Each country has its own particularity that makes it unique, that makes it different from its neighbour, and every year each of them is trying very hard to attract tourists from all over the world with a slogan or a major advertising campaign. The “I love NY” charmed everyone and was copied by many, the Sunshine State slogan on the license plates of Florida makes us want to migrate for the winter and bite a fresh orange during the cold months. What about the famous “Je me Souviens” in Quebec that most of you are too young to know what we should be remembering, but still make people ask the question over and over: What are we supposed to remember??
Singapore is no different in that sense and currently there is an open public debate on the web because Singapore is about to spend millions of Sing dollars for an ad campaign promoting the new slogan: “Your Singapore!”. Some argue that it is good because each of us has a unique way of seeing and appreciate the beauties of Singapore, yet Singaporeans often raise the patriotic argument that Singapore belongs to them and is not for sale to foreigners as if they were afraid that an ad campaign telling people that Singapore is Yours, will make them give their country to strangers. Regardless of whether the arguments are valid or not, I sincerely think that they are completely missing the point. What is really unique to Singapore is its way to greet people of all age or ethnic with the cutest question: Have you taken your lunch?
This is most often what Singaporeans will say when you meet them: Hello Helene, have you taken your lunch? And the answer is: Yes!
Saying “Have you taken your lunch?” is exactly like you saying “Hi! How are you?” and you would answer: Fine!
You do not want to hear: Oh! I am not doing good, I had an argument with my 10-year-old this morning, bla blabla bla! YOU WANT TO HEAR: FINE AND YOU?
Nowhere I have traveled to in my life have I been greeted with such an adorable question: Have you taken your lunch?
So here it is to the Tourism Board of Singapore: You are missing the boat and you should make a campaign that promotes the fact that here, you will never go hungry! Singaporeans will not let you! 🙂 Your slogan should be: Let’s do lunch… in Singapore!
This unique greeting message is asked regardless of who you encounter; you get into a taxi and the chauffeur will look at you and pop the question: Hello Miss, have you taken your lunch? If you go to a corporation for a meeting the receptionist will first ask the lunch question and then (in case someone would have forgotten), the secretary of the President you are about to meet will ask the same question again. Your answer: Yes I have, thank you and You?
-Yes I did, thank you!
Isn’t that the most adorable ice breaker you’ve ever heard? Think of every situation you encounter during the day where you say “Hi, How are You?” and now replace it with the Singapore’s unique greeting of “Have you taken your lunch?” Only then you will get the picture.
But Singaporeans really mean it and food is the most important topic on everyone’s watery mouth. The newest restaurant (a new amazing one opens daily) or the secret place where one can eat the best Ba-kut-Teh* in town or the best dim sum. What about the best brunch of Singapore? ask 10 people and they each will forward a suggestion. My friend Karen even says that while we are eating in Singapore, we talk about what else we could have been eating and how good it must taste. If you spend a week without someone trying to promote the infamous Durian fruit and challenge you to try it even though the smell is repulsive, you are not in Singapore. Of course, every time they will mention where to buy it or where to get Durian ice cream, Durian cake or Durian tea… name it, they know where to buy it! They even have the Esplanade theatre structure that is an inspiration of the Durian fruit. No wonder two of the top fifty restaurants of the world are located here in Singapore.
If you offer a free lunch at your event you will likely have a lineup of people (and trust me, Singaporeans can afford their lunch). If your ego was boosted because your conference had 200 people, remove the free food and you will see your ego-balloon burst! Poof! Next time 10 to 15 people will more likely be your score. Food is a priority, yet many and I insist on MANY Singaporeans do not know how to cook. They go out for lunch and dinner. Food is everywhere, delicious and for all budgets: Outstanding duck and rice in a Hawker Centre: $2.50 or a great italian meal at OTTO: $$$$$ Ouch!
So where does this expression come from? Why are Singaporeans so eager to ask you if you had your lunch that it became the national greeting phrase? I asked the question around to realize that most likely it comes from their grand-parents or ancestors who suffered greatly during famines in China. When you would meet someone, you would ensure that they have eaten because it was the most precious thing you could offer for survival. Chinese are not beggars in nature, they would never ask someone to give them food for nothing in exchange so one had to enquire in order to ensure their neighbour does not go hungry. You would never see Chinese people eating alone either or order individual portions. Sharing food is in their DNA and I hope they never lose this beautiful trait of character. Today Singaporeans ask the question without the weight of the real meaning behind their greeting message, it is in the culture to ask if you had your lunch and as mentioned above, it has the same tone as when you ask the traditional and international “How are You?” At least, “have you taken your lunch” narrows it down to one topic instead of a wide range of answers that one could get from the question: How are you?
But believe me they often really mean it. The other day, Annabelle (our house keeper) was late to go to school and missed her bus. In panic of being late she hailed a cab knowing it would cost her the only $15 she had brought with her, but she was determined not to be late and hopped in the cab. During the ride she made a phone call to a schoolmate and let her know that she would be short of money and that she could not accept her offer of sharing her table at lunch time. The cab driver overheard the conversation and when she reached her destination, the cab driver said:
I cannot charge you miss because I cannot bear the thought that you will have to skip lunch, it is too important!
Annabelle who has been in Singapore for 20 years, did not think it was a very unique gesture even though she was very appreciative and thanked the uncle (this is how we call taxi drivers in Singapore) many times before rushing into the school.
I hope this was food for thoughts for all of you! 🙂
Let’s do lunch when you come and visit Singapore.
*Ba-Kut-Teh is a traditional Chinese Hokkien soup popularly served in Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and Indonesia