Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Differences Continue- 31 More Things

When I made the first list of differences between Singapore and the U.S., I thought I'd covered pretty much everything by making broad statements about things like food. But we've been in Singapore for 23 months, and differences continue to occur to us. Here are 31 more!

1) This country is acronym-OBSESSED. There's an abbreviation for everything, and the acronyms are used so broadly that you pretty much have to learn them in order to understand a conversation. Here are just a few: AYE= Ayer Rajah Expressway; EP= Employment Pass; PIE= Pan Island Expressway; MRT= Mass Rapid Transit; FIN= Foreign Identification Number; NTU= Nanyang Technological University; NUS= National University of Singapore; CNY= Chinese New Year; BKE= Bukit Timah Expressway; SMS= Short Message Service (a "text" here is called an SMS); HP= handphone (not Harry Potter); OCBC= Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation. For a more exhaustive list, see this extensive Wikipedia entry, which will help you decode Singapore acronym-speak.

2) In the US, typically you get into a taxi, tell the driver where you want to go, and he takes you there. Not so here. You get into a taxi, tell the driver where you want to go, and he usually asks how you want to get there, e.g. "You want to go by PIE or AYE?" This was particularly unnerving when we first got here and didn't know the PIE from an actual slice of pie.

3)  Because S'pore seeks out and hires "foreign talent," there are people living here from all corners of the globe. Bryan and I work with people from Australia, the US, Finland, South Africa, England, India, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Germany, Ghana, and more. Of course the US has people from all over the world too, but not in a concentrated little area like S'pore.
Friends, colleagues, acquaintances
Colleges would kill for this kind of diversity in their admissions pamphlets.

4) Due to #3, there are people speaking all sorts of languages here. It's not uncommon to be hanging out with people who will occasionally converse in a language you don't understand. It can be unnerving to hear two people suddenly switch from English to another language while you sit there, clueless, wondering if they're talking about how ugly your shoes are, or the fact that you have spinach in your teeth.

5) Thrift shops, which are super common in the US, are practically non-existent here. No Goodwill! There are a few shops here- I know of some Salvation Army locations- but as far as I can tell, they're not utilized nearly as much as the ones in the US. A S'porean friend was moving to the States, and was worried about the cost of furnishing his apartment. I told him he could get furniture cheaply at secondhand shops like Goodwill, and he was positively flabbergasted! He couldn't imagine why such things aren't everywhere here in S'pore.

6)  In the US, if a restaurant has a long waiting time, we're likely to give up and go elsewhere. S'poreans, on the other hand, will queue forever if it means getting the best roti prata. The long line isn't a deterrent - it just means that the food is worth waiting for!

7)  There's no welfare system in Singapore.

8)  Although I went to high school with my fair share of pregnant teens, I've yet to see a Singaporean girl rockin' a baby belly under her school uniform. This might be because Singapore's teen birth rate is about one NINTH of the US's.

9)  In a lot of clothing stores, as soon as you step in, someone descends upon you, offering you clothes that you would never wear. Then, if you pick up anything, they'll pick up ten more things that bear a vague resemblance to what you chose ("Oh you like that yellow t-shirt?! You'll love these yellow rain galoshes!"), toss the stuff into your arms, and jostle you into a dressing room. Half the time they give you the wrong sizes. It's exhausting to buy clothes around here.

10)  There's a government campaign for nigh on everything around here: wiping out dengue, being kind, proper window maintenance, killer litter, keeping public restrooms clean, washing hands, eating whole grains, and my personal favorite, making babies.
Keep those bathrooms clean, Singapore!

11) When S'poreans sneeze, most of the time no one says "Bless you" or "Gesundheit" or anything. One time I was having a sneezing fit in a taxi and the driver kept looking at me in the mirror. Finally he said, "You know, that means someone's talking about you!"

12)  In office buildings and other public places, cleaning crews take out the trash in a way I never encountered in the US. They go to every small trash can (like the ones people have in individual cubicles), pluck the trash out with salad tongs and toss it into a big trash bag, leaving the small trash can liner behind. It's nice that they don't waste all those little plastic bags. I remember feeling distraught at the wastage when someone would take an entire trash bag away because there were a few sheets of paper in the bottom.

13)  If you get sick and need  to stay home from work, you need a note from the doctor (a "medical certificate" or "MC"). Nothing can make you feel like a child as much as being told that you must have a NOTE from the doctor to miss work. I feel like I'm asking my mom to write me an excuse so I can stay home from school. Aside from that, sometimes you're sick but you just don't WANT to go to the doctor.  Here you have to. And the doctor gives you medicine every time, usually antibiotics. It all seems very weird to me, and makes me feel untrusted.

14) Back in the US, when you don't feel like cooking and decide to have food delivered, you often choose between Chinese and pizza. Here in S'pore, although you can enjoy Chinese food at any number of neighborhood hawker centers, delivery is much less common. And if you do manage to get Chinese delivery, it certainly doesn't come in those cute little white boxes with fortune cookies on the side!
Not  the Singaporean way
img from

15) A lot of people here hire what are called "Foreign Domestic Workers," who typically live with the family they work for. FDW's serve as a kind of maid/nanny/cook combo. They mostly come from less well-off countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and are paid, on average, $200-$300 USD a month. If they get pregnant, they are promptly deported. I don't know of anything comparable in the US, with the possible exception of hiring an illegal immigrant.

16) Books are much more expensive here than in the US. For example, we found a used copy of American Gods, which we wanted to read. It cost a little over $12 USD. On the back of the book was the price it would have sold for brand new in the US: $7.99 USD.

17) More lingo. The delicious substance that we refer to as "egg salad" in the U.S. is called "egg mayo" here in S'pore. I have to say, I think egg mayo is a much more accurate title. It always seemed antithetical to me to pack something full of fatty mayonnaise and then refer to it as salad. Also, "hiking" is called "trekking" here, and the trunk of the car is the "boot."

18) Buying stuff online is much easier in the US. Here, if I want to save a few dollars by buying a used book on Amazon, by the time I've paid for it to be shipped halfway around the world, I've negated most or all of the savings that I might have had. Plus I have to wait for it to get here, which can take awhile (18-32 days for standard shipping from Amazon).

19) Doing research here is strange. In the US, I was used to writing up papers and saying whatever I wanted to say. Here in S'pore you have to be more careful about saying things that could be interpreted as critical, particularly against the government.

20) The military here sometimes uses cable TV for some kind of military exercise. It's weird. You'll be minding your own business, watching Ninja Warrior (probably the most awesome show of all time, with the exception of MXC) and then something like this will flash on the screen:
Top-secret military stuff
Usually the words are accompanied by a green flashing military guy that looks like a GI-Joe. I don't know what the purpose is, but given the choice, I'd definitely go with fighting swordfish. Hands down. Anyway, you can just keep watching your show, as long as you don't mind the green dude up in the corner.

21) In the wake of the Anthony Weiner scandal (I'm going to refrain from making weiner jokes here, because every time I think about this I just feel overwhelmed by the endless possibilities), I've been thinking- we moved to S'pore two years ago and have never heard of any sex scandal from an elected local official. Given Singapore's more conservative culture, and politicians who are known for being some of the least corrupt in the world, it's possible that such things are very rare here. However, given the lack of freedom of the press, it's also possible that such things do happen but are repressed. Whichever is the case (maybe it's both), it's certainly different from the States, where politicians' seedy behavior frequently make headline news (Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on and on).

22) In the US, when a television show starts, a little rating, like PG or M (for mature audiences only), pops up in one of the top corners. The rating is sometimes accompanied by smaller letters to explain what's offensive about the content (e.g. D, L, S, V for Drugs, Language, Sex, Violence). Singaporean TV doesn't have a standardized TV show rating system.

23) In Singapore, and apparently much of the rest of the world, Labor Day is celebrated at the beginning of May. In the US, it's celebrated in September, and marks the end of summer.

24) Every four years in the US, a presidential election rolls around. In the year leading up to it, there are all sorts of programs to motivate people, especially young people, to turn up and vote on Election Day. Despite trendy, youth-oriented programs like Rock the Vote and the Vote for Change tour, voter turnouts generally stay below 60% of the voting-age population, prompting the political talking heads to repeatedly lament the apathy of a generation more likely to vote for the next American Idol than the next American president. Voting is compulsory in Singapore, so turnout is obviously much, much higher. Instead of campaigns encouraging people to vote, there are public service announcements telling people how to proceed on Polling Day (a public holiday) so that the whole process will be completed in an orderly fashion.

25) There are a lot of Chinese traditions that are followed in Singapore. The pregnant admin assistant at my work filled me in on some of the beliefs surrounding pregnancy. She said that women aren't supposed to bathe or shower for the first month or pregnancy, aren't supposed to eat pineapple, attend funerals, or drink plain water, opting instead for water flavored with longan.
Longan fruit

26) We recently learned that the blood donation guidelines differ between the US and Singapore. In the US you have to weigh 110 lbs; in S'pore the minimum is 99 lbs. In the US, your blood is not accepted if you've recently visited a malaria risk zone or other disease-risk area. S'pore is more lenient about blood donation after visiting a malaria risk zone. If you've been somewhere like Laos or Myanmar recently but you're a healthy weight, S'pore will still accept your blood, whereas the US would probably shoo you out the door and then disinfect the chair you were sitting in. S'pore bans you from donating blood if you've EVER smoked marijuana or done any other drugs. The US blood donation guidelines make no mention of marijuana, excluding only those who've abused intravenous drugs.

27) In Singapore, many employees get something called the "13th month bonus." At the end of the year, you get an extra month's pay! Most Singaporeans already know this, and take it into consideration when examining an employment contract and calculating annual salary, but I had no idea and was thrilled to be given a bonus paycheck!

28) In the US, bounty-hunting is legal, but it's illegal in Singapore (and every other country in the world except the Philippines). And no, Singaporeans, not all American bounty hunters are as ridiculous as Dog the Bounty Hunter and his absurdly busty sidekick Beth. And the bleached 80's mullet is not the standard uniform.

29) Singaporean men seem very open about their bodily functions. Taxi drivers belch loudly with no apologies, uncles stroll down the street while loudly clearing phlegm from their chests, and more than once I've heard flatulent men on the MRT just letting 'em rip. I always seem to be the only one who's surprised, but I'm just not used to that kind of openness. My dad couldn't even burp in his own house without a chorus of protests: "EWWWW DAD GROSS" (me) or "Oh Chuck, say 'EXCUSE ME'!" (my mom).
Best taxi driver ever: Belched like a champ then sang me
some golden oldies!

30) In Singapore, it is expected that children will care for their parents as they age. In fact, for elderly who can't support themselves, there's something called the Maintenance of Parents Act which allows Singaporeans aged 60 and over to sue their parents for support! Pay up for Mom and Dad's medical bills, or you might be facing a judge!

31) I've mentioned Singaporean censorship before, but I thought movies and TV shows were mostly edited for sex and violence. I recently learned that homosexuality is also censored. Two weeks ago I became confused while watching an episode of Glee. Given that Glee isn't exactly intellectually taxing stuff, I did some digging and found that I'd missed part of the show - all the gay kisses had been edited out, and since one of the main characters is gay, his social life was missing a couple pieces and had therefore become a little confusing. Heterosexual kisses are commonly shown on TV here.

If I've missed any in this or the past four lists (one, two, three, four), let me know in the comments and maybe I'll include them in the next edition!


  1. Don't forget speed humps!

    In the online tv guides they sometimes mention the ratings, plus the reason for the rating (adult content, nudity) However, I am quite surprised how violent movies are shown at best time at 7pm., like the newest Bond movies, whereas Madagaskar is shown after the evening news on Five.

    I totally agree on 29 (and not only men!). Besides I find the local way of eating also quite repulsive: perhaps I was just raised in a culture where it is not appropriate to sound like a meat grinder :)

  2. Well.. we have been colonized before alot of the English terms we use are British english trunk of a car is boot

    I read your other list..part three.. had a good laugh :) Most of my lady friends and myself do shave our legs! :P

  3. I'm tripping out on the military thing that pops up while you're watching tv. I've never seen that, but then again I don't watch too much tv here except for maybe the news. Is there any audio involved, too?

    Email me so I can send you the photo of you and Kiersten! Hope all is well!

  4. Eileen- Yes, a lot of women here shave their legs. But I think there are more women here that don't than in the US, where a lot of the women who don't shave are earthy, alternative types. And I love all the British English. It makes me smile : )

    Flora- Yeah! It's weird! It happens every once in a while. Keep an eye out. OK, I'm off to write you an email.

  5. I love this post! Very good sense of humour and so well written. Got to dig up more to read! I liked the stark acknowledgement that authentic Chinese takeaway doesn't come in those iconic plastic white boxes like Hollywood pretends it is - thank you. You have done much justice to the Chinese... I do wish we had takeaway delivered though. And maybe some Moo Sho Pork, whatever Chinese food that is... :)

  6. loveyou- Thanks a bunch! And congrats to you for being a finalist in the Blog Awards!! The name of your blog is so great, I laughed out loud the first time I saw it.

    You know, it's funny, growing up in the U.S. you take it for granted that everyone in China eats food out of little white boxes, has fortune cookies for dessert, and eats dishes like General Tso's chicken and Moo Shoo Pork. It was surprising to move here and see what the food is really like!

  7. great post ..... forgot most of these that you have mentioned, probably have come so used to them they are 'normal'!!

    Loads of take away where we are (in the west) from Indian, to Chinese, to McDonalds, to Thai ... oh yes, of course, forgot all the Pizza Houses too. So yes, we are lucky, we have loads of delivery places, not that we use many. :-)

    To eat in at our local Indian Place (Ameens) we phone our order through and by the time we walk there, its ready to be served! No waiting at all.

    and yes, we get the "13th mth pay" too .... nice to receive around February each year, sort of like getting the 'red envelope' for CNY .... sorry, Chinese New Year! Also comes in handy to pay the Tax Bill that arrives usually in April.

    If you are ill, it will depend on the company you work for as to needing a MC .... not everyone has to go to the Dr to get one. The medical care is tops, have no complaints at all of the care we have rec'd over the past 4.5 years. Hope it continues that way!!

    That point about the cab driver asking which way you want to go.... I asked a driver about that and he was saying they have to ask so then you are choosing the way you wish to go ... maybe longer, maybe more costly ... but it was your choice so you pay up !!

    enjoy your day and good luck with the awards.