Most of my awkward Singapore moments revolve around me not understanding others, or them me. My all-time favorite is still the "A-OK" story in which I made a complete fool of myself, but here are a few others.
When I first started following the monkeys, another girl named Mingjuan was working with them for a summer project, and she was helping me learn the names of the adults. She introduced herself, and this is what I heard:
Mingjuan: Hi, I'm (incoherent).
Me: I'm sorry, what?
Mingjuan: I'm Mangeshwaaan.
Me: Ummm...could you say that one more time?
Mingjuan: I'm Miiiiingshuuuuwan
Me: Oh, hi (mumbles), I'm Crystal.
Mingjuan: Um. Well, maybe you, you can call me MJ.
Me: Yeah, that's probably best.
MJ is a Singaporean who attends college in England, so her English is impeccable, but her accent is a mixture of British and S'porean. I understood her fine most of the time, but every once in a while, I had some trouble, especially when her British accent made her pronounce consonants at the beginnings of words softly or not at all, e.g. 'ello instead of hello. This was the case on the day I asked her about Hercules.
Me: MJ, is that Hercules over there? (pointing at a male monkey).
MJ: Oh. Yeah. Aaaahhhcules.
Me: OK, then who's that? (pointing at another male monkey in the opposite direction).
Me: Um. I thought THAT was Hercules (pointing again)
MJ: Yes. Aaaahcules.
Me: Then who's that? (pointing at other monkey)
Me: (flabbergasted) Do two of the monkeys have the same name?! Why?! That's so confusing!
MJ: No. That's Aaaahcules, and that's Aaaaahcules.
Me: Um. OK. ( I decide to let it go for a minute).
(5 minutes later)
Me: OK, so that's Hercules? Right?
MJ: No. Aaaaahcules.
Me: What? So that is him?
MJ: NO! AAAAAHCULES. And THAT (pointing emphatically) is AAAAAHCULES.
Me: (stroke of genius...or perhaps of common sense) How do you spell that?
Me: What about the other one?
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to remember the names of those old guys who did the "Who's on first" sketch.
Right before we moved into our apartment, we met with our landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Gan, so that we could sign the lease. While Bryan and Mr. Gan were talking business, Mrs. Gan began to show me some things in the apartment- where to best hang the laundry, where the cleaning supplies are stored, and most importantly, the kitchen. Standing in the kitchen, Mrs. Gan pulled a pair of hot pink scissors out of a drawer and waved them in my direction.
Mrs. Gan: These very good scissor.
Me: Oh, OK. I'll be sure to take good care of them.
Mrs. Gan: They are very good for cutting chicken neck.
Me: (naively assuming that I had heard her wrong) Good for what?
Mrs Gan: For cutting neck! Chicken neck! (she takes the scissors in one hand and makes a graphic hacking/cutting motion) You just have to cut hard; sometimes you have to keep trying, but knife no work as good. These chicken neck-cutting scissors (more pantomiming of neck cutting). Neck is hard to cut- lots of bones.
Me: (At this point, I think I had probably turned a putrid shade of gray, but I managed to keep a courteous smile plastered on my face) You know, Mrs. Gan, I actually don't eat meat at all, so I don't think I'll be cutting any chicken necks, but thanks for the cooking advice!
Mrs. Gan: No meat? (she furrows her brow and looks perplexed for a minute, then her face lights up as she glances toward the living room, where the men are talking) Fine. For your husbun'. You cut neck for your husbun'.
I didn't have the heart to tell her that Bryan and I aren't married, and though I love him, I don't plan to behead anything for him to eat. Instead, I just stood obediently while she tutored me on the finer points of doing laundry.
About a week later, Bryan and I made a trip to the grocery store to stock our kitchen. We'd been eating pretty simple since we moved in- lots of spaghetti and omlettes- so we needed to stock our kitchen and buy some other things- like a coffee pot and laundry baskets. We went to Giant, the huge supermarket/department store (called a "hypermarket" here) to pick up the necessities. I walked into the huge produce section and stood by for a moment. I noticed that everyone was bagging their produce and then taking it to a man at a weighing station, who was weighing and tagging their produce so the cashiers at the front wouldn't have to do it. I walked around and picked out all my stuff, and then walked to the counter to stand in line to have it weighed. When it came to my turn, I set everything on the counter, including the one lemon and the one lime that I wanted to buy. The man glanced at my citrus and mumbled.
Produce Man: No one.
Produce Man: NO ONE.
Me: (blank stare)
Produce Man: TWO!
Me: I need two lemons? (but I was all flustered, so when I asked him, I held up the lime)
Produce Man: (profoundly annoyed) NEED TWO TO BUY!
Produce Man: YES!
Me: Limes too?
Produce Man: (fixes me with a withering stare, and then wearily shakes his head) GO GET then COME HERE.
(In the meanwhile, a line of people has formed, and all are gawking at the silly white girl who's too dumb to even buy groceries. People are craning their necks to get a glimpse of me being reprimanded by the scary produce man. I reach out to take the rest of my fruits and veggies, but the produce man puts a hand on it, shakes his head, and points dramatically toward the citrus. I slink off to retrieve the lemons and limes. When I got there, I wasn't sure if he was saying that I needed two of each TOTAL, or that I needed two MORE of each, so I just grabbed two more limes and two more lemons and shuffled back to the counter. I timidly handed over my fruit, and the man bagged and tagged the lemons, looked at the limes, shook his head, and handed them back to me with no bag. I gave up and put them back on the shelf, leaving limes as a mission for another day.)
Most of my bad miscommunications are from back when we first moved here. I've gotten much better since then at understanding people, and especially at making sure I'm understood. I've learned to use the smallest number of words possible to convey what I'm saying, and if I'm not understood, to try to use synonyms until I hit on one that they get, e.g. "Bug spray, mosquito repellent, insect repellent, OFF!, Ultrathon, DEET?" It's gotten easier but it's not perfect, so I'm sure there'll be plenty of fodder for more posts on my shortcomings in communication.