Ang moh in Singapore no more

So after 8 sunny months one degree north of the equator, I left Singapore today. I’m currently sitting in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, and it’s starting to sink in that I won’t return to Singapore for a while. So I thought I’d finish this blog (for now, at least) by writing a sort of tribute to the little red dot in the form of a list of the things I’ll miss most (boyfriend and friends aside, of course).

The food

I’m honestly not sure how I’m going to cope without Singaporean food. I can’t for the life of me understand why it hasn’t made its way over to the UK like so many other cuisines have. I’m sure there would be demand for laksa, mee goreng, chilli crab etc. I’d bet that other vegetarians would also greatly appreciate the huge variety of meatless food, thanks to tofu and imitation meats which taste so convincing that I often wondered if someone was pulling a cruel prank on me.

With no signs of an impending Singaporean food invasion, though, I’ll have to content myself with trying to recreate some of the dishes using a couple of Singaporean cookbooks I recently bought. Given that the recipes have ~1000 ingredients, and the fact that I once put a mince pie in its foil case in a microwave, I’m not holding out much hope. I’ll just have to content myself with buying tau sar bao in Asian food stores at six times the price, and salivating at photos of food sent to me by friends in Singapore.

The weather

Before anyone who’s spent time in Singapore decries the thought of missing the extremely humid, help-I’m-melting weather, hear me out.

I’ve never gone so long without feeling cold. British people moan about the weather for a reason – it mostly sucks. Seasons are beautiful as a whole, but that offers little consolation when you wake up with a cold nose and have to put 5 layers of clothes on just to be able to feel your extremities.

My college at university has an outdoor pool that is available for use for all of about 2 months of the year. Last June, on a sunny, post-exams day, a group of us went to try it out. It was bloody freezing, to the point that I couldn’t go beyond waist-deep. Compare that to Singapore, where you can swim outdoors 24/7. I must admit, though, that if it weren’t for the air con everywhere and the fact that I never did much outside, I probably wouldn’t be a big fan of the weather. I’ll still miss it when I’m scraping ice from a car windshield, though.

The public transport

Like the weather, most Singaporeans I met had a low opinion of their public transport system – apparently it’s unreliable and has increased in price a lot in recent years.

Here’s an open invitation: come to London in the middle of summer. Take the overcrowded, air condition-less, old, dirty Tube for two stops, pay $4.50 for the privilege, and then tell me that you don’t like the beautiful, cheap and modern MRT system.

The cleanliness

A few hours in Kuala Lumpur have reminded me of just how clean Singapore is. Seriously, it’s practically spotless (just don’t look behind hawker stalls). Yes, yes, you can’t buy chewing gum, but really, does anyone actually care? Just buy a pack of Polos and enjoy the unstained, litter-free pavements!

The safety

As far as UK cities go, Cambridge is pretty safe. But I’d heard enough horror stories about harassment and sexual assault that I never felt comfortable walking alone at night. In Singapore, however, crime rates are low and street violence rare. I never once felt threatened, and there was a wonderful feeling that one could go almost anywhere without fear.

 

There are also things I won’t miss (mosquito bites, stares, and a repressive government being among them), but on the whole I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to live in Singapore. So I’ll bid farewell, but certainly not goodbye – believe me, I’ll be back.

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Food, Family, and Ang Paos: Chinese New Year in Singapore

Apart from partaking in the mass production of dumplings in my second year of university, I’d never celebrated Chinese New Year before coming to Singapore. In years to come, when I look back on my first proper CNY, I think the images that come to mind will be food, ang paos and meeting lots of people.

It felt like Christmas – the colours, the type of food and the weather might have been different, but the principles of giving, meeting with family and friends and consuming far more than you ought to were exactly the same.

Food

Food was, for me, undoubtedly the best part of CNY. It’s heaven for Chinese cuisine-loving folk.

It’s not just that most gatherings are centred around a buffet meal, which is awesome in itself, but there are Chinese snacks everywhere. These snacks range from pineapple tarts to ‘love letters’ to kueh bangkit.

There are also food-related traditions, such as exchanging mandarin oranges with the head of a household during visits, because the word for ‘orange’ sounds like ‘wealth’. Another great food tradition is tossing yu sheng, which is a raw fish salad with various ingredients that signify abundance and prosperity. Everyone gathers round a large bowl with the ingredientsin and uses chopsticks to toss them in the air (the higher you toss them, the more luck you’ll have in the coming year), whilst yelling ‘huat ah!’, which means prosperity in Hokkien. At one gathering someone managed to get food on the ceiling, leading to a spirited debate as to who was responsible.

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Tossing yu sheng. I tossed it so high that I got carrot in my hair. It’s clearly going to be a lucky year.

Ang Paos

Instead of exchanging presents, it’s customary for adults to give young, single people red envelopes (ang paos) containing money. The amount of money will be any even number except 4, since in Chinese ‘4’ sounds similar to ‘death’. This means that kids spend most of CNY collecting loads of ang paos. Being young and single in Singapore around CNY is a very lucrative business!

Questions
Most parents love to talk about their kids’ education, but for middle-aged Singaporeans it seems to be the most fascinating subject in the world.

It’s not surprising, really, given that education is so incredibly important here. But I couldn’t help comparing the discussions with what I’m used to back home. Extended family and family friends might ask ‘how’s school?’ or ‘What year are you in now/ what do you study?’, but the questions would rarely be more probing and it was usually more a way of making conversation than anything else.

In Singapore, though, a child’s education seems to be an inexhaustible topic of conversation. PSLE scores, gifted streams, Raffles vs. Hwa Chong vs. ACJC, A Level vs IB, government scholarships, which universities are best – by the end of CNY I knew Singapore’s eduction system almost as well as the British one.

It’s great that parents care so much,but even just overhearing these conversations made me feel pressured on behalf of the kids. My school was highly pressured by British standards, but from the perspective of Singapore it was a walk in the park. I think Britain would certainly benefit from a greater societal emphasis on education, and Singapore’s performance in international league tables speaks for itself, yet I can’t help but wonder whether it’s worth the sacrifice of a childhood. I like to think that there’s a happy middle ground somewhere.

Other common topics of enquiry include relationship status, weight, and comparisons to other people of a similar age. I guess it’s the price young people have to pay for ang paos.

 

I was a little worried that I’d be even more out of place than normal during CNY (“why does this ang moh think she can join in? She can’t even speak Mandarin!” I heard them whisper in my imagination). As it was, everyone was warm and welcoming (a highlight was my friend being told that bringinga ‘golden haired’ person was good financial luck for the coming year), and seemed to go to extra effort to ensure that my first CNY was a great one. And it was.

So thank you, Singapore, for welcoming this awkward ang moh into your CNY traditions, and gong xi fa cai from the bottom of my heart. I’ll happily return the favour if you’re in the UK for Christmas and want to wear silly jumpers, pull crackers and stuff your face with turkey.

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Being vegetarian in Singapore

Alongside ‘how have you not melted?’, ‘what’s the vegetarian food like?’ is the most common question that people from home ask me about life in Singapore. I think there’s an underlying expectation that other regions of the world are less accommodating to ‘awkward’ eaters.

My answer is usually something along the lines of: 1000 x better than continental Europe. I love travelling in Europe, but there’s only so many times I can eat a slab of grilled cheese with chips (pretty much the only mainstream meatless dish in the Czech Republic, from my experience). And I’m pretty sure that if I survived on Käsespätzle for more than a week, my arteries would close down in protest.

In Singapore, on the other hand, being vegetarian isn’t a big deal. I don’t get puzzled looks from waiters when I ask for the vegetarian options, and I’ve never had to order onions and chips as substitutes for a main (fortunately, pub food in the UK is more veggie-friendly than it was when I stopped eating meat 7.5 years ago).

Vegetarianism is big in Singapore, and it’s not a recent thing. In the West, vegetarianism is usually associated with young, left-wing, animal-lovers. In Singapore, however, it’s linked to religion. The biggest religion in Singapore is Buddhism (although it doesn’t dominate as Christianity does in the UK), which has strong traditions of vegetarianism. Not all Buddhists are vegetarian, and some only go meatless on certain days of the Chinese calendar, so it’s not necessarily the case that there are loads of vegetarians in Singapore. However, people seem to be much more open to going for a vegetarian meal once in a while; there’s much less of the “grunt, I eat meat with a side of meat/ a meal isn’t a meal without meat and no hippie vegetarian will change that” attitude. The popularity of Indian food also helps, since Indian cuisine has a great range of veggie food (unsurprising, given that India has the largest number of vegetarians in the world).

There are more vegetarian restaurants than I’ll have the time or money to visit during my time here, and I’ve yet to see a decently sized hawker centre that doesn’t have a vegetarian stall.

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My first hawker centre meal: rice with tofu, vegetables, and unidentified fake meat

In some ways, it’s actually easier to be vegetarian in Singapore than in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, the UK has come so far in recent years in terms of the proliferation of vegetarian options in supermarkets and restaurants (thank you Quorn, you beautiful fungus). But Singapore really wins on the fake meat front. I have no idea what most of it’s made of, but I don’t really care. The range of fake meat is so good that pretty much every Chinese dish has been recreated, and I’m told that most of them are pretty damn good at imitating the flavours. This has allowed me to experience a lot more of the local cuisine than I expected, from ‘chicken’ rice to chilli ‘prawns’.

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Amazing food at Xin Man Yuan vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown: abalone and spinach on the left, and chilli ‘prawns’ and mantou on the right

In fact, the worst places to get vegetarian food in Singapore are nearly always Western-inspired food outlets. I guess burgers, steaks, fish and chips etc. don’t exactly scream ‘vegetarians welcome’.

If only it were this easy and tasty to be vegetarian everywhere in the world!

Durian: the Marmite of Southeast Asia

Every Brit knows the cliché: you either love or hate Marmite. Although the heavenly brown stuff hasn’t really made its way over here, Singaporeans have their own equivalent: durian. Forget politics, religion and even ‘the dress’; durian is the real cause of division in Singapore.

For anyone who’s not familiar with durian, it’s a prickly, smelly fruit of death. A more impartial description would be that it’s a pungent fruit commonly known as the ‘king of fruits’ in SE Asia, with a prickly husk and gooey centre. Its smell is so strong that it’s completely banned from Singapore’s public transport system, even if it’s intact.

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Yep, it smells that bad (Photo credit: mithunonthe.net)

I was given durian on my first night in Singapore, and I’m afraid I came down on the ‘ewww why do people eat that?!’ side of the debate. However, I think it wouldn’t have been as bad if I’d held my nose, because the smell is far worse than the taste, and predisposes you to dislike it. The worst part was that the smell somehow penetrated Valerian’s entire apartment.

Keen not to be too hasty in forming my opinion on durian, I gave it another go when we went to Toa Payoh. The following photos are a pretty good representation of the experience of eating durian:

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‘It can’t be as bad as I remember’

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‘I’m totally open minded about this disgusting-smelling fruit’

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*holds breath*

 

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‘Hmm, maybe it’s not so bad’

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‘Oh good God why did I put this in my mouth again?’

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*dies inside*

Seriously though, it’s not that bad, and if you have the chance to try it, I’d definitely recommend that you do so. Who knows, you might even find your new favourite fruit. If you like your fruits to smell like they went mouldy a month ago, that is.

The wonderful world of hawker centres

It’s impossible to discuss Singaporean food without talking about hawker centres, which are open-air complexes with lots of stalls selling cheap food. The range of food is huge, including different types of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and ‘Western’ food (no roast dinners though, unfortunately). They’ve been around for decades — having emerged during Singapore’s rapid urbanisation to combat the poor hygiene and ‘unsightliness’ of the traditional street hawkers — and a visit to Singapore is not complete without visiting one.

The main attraction of hawker centres is how cheap they are. Prices obviously vary, but for a vegetarian meal I’d usually pay $3-4 (£1.40-80). It would be unfair of me to directly compare them to restaurants in the UK, since the conditions are completely different, but even if I take good ol’ Spoons or a cheap café, it’s about a quarter of the price I’d expect to pay in the UK. This not only makes the cheap student in me extremely happy, but goes a good way to explaining the different approaches to food in Singapore that surprised me so much at first. I’m used to take-aways/ Spoons etc. being rare occurrences, because even though they’re cheap by UK standards, they’re still a lot more expensive than cooking your own food. In Singapore, however, buying food to cook isn’t particularly cheap, meaning that buying food from hawker centres every day doesn’t add much to the food bill. Add to this the fact that Singapore’s humidity makes one recoil from the thought of voluntarily adding more heat to one’s home by cooking, and it becomes obvious why many people prefer to rely on hawker centres for their food.

Hawker centres are also striking for the variety of people that they attract. A hawker centre in the centre of the city, for instance, will attract plenty of city workers in business attire, as well as tourists, groups of young people, and groups of elderly men who go there primarily to socialise, eat cheap food and drink beer.

Unfortunately, hawker centres are threatened by the rapid economic development that spawned them 50 years ago. The inexpensiveness of hawker centres is largely owed to rents heavily subsidised by the government, but as these subsidies are becoming less common, more hawkers are having to pay market rents, which — like all rents in Singapore — are very high, undermining their ability to offer cheap food. There are increasing numbers of food courts springing up, which are cleaner and air-conditioned, but where the food costs twice as much. The loss of hawker centres would be a real shame, not only because it would drive up food costs for a population already facing very high costs of living, but because Singapore would lose a cultural icon. Here’s to hoping that these wonderful, colourful places survive for future generations to experience the best of Singapore’s food.

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Looking suitably hot in Chinatown’s hawker centre

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One of the best hawker meals I’ve had: three egg vegetables, tofu with vegetables, and sugarcane juice. A bit more expensive but totally worth it.

Cultural Differences

(Again, the following is just the perception I have of Singapore after living here for a few months. It’s by no means a comprehensive, or necessarily accurate, account of all Singaporean culture!)

One of the best parts of living abroad has been being able to experience a new culture. I haven’t had as much of a culture shock as most people do when they move abroad — firstly because Singapore is probably the most Westernised country in Asia, and secondly because dating a Singaporean for a year and a half before coming here gave me something of a head start — but there are still a number of things that have struck me since arriving here:

1. Small talk
Small talk is the foundation of relationships of all types, right? Wrong. Apparently some people prefer conversations with substance, ones that go beyond a discussion of the weather and how everyone’s weekends were ‘good, thanks’.

I still do honestly believe that small talk has an important role to play, whether it’s as an introduction to a more substantive conversation or just a way of showing an interest in someone else’s life. It’s taken Valerian a long time to understand this, and I can tell he still sometimes considers it meaningless. But he knows it’s important when he’s in the UK, and I know that I need to fight my urge to ask his family how their days were if I’m to avoid seeming weird.

2. Hugging
The fact that my Mum hugged Valerian the first time that they met didn’t register with me as unusual, but he later told me that he felt very awkward and wasn’t sure what to do with himself. The same apparently goes for hugging friends — what should he do with his arms? How long should the hug be? How much body contact should there be? To me, hugging is just something you do with family and friends, but apparently it’s much less common in Singapore, and usually between women. So I’ve had to keep my arms to myself here, and repress the temptation to hug people when saying goodbye.

There was one hiccup, though. At the end of a job interview, the interviewer opened the door for me to exit, but as she did so I (for some unknown, godforsaken reason) thought she was going in for a hug. So I hugged her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then hugged the other interviewer because I thought it would be rude if I hugged one and not the other. Oh my God it was so awkward. I can only blame my repressed hug-y nature. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job.

3. Politics
An entire book could be devoted to analysing the differences between British and Singaporean politics, but what has struck me most on a day-to-day basis is the lack of, well, piss-taking. I’m used to a political culture where mockery is the order of the day, but it’s almost entirely absent in Singapore. This is very much linked to differences in humour, but I think it also reflects a healthy scepticism of all things government in the UK that is lacking here. Singapore’s government is well-known for being authoritarian in terms of press control and propaganda, and this is reflected by the absence of open mockery of the government, as seen in Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You etc. It’s convinced me that laughter at political elites is one of the best signs of a healthy democracy.

4. Understatement
Mid-way through an interview, an interviewer remarked to me that I was evidence that Brits are much more modest than Americans. Well, yes — if I have no experience of marketing, I’m not going to BS you and tell you that I’m a leading expert. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I wouldn’t want someone to hire me on false pretences. I also find boasting extremely difficult and awkward, and it annoys me that it appears to be necessary in the job market.

I also have a tendency to struggle to be blunt about anything, and to be taken aback if anyone is blunt with me. When giving and receiving criticism, for example, phrases like ‘It would perhaps be better if…’, ‘It’s not the best…’ are the norm, so as to avoid giving offence. It’s not that people are any more rude here; they just convey the same meaning with different (usually fewer!) words, which took a bit of getting used to. I have convinced Valerian to adopt a slightly more British approach, but I also recognise that constantly apologising to people and making sentences twice as long as they need to be isn’t always best.

5. Social conservatism and the generation gap

There are, of course, parts of UK society that are pretty conservative. On the whole, however, Singaporean society is substantially more conservative than UK society. The most fascinating part of it is that there is a huge generation gap here. Singapore’s economic development in the past 50 years has been extraordinary, and it’s had interesting side effects in terms of social values. For the generation brought up when Singapore was still relatively poor, their norms and values were largely shaped by tradition. By the time they themselves had kids, however, Singapore was a drastically different place – more prosperous and increasingly liberal (if not in political values, then social ones). English became the language of both education and business, in some cases leaving a linguistic gap between the generations – Valerian has told me that he was unable to directly communicate with his paternal grandparents due to his poor Mandarin and their poor English. But there is also in some sense a gap in values, far more so in the UK; having grown up in a much more liberal society than their parents and grandparents, young people in Singapore tend to be much more liberal themselves.

Obviously, this isn’t true of everyone. Valerian and I are fortunate that his parents are progressive; for some parents, us living together before marriage would be a big no-no. But I’m still sometimes taken aback by the more conservative elements of society here. It’s still technically illegal for men to perform homosexual acts, and although in reality the law isn’t enforced, there remains a taboo around being part of the LBGT+ community. A middle-aged man told me proudly that he believed that women can be equal to men (this in itself wasn’t bad, but the fact that he thought it praise-worthy says something about wider opinion). Family values are central, and single mothers are not only frowned upon but denied government assistance given to two-parent families. Patriotism isn’t as bad as some other countries, but it’s pretty ingrained; the pledge and the national anthem are recited daily in schools, the anniversary of independence is a massive event each year, and the outpouring of public grief when Singapore’s ‘founding father’ Lee Kuan Yew died earlier this year was incredible. It wasn’t like the images you see from countries like North Korea; people from all walks of life and across generations were genuinely devastated, without the underlying threat of internment should their grief not be adequate.

The beauty of a queue

There are, however, some similarities that have made me feel much more at home, the most important of which is queueing. After being stressed out — almost enough to ‘tut’ behind their backs — by people taking no heed of queueing etiquette when transferring in Dubai airport, I started to wonder if I would be able to survive anywhere where queueing isn’t a national pastime. I needn’t have worried, though, because Singapore’s reverence for queueing is second to none. Its subway system even has designated areas for people to queue for the trains. The Tube could definitely learn from the MRT!

Wonderful, wonderful order (image taken from hardwarezone).

Wonderful, wonderful order (image taken from hardwarezone).

Although some things have been difficult to adjust to, living in a place with a different culture has been fascinating. It’s also made me question the values that I take for granted, which can only be a good thing.

Food in Singapore: an introduction

When I asked Singaporeans studying in the UK what they missed most about Singapore, “food” was the unanimous answer. Valerian had told me a lot about food in Singapore, and had recreated some of his favourite dishes (laksa, pak choi with vegetarian oyster sauce, three egg vegetables) for me as best he could with the ingredients available in the UK and no meat. We used to frequent the Chinese food shops in Cambridge, which was my first introduction to authentic Chinese food (and the beginning of my love affair with tau sar pau – a steamed bun with red bean paste inside that I could eat all day). Until I met Valerian, I wasn’t exactly an adventurous eater, despite being vegetarian; I’d find foods I liked and eat them over and over with little variation. However, I didn’t want to seem close-minded when we first started dating, so I kept my reservations to myself and tried to be more adventurous. I’m so glad that I did, because I’ve eaten so much amazing food that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

The food in Singapore is so different to what I was used to back in the UK. Obviously, my rice consumption has increased by ~1000%, but the food that goes with the rice is also much more varied. Don’t get me wrong, I love and miss British food, but the food here is so much more varied in terms of flavour. It’s been amazing to experience new tastes and textures for the first time ever; the first time I ate ice kachang (shaven ice with different flavours and toppings), for example, it was so unlike anything I’d had before that I didn’t know how to process it.

Thanks to its history of immigrants from all over Asia making it their home, Singapore’s food has a variety of influences. Any hawker centre will have a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian stalls, encompassing a huge range of styles within these groups, which are sometimes treated as single entities in the UK. I’ve really enjoyed eating dishes from these cuisines that I’d never heard of, a favourite being roti prata. Prata is a fried pancake-type-thing, sometimes stuffed with egg, often served with curry and eaten for breakfast, which was brought to Singapore by Indian immigrants. It also helps that the food at hawker centres, even the more expensive ones, is really cheap. This means that eating out is much less of a treat and more routine, and that trying a variety of foods doesn’t break the bank.

At the end of the day, though, there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for a roast dinner right now.

A siao ang moh’s introductory guide to Singlish

(Disclaimer: if you’re Singaporean, I apologise for the inevitable mistakes I will make in trying to explain Singlish)

One of the first things one hears about Singapore is its distinctive use of language. Every country has its own slang, sure, but I’ve never come across anything like Singlish. Roughly speaking, it’s the colloquial form of English commonly spoken in Singapore (a creole language, for any linguists out there), and its distinctiveness stems from its use of words, phrases and grammar from a variety of other languages, most commonly the Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil. It’s a great metaphor for the intertwining of ethnicities that Singapore prides itself on; most Singaporeans are descended from Chinese, Malay and Tamil immigrants, and as these communities mixed and English became commonplace thanks to British colonial rule, Singlish emerged.

What results is a wonderful mix of vocabulary, sentence structures and intonation that seems so much more interesting than standard English. It’s constantly changing and adapting, there’s no one way of speaking it, and the degree to which Singaporeans use it varies hugely (there’s a sense of this being class-based, but for once I’ll ignore my sociologist instincts and not dive into a class analysis). My comprehension of it ranges from ‘yep, just about understand that’ to ‘oh god, please repeat that in standard English/ please don’t require answer of me because I know I’ll make an idiot of myself’. I find it most confusing when English words are given additional meanings to the one I’m accustomed to. The following conversation between me and a girl I tutor was a good example of this:

Student: Have you had steamboat in Singapore yet?

Me: Er, no, the only boats I’ve seen were at Clarke Quay…

S: *confused look* well, I’ll be hosting a steamboat soon and you’d be very welcome. It can be very spicy though; are you OK with that?

It was at this point that I realised she wasn’t referring to a boat propelled by a steam engine, but some sort of food. Cue me turning red and trying to pretend that I understood all along. Valerian later explained to me that hotpot is referred to as ‘steamboat’ in Singapore, but not before laughing hysterically and patting my head. I suppose it was payback for all the times I laughed at his confusion when faced with British slang.

All the Singlish one needs to know to get by in Singapore*:

  • lah/ leh = usually used at the end of sentences for emphasis/ exclamation (I’ve never worked out exactly how to use them, so my attempts tend to be guesses, with a 50/50 success rate)
  • atas = describes someone who is hoity-toity
  • don’t play play = don’t mess around
  • wah lao = exclamation of shock
  • is it? = sometimes tagged on to the ends of statements in order to make them questions
  • aiyoh = oh no/ oh dear
  • uncle/ auntie = generic term for men/ women who are middle-aged and older
  • PRC/ Chinaman/ Ah Tiong = crude terms for immigrants from China
  • doh wan: I don’t want
  • win liao lor = fine, you win (usually ironically, indicating that the speaker is giving up trying to argue)

For fear of mispronouncing everything/ using words in the wrong context, I’ve never seriously tried to use Singlish in conversation. For now, I’ll stick to using it to disturb Valerian, but perhaps if I stay here long enough I’ll slowly start using Singlish and see if anyone notices. In fact, when I first arrived here I was upset enough by the small minority of people staring at me (I don’t mean a quick glance; I’m talking a ‘head rotating like an owl’ kind of unfriendly glare) to suggest to Valerian that I could address them with “Eh, see wha’ see? Never see ang moh before, is it?”— the British equivalent being “Oi mate, what ya lookin’ at? Never seen a white person before?”. I’ll post again if I ever actually have the balls to say it. Don’t hold your breath.

*This is a lie. These are just the words and phrases that I know and use to amuse Valerian.

“How on earth are you coping with the weather?”

As a Brit, it seemed only right to devote an entire blog post to the weather. Yes, I’m aware that I’m a walking stereotype. I’m still struggling to find conversation starters that aren’t predicated on the premise of constantly changing weather — it might ultimately be laziness, but I do miss being able to say “Isn’t it freezing?!” or “Bloody miserable, isn’t it?” as a means of guaranteeing immediate friendship. Anyway, it’s something I get asked about a lot; friends and family from home seem keen to know how I’m surviving in the tropical heat, and people here seem no less keen to understand how someone used to living in hoodies and jeans hasn’t yet melted/burnt to a crisp.

Surprisingly (to myself especially), my answer tends to be along the lines of: “it’s actually not that bad!” Sure, exertion of any sort outdoors is to be avoided at all costs, and if you get caught in a thunderstorm with nowhere to shelter you need to just accept your sodden fate, because umbrellas sure as hell won’t do you any good.

But it’s pretty manageable, for a couple of main reasons. Most importantly, Singaporeans have got air conditioning down to a tee. There’s a good reason why, upon being asked what he considered to be the most important invention of the previous millenium, Singapore’s ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew gave air conditioning as his answer, arguing that it allowed workers in the tropical regions to match the efficiency of workers elsewhere in the world. The vast majority of shops and offices are air-conditioned, as is the entire public transport system. That’s the advantage of having unchanging weather: being extremely humid all year round, Singapore has developed infrastructure that deals with it effectively. In Britain, on the other hand, any slight deviation from normal, moderate weather causes huge problems because its infrastructure is simply not designed to cope with it (snow days for two inches of snow, anyone?) It also helps that in it’s very often cloudy enough in Singapore that the humidity is the only issue, and I don’t need to worry about the sunburn that would otherwise make me lobster-red all year round.

What does suck, though, is the haze. Every year, Singapore and Malaysia are blighted by heavy pollution caused by illegal forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia. Indonesia might claim that it has sufficient resources to end the fires, but the fact that I currently can’t go outside without wading through dust and smoke suggests otherwise. Before I came to Singapore, I’d never heard the term ‘PSI’ (Pollutant Standards Index), but for the past few weeks it’s been part of everyday conversation. Frequent discussion of weather conditions would make me feel slightly more at home, if they weren’t based on the PSI alternating between the ‘unhealthy’ and ‘very unhealthy’ ranges.

As well as fresh air, I miss Britain’s changing weather. Having grown up with woodland on my doorstep, I’d always taken the beauty of the seasons for granted. As novel as it will be to use an outdoor pool in December, and as convenient as it is to only require clothes for one type of weather, it’s nowhere near as much fun. At this time of year I’d usually see the the advent of autumn, with the beautiful changes in the environment that would usually occasion, but the weather here remains hot, humid, and grey. Who wouldn’t miss the thought of woolly jumpers, blankets, and hot chocolate?

That being said, when I visit home in a next week, I’ve no doubt that I’ll complain about the cold the entire time. But hey, I’m British; it’s what I do, and I wouldn’t truly be home if I didn’t.

First Impressions

Moving to a new country is daunting, but I had the advantage of arriving as a tourist first, since I wasn’t planning to stay in Singapore at the time. Having dated a Singaporean for a year and a half by this point, I already knew more about it than any country besides my own. I’d been told countless times to expect good food, crowds, heat, and sunburn. Still, there’s only so much that you can learn about a country from other people.

It’s true that, stepping out of the airport, the first thing that struck me was the heat. I got the impression that my boyfriend’s family was studying my countenance for a reaction to it, and I doubt that my shocked face disappointed. I’d never been to Asia or any humid climate — before, so the first blast of warm, sticky air was quite something, and I was thankful for the respite soon provided by an air-conditioned car.

Equally unsurprising was the density of the high-rise buildings that lined the route from the airport to my boyfriend’s home. Singapore is well-known for being densely populated (it’s the second most densely populated country in the world, after Monaco, with ~7600 inhabitants per square km), with 80% of its population living in government-managed housing, much of which consists of apartments in tower blocks. Of course, there are parts of the UK where land is scarce and so apartments are the norm. But for that to be the norm throughout an entire country (however small) was still striking.

It wasn’t long before I got my first taste of authentic Singaporean food. In fact, one of the first foods I ate here was the (in)famous durian (a particularly pungent fruit with a very distinctive taste); I was thrown straight into the deep water of smelly fruit. As Valerian’s parents often buy food from hawker centres (kinda like food courts, but much more interesting and cheap), I quickly experienced a range of the food. I could (and will, I’m sure) write multiple blog posts on the food here, but for the moment I’ll just say that it has lived up to the high expectations set by the Singaporeans I’d met in the UK.

I was also quickly struck with the cleanliness of Singapore. This isn’t to say that everywhere is gleaming (hawker centres, in particular, aren’t exactly spotless), but there is a remarkable lack of litter. When driving in the UK, it’s very common to see the sides of roads lined with litter, but that simply doesn’t happen in Singapore. I’m not entirely sure why this is; lots of bins in public places helps, but given that the residential areas also seem to be very clean, and bins are in no short supply in the UK, I don’t think that can be the full story. Like many other things, I’m sure culture and norms are important. Singapore’s effective ban on chewing gum certainly helps; I’d almost forgotten what pavements unstained by gum looked like.

So, I suppose that my first impressions of Singapore were pretty close to what I’d been told: hot, crowded, good food, and clean. Not a bad start.