Archive for November, 2011

Some American women bemoan the loss of gentlemanly manners—perhaps by the younger population or perhaps in some regions of the US.  I’m thinking of traditional courtesy like opening doors, stepping back to let a woman pass or exit an elevator first, allowing a woman to be seated first, and so forth.  Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I generally have experienced gentlemanly behavior (especially in the business world and in both SF and Atlanta).   And I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by men who all had excellent home training in a gentleman’s manners towards women—Mike, my father, my brothers, and even my work colleagues.

Here in Singapore—and perhaps generally in Asia—I notice completely different norms.  Generally Singaporeans are soft-spoken, polite, and restrained.  Westerners, with our tendency to talk animatedly with our hands, to use loud or excited tones, and especially to point with our index finger . . . are perceived as “aggressive.”  So Mike and I are learning to rein it in—especially our habit of pointing.  Instead, we’re to gesture gently with our whole hand & arm—more like Vanna White.  And you ought to see the “non-aggressive” way you hail a cab here—arm outstretched horizontally with the hand flapping up and down  . . . you feel like a duck.

But it’s the absence of gentlemanly manners here that I notice the most.  When an elevator or subway door opens, men will rush for the door—if it’s crowded, nudging aside whoever stands ahead.  We’ve been traveling subways and buses for weeks now, and I’ve seen many an Asian man dodge into a coveted seat, even if five women are standing around it.  Likewise in restaurants, deferential manners towards women are less practiced.   No one pulls out a woman’s chair or asks “the lady” what she would like, and waiters will more than likely take the man’s order first and serve him first.

I speculate that the absence of traditional male gallantry in Asia could come from the different traditions of East and West.  Western manners probably grew from the medieval European courtly behavior of knights and ladies, where publicly, at least, women were placed on a pedestal.  In contrast, Eastern attitudes towards women grew from traditions that involved harems, concubines, and bound feet as accepted public norms.

A few days ago, I waited at a bus stop with an elderly little Chinese couple (remember, everyone here is “little” compared to us).  They sat close together on the bench, and every few minutes the man would stand up to check the number of the oncoming bus, and then sit back down close to his wife.  When our bus arrived, I followed this sweet couple up the steps as he led the way, and then  . . .  this man ducked into the only seat on the bus!  His sweet little wife just trundled on to the back of the bus to stand.  I was dumbfounded . . . and thought how lucky I was to have my Southern gentleman husband always spotting the empty seats for me!!


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In her comment a few days ago, Nancy described conversations in Singapore.  They are nominally English, so I like to say that we don’t have a language barrier.  We have an accent barrier.  As she noted, I often have to ask someone to repeat what they just said, and sometimes I just don’t get it on the second or third time through so I guess at what an appropriate answer would be.  This may lead to interesting dishes at the hawker stalls.  On the other hand, when I believe that I’ve puzzled out the meaning of some statement, I nod my head very enthusiastically.  I do this with the intent of conveying to the speaker that, all of his or her expectations to the contrary, I really do understand.  “Yes, I really want hot sauce on that dish.”  “Yes, I really do want chopsticks.”  “Yes, I really want the fish and chicken combo,” and so on.  I choose not to think about what alternate interpretations of my enthusiasm might be (though they all include the phrase “crazy foreigner”).

In Japan, it’s an entirely different situation.  The language is distinctly Asian. English is not the lingua franca. Even the kids that “speak” it often don’t speak much – a few phrases and the odd word or two with a thick accent.  Curiously, though it would be a very wild guess (and wrong to boot) that I speak fluent (or any) Japanese, many people don’t hesitatie to speak to me, so I’ve adopted a new conversation mode.  I hear something in Japanese. I make eye contact to indicate that I’ve heard.  I decide what might be an appropriate thing to have been said, and I make the appropriate response in English.  I’ll admit that these conversations don’t go on for very long – just two or three sentences.  But they seem to work, and they’re quite an interesting form of language immersion.

For example, many of the office buildings have uniformed guards at the main doors or in the lobby or at the entry to the elevators.  As far as I can figure out, the guards are stationed to keep out unauthorized visitors.  Their uniforms are sharp, their gloves are white, their visage is stern, and they’re somewhat intimidating.  And, of course, they don’t speak any English, so getting into the building requires a bit of creativity.  It shouldn’t do any good for me to show my company badge, because while it has my picture and my name, there is neither company name nor logo (it’s as bad as the NSA, where the back of the badge said, “property of the US Government. If found, return to post office box …” Not only was the agency not named, neither was the Department of Defense.  And I always wondered whether it was the badge or me that was our government’s property).  In such a case, it comes to bluff and bravado.  Show the badge like it means something, say “Visa, floor 24”, look like you belong, and hope for the best.  Three times out of five, I was waved straight through with a nod.  The fourth time, I saw an ambiguous hand signal, and the guard said something to me.  One reasonable  interpretation was, “Very good, sir.  In you go.” So I said, “Thank you,” and walked in. There could have been other interpretations and “thank you” might not have been so appropriate, but this time it worked out fine.  Another time, the guard stopped me and wanted to question me more closely.  “Where are you going? What floor?” Who knows what he really said, but that might have been it. “Twenty-fourth floor.  Visa.” “All right, thank you.” “Thank you.  Good morning.”

In the restaurant, some parts of the conversation are impossibly challenging, but this part goes just fine: “Good evening.  What would you like to order tonight?” Incomprehensible, but it must be something like that. (It’s always possible that he really said, “Could I take your coat and hang it just over here for you?” or, “we’re all out of the duck this evening, but the chef has found some very nice venison if you’d like to try it.”)  “This, please,” pointing to a line on the menu, “and this to drink” pointing again. “All right, the duck,” pointing back to the same line to confirm, “and one,” counting with one finger, “glass of wine.  Very good.” “Thank you.”

Often, on leaving the restaurant, several of the wait staff will make eye contact, bow, and say, “Thank you for dining with us.” Whatever they really say, the intention must be something like that.  “Good bye.  Thank you.  I enjoyed it.” with a bow in return seems to be the appropriate thing to reply. At least they’ve acknowledged me and I’ve acknowledged them and it all seems to work out just fine.

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More Pictures – Japan

Nancy said that we need more pictures, so I’m trying to oblige … though I’m a little dubious that this is what she had in mind:

Of course, toilets, even in foreign lands, are not normally included in my list of country highlights, or in my mental inventory of Interesting Things to Photograph.  But this you have to see.  In Japan, a toilet comes with a set of interactive controls.  In addition to which, the seat is warm – a delight even if it’s not a cold morning.  Finally and to top it all, the water is nicely warmed.  How do I know? It’s all in the controls, which, I hope, are self-explanatory:

Imagine – there are people who grow up for whom this is completely normal.  And what they must tell their friends after they return from a trip to the US!  “Such a backward culture, with their primitive toilets! and they drive on the wrong side of the road.”

Using it for the first time, this thing is a little intimidating.  What happens if I press this button?  There are two ways to find out, but I chose not to ask, favoring the experimental method instead.  Surprise, surprise.

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Apple of My Eye Day

While Mike explored Japanese culture this week, I ventured out to my first movie date with two more trailing spouses from the AWA.  One woman, Anne, plans a movie/lunch outing monthly and then emails the “movie group” with details and a brief synopsis of the movie.

The mix of women in the AWA is more international than I first thought.  Anne was born in Taiwan (half British, half Taiwanese) but raised in Ohio.  She’s married to a Brit and has two small children born in Singapore.   When they finally leave Singapore, they plan to return to the UK.   The other woman, Claire, (half Russian, half Taiwanese)  and her husband both worked for the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in DC and came to Singapore for just a year. . . 11 years ago!  She says she fell in love with Singapore after two years, and now thinks they’ll stay here permanently.

What attracted both of these women to You are the Apple of My Eye is that it was made and set in Taiwan.  What attracted me was the chance to go to a movie and meet some more people while Mike is in Japan.  As with most things here, I had little idea what to expect.

I’ve gotten pretty good on the buses now that I’ve discovered www.gothere.sg and Google Maps on my phone to locate myself and bus stops.  I had no trouble finding the Cineleisure Orchard, a glitzy complex of small retail and eating venues, karaoke, e-gaming, and the main attraction, the “movie halls” on levels  4- 7 and 9.  I could see this being a crazy mecca for 13-20 year olds on weekends, but fortunately, it was pleasantly empty on Monday at 10:30 am.  We three met up at the box office, and the tickets were just S$7 for this a.m. showing.  You select your seats from a map, and we got great ones since there were only about 20 people in the theater.

Based on a true book, the movie was a nostalgic coming-of-age comedy about a group of friends’ maturing and first love.  It was in Mandarin, and Anne (fluent) was always laughing long before me as I was struggling to keep up with the English subtitles.  It had elements of Animal House (NOT my favorite parts!), but thankfully ended in a wistful, sophisticated, and not predictable way.  For me, the universal aspects were the best—yes it was set in modern Taiwan with a lot of incomprehensible (to me) talk, but the characters’ stories and feelings rang true for all three of us.

Afterwards, we walked next door to the Mandarin Gallery (mall attached to a hotel) for lunch at Jones the Grocer (a well-known chain here –an upscale café set inside a small gourmet food market).  I should mention that all the AWA women that I’ve met seem to live and hang out near Singapore’s famed “Orchard Road” shopping/hotel/entertainment extravaganza. 

It’s blocks worth of huge (and expensive) vertical malls, shoulder to shoulder, both sides of the street, with numerous side streets of both high- and low-rise condos.  This is where the American Club is.  This is where Mike’s “serviced apartment” was during his first weeks here.  Apparently this is where all the action is!  Where we live near Holland Village, 8-10 bus stops down the road, is more residential.

When we left the restaurant, you guessed it, another monsoon downpour.  The other ladies went off to get taxis, but I had time to explore.  I stayed under the 10-20 foot overhangs that every building seems to have, and just used my umbrella to cross streets.  After window shopping, I impressed myself by finding a new bus stop, using visual recognition to get off at the right stop, and making it home through the torrential rain.  I felt like a native.

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Dinner in Tokyo

Tokyo is definitely not Singapore.  The signs are not in English, nor is English is the lingua franca.  It just feels more challenging. Whereas in Singapore, I feel like I’m a foreigner, here I know that I’m an outsider.  If I get lost, I’m sure that I can somehow find someone who will be able and willing to point me in the direction of the hotel, though I’m not completely confident that I can tell them where I want to go.  For example, at the airport, we had to tell the taxi driver where to take us.  “Marunouche Hotel”, we said.  First, he corrected my pronounciation, and then he asked if we had an address.  The sinking feeling began – was he truly correcting my pronounciation, or was he really saying something similar but completely different?  The good news was that I had a printed copy of my itinerary which listed the hotel; the bad news was that it was in English and it was far from clear that this driver would understand it. He also asked for a telephone number.  At least, that’s what I think he asked for.  Good news! It was also on the itinerary.  Bad news – after we finally agreed on which line was the hotel numer, it didn’t seem to register with him and he did not call. He took awhile to sound out the address and then set off with great confidence.  Or at least it seemed like confidence, based on his speed.  We could, of course, have been going anywhere and I would not have known the difference. Eventually, we came to the train station that is close to the hotel and Peter, my colleague, began to point out where to go.  The driver called the hotel  (I guess) to ask for specific directions and we were soon there with no apparent backtracking (though we could have driven in many circles and I would not have known the difference!)
As I write, I just got back from dinner, which was a trip of a different kind.  Being on my own, I asked one of the young ladies at the hotel guest reception for a recommendation.  A restaurant with plain food, not too expensive, that would accept credit cards. “Japanese food or Western?” she asked.  Of course, I said, “Japanese.” She thought for a few minutes, then went to get a flyer to look at the restaurant listings.  She found one that  looked good, but after she called, she reported, with great disappointment, that they do not take cards.  She studied a bit more, then gave up and pointed me to a building with restaurant row.  “Lots of ethnic places here,” she said, but she did not know whether they would take a credit card.  I said that when I found a place, I could ask about credit cards and she seemed quite relieved.
All I had to do was navigate the underground maze  that leads from the hotel to several different trains as well as a few different buildings in this part of the city (well, I just don’t know what part it is, so don’t ask.  All I know is that it’s close to our office and you can catch a train to the airport).  Maybe it’s not quite a maze after all, but a little scary just the same.  Getting there would be one thing – maybe manageable.  Getting back after dinner, after a glass or two of wine, after an hour to forget the landmarks and directions, might be a whole different game.
The desk clerk told me to take the elevator to B1 [sidebar: as in Singapore, a building may have several basement levels, called B1, B2, B3 as you descend from the street level.  Initially, it’s confusing, but when understood, it makes good sense], turn left, then take the second right.  With no particular landmarks, the first left could be almost anything, and the second right even more so.  Then, it’s not quite straight on to morning, but sort of follow the crooks in your nose until you reach the Shin-Marunouchi building.  Then, somehow, find the way from B1 up to the fifth floor.  I’m not quite sure how, but I made it.  That’s a restaurant floor – all Japanese restaurants, and the menus at the door are,of course, all in Japanese.  Makes it hard to choose wisely.  I found one that seemed to be French-yakitori fusion.  (Note: for lunch, we had hamburgers from the Hawaiian grill. Even in the realm of food, the world is getting flatter – except for the hawker stalls all over Sing!) The wine was French, and pretty good.  Yakitori is somewhat like satay – little spears of things cooked over a charcoal hibachi grill.  not knowing exactly what I would get (or even approximately), I ordered steamed cabbage followed by the yakitori dinner consisting of five sticks.  Five sticks of exactly what was not specified.  And, by the way, it’s not exactly straightforward ordering when the waiter speaks only the barest English, and my Japanese is even slimmer. When I took a table, he explained, in few words and many gestures, that service would be slow (actually, “long”)  because there were a lot of people in the restaurant.  I sat at a very small table (the entire restaurant was tiny, and all of the tables were, politely described, very intimate). Mine was at a window overlooking the kitchen.  All evening, the yakitori chef lovingly inspected and turned his yakitori sticks over the charcoal grill.  I had never seen so many sticks of meat, mushrooms, onions, turnips, and more mean so carefully and  tenderly arranged, inspected, and turned.  Each thing on the grill was lifted and checked about every 30 seconds.  Maybe replaced, maybe turned, depending on whether it had reached the degree of doneness or carmelization that was optimal.
When my dinner began to arrive, the first course was a small dish of shredded carrots.  The waiter automatically put down chopsticks,  had a second thought and asked whether I wanted knife and fork. Not for me! When in Japan, eat like the Japanese! Ahhh … be careful of the slogans you choose!
Some time later the cabbage came out – I don’t know what they call it; we call it Napa cabbage, and it was more braised than steamed, but good. Time passed, the wine was good, and eventually the first stick arrived –  liver, medium rare.  Might have been chicken liver.  Or something else.  Again time passed, and the next dish was a half quail.  Later followed by … well, this one was a true mystery.  When the waiter brought it out, he showed me that it came from the lower back.  It seemed to be mostly, or maybe all, fat.  I could not say what animal.  Maybe fowl, but I’ve never seen that much fat on a bird.  Oh well, good none the less, but I won’t need to order it again.  Later, the next dish as something from the onion family that was larger than a spring onion but smaller than a leek.  Five grilled pieces of the stalk.  When the waiter came by after I’d eaten four of them, he was a little distressd and said, in another sign-language “conversation”, that I was supposed to peel back the tough outer skin and eat only the soft inner part.  And the remaining piece was, indeed, much better that way.  Later again, the last dish was a small meat patty, grilled to perfection, accompanied by a raw egg yolk.  Another “conversation”, and I understood that I was supposed to stir the egg yolk and pour it over the patty.  I don’t known what kind of ground meat went into the patty, but with the yolk and dark sauce slightly reminiscent of teriyaki sauce, it was good.  And the second glass of wine was delightful as well.
By the end of the evening, the waiter and I had a good conversation mode – his end was Japanese and mine was English and, though limited, our communication was perfect.
All done and paid, I presented my compliments to the chef, whom I had watched all evening.  Through the window, I mimed that my stomach was smiling, and then gave him a Thai-style thank you.  Whether he was genuinely pleased, or laughing at the ridiculous gaijin, I’ll never know, but I choose to believe the first.

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First Utility Bill

It took my breath away—for only  three weeks in the condo—and for two of those weeks, only Mike lived here.

Total Current Charges due on 24 Nov 2011 (Thu)  –  $600.09.

My sticker shock was alleviated by some interesting details:

  • SP Services is comprehensive–electricity, gas, water, garbage rolled into one—typical of Singaporean efficiency.
  • Garbage collection here and throughout the city is DAILY—explaining why this very dense urban environment always seems so clean and strangely odor free.
  • One line item on the bill is the “Sanitary Appliance Fee” commonly known as the toilet tax— $3 per toilet per month.  Not bad for us with only 2 toilets, but our expat  leader at last Saturday’s “Cultural Training”  seminar told us she once lived in a large place with 8 toilets—that tax added up!
  • And the biggest factor in this first WOW bill was a $500 deposit.  Next month’s bill should be saner.

Even the simplest aspects of daily life can be an adventure in learning.

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American Women!

My first days alone in Singapore (Mike has been working 12-hour days), I hunkered down at our new “home.”  I’ve hunkered not just in the condo, but in our complex, known as a “block” here.  Looking for  new friends, I’ve reached out both at the gym and swimming pool to other women residents at home during the day. (I’ve learned we’re “trailing spouses.”)

So far I’ve met Swedish “Lisbeth” who’s been here four years, but is now spending most of her time home in Sweden to be with four baby granddaughters. Sadly, she’s leaving for home again in two weeks. Then “Gerta,” the tall, slender German mother (she could pass as a model) is moving to a larger block next week with her growing family.  An athletic Brit and her young Asian boxing coach are deeply involved in their sport. Then this week when we had a plumbing problem at the condo, I finally met “Pauline” our Chinese/Singaporean landlady. We hit it off because she’s a semi-retired academic in a role very similar to the one I retired from last year—and she has both 1) encouraged me to teach English at her school (ah, probably not) and 2) invited me to lunch next Tuesday. The international flavor here is great, and this is a good start . . . but where are the American trailing spouses?

A fair share of expats like us live around Holland Village, and we’ve overheard many Brits and other Europeans speaking, but NO Americans so far. In attempts to find women friends, I even started conversation with a likely-sounding expat at the Holland Village shopping center; she turned out to be a Canadian who, unfortunately, lives across town. And so my quest to find a local friend network has been languishing.

Finally yesterday I explored the website of the American Women’s Association (AWA). Happily, they were having a meet-up today at the Starbucks at Orchard Parade Hotel—amid a warren of busy little streets chocked with huge vertical shopping malls—an intimidating area for me. Lacking Mike’s savvy with either street directions or public transportation, I spent the next hour researching maps and bus routes . . . and mustering courage to venture out alone by bus.

Today I did conquer that bus route . . . and I am so glad I did! At Starbucks I finally met my first Americans here:  a dozen chatty trailing spouses, all eager to help initiate a newcomer.  Afterwards, gracious but down-to-earth “Ann” escorted me several blocks to the AWA offices so I could join, and pick up their fat directory of women contacts and the sleek monthly Bamboo Telegraph with the calendar of activities. Finally, Ann treated me to lunch at the swanky American Club where her husband’s company pays the annual S$25K dues.

Before we left the club, yet another tropical deluge started, so Ann and I stepped out front to an umbrella-covered taxi stand and grabbed a cab together to head home through flooding streets. Even better than the bus.  I returned to our condo slightly soggy, but with a fist full of women’s personal cards (like business cards) and advice that I should have those made too. It’s lovely having friends!

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