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In chatting about Mike and my recent trip to China, a Singaporean friend (of Chinese descent) commented about his tough experiences doing business in China:  “They don’t think like us.  Maybe in another generation.”

Some of this may be language barriers – few Chinese speak English, and Mike’s business meetings in Shanghai all have interpreters.  To complicate things further, dialects of different regions are incomprehensible to other Chinese.  The only Chinese nationals we really converse with during our 12 days in Shanghai and Beijing are our two English-speaking guides.  Each has a degree in Tourism and Hospitality and 10+ years of tour-guide experience.  Both know dynasties and dates, heights of buildings and bridges, silk industry, agricultural past, industrial present  – amazing factual knowledge, but little unscripted – they have to pass government tests to keep up their licenses.

 Heidi is our Shanghai guide.  Proud to be Shanghai-born, Heidi is cute and stylish, wearing silk dresses with matching jackets and heels – aged 32 but could have passed for early twenties.

First, we definitely pick up a Shanghai-superior attitude toward Beijing in her contrast of these two metropolitan areas:

Heidi:  Shanghai is center of finance, shipping and commerce, media, technology, fashion, and largest city in China with over 23 million people.  Beijing is center for politics.  Many people say Shanghai is Asian Manhattan with so many skyscrapers.  When you go to Beijing, you will see it is low with mostly four-story buildings.  And what we eat is different.  Here in the south, we eat a rice-based diet – lighter food.  In Beijing diet is flour-based because it’s colder there.  Beijing people are taller and fatter, and men have big bellies from drinking.

The best bits are her few “off-script” comments.

Nancy:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

H:  It must have been something Mao did.

After Heidi expresses disgust with cigarette smoke in one restaurant . . .

N:  Is the government doing anything to encourage people to stop smoking for health reasons—like they do in Singapore and the US?

H:  Not really . . . government doesn’t care what we do. (Later we notice “No Smoking” signs in restaurants – largely disregarded.)

Heidi shares extensively about her latest “cute boy” problem – lamenting that Shanghai boys are only interested in drinking, gambling, making money, and having fun with girls.  She thinks they’re spoiled from the one-child law.  (Heidi herself is an only child who lives with parents, and mother does all her cooking and laundry.)

N:  My brother once dated a woman from China, and she claimed that Chinese women today don’t like Chinese men for the same reasons you mention . . . and prefer Westerners.  Is that true?

H:  No, girls in Shanghai want a Shanghai boy because we speak the same language. . . . (thinking pause)  Your brother . . . is he married yet?  (Later our Beijing guide will tell us that the Shanghai dialect is very distinctive.)

Once we leave a silk museum in the rain and duck into a taxi.  The driver and Heidi in the front seat chat away in Chinese until Heidi turns around and says . . . our driver asked if you are film stars here for Shanghai Film Festival.

N:  Do any drivers speak English?

H:  No, if they could speak English, they wouldn’t drive taxis.

Sam takes over as our Beijing guide.  Married, he moved from a rural area 11 years ago and now lives in a high-rise with wife, mother, and nine-year-old daughter.  Like most Beijingers, Sam is less stylish and savvy with electronics than Heidi . . . and with a heavier accent, but he’s more measured in his responses and shows a bit of intellectual curiosity.

N:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

Sam:  It’s because of wars – the Anti-Japanese War [WWII], the invasion of the Eight Allied Powers [Boxer Rebellion], and other wars.  China was invaded many times over centuries. Thousands of Chinese people die in wars and also in many terrible earthquakes and floods.  And most provinces have agricultural economy until recently, and people needed children.

We ask Sam about the frightening driving we’ve seen.  Drivers regularly drive down the middle of lane markers, speed along expressway shoulders, and blare horns continually.  Stepping into pedestrian crosswalks with the “green man” is risky business  . . . cars sail through red lights, tooting and nudging pedestrians out of the way.  We explain that in both Singapore and the US, pedestrians have the right-of-way, but here cars seem to take it.

S:  No, in rules here also pedestrians have right-of-way.  But so many drivers are new here, and people with cars think they are more empowered than pedestrians.  When I move to Beijing eleven years ago, cars are rare – bicycles are everywhere.  Beijing is adjusting to so many drivers, and police start to enforce laws.

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace – all are swarming with tourists, but mostly Chinese nationals, and Mike and I do stand out (height,  coloring, clothes).   Student groups, often in uniforms, ogle us, and Sam tells us they often visit the capital city between junior and senior high.  He also says that rural citizens now can save enough money to travel to these revered sites, once hidden and now open to the public.  Older rural tourists frequently sport mismatches of patterns and prints along with colorful “group” matching hats.  Each place, Chinese tourists ask Sam to take pictures of our exoticness.

One time we watch a rare group of Caucasians emerge from a small tour bus, and I ask Sam what country he thinks they’re from – since he’s an experienced tour guide.

S:  I think from Sweden or Norway . . . because of their skin. 

N:  Really . . . you can tell from that?

S:  Oh, yes.  Weather is harsh there and show in their skin and hair.  Americans are special with good skin and hair because air and water are so good there.

N:  Since both you and your wife are English-speaking tour guides, do you speak English with your daughter at home?

S:  We mostly speak our home-town dialect – our daughter mostly understands, but can’t speak.  She speak Mandarin, and we have language tapes to teach her English.  In time Mandarin will become more common throughout China . . . television is making a difference.

N:  Have you yourself traveled much outside of China or to other parts of China?

S:  No, but I hope to go to Shanghai someday.  If I travel outside China, I want to go to Egypt to see pyramids before the writing on them disappears.

China is definitely catapulting from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first . . . we saw it everywhere.  Sam proudly stated that the standard of living is now on par with 1970s U.S. . . . a fair assessment from what we witnessed in Shanghai and Beijing.

Language barriers – swelling of cities – rapid industrialization – revolutionizing economy – national pride – no wonder they don’t think like us!  Mike and I are learning so much from Asia . . . and we’re looking back over our shoulders to the U.S. from this new perspective.

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Chinese New Year 101

This morning I went to more cultural training—Lo Hei Traditions—in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year while Mike winged his way to Hong Kong.

Because eighty percent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, CNY is huge here—15 days of organized celebrations, including two public holidays.  As soon as Christmas decorations come down (Jan 2), CNY banners and lights start going up.

To prepare for the holidays, Chinese people do spring cleaning, buy special foods, and decorate with distinctive plants like tinted pussy willows, yellow chrysanthemums, and fully-fruited kumquat trees (sometimes going for S$800-1200!).  They decorate door frames with red banners and hang a pair of pineapple lanterns on either side.  Special foods include black moss seaweed, dried oysters, whole fish, abalone, and hog knuckles or trotters.  All of these items and colors—especially red and gold—hold symbolic meanings:  generally prosperity, wealth, and good luck.  Red is especially auspicious because it also keeps away demons, so we’ve seen red lanterns hanging from trees, over streets, and in malls all over the city.

Then there’s the gift giving.  If we visit Chinese friends during these holidays, we’re supposed to bring oranges for good luck (preferably easy-peel, tangerine style)—but only in even numbers (two or six, but not four, which is unlucky.)  When we leave, they will give us oranges back!  Yes, I do think that people just check their supply of gift oranges in the kitchen and just swap them around.

Another great tradition is favored by children:  Married people must give red envelopes with cash to all unmarried persons (good luck, prosperity again).  You give more to your own children plus nieces and nephews and parents, but even a few dollars to each unmarried family friend—yes, even 30 and 40 year olds—along with a gentle nudge . . . “and when will you be getting married?”  A young Christmas dinner guest had told us that she collects several hundred dollars each year.  Other Chinese parents have said the red envelopes can cost them up to to S$1000 each year!

Finally we got to the “Lo Hei Tradition” part (tossing up good fortune), and this involved eating!  On the 7th day of CNY, the family or party group jointly tosses a big salad of 10 special ingredients, each with symbolic meanings:

  1. raw fish = abundance throughout the year
  2. pomelo (like grapefruit) = good luck and smooth sailing
  3. pepper = attract wealth and treasures
  4. oil = make 10xs profit with capital
  5. carrots = good luck is approaching
  6. green radish = stay forever young
  7. white radish = reach higher level with each step
  8. peanut crumbs = household filled with gold and silver
  9. sesame seeds = prosperity for the business
  10. deep fried flour crisps (golden pillows) = floor covered with gold

It can include other spices and flavorings (cinnamon, nutmeg) and ingredients also, and was surprising delicious!  The higher you toss, the better the luck.  It makes for a very messy table, but the main meaning should leap out from the ingredients!  This “Prosperity Salad” is unique to Singapore, but has gained popularity so that the practice is spreading to Malaysia and Hong Kong.

So what year are we entering?  I’ve just started learning all these traditions, many that seem superstitious to Westerners—like the Chinese Zodiac.  By tradition, Buddha invited all the animals to visit him in the forest, but only 12 accepted—monkey, rat, tiger, ox, snake, etc.  We’re just coming off the year of the rabbit (2011), and we should all be celebrating the fact that we are entering 2012, the year of the DRAGON—the most powerful of the 12 animals.  Under that auspicious sign, this should be a good year for getting married, being born, or making major decisions and transitions—and for all lucky enough to have been born under the sign of the dragon.  If you wish to do a quick birth sign check:   http://www.chinesezodiac.com/calculator.php

Tomorrow is a “Chinatown Walking Tour” for this trailing spouse—what I think of as my continuing education here.  This tour could be my CNY 102 course!

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Our faithful readers know, by now, of course, that Singapore is just three degrees north of the equator.  Our two seasons are hot and wet, and hotter and drier.  Our days get at most five minutes shorter in the winter (our hot and wet season) and five minutes longer in the summer.  Our population is primarily ethnic Chinese, with a significant fraction of ethnic Malay, and a smaller but still significant fraction of ethnic Indian.  In school, English is the primary language, but students are required to take twelve years of classes in the language of their ethnic heritage: Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil.

We do not get snow.  (When I took a taxi home from the airport a few days ago, I talked with the driver about the rain that we’d had for the last several days, and then I asked what he thought the weather would be for Christmas.  “Maybe it will snow?” I asked.  He almost choked!  “No.  No snow in Singapore.  If it snow here, something wrong!”)  We do not have short days for the winter solstice.  We do not have a majority Christian population.

So, what about Christmas?  See for yourself:

Is that snow on the tree?  Snow in Singapore?  Really?  Well, no, it’s soap suds.  There’s a special machine that churns the suds and sprays them on the tree.  Really?  a soap suds machine?

If you look closely, you’ll see that the girl in the picture is not Nancy.  Who is she?  I have no idea.  When the Christmas trees appear on Orchard Road, the cameras come out.  Everyone has a camera, and everyone wants to take a picture of their girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kids or maybe some random hottie standing in front of a big tree:

Every mall of any importance along Orchard Road has a tree.  Twenty feet seems to be the minimum height.

It looks like the hop-on, hop-off bus has a special tour of the Orchard Road Christmas trees.

Paragon Plaza may be the mall with the most expensive brand stores, the coldest air-con, and the biggest tree.

Soap-suds machines not withstanding, we don’t expect a white Christmas in Singapore, but the light show is pretty good none the less.

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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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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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Our First Salon Visit

We got our hair cut today for the first time.  Luckily, neither of us came out with a distinctively Chinese-looking haircut.

We walked down to Holland Village without an appointment, having seen at least three salons there that looked suitable.  Up a set of stairs to a second-story contemporary-looking place called NeXt, and we dove in fearlessly. The salon had a San Francisco vibe but with some interesting twists. Lots of people (mostly young, mostly Asian, mostly dressed in black) were standing around, but a “senior” stylist could take us right away.

First, we were seated side-by-side in a long row of leather club chairs before a wall of mirrors.  A long wooden counter stretched wall-to-wall in front of us with only a few sophisticated hair fashion magazines–none of the usual hair paraphernalia.  Was this a waiting lounge or work area? At first it was hard to tell the customers from the staff, but soon it became apparent that the team of chic young Asians in black standing at the sides and back were there to wait/work on us.  What did we want to drink,  and our iced water appeared in stemmed goblets with lemon.

William, our senior stylist (was he even 21?), discussed Mike’s hair cut needs first and then mine, listening carefully and asking questions.  William was soft-spoken but seemed intent and knowledgeable. He then directed his female assistant to shampoo me while he started on Mike’s hair cut.  The assistant lead me to a dimly lit room with music and mood lighting, and another row of reclining easy chairs.   In the semi-darkness, she gave an amazing massage shampoo experience that seemed to last forever– all the way down my back and shoulders.  I never had anything like that before in a salon!

With my hair carefully tucked into a tight towel, I floated back to my club chair and watched William finish Mike’s cut.  As we lounged on the low easy chairs, William deftly moved around and between us on a low wheeled stool.  When he  would turn to get something, one of the young assistants would jump and get it for him.  One assistant stood by to brush the hair from Mike’s shoulders and neck every few minutes.  Then Mike went off to the shampoo room experience while William cut my hair, going back over several times to make sure that the bangs and layers were just right.

While virtually everything in Singapore has been shockingly expensive, this salon experience was just S$50 apiece (roughly $40 US), so much cheaper than the San Francisco prices we were used too!  All in all, it made a delightful Saturday morning.  And OK, Mike’s style does have a wee bit of a Chinese look.

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