Singapore: my loves and peeves

Part I of my extravagantly long honeymoon slash recession holiday came to an end last night. My husband and I just spent two months in France, Italy, and the US. We came back to our adoptive home country, Singapore, for a week of errands before heading onto Part II.

We tried to prepare ourselves for this brief return to reality with a few last indulgences. On our last day in Paris we took a four-hour nap in the morning, spent two hours at lunch where we ordered enough to feed ourselves plus a pair of twins, read leisurely in the Luxembourg gardens, and had two rounds of Amarino gelato, before boarding the plane at Charles de Gaulle.

A wave of sweetly humid air embraced us as we stepped off the plane at Changi Airport. Thirty steps later we were greeted with that syncopated form of spoken English known as Singlish. Ah, we knew we were home.

I had mixed feelings about coming back. There were the things I missed while I was away – the efficiency, the cleanliness, the perpetual summer, my daily yoga classes, never stepping on errant pieces of gum and finding my shoes ruined (which I did in New York), and of course, my friends. But most prominent on my mind was how much I missed the food! After two months of constant enjoyment in wines, cheeses, meats, and other Western fare, I was really beginning to salivate in my sleep over the prospect of bee hoon. During the long flight back I began plotting my meals. Yong tau foo for breakfast, fried bee hoon for lunch, maybe some chili crab for dinner. Oh it’s good to be home.

But then, there are also the things GET to me when I’m here, my pet peeves. Most of them are petty and can be blamed on my personal quirks. For example, most people wouldn’t be bothered by what I call the “long shirt or dress?” fashion question. It’s a hot country, people are built petitely, it’s not a HUGE crime for some girls to wear dresses of questionable length while shopping on Orchard Road. (Ok fine, it IS kind of huge, but that’s just my own sartorial opinion). And after two years in Singapore I’ve learned to decipher, and when required, actually speak Singlish, that interesting melange of Chinese and British English. Really, it doesn’t bother me much to say “we’ll alight here” when trying to “get off” a taxi; it just gives me the giggles.

So, small things aside, what is my biggest pet peeve? I was reminded of it this morning while hauling home some Carrefour goods in a taxi. I get in the cab and give the driver the address in English, because that’s the language I speak with my husband and with most of my friends. Immediately the driver starts throwing curious stares my way in the rear-view mirror. I know what he’s thinking after hearing my American English, and I just hope that he’ll let his curiosity simmer in silence.

But he does not.

“Miss, are you a Singaporean?”

Oh boy, here we go again.

“No, I’m not Singaporean,” I reply. “But I’m a permanent resident,” I add, hoping this draws us closer somehow and puts an end to the questioning before it goes down an unpleasant path.

“Oh, what country are you from?”, he persists.

“I’m from China.”

And here comes the punch line. “Did you marry a Singaporean?”, he asks, all too predictably.

There you have it, my biggest pet peeve in Singapore is that despite all the Chinese college graduates and working professionals who now live here, a lot of locals still seem to think that the only way we get here is by marrying, or worse yet, by engaging in nocturnal professions.

I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive here. Many, many, many times I’ve sat in the back of a taxi and had this exact same conversation. The drivers are polite to varying degrees (some openly suggesting that the only Chinese girls here are those you find in Geylang, others kindly stopping at admiring my English skills), but not polite enough to hide that slightly deprecatory curiosity about how it is that mainland Chinese manage to live in this country.

Since I had just spent two weeks on the East Coast in the US, my “political correctness” meter was unusually high, and I decide to engage. Quietly I tell my taxi driver that I went to college in the US, married an American, and moved here to work at a bank. Quietly also, I add that I don’t think the majority of Chinese women living here managed to do so by “marrying up” to Singaporeans. He accepts my explanation warmly, hurrying to add that he himself married a “foreigner” and that he meant no harm by his questions. We part amicably when he drops me off at my destination.

I love Singapore and I hope to live here for a long time. In that time, I hope this slight unease and suspicion about “my people” goes away. I don’t blame people for harboring their doubts — after all, there ARE 1.4 billion of us poised to threaten the world with our low wage expectations, lax environmental standards, and whatever else attracts capitalists to shift commerce our way. We also leave our homeland in droves every year to seek new opportunities in every country that’ll allow us in (and even those that don’t!).

Attitudes WILL change, but until they do, dear taxi driver friends, can we all just keep our un-PC thoughts to ourselves?


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