28 June 2009

Courtesy – A Community Movement

Most everyone from the United States is familiar with NBC's "The More You Know" public service announcements. Most involve an environmental, health, or discriminatory issue. While Singapore is no stranger to such movements (I've seen multiple anti-smoking and dengue fever prevention campaigns), another type of movement exists here. I call it the "do what you should do anyway" campaigns. The "captain obvious" campaigns. The "you can't control what everyone does but we're sure as hell going to try" campaigns.

Posted throughout the city – on billboards, in MRT stations, and freestanding on the street – are signs encouraging people to basically be nice. Whether it is allowing others to disembark trains first, respecting those of other cultures, exercising a general amount of courtesy, or allowing "priority" passengers to sit in public transit vehicles, these suggestions permeate the city and for the most part are observed.

The most recent of these campaign involves how to board, ride, and alight from trains in a courteous manner. Let others off first before boarding, help the elderly alight if needed, move to the center of the train to allow others room. To help send the message home, two famous-faced Singaporean sit-com actors lead the campaign with full-sized posters in and outside train vehicles and video jingles transmitted on buses and trains during transit.

Some US-based campaigns may send similar suggestions home, but they are still seen as just that..."suggestions," ultimately allowing people to make decisions for themselves. Sometimes the particular issue is observed, but often it is not. In Singapore, however, these campaigns
permeate to the nth degree. The sheer number of "be nice" campaigns is large and suggestions are observed with much more vigor than the US. The campaigns are not merely afterthoughts here...they are seen as improvements to life, yours and others'.

Courtesy is not just something Singaporeans decide to do if they are in the mood. It is promoted by the government, observed by the community, and respected as a way of life.

18 June 2009

The Price of Paradise

Our visit to Phuket was just that....paradise. Thailand's not-so-well kept secret boasts picturesque beaches, beautifully manicured resorts, and terrain that both inhibits and astounds. But despite Thailand's reputation for being a budget get-away destination, Phuket knows what it's got and flaunts it to the despise of some travelers' pocketbooks.
As my Lonely Planet guidebook puts it, "Going cheap in popular Patong is like slumming in Beverly Hills...you're sure to have hotel envy." Beer and food are cheap as are massages and souvenirs; but what you save in trinkets, pad thai, and Tsingtao you make up for in hotel fees and cab fares.

For tourist it's the wallet that feels it; but even for locals there's a price to pay for living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's simply dangerous. In 2004, Phuket and its residents were not spared devastation from the Sumatra-born tsunami. Popular Patong Beach was among the hardest hit. Even without underwater earthquakes wreaking havoc, drowning poses a real threat to locals and tourists alike. Over our 4-day stay, 3 drownings occurred as Phuket's notorious rip tides took unwilling victims out to sea.

Land-based activities can be equally as dangerous as the tropical climate bodes well for poisonous serpentine. My first encounter with a live cobra occurred just before we left! Even the local transportation seems anything but safe. Tuk tuks (rickshaw-like motor vehicles with no doors) drive next to vans and tour buses that plow their way along highways. The bigger and faster vehicles pay little heed to these slow-going chuggers that make their way like the little engines that could.

Phuket is paradise there is no doubt. But there's a high price to pay for a little heaven on earth.

16 June 2009

Polite Phuket

After our 4-day jaunt on Thailand's paradise island, I came back with two orchids in my hair, a stomach full of Tom Yam Kung, and a neck cramp. Along with beautiful flowers and great food the Thai also boast the habitual "neck-bow" as a sign of sincere politeness and respect, especially upon a first encounter. And being that we were tourists in a high-end resort, the neck-bow was a constant part of our day.

Upon arrival, our hotel attendant greeted us by deliberately placing her hand together in prayer position, neck-bowing a number of times, then kneeling on the floor beside us when we looked like we were ready for business. This was not before receiving flowers from a bell boy (who bowed a couple times while discretely avoiding eye contact), being served tropical drinks by a waitress (who also neck-bowed when she approached and left), and having our bags taken to our room by another bell boy (yep, bowing the whole time). If we made eye contact with anyone as we walked down the hall, the obligatory bow would most certainly follow. Our maid would bow as she walked backward out of our room. Restaurateurs and cab drivers would neck-bow good-bye whether we accepted or rejected their offer.

When I asked our hotel cashier to break a large bill, he closed his eyes, pressed palms and fingers together, and bowed a couple of times. Shouldn't I have been the one bowing in thanks?? I even received about 10 neck-bows from a pharmacy counter attendant upon approach and departure. And really, did she have much reason to show us that much politeness? After all, we were a bit tipsy by that point and purchased 33-cent beers. Not exactly the lucrative customer.

Maybe it's because Phuket residents live in paradise that politeness can be so easy and frequent. Or maybe it's because the island economy depends on keeping high-end tourists happy for its survival. In any case, for those coming as tourists to Phuket, be prepared: it can be a real pain in the neck!

11 June 2009

The Melting Pot

...and I'm not talking about the weather in Singapore. Singapore prides itself on being a hub for multiculturalism and the epitome of what other multicultural societies should strive for – a peaceful, rich integration of 4 dominant cultures (but myriad others) blending, respecting, and enjoying each others' religious beliefs, culinary prowess, and cultural uniqueness.

But this balanced fusion of multiculturalism in Southeast Asia, though alive and well in Singapore, was not born here. After all, Singapore only has enjoyed independence since the 1960s. But today the longevity of multiculturalism in this part of the world became blatantly apparent to me. Just before leaving the Asian Civilizations Museum, a particular display caught my eye. It was a series of water-type vessels (kendis) differing much in look, shape, and color. The display description read as follows:

"Kendi" is the Malay term derived from the Sanskrit word "kundica," a small ritual pouring vessel.

So here we have vessels: (1) coming from China, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, and Indonesia; (2) being referred to by a Malay term; (3) having name origins from a northwestern Indian language (Sanskrit); (4) used for Hindu–Buddhist rituals. And to boot, the vessels date from the 11th to 21st centuries. Clearly cultural, religious, and linguistic fusion is what Southeast Asia is and has been for over a thousand years.

In Singapore, children are taught in Mandarin, English, and Malay. Flipping through the TV channels you find Tamil, Mandarin, Malay, and English programs. Often you might see 2 or 3 sets of subtitles displayed on the screen's bottom. The local hawker centers boast Japanese, Korean, Hokkien Chinese, Hakka, Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, Indian, and Singaporean cuisines (just to name a few). Within 2 square miles of my home, there are multiple Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, and Christian and Catholic churches from which I could choose to worship.

Even a country as new as Singapore has embraced with alacrity the historically diverse identity ever present in this region. Southeast Asia is (and has been for centuries) the true melting pot.

08 June 2009

The Whole Picture

I have always been a firm believer that language is key to understanding a culture. So upon arrival I began Mandarin lessons hoping to gain a bit of insight into Singapore life and its residents (75% of which are Chinese–Singaporean).

Admittedly, I was a bit nervous about tackling Mandarin; my
entire life I've heard how difficult it is to pick up this tonal language. So it came as a surprise that my first 5 weeks went smoothly, differentiating and mastering the tones without too much difficulty. But as I started my second 5-week course, I began to slip up. Words I thought I knew popped up with new meanings. As I came to find out, Chinese is difficult not because of the tones (there are only 4 and are fairly easy to hear). Rather, the sheer number of homophones in the Chinese lexicon makes learning this language a monumental task. It would be like the English word "tree" meaning one thing by itself, but with about 20 other possibilities in context.

I relayed my Chinese woes to my friend Angie, a Chinese–Singaporean who has mastered both English and Chinese, and she gave me some valuable advice: look at the whole and listen to it in relation to the other words. How right she was...I needed to think more holistically.

Although learning "Western" languages also requires a holistic approach (so you know who is doing what to whom for how many cookies), in Chinese you must look at the whole to determine "who" is and the "what" that they are doing. And of course each individual word on its own and in combination with other characters means something different. Imagine speaking completely in English compounds words and idiomatic phrases, and that's what speaking Chinese is like.

But this holistic approach is not just limited to the Chinese language; it finds counterparts in Chinese–Singaporean culture, too. Take the concept of feng shui (literally meaning wind–water) as an example. The basis of this centuries-old philosophy requires people and things to be in balance with their environment. And it is still observed with respect in Singapore today. In fact, on the advice of several feng shui masters, the direction of the city's newly built ferris wheel was reversed; apparently the original direction of function sent good energy away from Singapore. Even the way people move about the city reflects a certain submission to this holistic relationship, moving osmotically as the environment directs rather than pushing through crowds and running to catch trains.

Though the "whole" picture is often quoted as important in Western culture, it seems a necessity, priority, and way of life here in Singapore.

03 June 2009

Night at the Museum

In celebration of national museum day, all cultural venues in Singapore offered special activities, extended hours, and free admission. What better way to peak into the culture Singapore calls its own than by seeing it on display. But the insight I gained after visiting 4 local museums did not come from looking at artifacts and learning about historical events; it came from the museum experience itself...the people who visited, the artifacts chosen for display, and how both were the same or different than what I expected.

While visiting the Asian Civilizations Museum, I learned just how the concept of time vs. money plays out. Upon arrival, a long line wound around the museum building toward its entrance. I immediately began to observe the actual length of the line, how fast it was moving, and if it was worth the wait for entrance. As observation turned to an estimate of 45 minutes, I noticed the line did not enter the building. It was the line for free ice cream, an incentive to attract more visitors to the museum exhibitions.

Now a 45-minute wait for free ice cream may approach the limits of my patience but it does not necessarily exceed it. I myself have been caught in the free incentive game putting forth a bit more effort than the incentive was actually worth. But in this case, the line waiters had already stood in another line for the Kangxi exhibit which, upon entrance, they were then given the tickets for the ice cream. In addition, the free ice cream was the same type sold about 50 feet away for 66 cents. Obviously the time vs. money concept places more emphasis on the latter than the former.

Not wanting to fight the crowds for ice cream or the Kangxi exhibit, I opted for the less crowded Chinese Quiz game. The game itself ran much like any other...PowerPoint questions, multiple choice answers, and the first to raise their hand tried their luck with a guess. But what I didn't expect was how the game began. While many a moderator might provide an anecdote or joke as introduction, in Singapore it seems karoke is also a viable introductory ritual. Prior to the quiz game start (and during a short intermission), three amateurs provided entertaining singing performances for audience members.

Another surprise while visiting the Peranakan Museum (a museum highlighting the people and cultures of multi-ethnic origins i n Singapore) were the warning signs regarding death. The galleries highlighting
Peranakan funeral rites displayed conspicuous signs for parents warning of the subject matter. Perhaps it was just a courtesy or perhaps it had deeper implications of superstition surrounding death. In any case, the sign itself made me more nervous than the actual exhibit!

The art museum showed a similar trend warning parents of nudity on display in particular galleries. While nudity seems common place in European and American art institutions, it's relatively uncommon in traditional Asian art and may not be expected by museum goers in Singapore. This makes sense considering Chinese art didn't shed its a-dimensional aspect until well into the last dynasty. (Flat renditions of naked people probably would defeat the purpose of painting a nude anyway.) But again, whether it was a courtesy, a reflection of a cultural expectation, or both, the sign itself made me feel a bit more naughty than actually viewing the nudes.

As I learned from my museum day visits, museums themselves and their visitors do not exist in a vacuum. They too represent in time and space what a culture is. And sometimes it proves more entertaining than the highlighted historical events and artifacts on display.