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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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badge_Singapore The wonderful people at Internations got in contact with me a few weeks ago to let me know that they would like to feature Texas On Thames as a Singapore Recommended Expat Blog. If you aren’t familiar with them, they are a global organization that hosts tons of great events to help expats connect with one another. I am super honored to be interviewed and listed among such talented Singapore writers. Here’s a link to my interview, go have a look and tell me what you think. 🙂

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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’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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