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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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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.

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.“

Wow. Six months S’pore-side!

The anniversary was last Wednesday – true to recent form I didn’t post at the time.

It’s amusing how predictable moving abroad proved. My expat friends all shared the same forecast: first months good; next months bad; by six months it would be great.

They were bang on the money. For the past month or so life has been damned good.

I’m finally settled in my job, having been confirmed as a permanent employee. I enjoy the work, the office is full of nice people, and I’m learning a lot.

And J and I have met tonnes of lovely folk. We are making friends, finding a place in various social circles, and starting to feel like we fit.

Also exciting is the fact that we’ll have so many visitors between now and Christmas. I’m looking forward to sharing my shiny new life with old friends and family.

I think partly because I am proud of myself for schlepping half-way round the world and making a go of it, but seeing people I no longer connect with face-to-face is the main appeal.

But… most important of all my six-month milestones: I have my kitchen mojo back!!!!!

I barely cooked for the first five months here, and when I did it was unsuccessful, unenjoyable or both.

I always thought cooking soothed me when I was stressed, but apparently it’s the reverse – a symptom of happiness.

I have been on fire for the past two weeks. I’ve finally cracked mayonnaise (after five years of failure), and embarked on a campaign to buy friendship (caramel shortbread and angel cake = hard currency).

I have plenty more S’pore thoughts to share, but right now they comprise a mess of half-written, half-edited posts. Tell me about your lives instead!

Much love,

Elle xx

As you may have gathered, I’m back in Europe for two weeks. I’ve been very excited about this, mainly because it’s been six months since I saw my friends and family. I’ve also been looking forward to being a tourist in my home town – when I lived in London I spent most of my time working and my holidays elsewhere.

It’s a natural stock-taking point, not least because I’ve spent the past four days answering questions about how I’m getting on. So, how am I getting on?

I’m enjoying myself – it’s a good, easy, happy life – but there is a ‘but’. We’ve made some really lovely friends, but we are conscious of trying hard to fit into a slightly different culture. For me the main difference is sense of humour, for J it’s interest in politics.

I have been thinking of these differences in terms of reference frames. I have grown up playing different games, watching different TV, reading different books, and those things affect how I see the world and my place in it.

I was discussing this with a guy I met yesterday and he talked about the same thing in terms of a psychological contract, so that the focus is not how one person interacts with his world, but how two people interact with each other.

This is really obvious yet I haven’t considered it before. Whenever we interrelate we have expectations – it’s acceptable for you to do this, it’s not acceptable for me to do that. This is true of any situation – going to work, buying a bus ticket, meeting friends in a bar.

Except that these contracts vary, for all the hundreds of reasons I haven’t really gone into here (culture, psychology, history &tc), so that often in Singapore people don’t act in ways I’d expected, and likewise I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond.

This is definitely challenging. It’s really noticeable how easy it is to chat to strangers back in the UK, but the flipside is that you consider your motivations and responses more when there isn’t a fixed schema to drop into.

I’m starting work in nine day’s time, after five luxurious weeks off. I have landed myself a job in the Asian hub of an international ad agency, as a creative in their healthcare department.

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