extra fish, and a story.  And when I recounted the story to KMN, he didn’t seem the least bit surprised.

The only major disadvantage of the extra fish?  Microwaving fishy leftovers the next day really did stink up the apartment…

*Fish Commission = Fishmission?  Fission?

Would you laugh it off or try to insist on the smaller fish?

Ever cooked a whole fish?
[We usually poach ours, but I’m open to other suggestions!]

If You’re Talking About Me, I Don’t Want To Know

*We interrupt London recaps and training banter so that I can have an Expat Moment.  I don’t have too many of these, but I’ve experienced a weird situation several times recently, and it’s been bugging me, so I’d like to get it off my chest.

First, a little background: There is a Singlish term used out here to refer to a Caucasian: ang moh.  The literal translation of the Mandarin is “red hair”, although the phrase is now used to refer to any Caucasians, regardless of hair color.  [Some of the first Caucasians in this part of the world were merchant sailors – many were Dutch – some Dutch people have red hair.]  I’ve heard the term described as a “racial epithet” – and while I won’t pretend to understand every nuance or subtlety in its meaning, I can assure the Americans reading that “ang moh” is nowhere near as powerful and charged a word as some racial epithets in the US.

For example, I will refer to myself as an ang moh in conversation with locals, and use the term as an adjective to describe my “ang moh hair”, or an “ang moh habit”.  So although I don’t usually hear friends or family refer to me this way (which makes sense, since they, you know, call me by my name), “ang moh” is not a taboo term.

Singapore, here’s the thing: This is just a friendly reminder that I, and I’m sure many other ang mohs in Singapore (even those who didn’t marry into a Singaporean family), know the phrase.  I can even pick it out in a flood of Mandarin, “xxxxxxANG MOHxxxxxxx,” – plain as day.  So when I’m out by myself at Sheng Siong, or the kopitiam, or on the MRT platform in Bedok (all places where there’s a high probability that I’m the only Caucasian around), and you and I have a casual interaction – then you turn to your friend and say something in Mandarin that includes the words “ang moh” – I can pick that out as clearly as if you said my name.  And in this context, I’m pretty sure that you are talking about me, and/or Caucasians in general.

And honestly?  I walk away feeling kind of icky.  It turns out that I don’t like being the subject of a discussion being held right under my nose, in a language I don’t really know, and loudly enough for others nearby to hear (in a language many of them understand).

I’m not sure what I was doing that was so notable.  Yesterday, I was paying for my groceries, exchanging receipts with the cashier.  As I gathered my bags to go, the person behind me in line said, “(Something) ANG MOH (lots more Mandarin I couldn’t understand),” then she and the cashier laughed and looked at me.  I didn’t find my soda water, yogurt, and watermelon to be so hilarious…

And today, in the MRT station?  When I stepped out of the bathroom stall?  I’d just finished a workout with a client – so first I peed, then I changed into a dry, better-smelling shirt for the ride home on the subway.  This seemed, you know, courteous.  But wrangling off a sweaty shirt and sports bra, and into dry replacements in a small stall, took a minute or two.  So as I stepped out and and an auntie barged in past me, calling to her friend in the next stall, “ANG MOH (something something something in Mandarin),” what came after didn’t leave much to my imagination.  Auntie, I am sorry if my extra minute caused you discomfort or inconvenience.

Am I being too sensitive?  Probably.  Am I unaccustomed to being the “foreigner”?  Perhaps.  But the idea of being discussed – and knowing I’m being discussed – right under my nose, annoys me.  I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, bothers me.   I have no doubt that people talk about me behind my back.  But I like who I am, and feel pretty comfortable in my own skin, thanks to some tough lessons learned during middle/high school.  Instead, I think that what bothers me is the fact that these folks don’t consider that I might have some idea of what they are saying.

So I suppose my request is this: If you want to talk about me in Mandarin (or any other language), maybe you could you refer to me as “that sweaty girl in the red shirt” or “the woman in the purple dress”?  There’s a much greater chance I won’t know that you’re talking about me.  Although…on second thought…I intend to learn enough Mandarin that I know those phrases, too.  So maybe instead, just lower your voice?  Or wait until I walk away?  At least then, I won’t know what’s happening.  Thanks.

And in the meantime, I’m going to have KMN teach me something I can say in these situations.  Probably along the lines of, “Excuse me, but I do speak some Mandarin.”  That should give the person pause.  🙂

[I should note that this is a lesson for us all, myself included.  In the 21st century, lots of people speak lots of different languages.  Be careful what assumptions you make.  My husband is more good-natured about this kind of thing than I am, but it’s pretty ignorant of an American to tell him, “Wow.  Your English is REALLY good!”  Especially when the person who made the comment has no idea where KMN grew up.]

Put yourself in my position: A foreigner living in a country where it is absolutely obvious that you are not native.  What do you do when you know someone is talking about you in a language you don’t really speak?

A. Shut up and walk away
B. Respond in English
C. Learn and use a snappy Mandarin response
D. None of the above.  Instead, I would ___________________________________.


IKEA Trip and Hilarious Cab Rides: “You Live HERE? Are you SURE??”

Our apartment suffers from a syndrome that seems fairly common among two-athlete-couples: “Too Many Sweaty Clothes, Not Enough Drying Space”.  I can easily go through two sets of workout gear a day (run and spin, spin and yoga, swim and run, etc.), and KMN often contributes a set himself.  We have one drying rack for our actual, you know, clean clothes – but we really needed another for our workout gear.  The back of the bathroom door and the shower stall just weren’t cutting it anymore.

So I recently took a trip to IKEA.  First, these things jumped into my arms:

I hugely prefer fabric potholders to silicon ones.  Sorry, KMN.  And my juicer got lost/donated/thrown out somewhere between Rochester/New Jersey/LA/Singapore. And I juice a LOT of lemons...

I hugely prefer fabric potholders to silicon ones. Sorry, KMN. And my juicer got lost/donated/thrown out somewhere between Rochester/New Jersey/LA/Singapore.  I use a *lot* of lemon juice, so this is practically an essential kitchen tool.

Then, I located the drying rack we had picked out on an earlier visit (but was out of stock).  I quickly made my purchases, and had a little bus-vs-taxi debate with myself.  The drying rack was a bit bulky, but it was 9 PM, and the bus on the route I needed probably wouldn’t be that full.  On the other hand, I was juggling my gym bag, and an IKEA bag, and the drying rack, and I hadn’t had dinner…and the taxi ride home would probably cost $10 and be 20-30 minutes faster.

Decision made: taxi.  We don’t take taxis that often – only if we’re in a super hurry, or it’s between midnight and 6 AM, or we have a lot of stuff to move.  But I certainly know how to do it (my, how far from Sussex County I’ve come…).  So I flagged the next taxi that dropped someone off, and got me and my purchases inside.

My cabdriver was Chinese Singaporean.  He was a very nice older fellow, who spoke decent, but strongly accented, English. I will recount several parts of our conversation, as they are both amusing and show some common misconceptions of Singaporeans about foreigners.  I can also introduce you to a tiny bit of Singlish (Singaporean English).

I told the cab driver approximately where I wanted to go:

Him: Oh…will be very bad traffic!
Me: Mmm…usually OK this time of day.
Him: Oh…bad traffic!
Me: We try and see how? [<–Singlish, basically “Can we try?”]

And off we went, him explaining why traffic was bad for everyone, both taxi drivers and passengers, and how his last trip (taking someone home from the airport) took over an hour (he even showed me the taxi log, to prove it), and how he doesn’t understand why white people want to live so far outside the city.

Him: In the jungle! Why want to live in the jungle??  Why foreigners all want to live in the jungle?? *shudder*  Jungle!!

It’s true that many expats do prefer the areas outside the city, probably in large part because they can rent a house there, rather than an apartment or condo.  And traffic is bad – but Singapore is a pretty developed island.  There’s not much of anything that’s a genuine *ahem* jungle.  And the driver apparently missed the obvious contradiction: I am definitely Caucasian, and we were definitely NOT headed into the jungle.  But he knew I was Caucasian, all right:

Him: Where you from?
Me: USA!
Him: Aaaah.  OK.  USA good.  Americans nice, and Australians also nice.  Europeans not so nice.  Rude.  Americans and Australians nicer.  Also tip.

Well…I might be a bad person for it – but I certainly didn’t tell him that I was Singaporean enough to know that I didn’t need to tip.  But eventually my cover was blown:

Him: What is this? *motions toward drying rack*
Me: Drying rack, for clothes. No bamboo poles where we live. [<—This is the more common way to dry clothes – extending out on bamboo poles from outside a window.]
Him: Oh….how much?
Me: $29.

Singaporeans talk about money much more freely than Americans.  Asking someone how much they make, or how much they paid for something (apartment rent, a meal, an appliance), is quite normal and not considered rude at all. This took some adjustment, but now I’m used to it.

Him: Oh…pretty cheap.  No need for expensive, if only will throw away in 6 months.
Me: I hope it lasts more than 6 months!
Him: How long you stay in Singapore?  You here for work, right?  Just a short time, is it?
Me: Well, my husband is Singaporean.  He grew up here. We moved back to be closer to his family.  Doh-know how long. [<—Best I can do, phonetically.]
Him: Oooh!  Singaporean!  What kind of Singaporean?
Me: Huh?
Him: What kind of Singaporean?  He Chinese?
Me: Ohhh! Yes. Yes. Chinese.  Chinese Singaporean.

Obviously, lots of expats come for short stints and without much tie to/longevity in Singapore.  We were coming down the final stretch of road to our apartment, and I pointed out where he should turn.

Him: How you go there?
Me: Go where?
Him: How you go IKEA?
Me: Oh!  Take bus.
Him: Take bus?!?!?!
Me: Uhhh…yeah.  But too much barang barang to take home. [<– Barang barang = stuff]
Him: How you know where bus goes?
Me: Erm…I live here.  Use signs at bus stop. Look up on computer, also can. [<– A bit more Singlish]
Him: You take bus?!?!  *shakes head* Not cab?
Me: No, usually bus or MRT. Cab, only if no choice or lots of packages. Otherwise no need.

Today, plenty of people from all walks of life talk all modes of transportation in Singapore.  But not that long ago, most of the Caucasians here were quite wealthy, and stereotypically took cabs everywhere.  As I said – this is changing a lot, and at least 50% of the time, I’m not the only Caucasian on the bus.  As we were waiting at the last traffic light:

Him: You live in HDB, or terrace houses? [At least he was open to the idea that I *might* live in the government-built HDB flats!]
Me: Neither. Apartment.
Him: HDB?
Me: No. Apartment. I show you.

I direct him around a curve in the road, and pointed:

Me: Here. Can pull over here.
Him: *skeptically* Here? [There is nothing sketchy about where we live. Nothing. Just a regular building, on a regular street.]
Me: Yes. Can pull over here?
Him: You live here??? *he slows*
Me: Yes.
Him: Here.
Me: Yes! Thank you, uncle! *pays, no tip* [<– Which, by this point, he probably should have realized I wasn’t going to give.]

I’m not quite sure why he didn’t believe me about where I lived – but the rest of the trip brought to light some amusing generalizations and assumptions people sometimes make about me and my situation.  I should highlight, though, that I almost never feel uncomfortable here.  People – like this uncle – are sometimes curious, but never unfriendly or unwelcoming.  Singapore is very, very good to me, whether or not I travel with KMN.  Although, the best conversations (like this one) happen in his absence.  🙂

And look:

The one in the foreground is the new "man" in town.  Within 5 minutes, he was adorned in sweaty workout clothes.  His existence promises to be a glorious one...

The one in the foreground is the new “man” in town. Within 5 minutes, he was adorned in sweaty workout clothes. His existence promises to be a glorious one…

Travelers: Ever had some humorous false assumptions made about you based on your appearance?

Athletes: What’s your best trick for getting that deep-rooted stink out of your workout gear?  
I find the “Athletic Detergent” to be totally ineffective, but am experimenting with adding vinegar now.  Other suggestions welcome…