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Archive for the ‘culture shock’ 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 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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I’m out with my friend, Afsan, and someone asks us how long we’ve been in Singapore.

“Six months,” I say.

She looks at me and says “No, honey. You’ve been here eight months. I’ve been here six months.”

Can that really be true? I start to do the math and sure enough, eight months.

I’m not the new kid on the block anymore.  I went to my first going away party a few months ago. Anywhere else in the world eight months might still be new, but in a city where people stay either two years or twelve years, I’m becoming an old timer.

Wow, this happened rather quickly.

Despite Afsan being in Singapore for six months, her husband, Max, only just arrived.  I spent a day with them and another friend, Colin, on a driving tour around town.

Colin jumps in the car and immediately hands over a copy of one of Neil Humphreys books on Singapore. I get a little too excited. “Oh my gosh I’m reading his collection! Insightful, though a bit cheesy at times.” I can’t express quick enough the pride in finding the book all on my own and the many thoughts I have about it.

It’s Max’s first time living abroad and his excitement is charming and infectious. I remember flipping through my Singapore Lonely Planet before I arrived, imagining a land of temples, tofu and adventures yet to be had.

Max has only been here two days and he has lots of questions and a little bit of jetlag. Some questions I can answer, some I leave to Colin and Afsan. I’m surprised at how much I know about this place in such a short time.

“What’s that building over there?”

“It’s an HDB. You can assume that pretty much any ugly building is an HDB,” I answer. The others look at me and I realize my bluntness is laced with cynicism – cynicism that can slay enthusiasm. Now I feel a desire to start checking myself. I want his excitement to last as long as possible.

I want the travelling new experience magic to linger. I want to see my own experience through fresh eyes, not the eyes that deal with finding work, struggling with grocery store food choices, missing my friends around the globe.

I remember what it feels like to talk to people back home about what I am up to, to see my life from their perspective. It all sounds very exotic and exciting to live all over the world. It’s one of the many things I have dreamed of.

I remember that yes, my life is exciting. I am doing the things I want to be doing. I’m living, I’m exploring, I’m learning. The daily grind is just the daily grind.

I start to recall the things about Singapore that I really appreciate. “You get to meet very interesting people,” I say to Max. And indeed, that’s the biggest most meaningful and honest complement I can give.

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Can you imagine what an alien would think of Christmas traditions if it landed in the US in December? Fat men wearing beards and red jumpsuits sneaking into people’s houses at night,  a possibly alcoholic drink made with raw eggs, weird shiny stuff hanging on trees that have been cut down and placed indoors. Specially designed songs?

When you put it that way, it does sound strange. That sums up my Chinese New Year experience so far.

I know it’s right around the corner. I know it’s a big deal. I understand that each year symbolizes an animal. I was born in the year of the rooster, this year will be the year of the snake. I just have no idea what it really is or what people are going to do to celebrate.

A month ago I took a work training course and as a completion present I was given decorative envelopes. “What are these for?” I asked the girl next to me.

“They are for the new year,” she said.

“But what do I do with them?” I asked.

“They are only for married people,” she explained.

“Oh I’m married!” I exclaimed.

“You put money in them and give them to people who are not married. It’s a thing you have to do. But only in even increments for good luck.”

I gave her the are-you-insane look. I didn’t benefit from this system when I was single. I don’t think I’ll start participating now.

Plus, as a 30-something year old woman with no family in the country, it would be weird to start handing out money filled envelopes to my late 20 and early 30-something friends.

I see the preparations going on around me. I notice that many businesses are closing down. Closures are not just for a day or two, but for an entire week. I am prepared for an event, but I don’t know how prepared I should be. Questions like “will I be able to get food or should I start hoarding?” start to come to mind.

The hair salons are either charging extra or hosting new year packages. There are plants for sale everywhere. I joined in the fun and bought a lovely orchid.

My lovely orchid.

My lovely orchid.

The grocery store is stocking canned abalone and orange gift baskets. You bring oranges to your host and they give you the same in return.

It reminds me of the time in the 6th grade my birthday twin, Deena Wilkins, and I gave each other a happy birthday 5 dollar bill. “Happy birthday!” we said as we swapped $5 notes.

And then there’s the campaign urging people to not eat shark fin soup this year.  Apparently it’s a real problem only perpetuated by the desire to adhere to tradition.

I have lots of surprises coming. Sure I could do some internet research, but there’s only so much reading about something you can do. At some point you have to experience to understand.

Maybe I can convince someone to invite me around. I promise I’ll bring oranges, but please don’t expect a red envelope!

Editor’s note: If you are hanging around Singapore, Time Out Singapore has a list of recommended restaurants for Chinese New Year and the Honeycombers have some good tips on alternative things to do.

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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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For myself and a lot of Americans, Thanksgiving is a much bigger family holiday than Christmas.

This sentiment was not noticed until I started living in England where there is obviously no real celebration of Thanksgiving. Christmas in the UK is the major holiday and the month of December is full of many parties leading up to the event.

My view is different.

When working in the American corporate world, a week off of work is rare. Since I saw travel as an important life experience, I always used that week accordingly.

Thanksgiving, however, is a long weekend meant for families. You spend the day cooking real food, relaxing with your biological or adoptive family and trying to remind yourself of all you have to be grateful for.

Thanksgiving is the underdog. So much more wholesome than it’s greedy expensive sibling, Christmas.

When you are living abroad, things shift. Sure the grocery stores stock American food items including cans of french fried onions for your green bean casserole and free range turkeys, but you don’t get the day off work and the people around you don’t understand the holiday in its entirety.

Last year in London I decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner at my home. I had a friend visiting from the US who had brought along a friend of hers and a few other American and non American friends to invite over.

I envisioned a day full of cooking and sipping wine followed by lively conversation around the gorgeous dinner table in our conservatory. I spent time sourcing ingredients and pre-ordered my groceries online.

Thanksgiving Table

And then things just fell apart.

The girls staying with me had a massive fight the night before, leaving one of them missing until the next morning and when she did reappear they were not speaking.

My groceries were late. Really late. Which left me late to put the turkey in.

People’s schedules got delayed and I spent the day cooking alone with two house guests who were in a sour mood.

And as the weather was changing, the nights getting longer, people were more and more fatigued. Dragging their bones from across London to my house after a long day of work to have a few bites of turkey and leave.

So much preparation, and then it was over. The guests had given it their all, considering the situation. My expectations obviously needed to be adjusted.

I had made sure there were plenty of leftovers to take home, but few obliged. As I don’t eat turkey, there were to be turkey sandwiches for my husband for weeks to come.

“I tried to get a small one,” I reasoned.

“Next year can we just get a small chicken or a ham?” he asked.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t a tofurkey,” I answered.

So this year, we have done a major oops. Without the constant reminder that it is around the corner, we have made other irreversible plans that do not involve traditional Thanksgiving activities.

Maybe it will be better this way. We can celebrate the following Saturday. Gather together the few Americans we know across the island of Singapore and cook a turkey on our primitive gas fired camping stove that acts as our primary cooking device.

Or perhaps its time to redefine Thanksgiving and make it work for us. Afterall, the Australians spend Christmas having a BBQ on the beach. Maybe we trade in the warm cider and oven baked turkey for corn on the cob and champagne. Adapt. New traditions are all in the making.

Editor’s note: You’ll be happy to know that the primitive gas camping stove was eventually upgraded to a real stove complete with oven and burners.

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I know Singaporeans like to shop and the climate lends itself to sundresses and the like, but I truly find it bizarre how some shops choose to diversify their portfolio.

For example, the picture below. Don’t the clothes just end up smelling like last night’s dinner?

Cute top, though.

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“Oh my god, Laura. How are you going to speak over there?” said my manager at one of the gyms I taught at in London when I told her I was moving to Singapore. I gently explained to her that in Singapore they speak English.

“So yeah, how many chickens do you have in your back yard?” That was my brother over the phone when I had been here less than a week. At first I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not. He was. I think?

“Just promise me you will behave,” said Blair. “I’m really worried about you. No chewing gum, no jaywalking and please just don’t talk back to anyone.” This comment was a little bit closer to reality than the others. I’ve never been that good at following rules that I find personally irrelevant or keeping my mouth shut when challenged and Singapore does have a lot of rules.

“See you when you have to bust me out of jail!” I nervously joked to Blair and her husband, Patrick, as they saw me off towards Heathrow.

So far I’ve only met one person who’s received a ticket for jaywalking. That person knows of no others.

There’s something important about misconceptions.

For instance, my friends and family keep asking me if I’m having a blast. Yes, having a blast if you love re-orienting to a foreign country’s grocery store, spending a weekend afternoon wondering through IKEA and navigating wholesale furniture sales and arguing with banks and estate agents. It’s interesting and educational, but the word fun might be a stretch.

Mix in the stress of Husband’s new job, no way to commute to work and a recent housefire. There’s excitement, but it is a bit overshadowed by stress.

Jenn asked for photos. I sent her this picture of broccoli juice from the local Carrefour since I didn’t have any glamorous beach shots to send.

Broccoli Juice

Carrefour in Singapore is amazing. It has every stereotype expat product ranging from certain types of fancy Italian pasta to Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. I haven’t had Peanut Butter Captain Crunch in over 10 years, but all of a sudden I NEED it.

So if we are going to get started about incorrect perceptions, I suppose I should mention my own.

I’ve been here one week and I already get frustrated. Frustrated with the bank and how the man on the phone just told me what I wanted to believe instead of the truth without even checking my account. “That’s the culture here,” a banker explains to me. Do I believe him? I don’t know.

I am frustrated with the legal terms on the lease for our house and how they blatantly favor the landlord. “That’s how leases are written here,” says the estate agent. Do I believe her? I don’t know.

Frustrated with the people zigzagging in my way in the MRT malls instead of moving from point A to point B. I have to go somewhere, people. Pay attention!

Frustrated with the people on the MRT who run for a seat or play flashy videos as they wait.

Frustrated with the way the clerks in the shop stand about 6 inches from me the moment I walk in the door. Do they think I am going to steal something or is this their version of customer service?

Frustrated that I don’t know where to buy duct tape or thank you cards not covered in glitter.

Frustrated with how as an expat I am “suppose to” take cabs all the time now instead of public transport when I just spent the last two years trying to avoid taxis.

Frustrated with how the crowds operate and the Facebook profile picture taking that goes on endlessly at what I perceive to be hokey mall events.

Frustrated at my perceptions.

Some people call this all culture shock. Others call it outright rudeness to impose my beliefs on another culture. They are probably both right, who am I to say what’s the correct way to do things?

Be gentle with me. I am new here.

“It would be different if I was on holiday,” I say. “I live here, I’ve got to get things done. I have deadlines.”

We see things not as they are, but as we are.

I see this quote frequently contributed to Anais Nin?

I start to consider all the quirks of my own country.

Did I mention that this is only the end of week #1?

Before I left England, my friend Naomi gave me a Reiki session. “Just try to be curious,” she warned. “You need to approach this adventure with wonder and curiosity, otherwise you will feel frustrated.”

And so I try. Here it goes. Here’s to week #2.

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