Won Ton, Sushi, BBQ, Earl Grey and Maple Syrup… OK Lah!

22 09 2007



Integrating into a new culture is one thing, but integrating into many at the same time demands a high capacity of adaptation.  I can all hear you saying: Ya Ya Helene, but you are so flexible and adaptable that it is easy for you!  You are right and wrong or shall I say wlight and wlong!!Although Singapore is mainly composed of 80% Chinese and Malay, the 15% of expatriates makes it an interesting soup of British, Australians, Americans, Japanese, Indonesians, Indians and of course, the French Canadian that I am.  Why are you calling yourself French Canadian?

Is the first question my Australian co-worker asked me!  Aren’t you all Canadians?   (expressed with his lovely accent that emphasises and stretches the second “a” of Canadians).

But of course! I answered; we are just not from the same background; the English originate from British and the Irish descendants while the French Canadians originate from France. We say French Canadian because our mother tong is French.    

He looked at me a bit puzzled and then turned around to look at the office and said: Welcome to the Fuji Xerox United Nations, we are all from a different background here so you may stick to Canadian only and no worries!  

“No worries” is a British expression for “no problem”, the words “Hi! Hi!” may mean “Hello” to English people, but it is yes! yes! in Japanese.  “How How” means “Good! Good” in Chinese, while “shay” is the Chinese “thank you”, yet  for a French Canadian it is pronounced the same as “chez” that means “at”.  Are you confused? So was I the first few days!  

So the melting pot of conversations we witness in the open concept of my office is quite colourful.  I have three Japanese, two Australians, my immediate neighbour is a Singaporean Chinese and we complete everything with two British gentlemen, my great American colleague Jennie, Honey who is Korean and then Terry, a Chinese Australian. 

-Why do you say Chinese Australian?  Aren’t you all Australians? 

-Yes, but as you see Helene, I am Chinese! By the way Helene, what is this bottle you offered me, is it wine?

No, it is maple syrup and this is what I am made of! I am a maple syrup Canadian; sweet at first but I can be processed in different things… if you make my blood boil! J

In a typical day at the office, you hear my Japanese friends say “Hi!”Hi!” every two seconds over the phone.  The first day, I thought they were saying “Hello” every two seconds and had communication problems, but I quickly discovered that it means; Yes!  

Why do you always say yes to everything the other person says? You agree with everything they say and just take orders over the phone or what?

-No!  She answered.

Aaaah!  I got a “no” from you!  

Yes you did!

No, please don’t say “yes” again!!!! 

In Japanese, saying yes does not mean that they agree, it means: I hear what you are saying. 

So, will you do what they have asked? 

-No, not necessarily! (pronounced necessalely, in Japanese “R” and “L” are the same sound and have no differences in pronunciation)

-What do you mean no? You told them yes!  How do you Japanese get clear messages? How do you say no? How do you read each other?

-We use a long detour and a chain of people to finally let the person know that we don’t agree with what they said. Saying no is not part of our culture.

-Wow! This must be complicated, I replied. 

-Hi!  why do you think I am here Helene?  I want to work in a more straight forward way like you guys! 

-What “us” are you talking about?  “Us” is a broad statement in a United Nations’ environment, but I understand clearly: “hi!”.   

Minutes after  I hear my Chinese colleague switching from English to Chinese depending on the person he is speaking with and he kept on repeating: How, how… Howww, howww! 

So Philip, did you find out how?

What do you mean Helene?

Well you kept on asking how, so did he tell you? 

No, I meant in Chinese:  Good, Good!  In Chinese we repeat words twice, it is simple no?!!! 

Yes, very simple and “Shay Shay” Philip, “Shay Shay”!    Actually I understand, OK lah?  OK lah! (pronounced “law”).

The most colourful part of Singapore is its “Singlish” language, a simple cross between Chinese and English.  It is English in a very simplified Chinese grammar structure.  In Singapore the official business language is English and if we say “official” it means “government law” and we all know that the government of Singapore means business.  Everyone who has a job must speak English and unemployment rate is very low, at about 3%.  So just about every person in Singapore speaks English or shall I say: Singlish! My thrill of the day is always the conversation I will engage with the local cab drivers on my way to work or on my way back home. 

Taxi drivers have a mind of their own and they are to Singapore what the yellow cabs are to New-York.  You cannot live without them because a car here is the most expensive toy a man can buy.  A mini cooper is close to $100,000 (Sing dollars or $70,000 cdn) and to get the right to drive your toy, for a maximum of 10 years, you must apply “on-line” and bid for a permit.  Although you have all the chances on your side to win the bid, this “right to drive” can cost between $15,000 and $50,000 depending on the demand. Then come the road taxes that are calculated on your engine power (between $2500 and $6000 a year) so guys beware that bigger is not better here unless you are rich and did I mention the pay toll for using the highways?  A Porsche is $500,000 and a Ferrari around $1.4 million.  Most cars on the roads are BMW, Mercedes and all the other luxurious cars you can think of.  I have seen more Bentleys in the last week than in my entire life before.  I must tell my friend Joel who owns Decarie Motors (Bentley dealership) in Montreal that here is where he should be.  I know I am selfish because it also means he would come with his wife Suzan, my friend of over 25 years.   When someone says here that she owns a Toyota Camry, I almost bowel I know she is rich or in debt! Yes you can buy a second hand car, but the right to drive is linked to this particular car, so since a permit last 10 years, your 5 year old car has 5 years left on the “right to drive”.  This means that after 5 years you will scrap the car and reapply for another permit.  

All this to say how powerful cabs are in a situation like this. They rule Singapore! They can and will ignore you completely on the street, rudely refuse to take you by waving aggressively their hand when they pass by you, even if you look desperate to get to destination. If they stop and ask you where you are going and leave in a flash when it is not where they had planned to go (leaving your skin on the door handle of the cab), don’t feel it has something to do with the colour of your skin and don’t take it personal. Cabs also have a tendancy to wait to get a call because there is a $2.00 to $4.00 charge if you pre-book a taxi.  If it is a Mercedes, it will be a booking fee of $8.00! Sometimes you stand on the street or in a taxi queue for 20-30 minutes to wait for a taxi and you simply give up. You call the company and book a cab!  Within 30 seconds to a minute, a cab arrives from the corner street (the same one who refused you before) and the meter is ready to go with a pre-charge of $4.00.   When they stop and let you in, rude man becomes a charming service provider with a great sense of humour who will let you into his too cold taxi only to project his warmest smile while saying:

Yes mam, “nee how” (how are you?)  Siglap load hein? Siglap road Hein! OK lah!  Can! Can! Because you go to Siglap Hein! We take ECP* Ok lah?  (*ECP is the highway with automated pay toll)

During the cab ride, a moment in time gets captured; the cab drivers and I have the most interesting conversations in “Singlish”.  I listen carefully because I love to imitate languages and it is a real treat for me to hear this simple colourful language that British people seem to find ugly, except for my colleague Steve who enjoys and embraces it as much as I do!  Most of the sentences in Singlish will start with “Because” or “Actually” and you will always have Hein! And OK lah in it.  “Lah” in Chinese has the signification of finality so it makes sense that it ends sentences.  Over time it became a language crutch like the “Ay” in Canada and the “Euh” in French. They say “can” instead of “yes” and “cannot” instead of “no”, even if it does not make sense to “us”.  You call a restaurant and ask: Do you have a table for four at 7:30 pm?  The person will answer “Can” or “cannot”. 

Now let me relate to you a snap shot of one of those cab conversations:

-You going to Anson Road Fuji Xerox Hein?  -Yes!  -Ok Lah, can! can! Fuji Xerox Anson road Hein? Can! Take ECP Hein?  Fuji Xerox Hein? Use to be IBM building hein? OK lah?

-Yes Sir!  I know it use to be IBM, but the sign has been changed to Fuji Xerox 6 years ago, we pushed over the big blue and it is our sign now OK lah? Hein!

-You flom where?


-Ohhhh! Hot here in Singapore! 

-Yes but I like it very much. Singapore is a fabulous city, clean safe and beautiful. No billboards, no electrical wires, no pollution and always hot. Each night is a perfect night with no wind and no rain, just a perfect night every night!

-Actually because you say come flom Canada, I say cold Hein?  I think cold OK Lah?

-I know you think that but we have four seasons and summer can be hot there too. Did you work all night and morning Sir?

– Actually because I work hard, because I have daughter.  She say she go to “U” so need to work all the time for next 2 to thlee years actually, OK lah? (“U” means university)

-OK lah SIr! Ooups! you need to turn left here Sir!  Sir, Sir, left Sir, left I said, left OK lah Hein?  Then the car steers on the left. 

-Left here Hein? Can!

-Yes Sir, Ooouf!  OK lah! Here is Fuji Xerox Sir, Fuji Xerox here Sir! Here OK laaaaah!  

For some strange reasons, everything must be repeated a number of times before they are understood.  I know and he knows that we both understood the first time around, but the game is played every time with different drivers.  That is the colour of Singapore!Cab drivers are usually pretty knowledgeable on what is going on in the world.  Many will mention Calgary, the petroleum extraction from sand in Edmonton; they understand the economics of our timing in the fight for natural resource and globalization.  They all have a cousin or a relative living in Canada somewhere, mainly in Hongcouver and Edmonton. 

Beautiful countly Canada, like you Miss!  (the only men in Singapore who dare flirting with me are the cab drivers. )

-You have been there Sir?

No! But my cousin …………

-Ok lah! I know!  “Shay Shay”, how much do I owe you? $ eight dollars and folty Mam! Can.

Mam!, last week I was a Mom!  Is this an upgrade? Anyways, thank you Uncle.  

P.S: I dedicate this article to Claude Thibault who has trained me on Asian culture before I left.  She was 100% right on her interpretation of the culture and the challenges of integration.  If ever you move to Asia, call her (I think she is working for Transcontinental Direct in Montreal now).  It is worth it and it helps set your mind to identify where you will be different and challenged. Thank you Claude, I often smile when I think of you.  I love every second of the learning and have a great time with my multicultural friends when we have a beer in an Irish Pub or a New Zealand club!  I know you will think that you all have multiracial friends in Canada and that it is the same as here, but no!!   Cannot!  In Canada, they all come from different countries to start a long integration in our cultural environment and values.  Here, the foundation of the culture is Chinese and Malay (60% Chinese and 25% Malay 15% mixed expats) and I am the one living in their environment.  The expatriates, in most situations, are here for two years and don’t really need to adapt to their new country, they are in transit!  I chose to dive into their culture, watch and learn!  It is quite an enjoyable ride, OK lah!

Now, many of you have asked to have news about my health and I am touched by how many people care about me, so here is a public statement! 

I am doing great, my health is really good and I sleep so well since I am in Singapore.  I completely recovered my voice after 6 weeks even though the verdict called for permanent damage and partial recovery with a one year therapy.  I did my therapy religiously twice a day and forced myself in delivering conferences even if it sounded like I had laryngitis. Now I am alive, loud and kicking.  I have a nice scar as a trophy and rub it with vitamin E every day (Thank you Sharon).  I did not gain an ounce or a gram even if the cuisine is simply exquisite everywhere, even at home (thanks to Annabelle).  I am a bit out of shape “because cannot find good exercise routine here yet” but this is my next focus.   My brother Pierre will arrive in two weeks and we are planning to celebrate our birthdays (October 14 and 16) in Bangkok, followed by one week in Bali.  In November I have a business trip to Australia and will try to plan a weekend in the wilderness of Borneo with friends for December.  End of December, my great friend Nicole and her husband Dan will come to celebrate New Year with me and will stay two months PLUS, on and off.  I will certainly meet them here and there in their travelling. Meanwhile, I am busy at the office and will travel to Kuala Lumpur next week. 

I say two months PLUS because it is another colourful expression of Singapore.  When they want to say “more than” or “over”, they will say “plus” instead.  Lost in translation, it means that I will be 40 plus in two weeks plus and that too is a 10 year permit!

Fun blog stats to share:  I had 1,035 peoples who visited my blog last week and a peak day of 300 last Saturday.  Thanks for all the kind words and the encouragement.  I am doing OK lah!

Next week’s topic:  I am a big tall girl in a girly – girly world!

Take care!Helene (or as they write here: LN)  

References: Photos of the cactus graffiti, botanical garden, orchyds, Dempsey road store, Sharon and I are all from my friend Jacques Giraud (husband of Sharon), a great photographer who kindly took pictures when I asked, because I had forgotten my camera that day!      




3 responses

6 10 2007

Chère Hélène, je croque dans tes histoires & anecdotes!!! J’ai l’impression de vivre avec toi tous ces moments au bureau, dans le taxi, etc. Cela doit être très mélangeant mais intéressant de démystifier le langage de chacun, de comprendre le pourquoi des pourquois, comment notre origine et culture colore une langue universelle!

J’aimerais bien aller te voir un de ces quatre! 🙂


9 10 2007

Oh Helene! Your new home and Life suits you!! I am so happy for you!! Continuing sharing with us!!

Dreams can come true, no?!

26 10 2007
Pierre et Claire

Hello Hélène,
nous qui faisons un blog depuis bientôt 2 ans … je suis impressionné par la qualité de tes articles, qui nous font partager plus que ta vie … carrément la culture du pays et les habitudes locales ! … nous sommes bien content de voir que la vie se déroule bien … avec de beaux étonnements, de beaux moments (Bali avec ton fréro devait être sympa).

De notre côté, les filles vont bien et Claire donne ses cours de théâtre à Ville Mont Royal … une belle réussite ! … on a eu hervé et gem avec Florence à la maison dimanche soir et on a pensé fort à toi !

gros bisous

claire et pierre … et les filles !

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