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Archive for the ‘culture clash’ Category

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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The first time I saw this, I giggled.

Coffee cup carrying case

Seriously? You have added a plastic piece to turn my beverage into a carrying case? They do this almost everywhere in Singapore. You order a juice, a coffee, from just about everywhere unless it’s an American chain and you get this flimsy appendage as a bonus.

Because it’s too difficult to carry a cup?

“Hey don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” my inner voice tells me.

I tried to order my coffee without it once, but I’m not sure what it’s called and the lady behind the counter didn’t understand me and just thought I was weird.

I’ve progressed. I now ignore it instead of immediately ripping it off, but it still just seems like extra trash destined for a landfill to me.

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I’ve never had things not made for me.

That’s a lie.

The original plans in the engineering building at my university did not call for a women’s bathroom. The school compensated by converting the one on the first floor into a ladies room, much to the chagrin of the men.

And the entire thing about being a female engineer is really a bit abnormal in the first place.

Then there was that period of time- my entire teenage years- when I was too tall and skinny to fit into normal jeans or trousers. Everything was just a few inches too short leaving my socks showing and submitting me to high school mean girls shouting “There’s a flood!” when I turned the corner. Although the bully experience was scarring, you don’t get much sympathy for being too tall and skinny.

And then I gave up eating meat, so there was that. But I lived in Austin, and then London so that wasn’t too much of a problem.

But mostly I fit in. I’m right handed. I’ve never had a disability, unless you count being severely clumsy.

Then I moved to Singapore where my average height self and husband stand up tall over the rest and not eating meat is something the Hindus do, not the ang mohs.

But the daily struggle is the clothes and the beauty products. My friends back home were shocked to hear that in Singapore I was an XL.

Sure you can get the same high street items as you get anywhere like Gap and Zara, but they aren’t guaranteed to stock your size.

For the record, I’m not overweight.

And the beauty products are to lighten skin and smooth the hair, while I already get pretty pasty and have hair so smooth and flat that it will hardly hold in a ponytail.

The sales ladies don’t understand and in their aggressive nature proceed to tell me how their smoothing serum is great for Caucasion hair.

“But lady, look at it. It doesn’t need to be any straighter. It’s already limp and lifeless,” I try to reason with them.

They can’t seem to answer my question as to why the skin product they are pushing is allegedly good for Caucasians. I then realize I am only being placed in one category: white.

This is the portion of the post where I apologize to all my black female friends and acquaintances whom I did not take seriously enough about their hair and beauty product struggles. Obviously my problems are not the same, and yet I still feel traumatized.

I’m made to feel racist when I request a hair stylist who can deal with REALLY fine and thin hair. “All of our stylists our good with Caucasion hair.”  That’s not what I was asking, and by the way I ask this question at all new salons. That includes in the US and Europe. So really, please don’t take offense!

These are first world problems, I know, but you don’t mess with a girl’s hair.

My last haircut left me feeling pretty sad. At the end of the haircut, I had to ask for more product. And more product. “My hair is so fine it’s falling in my eyes,” I had to point out.

“Oh sorry,” she said. “Most Singaporean girls don’t wear product in their hair.” I tried to smile, but couldn’t help but think about how I had just paid her $70 to teach her how to cut my hair.

I know there must be very talented hair stylists in Singapore, I just have to learn where to look.

I walked straight out of the salon- one I found on expat forums miscategorized as cool and chic and good with fine hair mind you- and straight into a plate of cheese fries.

If you are going to engage in emotional eating, might as well do it full force.

I guess I should be grateful that there are some things you can get everywhere.

Texas style, with a side of ranch.

Author’s note: In case you are desperate for a reminder of home, there’s a Chili’s at Tanglin mall and Clarke Quay in Singapore. Normally I wouldn’t condone this behavior, but hey, there’s really no shame in it from time to time. I know a foodie friend who once drove 2 hours in the UK just to go to a TGIFriday’s. Think about how desperate he must’ve been.

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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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I’m at the yoga studio chatting lightly with a fellow American. I ask her where she’s from and she tells me Delaware. She returns the question and I answer with Texas. This question is followed in it’s normal fashion with “what part?”

I give her the story. I grew up outside of Houston. I then spent about ten years in Austin and two in the Dallas/Fort Worth area somewhere in the mix.

There’s a man standing nearby, hanging around on the edges of the conversation. He turns to Ms. Delaware and says “I went to Houston once about ten years ago. It was awful. I took a yoga class in a hotel gym and it was like being in a competition. Not yogic at all! Ugh, Houston!”

Hello? I’m right here. What alien takes over some people’s brains when you tell them where you are from and makes them immediately insult it?

And yes, I’m sure your one experience in a Houston hotel gym ten years ago qualifies you as an expert.

I relay the story to my friend, Carolyne. Carolyne is hilarious. She has a thick southern accent despite being long gone from South Carolina and having married a British man. While I usually get asked if I’m from Canada, she gets asked if she’s from Texas. Oh, the irony.

“Girl, try being from South Carolina. At least they don’t tell you that where you’re from people marry their siblings.”

Yes. Touche.

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Since my move to London, my wardrobe has had to go through a harsh adjustment. The winter months were tough as I was  always cold and absolutely clueless on winter fashion. The summer months are difficult for another reason. The ladies are out in their spring dresses and flowery clips while I am still in full trousers and a jacket. Yet again, I am always cold.

In Texas, I developed a summer uniform. 60 consecutive days of 40° C will drain the effort out of you about the same way that too many days of dreary 5°C weather will. All you want is a short hike and a lovely cold spring to jump into. Hence, you travel light. Black tank, bikini, Reef flip flops. Before you leave the house, you check your pocket for your wallet, phone and keys. Sunglasses rest on your head. You are out the door headed to Barton Springs.

Let’s compare that to London spring/summer fashion. All of a sudden I’m not travelling very light anymore.

Rachel, a fellow former Austinite, was visiting a few months ago and commented on London street fashion. “It looks great, but there’s no way I could even think of putting together some of those outfits. It’s like they just keep adding things and somehow it works.”

And indeed, I believe that’s how it’s done. That dress is beautiful, but it’s way too cold to be wearing it. Let’s add some tights and a jacket. Also- those shoes? Impractical for commuting. Let’s put a spare pair of flats in your humongous bag. What else is in the bag? Well, first of all the sunglasses you aren’t wearing. An umbrella, because you never know when it is going to rain. Then your oyster card, a book for your commute, plasters (bandaids) for when your shoes give you blisters, your gym clothes because there’s no way you are making it home and then back out again after your day, a snack, and of course, phone wallet and keys. This is a minimum.

It’s taken a while for me to get this down and to accept the fact that the window for summer wear is so short. I think I’m finally getting there. Now if I could only figure out how to lug this bag around without having to see an osteopath later.

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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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