25 July 2011


Starting over in a new country has been a great experience, and I hope I have the opportunity to do this again and again and again. I enjoy landing in a new world, finding familiarities and interacting with a truly blended society. Now that we have made the move once, I think we could continue to move wherever the wind blows us.

Through the American Women’s Association, I have met many seasoned expat wives who have adapted to European, American, Asian and Aussie cultures, among others when their job – ok, usually the husband’s job – caused the families to relocate.

I had a great chat with a woman last week who gave insight into some of the Asian nuances that I have been trying to understand since we landed, one being where to walk. I hate walking anywhere in Singapore because no one watches where they are walking. We are constantly being bumped into and pushed aside, and it drives me nuts. We first thought that people walked on the right because that is the way we did it in America. That was wrong.

We later thought that walking on the left was the norm since people here drive on the left side of the road. That was also wrong. So, if one cannot walk on the left and one cannot walk on the right, what remains? The middle! I figured out that we just need to walk in the middle and everyone else will just move around us. Also wrong, which, you see, is why I hate walking.

Yesterday I nearly tripped over a man who cut me off mid stride. I smacked right into his back and backside as our feet touched and he just continued walking as if nothing had happened. “Excuse you!” I softly yelled and threw up both of my arms. No reaction. Paul looked at me and asked if the guy said anything. “No,” I replied. And that is how it is here.

People do not look where they are walking, they often do not make eye contact in public and the old ladies always want to be first for everything. I get the impression that this is a very impatient society but the people walk and work so slowly that that cannot be a correct assumption.

We talked about these cultural differences at our last AWA coffee. One woman told stories of her epic adventures standing in lines/queues and squeezing onto trains. “You have to learn to fit in where you are," she said.

Out of context, I believe she is right. However, in the conversation, she spoke of how she stands her ground and fights for her position if she is the first in line. She had, after all, earned her right to be first on the bus or first on the train, and I got to thinking – when immersed in a new culture and attempting to “fit in where you are,” which culture wins? Am I, as a foreigner, supposed to leave my traditions and cultural nuances behind and adopt all that the Asian culture has to offer? Or, am I supposed to force my customs onto the Asian people with whom I come into contact and make them learn to be patient, watch where they are walking and wait their turn in line because that is how I was raised?

I happen to believe that I am the minority and this is not my original home, so I need to respect the beliefs and practices of those around me whether or not I agree with them. By learning why people do the things they do, I begin to have a better understanding of my frustrations and how to be less stressed in those situations.

For instance, I learned that the reason Asian people do not make eye contact or get out of my way when walking is because, in their culture, a person who makes eye contact with a passing person acknowledges the other person’s presence and thereby is required to make room for the other. In other words, they believe that if I see them coming, I am to move out of their way. It turns out, I am the problem, not the other way around.
Yes, some people could get really upset about all of the aunties shooting to the front of every line so that they may be first, but I have learned to see them coming from the corners of my eyes. I chuckle a little to myself when I see them and I take a step back. So, yes, I believe that one does need to find a way to fit into his or her environment, but I wholeheartedly believe that it is my responsibility to find the right ways to fit in respectably. 

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