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If you’ve been keeping track, you might remember that I spent the last few months in the midst of learning Mandarin alongside my husband.  One evening, I interrupted his after work TV time to ask him his thoughts on the experience.

Me: Hey hon. Can I interrupt you to get you to help me with something?

Husband: Is this about Mandarin?

Me: Yep, Just wondering – What made you want to learn Mandarin?

Husband: It’s a major language in the part of the world we live in. It would be foolish not to try to communicate.

Me: Good point. What are your general thoughts on the lessons?

Husband:  I enjoyed them but I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to exercise what I learned other than when I visit Din Tai Fung, so I am frustrated about that.

Me: So you aren’t dazzling anyone with your ability to speak in Mandarin then?

Husband: I don’t think I’ve impressed anyone with my Mandarin, but the effort I put in to learn it might have impressed a few people, especially my Mandarin speaking colleagues.

Me: What could be done to improve your Mandarin language skills? What about the free weekly speaking club Elite provides? Would that give you an opportunity to use the skills you’ve learned?

Husband: I think going to the club would help, if the teacher could assist more toward the first visit.

Me: Do you think a few catch up privates would help?

Husband: Perhaps, I’d see how that works. Our class size of five was small so I don’t expect to see a huge jump in learning productivity with privates. The better they can do to get students somewhere to practice what they learned, the more chance of success. They have that with the language club, but I need a little more reassurance to get there to the club and participate. I’m not sure how that could be done.

Me: OK, so what did you enjoy the most about the experience?

Husband: I take enjoyment in learning, but the wider cultural lessons offered were interesting and enticing. They helped me maintain enthusiasm.

Me: Do you have an example?

Husband: We talked about the cultural significance of how time and events are communicated in Mandarin. Also the lack of tense in verbs means the language is very direct. Now we better understand Singlish in Singapore because we know a little about the other root language that makes it up.

Me: What was challenging about learning Mandarin and the lessons themselves?

Husband: The course material itself was relevant and focused on survival Mandarin. That was good. But it has been a long time since I was in a learning setting like that – at least a decade. The time spent away from a school-like setting put me on a learning curve in terms of absorption rate compared to my peers. They seemed to pick up things quicker.

Me: You didn’t appear to struggle to me. Do you think maybe you are being hard on yourself?

Husband: No, I struggled. I wouldn’t want it more challenging. I felt like the rate and pace was as good as I could have followed at a level of commitment of once a week.

Me: So they hit a sweet spot with pace?

Husband: Compromise between everyone in the class, isn’t it?

Me: Speaking of everyone in the class, what did you think of your classmates?

Husband: It was an intimate but wide range of people in terms of age, experience and income. I was apprehensive beforehand, but I found the clientele they attracted to be warm and friendly and the setting was comfortable and not intimidating, unlike other language classes. Everyone in the class felt comfortable enough to stop and ask questions at any point.

Me: Between you and I, who do you think had an easier time learning Mandarin? Which one of us had more of a natural talent for it? 

Husband: I put more effort into it, but it was easier for you.

Me: I’m not sure I agree with you, but what do you think caused me to have an easier time with it?

Husband: You’re younger and your mind is a little more receptive to picking new things up.

Me: I gave birth to our daughter during our 12 week course. I’m sure that affected my learning. How do you think it changed my learning pace?

Husband: You missed 2 lessons, but you didn’t feel like you couldn’t come back. The other students were supportive of you and I think it was neat to everyone to have met her when you brought her to class.

Me: We can tell her she had her first mandarin lesson at two weeks old!

Husband: Yep! She’s got no excuse for not learning Mandarin.

Me: So overall, the experience – good? Bad?

Husband: Very rewarding.

Me: And was it difficult to carve out the time in your schedule to attend?

Husband: No, not unduly.

Me: Thanks, hon. You can have your TV back.

Husband: Woohoo.

 

Editor’s note:

 

If you are interested in enrolling (and I encourage you to consider it!), Elite Linguistic Network offers corporate, private and several group classes a week in Mandarin. Group classes are held at both Bugis and Jurong East and are currently $420 for 12 sessions. They offer a steal of a trial lesson at only $3 if you would like to check out the group courses prior to enrollment. Classes are 2 hours long and average between 6 and 8 students.

Elite has graciously offered an exclusive promotion to TexasOnThames.com readers of 15% off for two person / 10% off for one personKindly quote “ELN-TEXAS” when you call in to enroll at 6565 7166. 

To learn more about Elite’s language courses, check out http://www.languageasia.com/

Laura’s tuition was provided free of charge by Elite while Husband’s tuition was paid.

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mandarinLearning Mandarin made its way onto my long and winding bucket list in 2012 when Husband and I relocated to Singapore. Sadly, even though it was on the list, I can’t say it was much of a priority as it was a good intention.

I watched friends try to grasp the language with mixed success as I made “yeah, I’d like to learn too” comments. I then engaged myself in other activities instead: teaching yoga, volunteering, travelling, writing, working full time and oh yeah growing a baby.

In 2014, Husband even made learning Mandarin his New Year’s Resolution, asking me if I would learn with him. I happily agreed. Then we watched 2014 come and go.

So when I got an email from Elite offering me the chance to take a 12 week Mandarin course a few months ago, it finally felt like the perfect opportunity. It’s like someone read my best intentions and found a solution to my poor follow through! I signed myself and Husband up and we began our adventure.

“Woe, you are learning Mandarin? Isn’t that really hard?” asked a few friends when we told them the news.

“Sure,” I answered. “But I’m not naïve. I don’t expect to be fluent; I just expect to be able to communicate better with the Mandarin speakers around me. For example, some of the taxi drivers, some of the older Chinese Singaporeans who may not have learned English that well, and some of the people at the Hawker Market.”

This is when I learned that Husband’s mission was entirely different. He had visions of one day being able to effectively communicate on a business level in Mandarin. I suppose this is where our differing backgrounds come into play.

Having grown up in Europe, he speaks Spanish almost fluently and French as necessary. Having grown up in the US and taken 3 years of German in high school followed by a short study abroad there, I can just about ask for the toilet and order an egg for breakfast. I once injured my arm skiing in Switzerland and failed miserably to get directions to the doctor.

Skiing in Switzerland

Skiing in Switzerland Using My Really Poor German Skills.

So who is meeting their intentions best? I would say that it’s too early to tell and will likely depend on our individual dedications to the task. A few weeks in and we are both finding it easier to understand the culture around us.

For instance, I now know why the shop clerks sound so angry to me when they sell me things- it’s all about the tonal nature of Mandarin. “Sell” in Mandarin has an abrupt tone while “buy” is the same word but sounds like a question. They continue this way of tonal communication even when they speak in English. While it can come off curt and rude to a Westerner, it’s all very normal to them and they have no idea why I am upset by the interaction. A little understanding of such things can make transactions much easier for all involved.

Another thing is a shyness in Chinese culture to give a blunt yes or no. Susie, our teacher, explained that if someone asked her on a date, she would say something along the lines of “Oh I am very busy this week,” rather than “No, I am not interested,” and the person would get the hint.

The lights finally went on in my head. THIS. THIS is why I feel I can’t get a straight answer sometimes. Knowing this can save me some serious frustration when I can’t indicate whether the answer is yes or no.

There’s also the lack of verb tense in Mandarin, which explains why we often hear funny expressions in English or native Mandarin speakers feel like us Latin based language speakers use too many words.

And then the Chinese culture of “sounds like” and word plays that just comes off as quirky. For instance, the similarity between the word for oranges and the word for gold mean you get loads and loads of Mandarins heaped on your door at Chinese New Year.

Photo Not Mine

Photo Not Mine

Acknowledging these subtleties, Husband asked me why it took us 3 years to finally take the plunge and learn Mandarin. We really could have made the cultural integration thing easier on ourselves.

“I guess the right opportunity had to pop up,” I answered. “Better late than never,” I reasoned.

“True,” he answered.

Now if I can only figure out why I have so much trouble communicating with the taxi drivers. That would make the time and energy more than well spent!

Editor’s note:

If you are interested in enrolling (and I encourage you to consider it!), Elite Linguistic Network offers corporate, private and several group classes a week in Mandarin. Group classes are held at both Bugis and Jurong East and are currently $420 for 12 sessions. They offer a steal of a trial lesson at only $3 if you would like to check out the group courses prior to enrollment. Classes are 2 hours long and average between 6 and 8 students.

Elite has graciously offered an exclusive promotion to TexasOnThames.com readers of 15% off for two person / 10% off for one personKindly quote “ELN-TEXAS” when you call in to enroll at 6565 7166. 
To learn more about Elite’s language courses, check out http://www.languageasia.com/
Laura’s tuition was provided free of charge by Elite while Husband’s tuition was paid.

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While a pregnancy spent in a diverse environment like Singapore may invite unwanted opinions and suggestions from every culture and subculture on the island, it also subjects a mother to a large spectrum of worldwide birthing and pregnancy celebrations.

And why not celebrate?

A cruise through Pinterest got me all giddy about a full belly decorated with henna.

While we all might associate henna with Indian, Middle Eastern and North African weddings, it’s also quite common to adorn expectant mothers in these cultures as a blessing to both mom and baby. It’s also a super awesome way to make a mom to be feel really bad ass about her exquisitely round shape.

Make sure and do your research to get good quality natural henna. Pre-made tubes sometimes contain toxic materials.There are routinely horror stories appearing about people receiving poor quality henna and having bad reactions, so let me say it again- ask questions if you are using an artist’s mix. (Also, prenatal henna is not recommended for those with conditions like Advanced Anemia, Hyperbilirubinemia, a G6DP Deficiency, or a significantly repressed immune system.)

My decoration was done by Mona, who charges $75 and up for belly designs. The henna will last from one to two weeks.

Belly henna

Husband and I were having a celebration the next day with our friends in honor of the upcoming addition, so we invited Mona back to decorate our guests. She charges $8 for a simple design and upward from there.

Shanna getting foot henna

Shanna’s Henna

Her work was definitely a hit!

See also:

What to Expect When You are Expecting in Singapore: Opinions and Practicalities 

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My first experience in an office in Asia was as a freelance science writer. I negotiated some desk space alongside regular freelance work and subsequently came into the office in the central business district (CBD) two to three times a week. It was nice to have coworkers again and gain some insight to working environments in Singapore. It was even nicer to have the flexibility to come in or work from home as it suited my productivity.

But enough reminiscing about flexible schedules.

There were other things I gained from that experience aside from the obvious paycheck and magazine bylines. Like a friend or two, an understanding of the motorcycle parking availability in the CBD, my first tastes of mooncake, and a better understanding of the range of acceptable officewear in Asia.

A week or two into the gig I did a double-take when I saw a girl wearing  an off the shoulder sequined dress. Was she going straight out night clubbing after work or did she stay out so late she had to come straight to work?

Photo - not mine

Photo – not mine

I mentioned the wardrobe choice of my colleague to a fellow expat friend.  She told me that some of the girls in her office dressed like that too.

So I asked my friend Andy, who spent several years living in Beijing and he confirmed this as norm. “It happens a lot in China. The women sometimes wear nightclub type clothing to office jobs. It’s not always seen as weird or unprofessional.”

I smirked obnoxiously as I relayed the story to a friend living in the US. “I wouldn’t meet my coworkers and clients dressed like I was headed to a party,” I claimed.

“Are you kidding??” she replied. “It’s brilliant! You wouldn’t need two sets of clothing! Instead of a work wardrobe and a party wardrobe, you’d just have one wardrobe. You wouldn’t even have to stop at home and change clothes after work. This is genius.”

And you know what? She’s right. How could I be so silly to assume that in the west we’re the only ones doing it right? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll stick with multiple wardrobes because that’s my culture, it’s the system I’m invested in and that’s what I’m comfortable with. However, the next time I see a girl in an off the shoulder disco number I’ll hold the snark, tell her she looks nice and pass her my slice of mooncake. Because honestly, mooncake’s not really my thing either.

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Singapore low crime rateAround the six month mark of living in Singapore, a friend of a friend was DJ’ing at a local restaurant/bar. I decided to attend and subsequently ended up dancing at some point in the night. Having moved to Singapore from London, and hearing many a tale of purse snatchings in Blighty, I felt most comfortable wedging my small purse in my arm as I busted a move.

The friendly Singaporean girls in the group started to giggle and asked me if I wanted to put my purse down with theirs- across the dance floor, unattended at a table.

“No, thank you,” I replied.

Confused they asked again, explaining to me “It’s Singapore. No one is going to steal your stuff.”

And while I knew this mostly to be true, I just couldn’t let go of the purse. It felt more comfortable to know where it was and to feel its presence than to set it down even if I was assured 99% of its safety.

Singapore’s low crime rate, its safety, is one thing that surprises travelers and divides expats.

My friend Magalie was making a round-the-world trip. She was staying in hostels alone and taking rides by herself in taxis. The second she got to Singapore, she finally felt like she could let her hair down. She knew she wouldn’t likely be taken advantage of if walking home tipsy from a bar or in a cab across town.

If you ask an expat if they like Singapore, they will likely fall into one of two camps: 1.) “yes, it’s so safe and clean here” or 2.) “its ok…. its just that sometimes its so clean and safe that it feels sterile.” It can really make one think. What does it say about our old and new cultures when sometimes we miss the grimey-ness and petty theft associated with home? Perhaps it’s as simple as yearning for the raw creativity that comes with a little graffiti and dirt.

We take advantage of the low crime rate and even complain about sterility, but perhaps this is a white washed view. Sure Singapore’s crime rate has fallen to a 30 year low, but I still wouldn’t leave my cash card in my motorbike while I pop into the shop, or my wallet as a seat holder at the hawker market, or for that matter my purse unattended at a table across the room.

Afterall, as the Singapore government will tell you, low crime doesn’t mean no crime. And the old habits of hanging on to your purse? They certainly die hard.

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I was in the US recently taking on some new work. Two things really struck me about being back in the US. The first was ERMAHGAWD, WINTER. Apparently I forgot what that felt like. The second thing was how the political atmosphere had changed. Marriage equality, healthcare, guns. It’s all happening. I submit this picture I took while entering the office as evidence.

Dear America, don't bring your guns to work

Dear America, don’t bring your guns to work

So strange to see these signs around, and even stranger that other people didn’t think they were strange. Or maybe 3+ years abroad has made me the strange one. Now there’s a philosophical question for you.

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I grew up in small town Texas in the 80s. You can make some basic assumptions about the lifestyle and diet there. It’s now a haven for the world’s most amazing tacos, but before the changing demographics, it was known for fried food and BBQ, and subsequently obesity.

My brothers and I were thin by nature. Tall, lanky types who could eat an entire week’s worth of groceries in one sitting. You didn’t leave food for later, it wouldn’t be there. Even if you hid it in the back of the fridge someone would find your stash. We didn’t try to be this way, we just were. We played like normal kids, alternating between outside and the TV.

And people would comment. We were described thin, bony, tall, slinky.

“Look at that girl. She’s so skinny. Wowee! And blonde too, one day she’ll be a model.”

Skinny, dripping with more envy than smart kind or even wealthy ever held. To be described as skinny held even more status than the bible-belt mandated description of Christian.

Skinny was their issue.

Skinny was my virtue.

Skinny became my identity.

lanky

My brother and I on my first day of eighth grade. Make no mistake, I’m not posing. I’m standing like that because I’m uncomfortable with my height and weight. Also, fringe/bangs are an anxiety ridden bathroom DIY job and shoes are a size to big, purchased on sale at Kmart.

In 1999, I moved away to Austin and attended the University of Texas. As you do, I gained 10 pounds in beer and buffets. It was a mad slap to the face.

I started to workout for the first time in my life. Not because I was interested in being healthy, but because I had lost my value. I may have still been thin and healthy, but I was not skinny. I had fallen from grace.

I’ve spent the last 14 years dealing with some level of body dysmorphia. I am not overweight. I am perfectly suited to my frame. I have amazing long legs and a slightly protruding belly. The belly protrudes partly due to my love of food and partly due to structural hip issues. My pelvis tilts forward due to postural problems and hypermobility. I had hip dysplasia at birth. It’s me. It’s my body.

There have been times when I have tried to cheat the system to find my lost virtue. Crash diets, starvation, diet pills. and then there have been times when I have tried other solutions. Postural realignment, exercise, self acceptance. These days I manage OK.

And then there are the days when hell really is other people. I don’t just mean MTV culture and pressure to be thin. I mean other people’s constant comments on your weight. I went to dinner with a friends family, most of which were obese. The dinner chatter kept circling around to my weight. I wasn’t the one doing it.

“Eat, eat, you’re skinny! You can have more!” I wasn’t starving myself, I was full. “I wish I was that skinny, you skinny Minnie!” It wasn’t my body issues that kept an entire dinner’s conversation circling around my size. It was someone else’s.

Or the look of glee on my mother’s face when she relayed a story of my brother arguing that I was not average sized, I was thin. I didn’t share the joy. I know it was suppose to be a compliment, but I could not be comfortable with the knowledge that my family was conferencing over which category of body size I fit in.*

It is uncomfortable to have one of my most personal things, my body, under scrutiny. Uncomfortable when done by strangers and acquaintances, but more intrusively by friends and family. Your daily intake and expenditures, your most basic life choices are watched and judged. You see, once you’ve been skinny, you will only ever be skinny or formerly skinny.

My body is my body. It is what it is. Most importantly, it works. If I eat healthy and take care of it and avoid any major accidents, it will hopefully continue to work just fine. Strong and healthy. This is the mantra I tell myself daily.

For the last year I have lived in Asia where I am large by comparison. I tower above the girls and boys just like in junior high, except this time I am not skinny. I am surrounded by very slight Asian girls. This is their body type. They are not this way by virtue, just like I was not skinny by virtue at age 10.

I step onto my patio and say hello to my neighbor’s domestic helper. We are both hanging morning laundry to dry. I am dressed for an office meeting.

“Oh you look so fat!” she compliments me.

My dress choice of the day is slightly more Christina Hendricks than Kate Moss.

“Oh it’s the dress,” I laugh. I understand that her intention is to describe me as voluptuous, not fat. Her culture values curves and womanliness. I am slightly working the va-va-voom.

I go inside and change clothes anyway. It’s not my culture to aspire to voluptuousness. But then, I don’t really want to be skinny either.

I just want to be me. Healthy and capable. Preferably free from other people’s issues, expectations and judgments, but most importantly, free to pursue other things in my life than skinny.

*Editor’s note: Blessings to my mother and all her good intentions, she didn’t know she was going to have a writer for a daughter.

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