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Archive for the ‘culture clash’ Category

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 feel more comfortable speaking Mandarin, 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.

Better communication and cultural understanding with those around me – that makes the time and energy to learn Mandarin 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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One thing about having interior designer friends is you get a totally different perspective on building design and public spaces.

For instance, I had long ago succumbed to the fact that establishments in Singapore don’t always have their own bathroom. You have to leave the premises to find a shared bathroom used by the building. While I find it a little off putting but just one of those quirks about living in Singapore, my interior designer friend was highly annoyed.

“How can an establishment this big NOT have a toilet?” moaned Lee.

“I don’t know, but speaking of, can you tell me where the toilet is?” I answered.

She pointed me out the building and around the corner. While there, I snapped a photo of this.

Clean Bathroom CampaignI sent the photo to my friend in the US who has spent some time in Singapore and also finds these campaigns fascinating. As I have mentioned before, the number of campaigns in this country is staggering.

“Hrm… is that really a problem?” she asked.

“I guess so,” I answered. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be a campaign for it.”

I shared the conversation with Lee and the other folks at the table and received back a unified “Yes, yes, YES. It is DEFINITELY a problem.”

“There you go,” I answered.

Here in Singapore, sometimes the loos are completely spotless, like at Changi Airport or the Zoo. At other times, not so much. It really shows you what an effort is put into keeping the clean ones clean. The next time I use the facilities at Changi Airport and am asked to rate my experience, I am giving the attendant full marks. It’s not an easy job to keep the loos clean, and often a thankless one.

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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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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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So you’ve arrived in Singapore and you’ve done a bit of homework. You may know a few of the areas around town, that drugs are punishable by death (don’t do drugs, kids), what a hawker market is and that it’s summer year round. You may even have figured out how the hospitals work and how to file your taxes. In that case, you are a step ahead of me.

But of course, there are inevitably things you don’t know. You just have no idea what type of things those are. Unknown unknowns, not to get all Donald Rumsfeld-y on you.

Anyway, here are some things I wish somebody would have told me.

ATMs

Your ATM situation just got complicated. Singapore is more of a cash society than many of us expats are use to. Many times you have to have cash or this thing they call a NETS card. Personally my will hasn’t given in to the NETS thing, but from what I can tell it’s this card you get from certain banks that you have to load money on to and then use. I feel like my money is my money until I spend it, I shouldn’t have to load it onto a card that I have to keep track of. That’s what a bank is for. Let’s not complicate it all with another system. But anyway, back to the point. ATMs.

If you are from Europe, you may be conditioned to use any ATM you find. If you are from the U.S. you may be conditioned to try to look for your ATM and then if you can’t find it in an emergency or fit of laziness, give in and pay the outrageous fees another bank’s ATM and your bank’s ATM add on top.

In Singapore, if it’s not your bank’s ATM or within a group of banks that your bank has joined forces with, your stuck. You can’t withdrawl money. At all. Not if you agree to ridiculous fees, not if you kick the machine, not if you yell at the person at 7-11 when they can’t tell you where the nearest ATM machine that takes your card is located. (Don’t yell at the locals.) You just have to hope that the people you are out with that you just met through a friend of a friend, some expat meetup or some work do will loan you $15 to go home and another $50 for your bar tab.

The first time this happened to me I had to leave where I was to rush around for half an hour trying to find an ATM that took my card. 50 SGD doesn’t go that far even though it sounds like a big number, so consider that when you make your withdrawal for the evening. The exception is a night out at the hawker market. Also, some cabs take credit card, some don’t. I always try to have a little cab fare in my purse for an emergency.

Tip #1: Keep your home country’s bank card on you for emergency as any ATM will take a foreign card and happily charge you for the privilege. You may want to do this at least until you are a bit more comfortable with the area and have an understanding of how much cash you should carry on you at any time.  It could help you out in a tight spot.

Tip #2: Your bank likely has a cell phone app that will tell you where there is an ATM you can use nearby. I have found these apps not to be very useful, but others like them.

Tip #3: Places like Cold Storage usually let you do a cash back, minimum $50.

Cell Phones

Or Hand phones as they call them in Singapore. I assume that when you got off the plane and got over your jetlag the next morning, you got a pay as you go phone. Your intent was to keep that until you could get settled in, have a paycheck and get on a plan. Well, don’t go getting your business cards made with that number. The phone company won’t let you take it with you. You’ll have to get a new phone number when you get a plan.

Riding Buses and MRTs

Navigating buses is tricky anywhere new. Sometimes it’s easier to go underground and just pop up like a whack-a-mole when you get to your destination. Unless you are near that Ion/Patterson link/ Orchard Road/ Scotts Road mess. You’ll know what I mean when you experience it. Don’t worry about that for now.

Anyway, buses can sometimes be much quicker than the MRT since the MRT has lots of transport dead spots. Just remember to tap the card in when you get on AND out again when you exit. In Singapore, they charge bus fair by a GPS measured distance you’ve traveled.

While we are talking about public transportation, I should tell you that to recharge your EZ link card you need at least $10 cash. In London, I used to load up my Oyster card with whatever change was at the bottom of my purse. That doesn’t fly here. If you get stuck, you can buy a one time use pass. It takes a $1 deposit and you pay exact fare to get from point A to point B. Point is, carry some cash.

Tip: Google and gothere.sg can tell you how long it takes you to get from point A to point B, the fastest route and price. Sometimes it just makes sense to take a cab. They are fairly cheap. If you’ve come from somewhere where cabs are expensive, it just takes a while to adjust your mindset.

Cabs

While we are on the subject of cabs, some cab drivers do not have a clue where things are on this island. As someone new to the country, you probably don’t either. Smart phones are good if you can get the cab driver to look at the map function. Also, addresses and names of establishments often mean nothing. Note the name of the building they are in and the street that building is on. That will be more recognizable for the driver.

Cab drivers are also often choose-y about where they will take you. They will roll down the window, signal for you to tell them where you are going in a panicked manner and by the time you’ve figured out what is going on and open your mouth to shout out “Tanjong Pagar!”, they’ve driven off. It’s a test of patience.

Tip #1: Get an app for ordering cabs. I use one by Comfort Del Gro. You can skip the taxi cab lines this way or order one to your house. The GPS on your smartphone will tell the cab where your location is.

Tip #2: Good luck with finding a cab in the rain. Start trying early.

Scooters and Motorcycles

To ride a scooter in Singapore, you need a motorcycle license. This takes 2 days in the US to obtain or 6-9 months in Singapore. God bless the U.S.

Singapore law requires you to have the motorcycle license for a year first in order to convert it to a Singapore license. If you think you may want to move to Singapore in the future, consider getting your motorcycle license in whatever country you currently inhabit. Since I’m not a bike fanatic, I think of riding a motorcycle as a skill set I need to have in life. Like changing a flat tire or knowing how to swim.

You may have to arrange your day around the rain, but a scooter or motorcycle may be the right option. Prices of cars here will make your mind explode and there can be serious public transport black spots.

Walking

People will think you are crazy for wanting to walk somewhere. After a while, you will start to understand why as a 20 minute walk in intense sunshine is not your 20 minute walk in London or NYC.

I’ve had people argue with me about how I couldn’t walk somewhere because it was too far when I simply just asked for directions. When you arrive sweaty and exhausted having gone the wrong way first you may understand why. Of course, if they had just told you where to go in the first place, you might not have got lost and ended up sweaty and exhausted. But that’s the way it goes. It’s Singapore.

Tip: Umbrellas are for sunshine and rain. Get a compact one and carry it with you. It goes in your bag, even if you don’t think you will need it.

Mall Food

People eat mall food. It happens here and is not looked on as weird or gross. In fact, people eat everywhere. Even the movie theaters have extensive food selections and not just popcorn, soda and nachos with imitation cheese. Singaporeans eat. That’s their thing.

Yes Sometimes Means No

OK, so maybe people don’t mean to lie, but the local culture has a real thing about not wanting to tell you no. Sometimes they just don’t want to disappoint you. This can get really confusing and frustrating. Use your Spidey Sense. If the person on the phone or at customer service twitches or inflates their voice weird or perhaps doesn’t expand with logic and reason to the answer, then ask the question again in a different way. If it sounds to good to be true or suspicious, it may well be. This has happened to me with the bank, when asking people for directions, with scheduling installation of products… the list goes on.

Well that’s probably good for now. Go see how all that treats you and report back. All cultures have quirks, it’s part of the experience and excitement to learn to navigate them.

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“Your suspenders look really cute with your pants!” means something totally different in America than in England.

Take care when uttering this phrase to a coworker.

 

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It’s difficult to deal with the stress of a death in the family. It’s downright insane to deal with a talking semi-estranged dead father whose body needs to be transported back to his war-torn homeland. Shore portrays this situation with a balance of sincerity and humor.

We witness the main character, Wilfrid, undergo rapid maturation after making a blunt revelation about his heritage. Despite the stark subject material of death and suffering, the play remains light and enjoyable. Wilfrid’s psyche’s comical manifestations and a few tricks of Wajdi Mouawad’s playwriting style reflect a sense of how we deal with tragedy as humans. All too common in a life changing situation, we are forced to stop and laugh at the absurdity of it all.

This is all complimented by an obvious drawing on Wajdi Mouawad’s personal cultural divide. He draws on his Lebanese roots and western experiences to create this commentary on heritage and responsibility that labels neither as good nor bad. It’s just what is.

In the end the play feels unlikely and sappy and yet at the same time honest and funny. I recommend this performance to anyone. I especially recommend it to those seeking something a bit deeper than the likes of Sadler’s Wells’ Shoes, wanting to see a well-run show in a cozy intimate environment, or just interested in seeing a nice looking man start off the show in his boxers.

Wilfrid. Picture courtesy of Arcadia Productions.

As an added treat, you can stop in and hang out at Riverside Theatre cafe and bar. The night I popped in the atmosphere was buzzing with great music, conversation and a nice selection of adult beverages. Food is available as well although I did not have a chance to try any.

Riverside Studio's very happening cafe.

Shore runs through April 16th, 2011 Contact Riverside Studios for exact showtimes. Tickets are £15 (£10 concessions).

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