28 February 2012

Walk This Rae

A friend of mine was planning her first trip to New York City and asked me what she should do to not seem like a tourist. That’s easy. All she had to do was dress from head-to-toe in black, never make eye contact, and be prepared to hear fuckin’ in everyday speech.

When I was preparing to move to Singapore, the thought of looking like a local didn’t cross my mind. No one was going to confuse this Caucasian Midwesterner of being remotely Asian. Just because I didn’t look like a native didn’t mean I shouldn’t act like one. As an American expatriate it was important for me to learn and adopt local laws and customs. Some actions I was happy to follow like no pointing, never leaving chopsticks resting in a bowl of rice, and not think it rude to slurp hot noodle soup. Other actions, however, I am far too considerate to abide.

About three times a week I grocery shop. Rather than stock up with a trip or two a month, I prefer to shop as I need things. Whenever possible, I walk to and from the stores. Not too long ago I was walking home from the store with a bag in each hand. I was walking along a 3-foot wide passage between two apartment complexes lined by a fence on one side and a cement wall on the other. A woman was approaching in the opposite direction. As we got closer I squeezed my bags tighter to me so we could pass without touching. She shuffled as far left as possible and I shuffled right. All of the sudden, from behind me a man tried to pass by my right side, knocking me with such force that my body and bags smacked into the passing woman. The Englishman took a few steps before turning around to face me. He said, “I’m sorry. I guess I’ve been in Singapore too long.”

Walking in the city-state is a contact sport. The society’s deep-seeded belief of kiasu (do whatever it takes to “win”; never lose face) extends to sidewalks. They never give way; never surrender. Whenever I approach two or thee locals walking side-by-side on a sidewalk, they’ll make eye contact as they remain in their positions forcing me off the sidewalk and often times into the street. It isn’t because I am an American, a woman, or because I wear wingtips with dresses. They're equal opportunity sidewalk hogs sparing no man, woman or child no matter race, religion or nationality. Forget a Mexican standoff. This is a Singaporean standoff. A success on the sidewalk is a success in life.

Native New York pedestrians don’t play that game. Locals wake up feeling 10 lengths behind. They don’t have time to horse around. In order to keep pace, they find the holes in the packs and walk between and around to get to where they are going with as little resistance as possible. NYC isn’t called The Big Apple because they play chicken. The moniker comes from horseracing circles of the 1920’s. A thoroughbred’s greatest treat was a big apple. Arriving without incident at one’s destination is the New Yorker’s greatest reward.

There is no moniker for Singapore. If I had to create one by picking a fruit I’d call it The Big Durian. In Asia, the durian is known as the “King of Fruit.” It is larger than a cantaloupe, but smaller than a watermelon. The outer skin is thick and thorny and the flesh inside is creamy rather than juicy. It has a warming effect so it is advised not to be eaten while drinking coffee or alcohol. Because its overpowering odor is similar to a rotting corpse, it is banned from most public buildings and apartment complexes. Taking a durian on any public transportation carries a $500 fine. Singapore is hot and the pedestrian’s prickly, king-of-the-hill attitude on the city streets really stinks! SGP. The Big Durian.

Many seasoned tourists don’t want to look like tourists when they visit foreign cities. When I’m on the streets of Singapore, I don’t mind being polite and standing out as a newcomer. If anyone plans to visit and wants to know how to behave as a local, it’s easy. Be the cock of the walk.

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