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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Here are the things we brought back from the UK. I think the list is somewhat revealing about Singapore life:

Laura Mercier primer and mascara (boring but necessary, there is only one stockist in Singapore and the lady there is mean)
x4 sex toys (I’ll spare details and blushes, suffice to say there are few good sex shops in Singapore)
x13 books (Naked Lunch, Diary of a Madman, Count Belisarius, The Tipping Point, LA Confidential, The Warden, The Business, Transition, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Tin Drum, The Singapore Grip, Spring Snow, 2666)
x15 peperami (a present)
x2 gold-embroidered, Buckingham Palace-monogrammed tea towels (also presents)
A signed silk-screen print from a guy in a coffee shop (anyone know a good framers?)
x3 bras
x3 cheeses
x2 chutneys (1 beetroot, 1 crab apple)
2.5 kg joint of smoked gammon

I didn’t trouble myself to check but I suspect bringing meat and cheese through the green aisle is illegal, but fortunately we’ll soon eat the evidence.

Bookends

Posted on: June 29, 2010

It was sixteen months ago. The first day of my shiny Singapore job. I chatted to the receptionist while I waited for HR, and smiled when she said her name was Rose. The receptionist at my London office was called Rose – maybe this was a good omen, perhaps I was meant to work here.

She asked the usual questions – where was I from, how long had I lived here? “Only a month,” I said, almost apologising. “Don’t worry,” she replied, laughing, joyful, “the hot weather will soon melt all that fat of you.”

Now it’s a year on. Tomorrow I leave this job. The coincidence of a shared name didn’t turn out to be that good an omen, but neither was it the worst. Everything teaches us something.

I go to say goodbye to Rose. She hugs me and says it’s always the nice ones who leave. Then she steps back and cocks her head, eyeing me critically. “You’ve lost weight. Whatever you’re doing it’s working.” I smile. Skinnier to start my new job. That must be a good omen. Right?

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The following is quite old. I wrote it when I was frustrated but I’m a happy monkey again now.

I am British.

*hefts leather-bound, gold-edged, old-skool passport onto the table with a resounding clang*

I write like a British person. I would suggest, immodestly, I write rather well. Certainly my blogs provide semi-regular entertainment for literally tens of people.

Conversely, I’m not Singaporean, and don’t write like a native islander.

This is understandable on many levels. For example, someone who speaks both English and Chinese is more conscious of word order than someone who speaks English alone.**

In other ways, this thoroughly confounds me. I will never understand why “persons within the vicinity of” is deemed simpler than “people nearby”.

**One of the reasons English is a successful lingua franca is that its structure is so utterly forgiving. You can treat English like a bitch and she’ll come right back for more.

This explains why English speakers developed beat poetry, for better or worse.

For a grown-up discussion of why English (and Chinese) rocks, I recommend Otto Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language (1912). Because I love you, here’s a free copy.

Mind you, counter to my argument Jespersen feels it is the degree of rigidity rather than permissiveness that makes English successful.

He sez:

Apart from Chinese, which has been described as pure applied logic, there is perhaps no language in the civilized world that stands so high as English.

Existing as it does at the intersection of these languages, perhaps it’s really Singlish that’s at the pinnacle? 😉

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A short rant about my commute.

Why, why, why, do Singaporean travellers act as if everyone else on the MRT is conspiring to imprison them on the train forever?

Other people are getting off too! Quit pushing, quit tutting, wait your turn. You’ll get off eventually.

And here’s something to blow your mind – even if you did miss your stop, it wouldn’t be a disaster. You get off at the next stop, take a train back, your whole journey is maybe 10 minutes longer than it should be.

The world doesn’t stop turning. Orphans don’t spontaneously combust. You just turn up a tiny bit late for work. So chill the fuck out, mmmkay?

The Singaporean one dollar coin looks like this:

Apparently the flower is Lochnera rosea, which could be a periwinkle but might be a frangipani, who knows.

Within the familiar circle there’s a more fortuitous octagon – the word for eight in Mandarin, ba, sounds similar to the word for wealth or prosperity, fa (the same is true of Cantonese).

Hence the coin is a lucky ba gua, or locally, pak kwa – an ‘eight symbol’ that’s important in feng shui – and exerts a little bit of fortune over everyone who has one.

One of my colleagues claims the coin has an interesting back story. When the MRT (underground train) tunnels where being dug in the 80s, a venerable monk advised the government that the construction would be very bad for the island’s feng shui or balance.

He said the only way to counter it would be for everyone to carry pak kwa, but he couldn’t see how it could be achieved. Wise Mr Lee realised that everyone carries small change, and the octagonal dollar was born.

I’ve been trying to verify this story online and have only found a few references, none of which seems very reliable, but I really hope it’s true. I love the idea that it’s only capitalism that stops Singapore from sinking into its own dragon vein.

I went to my company’s Chinese New Year dinner on Monday. This involved lots of fish as the Chinese word for this, ‘yu’, sounds the same as the words for wish and abundance. Hence including fish ensures an abundant new year.

The second course is usually shark fin soup. Shark = fish = an abundance of wealth, so it’s an important part of the dinner. It’s also expensive, which I think has a two-fold effect. Firstly, there is the idea that you need to spend money to make money, so pricey ingredients mean more fortune to come. But I don’t think it’s too mean to suggest there’s also a sense of keeping up with the Joneses. No one wants his or her dinner to look cheap.

So, sharks are firmly on the menu. Sadly they’re on some other lists as well, including one made by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). They are also apex predators, which means removing them from the food chain is more disruptive than removing something lower down. And the way they are caught and butchered is more cruel than other hunting and processing methods.

Now, I have a pretty liberal policy about what I’ll put in my mouth, but I draw the line at anything endangered (which is a shame, clouded leopards look hella tasty). When the soup was served on Monday I politely declined, explaining that eating it would go against my principles.

I didn’t lecture anyone else, not even the girl who said, “I hope it isn’t shark, I’m just going to eat it and not ask,” but I still faced an awful lot of arguments. This long preamble is leading to the point where I address those arguments, in ascending order of relevance.

Q. Just try it, you might like it.
A. I’m sure it’s very tasty, that’s not my concern.

Q. It’s probably mock shark, so it’s fine.
A. Given that my stand is a small one that won’t directly save any sharks, I’d rather stick to the principle than debate the minutiae of what’s actually in the bowl.

Q. I wouldn’t kill one myself, but this one’s already dead so it’s fine.
A. Someone actually said this. Hands up who’s eaten anything they caught and killed themselves. No… thought not. And to take the argument to its absurd conclusion, how about “I wouldn’t take babies and put them on spikes myself, but if someone did it for me it would be fine.”

Q. [More sensible version of the previous argument] This one is already dead, so it’s a waste/it died in vain if you don’t eat it.
A. Saying “But this one’s already dead,” is an attempt to move guilt or blame higher up the pathway: it’s the fisherman’s fault; the fishmonger’s fault; the restaurant’s fault. It’s not my fault, oh no. I am a passive actor in my own life, not responsible for the things that I move from a bowl into my mouth.

It might seem like rejecting one bowl of soup in a restaurant is a pointless, hopeless gesture that will go unnoticed, and I acknowledge that my stand is partly to assuage my conscious. But small actions do add up.

Product supply and demand changes constantly and consumers undeniably drive market trends. Maybe not quickly, and in the case of shark fin fishermen will fight while it’s still economically viable to do so, but so will restaurants. They usually have brutal profit margins, if they’re chucking away soup they’ll damned well order less ingredients next time.

So those are a few sensible answers to pro-shark fin arguments, but this is my real answer:

Dead finned scalloped hammerhead. Courtesy of Jeff Rotman/jeffrotman.com

I mentioned cruel hunting methods above. By far the most commercially valuable part of a shark is its fin, so often rather than take the whole bulky animal ashore the shark is ‘finned’. Fishermen cut off and keep the small, viable part and throw the live animal back into the sea to die a slow, suffocating death. And that makes me too sad to eat the things.

Plus how much would it suck to know I played a part in wiping out one of the oldest continuously extant species on the planet?

Gong xi fa cai!

Image from here, can’t find the source I’m afraid. And here is a Guardian photo article about shark’s fin soup [click the images to navigate forwards].

Edited to add:
I’ve just realised, by bothering to look at the file name, that the photograph above was taken by someone called Jeff Rotman. There are some beautiful images up on his site.

Singapore is very safe. Which is a relief, as safety is very important to Singaporeans (not sure which is the chicken and which the egg). When I ask people what they like about living here, safety is often first on the tick-list.

I think the low crime rates are making me complacent. I’ve recently discovered through trial and error that I really can go out and leave my front door open. I’ve learned this because for some reason our door, which used to click locked if you left it to close under its own weight, no longer always catches.

If this started to happen in London I would learn pretty quickly to go back and double check the lock. Probably after I arrived home the first time and found my property empty. But here it’s happened a few times and I’ve always returned to find everything as I’ve left it.

I feel slightly guilty whenever I realise my house has been open all day, but also oddly liberated by the ridiculous fact that it’s always fine. That said, I was worried this morning at 6am when I woke to the sound of the front door gently closing.

I assumed it had once again been resting open, and that maybe a breeze had caused it to click shut. But it crossed my mind that perhaps it had closed after someone had come through it, intent on murdering me in my sleep.

I debated getting up to investigate, but decided that if I was going to die, I would rather do it from the warmth and decency of my bed than shivering and naked in the hallway.

Needless to say, I’m still here and still safe.

Happy Christmas! I’m afraid the felicitations are a little late as Twelfth Night has been and gone – you’d better have taken your decorations down! If so much as a few berries remain after the fifth you have to leave them up until Candlemas, otherwise goblins can get into your house (trufax).

Our tropical Christmas was tropical indeed, as we flew to Bali and spent a week diving, eating seafood, and floating in the pool at our private villa. It was pretty strange to find ourselves alone in the sunshine on Christmas morning, but certainly not the sort of strange one should complain about.

NYE was a far cry from the London raves that punctuated the years for nearly a decade, but we stood on a roof, waved sparklers, popped champagne, hugged strangers and had a nice time.

And then?

Our first anniversary is in two weeks’ time. It’s been a hell of a year. The first six months (roughly) were pure honeymoon. I walked around amazed that a city could function so smoothly, that I could live somewhere so nice, eat out so often. I took cabs EVERYWHERE and every time I got in one I had a moment thinking I mustn’t take it for granted.

Then I guess the sheen wore off. The summer months were a private maelstrom of work uncertainty, and once that passed I got down to the job of really taking stock. The eye that beholds such beauty in the bridal suite grows quick to judge. Mother-in-laws show up, there are arguments about bills.

I’m still figuring out how I feel about this place. Truth is, I use words and writing to feel my way through things I don’t understand, but I don’t want to turn this blog to that purpose. It’s erratic – at the moment I’m too quick to jump in and blame Singapore for my ills. It’s ugly, and importantly I can’t substantiate it.

For all that, I’m not unhappy. J and I both go up and down somewhat, and our concern is always the other person. “Are you happy? Do you want to stay, want to leave? I’ll support you,” we reassure each other.

During a recent such conversation, we decided things are only just getting interesting. Our property lease runs to March 2011, so we plan to career along until then. And when you get down to brass-tack no-holds objectivity, there are monkeys here. Wild ones, not zoo ones – you can go for a walk on a Sunday morning and see them chilling in the trees.

I may never leave.

Happy dumb Gregorian calendar New Year! (Everyone knows the real New Year is next month),

elle xx

*Sheng = saint; dan = born; kuai le = happy, merry. This blog is pretty much the only place I practice Mandarin now, which tells you how well it’s going.

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One of my ver’ good friends from the UK is married to an Australian. They lived together in the England for a while, and now live in Oz.

She said a while back, “The problem with truly managing to make a new place your home is that from then on, wherever you live you’ll always miss somewhere else.“

Except we don’t break our necks. We somehow stick to the surface and everything is mostly ok.

Yesterday was our nine month Singapore anniversary. I never used to notice time much, but now it’s measured in missing friends, family and home it’s felt more keenly.

A few thoughts from the past three months:

1. National identity.

I still can’t pin an identity to this strange city. Sometimes it seems like the glittering skyscrapers are a mirage, borne by the heat haze.

I’ve embarked on a mission to better understand the place where I live, which involves getting my head ’round a complex, sensitive past.

The population here is ageing, like most affluent countries, so there are still plenty who remember the Japanese occupation, and the torrid 50s race riots.

Events like that must shape a new-born nation. I’m gonna try and talk to a few people and see if I can understand more – watch this space.

2. Work.

Takes up most of my time, and I dedicate fewer hours to it than many colleagues. Even so, my desire to sleep 10 hours a night means some days I don’t do anything except go to work then go to bed.

I’m learning a lot, which is good, but the curve is occasionally precipitous, which is hard. Sometimes things click and I feel like I’m getting the hang of it, but there are still days that feel like big fat fuck-ups. I’m trying to keep the fuck-ups in proportion though – at least I’m not a brain surgeon.

3. Autumn.

I’m crazily homesick for autumn. Obviously for a completely romanticised, in no way realistic autumn, where the leaves are always golden and every morning is crisp, cold and bright.

Autumn is by far the best season for cycling, especially at dawn and dusk. Coming home from work in London meant heading straight into the setting sun – at once beautiful and dangerous.

And it’s the season when cooking steps-up a gear. Long dark evenings mean eight course dinner parties that go on until 4am, Christmas is just around the corner (I hope you’re all feeding your cakes) and lots of gorgeous English veg is coming in to season.

My cravings seem to be tuned to this – last month it was apple cobbler and plum cake, now it’s kale and red cabbage. Ooh, and game, goose, Jerusalem artichokes, vacherin!

I remind myself that autumnal bicycles (baskets full of squash) pedal inexorably toward winter. The season of eternal darkness and frozen toes. Drizzling, grizzling rain and frayed January tempers.

Looks like it’s going to be 32 C and sunny here again today. I guess there isn’t TOO much to complain about.

Yours, ever-so-slightly homesick elle
xx


I wrote this a week and a half ago and only just got round to proofing it. How can such a simple life leave me with so little time?