It’s hard to believe that we really did it. One year ago, Sue quit her job as the Chief Development Officer for United Way of NYC and retired from full time work leading fundraising teams for nonprofits. She’s currently teaching at NYU and doing some consulting. Five months ago, Reggie left her company of 32 years. And, one month ago we moved from the US to Singapore for the winter. We have officially embarked on our first winter migrate to Singapore.
From joining a gym to learning how to do laundry Singapore-style to spending time with Reggie’s family, it has been an interesting month. We are sharing what this looks like for each of us.
Table of Contents
Winter Migrate to Singapore: Sue’s Surprises
I have been to Singapore about 10 times over the past 20 years. Always as a guest, a visitor, and Reggie’s friend/life partner.
Now we are actually living here for the winter.
The transition from visiting to living can seem like semantics, but it’s huge. It means that I need to really learn the MRT (subway system) on my own and not just rely on Reggie. We need to invest in the things we need here–a Nespresso, grill pan, cell phones with local SIM cards, join a gym. But, it’s more than materials things–it’s a state of being. And, showing friends and family how to relate to us as living here for the winter, not as visitors. We are here. At the same time, we need to keep building our NYC relationships while on the other side of the world. Living our lives in both sides of the world is a learning experience.
Becoming a Foreigner
I am also learning more about being a foreigner. I have lived in the US all of my life. Reggie has been foreigner in the US for 25 years. The shoe is now on the other foot. As much as I try to be respectful. there are ways of being and doing things in Singapore that I just don’t know. Since we are staying in an HDB neighborhood, I am the only caucasian and US citizen almost everywhere we go. People are sometimes trying to figure out who I am and what I am doing here, but they are always welcoming and gracious.
How about the Laundry?
We have rented a room in an HDB flat (for more on HDB flats, see (Not So) Crazy Rich Asians). Most people in Singapore have washing machines but not dryers. They hang their clothes to dry on bamboo poles that are either hung off the side of the building or in patios. Watch as Sue tries to do this.
Our landlady no longer allows me to hang the laundry. I think she’s afraid that I am going to drop the laundry and pole out the patio and onto the street 6 floors below.
First Trip to a Gym in Singapore
The Singapore government is heavily promoting healthy lifestyles. I now understand why.
After our first month of going from a low carb diet in the US to a high carb noodle diet (yes they are that good, see the 8 Surprises Relocating to Singapore First Week) we could feel the pounds starting to pile on. We needed to find a gym, pronto.
Fortunately, there is a gym/stadium just a few minutes from our apartment.
There are rates for adults and senior citizens. I was dismayed to discover I was in the senior citizen category which starts at age 55! Since I don’t have a green card, I’m also in the foreigner category. That means no senior citizen discount for me. Never mind, each visit only costs $3.30 (Sing dollars or about $2.50 USD).
The first time I went to the gym, I decide to do some light weights. I picked up the 12.5 weight as I would in the US, only to discover that I couldn’t lift it.
It was 12.5 kilograms not pounds! No wonder—that’s about 28 pounds.
In the gym you are required to bring a towel or you can’t work out. You are not allowed to carry your water bottle around with you as you exercise. It has to stay in the cubby. There are no lockers, just open cubbies for your stuff.
I have to say that my favorite thing about the gym is that it is quiet. No one grunts or drops heavy weights on the ground like in the US. It’s so much more pleasant.
And, the gyms or sports halls as they are referred to here, have table tennis and badminton courts inside. And generally a track outside. Basketball courts are also outside some sports halls.
Learning to Play Badminton
Reggie and I were invited by her uncle to play badminton with him and her niece. Reggie hadn’t played in 30 years. And, well, I was a tennis player for most of my life. Needless to say, I amused the family by waiting for the shuttlecock to drop to waist high and hitting a forehand under the net. It’s going to take some time…
Shopping for Food
As part of our efforts to eat healthy, Reggie and I have been out food shopping. You’ll remember from our earlier first week surprises post that we went to 8 places to look for half and half. Reggie now drinks her coffee with regular milk.
We were looking for western style comfort food and decided to buy some tuna. We found kimchi tuna, Penang curry tuna, green curry tuna, tomato chili tuna, tuna in hot mayonnaise, corned tuna and many more. We also found chicken and seaweed flavored Cheetos. McDonald’s sell salted egg covered fries. Haven’t tried any of those yet.
We tried tomato chili tuna. We won’t be buying that again. It wasn’t the most unusual things I’ve eaten this month…that designation goes to the worm omelette (no, that’s not a typo, it says worm) that I ate in Hanoi. More on that another time.
Migrate to Singapore: Reggie’s Surprises
I left Singapore 25 years ago to move to the US. And coming back has been very interesting. Singapore has changed so much since I was living here.
I took Sue to the Everton Park area where I used to hang out as a child while my mother played Mah Jong. I used to climb over the fences and play in the construction sites. Fell and skinned my knees many times. Now, there are huge condos where I used to play. We also saw some wonderful street art by YC Yip about how Singapore used to be. It brought back fond memories as I explained the scenes to Sue.
Jurong East is where we lived from when I was 19 until I left for the US. When I lived there it was like an outpost with a smattering of hawker stalls, a few shops and a bus interchange. Now, it has huge malls and is just a 40 minute MRT ride into the city.
I didn’t think I would be so surprised by the changes.
Getting Around Singapore
Singapore has great mass transit. I love the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and the buses. We take it everywhere. Sue tried to persuade me to take a taxi to the airport when we went to Hanoi. The express bus takes 40 minutes, delivers you directly to the basement of the terminal and is only a block from our apartment. How convenient! Know how much it costs? $1.94 Sing dollars (less than $1.50 USD). And, when we went to Penang, Sue happily took the bus.
Childhood Memories and Food
I’ve been re-discovering some of the food that I loved as a child. Peanut cake. Chendol. Chee Cheong Fun. Mostly snacks, breakfast foods and desserts one cannot find in the US.
Seeing Singapore through Sue’s Eyes
I have enjoyed seeing Sue adjust to living in Singapore. She sees and questions things that I take for granted. She helps me to re-experience things with new eyes. And she’s sometimes funny to watch. Like with the laundry.
Or her trying to understand Singlish. In a conversation with my family and friends, we’ll often be speaking English then Cantonese then Singlish. I look over at Sue and realize that she has no clue what we are saying. But sometimes I am surprised when she understands without even knowing the words. And sometimes I forget she doesn’t speak Cantonese and just start talking to her.
Singapore Rules and the Library
Sue also doesn’t know the rules that we Singaporeans follow. Singaporeans are pretty rigid. We do everything according rules. And if you know Sue, then you know she goes her own way. I’m always finding her wandering off when we travel.
We went to the library to work and the chair at the desk was not ergonomic for her. She simply went to another room and got a chair that was. It made sense. She offered to get me a chair, but I said no. Later, the library worker came to question her about why she moved the chair. Sue politely said her back was bad. It was a lengthy discussion and then the worker went away.
And, never came back.
I don’t think she knew what to do with Sue. Before we left, Sue put the chair back in its proper place and all was right in the world.
Singapore Has Changed
So much has changed in Singapore. I kept hearing people asking about the Passion card. What’s a passion card? It appears to be used for all kind of things—the gym, eating, getting a library card, shopping at the drug stores and even taking public transport. There was no such thing when I lived here.
Eating at Hawker Center with Sue
Every time we go out to eat, the servers ask me two questions about Sue. They won’t ask her directly. The servers will inquire in Cantonese, “does she take spicy.” They assume that because Sue is not Asian she doesn’t eat spicy. The funny thing is that Sue loves spicy and me, the Singaporean, doesn’t. They also ask if Sue knows how to use chopsticks. She probably does that better than some Singaporeans too.
It has been wonderful being able to spend time with family and friends in a more relaxed way. Going to my aunt’s 82nd birthday lunch. Christmas Eve with my godmother and cousin’s family. Sunday night badminton and then dinner with my uncle. When we were just visiting, get-togethers were always rushed and our social calendars, very packed. People always wanted to buy us meals. It hasn’t stopped despite that fact we were not just visiting but living here. I haven’t seen my uncle in over 30 years, when asked why he insists on paying for dinner, his reply was simply: “She’s my niece.”
Singaporeans are very fond of using acronyms when referring to things – HDB (Housing Development Board or public housing body), CPF (Central Provident Fund – Singapore’s version of social security), MRT and reducing words to a single syllable (veg instead of vegetables). This can be confusing to Sue.
Or answering a question with one word: “can.” For instance, “Do you want to have dinner tomorrow?” Answer: “Can.”
I’ve been reminding friends to spell out meanings or complete words when speaking with both Sue and myself. Although familiar with some of the acronyms, I’ve been away far too long to remember what some of these refer to.
Another thing I noticed, the success of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. When I was in school, we had to study Mandarin. I was more comfortable in Cantonese (my mother’s primary language. My father spoke Malay and English). Whenever I am approached by a Singaporean, they will almost always speak to me in Chinese. I disappoint and confused them, despite being ethnically Chinese, for I do not speak Chinese well. I think in English and have to translate into the little Mandarin that I know.
For more of our adventures in Singapore and Vietnam this month:
The Joys of Singlish
Singlish is colloquial speech that blends English with some Chinese dialect and occasionally Malay words.
An example of Singlish heard at the local hawker centre among friends: Hungry, join us, makan lah. Translation: Are you hungry? Do join us for a meal.
Sentences are often shortened and especially single verbs are used to substitute for the entire action. And, they like to add “Lah” to the end of a sentence for emphasis. And, of course “alamak” which means “oh gosh” or something to that effect.
We are having a wonderful time exploring Singapore and building a new relationship to the country, to my friends, daily and past.
Now for your Singlish Test.
How you would translate these phrases? Leave your translation in a comment.
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Have you choped seats?
So hot tabulehtahan ah
Why you so lorsoh?
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