“Watching the English,” Kate Fox.
Can we add Singaporeans to that list?
Since moving home to Singapore, I’ve picked up on this norm here that I find very awkward (and at times, really annoying).
When I’m buying something at the shops, the staff speak to me in a polite and proper manner, and then proceed to speak to each other in a completely different, casual manner, joking or scolding or fighting. That’s completely fine, sales staff all over the world do this, but the key difference here is that in Singapore, they act in a way that blatantly shows they don’t expect me to be listening/watching.
The funny thing is, the complementary norm-abiding behaviour kicks in for me, and I pretend that I’m not listening/watching.
This is nigh on ridiculous. Now if I’m standing at counter, and you’re behind it, and joking with someone further away from you than I am, how am I suddenly blind/deaf to your speech?! Why are we both pretending that this is true?!
If it’s a joke, I can’t laugh along. If it’s a fight, I can’t mediate. And if someone just politely collected my name in perfect, gentle English, then turned around to spit out an ugly “Eh, 有没有一个叫LIM HUI的？“ (which translates to, “Oy, got one with LIM HUI on it?”) when looking for something I put on reserve, I’m somehow not supposed to be offended by the really awful way they’re saying my name like it’s a foreign vulgarity.
I’ve been really inspired by this book I’m reading called Watching the English by Kate Fox, which records the norms and customs that are typically English and theorises as to why they might be so. It’s really helped me see just how Singaporean culture really has been shaped by British colonialism, as much as we really don’t have a hang up about them, nor feel much of an active affinity towards them (our attitude towards them is more like, “Thanks for the modern institutions of government and the English language, we’ll take over from here, thank you very much.”).
In the book, Fox repeatedly emphasises this obsession the English have with privacy, and I think the norm above shows how we’ve taken things to yet another level in Singapore, in some areas. Though I do remember the longer lines for the automated “quick checkout” machines in the supermarkets (which, ironically, were never quicker than just having the checkout person do it for you), I also remember being included in any in-store conversations when they happened around me. The simplest little things would tell me so—an apologetic smile or sympathetic eye-roll when a fellow staff is taking a while to rummage through the storeroom and emerge with my item, the complete un-surprise when I’m laughing at the same funny incident that just happened in the shop. The English may avoid having to make conversation as customers, but pretending conversation isn’t happening when it is and they’re the service staff is a whole notch up the denial and privacy scale.
Does this means things are better or worse in Singapore? Neither. Depends on your preference. It’s a blessing when you’re not feeling chatty and just want to get out of there, which is how most Singaporeans feel most of the time. It’s not great when you’re sensitive about your oddball name (In English, it’s Chinese. And in Chinese, the first name bit’s only got one syllable. What gives?), and you just want people to say it nicely. Nice salesperson, is that too much to ask…?
The most important thing for me about Oxford was not what I learnt there in terms of set texts and set books we had to read, but in terms of a respect for the best in human civilisation.
And the best in human civilisation comes from all parts of the world. It is not limited to Oxford; it is not limited to Burma; it is not limited to any other country. But the fact that in Oxford I had learned to respect all that is the best in human civilisation helped me to cope with what was not quite the best.
Because what is not yet quite the best may still, one day, become the best; it may be improved. It gave me a confidence in humankind. It gave me a confidence in the innate wisdom of human beings – not given to all of us, but given to enough of us for the rest of the world to share, and to make use of it for others.
And I think every Oxonian, or most every, knows that in Lost Horizon Shangri-La was described as “something a little like Oxford”.
Every Oxonian knows.
Perhaps this was why, after my year at Oxford, I had recovered enough distance from the “brutally practical” career options to re-discover my desire to pursue something in the arts, in the entertainment industries. Oxford re-convicted me that at its very best, culture and creativity can move, question, develop, change, decry the worst and celebrate the worthy in life and society. That it can and does remain through the centuries. I definitely needed this precious reminder.
(Thanks Bims, for sharing!)
Ok, so I’m really not a superstitious/zodiac-following person in the least, but this just made me happy—I’m a proud Dragon baby. Plus, the article is written by a fellow Tufts Class of 2011 graduate, Rosanna! :)
The dragon is also the only mythical creature in the Asian zodiac, a cycle that features 12 animals that embody unique characteristics — a dog is shy but loyal; a tiger aggressive and difficult to get along with. The dragon can swim and fly, traversing the seas as well as heaven. This symbolizes a life with no obstacles.
*I received so much feedback for this post! I’ve edited it, to include the corrections and additions of friends and friendly readers - re-posting it for everyone’s pleasure. :)
I’ve had this in my “drafts” section for a whole year - maybe even more. I kept waiting for the right time to publish it (ie: when I felt I’d noted everything I needed to note down), but I suppose now’s as good a time as ever. Less than 2 months till I’m back in Oxford/in the UK! :)
British-isms I learnt in bold:
Fit: Slang for attractive. If you mean athletic, make sure that’s derivable from context. I’m told ‘buff’ is another alternative. (Thanks, Sari!)
Spunk: Means semen (!). FIND ANOTHER WORD.
Sod: Literally means dirt. Generally used as a cuss/expletive. As in “Oh, sod!”
Twat: Dictionary definition labels it as “vulgar slang” and defines it as “women’s genitals” (!). In use though, it typically refers to a stupid person. (Also thankfully recorded in the dictionary).
Chavs: Refers to a certain subculture of individuals, typically lower working-class, dresses in Nike and other such sports brands, adorns self with bling, and carries JD shopping bags (in place of school bags or backpacks).
Toffs: Another certain subculture of individuals, this time upper class and posh.
Pudding: Refers to dessert in general, not a specific kind of jello-like dish. “Dessert” is regarded as a pretty fancy/posh term, used only in formal dinner/fancy restaurant settings. People will say, “What’s for pudding?”
Bangs: You mean fringe?
Frigid: Yes, it means cold - but in a sexual context. As in asexual/devoid of sexual appeal. Don’t try to be fancy; just use “cold.”
What are you on about: What are you talking about/don’t be silly/chill out, dude.
Are you mental?: Are you mad?
Take the piss/mick out of _____: tease/mock someone, piss him off. Sometimes a good-friendly thing, sometimes a bad-seriously-hate-you thing, depends on context.
Pissed/Mashed: terms for being drunk, not angry. (Thanks Nils + Sari!) Though, as we know, verb-izing most simple noun would work. (“He was tabled last night!”)
Head: The British version of the American “Peace (out),” as in “Shall we head?” meaning “Shall we go?”
Chuffed: Proud, usually of oneself.
Well: To be used with nearly any and every expression in the place of “very,” like “Are you alright?” You say, “Yes, I’m well good!”
Posh: Connotes classiness/general upper-classness; could be positive, could be negative.
Pull: Means kiss or make out with. Like “I pulled someone at a club last night.” Sam Bell adds: “it’s not just to kiss, but also to have attracted someone and then acted on it, really. ie someone who has a guy start buying them drinks could be said to have pulled.”
Cashier: Person who checks out your purchases.
Till: Place where you get your purchases checked out.
The Whole Time: The entire time/All the time.
Half-past/Quarter-past/Quarter-to/ten-past or ten-to: ways of telling time. The weirdest one I heard/used was “twenty-five to” - the time Pembroke CU would meet at the Lodge to head to St. Ebbes! :) Good times. x (Ellen adds: you would also say “half-7” to mean 7:30, so on and so forth.)
Cheers: Said in place of “thank you.” Usually to your bartender when he hands over your pint (or in my case, half-pint), but suitable for all other such polite exchanges of appreciation.
Nip: Pop out for a bit. As in, “I’m just going to nip to the loo!”
Rugged up: Dressed in multiple layers of clothing.
Hiya and Ta-ra: Common expressions for ”Hello” and “Goodbye,” often up North (above Birmingham) but used down South too. (Thanks, Sam Bell and Fiona!)
Fancy: Most often used in the context of asking a friend if he/she likes someone. ie: “Do you fancy her/him?” but it’s also used to ask someone if they’d like something. ie “Fancy a jog/cup of tea?”
Lad: This is the term I still don’t quite understand/grasp. Sometimes, I think it means “ladies man”; other times, it seems to mean player or jerk; yet other times, it seems to be the British equivalent of the American “bro.” I’m confounded by it. I only know that my friends like to use it with the adjective “massive,” and it’s usually a laugh when that happens. Though Sam Bell tells me it’s still used just to mean ‘boy’ some times.
Could do/Would do: “We could go over there, couldn’t we?” “Yes, we could do.”
(negative question constructions) Don’t you think____?/That’s a bit contrived, isn’t it?/Not very funny, is it?: They seem to much more frequently used in the UK…
Rubbish: Trash/garbage - but I grew up with this (in Singapore).
Lift: Elevator. Also grew up with this…
Bin: Trash can. Another thing I grew up with - Singapore was a British colony? Yes. What was new - using it as a verb! “Just BIN it!”
Pound and P: money matters - some don’t usually say “twenty poundS” unless they’re (A) writing, or (B) in a formal situation - they would say “twenty pounD” - and you can say pence but you’d usually say “p”.
The Continent/Europe: As in continental Europe, which for some reason is considered an other-ly region. It’s interesting, how apart the British community seems to feel from the rest of Europe, in general.
Throw/Have a Paddy: I don’t like this expression, because it seems to smack of derision for the (stereotyped as aggressive and drunk/violent) Irish, though I could be wrong about its etymology. It basically means to throw a fit.
Mingin’: Gross. My friends tended to use it to describe something grimy and messy, but I heard from yet other friends that the word is usually used very rudely to describe ugly women. As in, “she’s a minger.” Isn’t that awful?!
Muppet: inept, stupid. (Thanks Judith!)
Ice Lolly: Popsicle. (Thanks Ellen!)
Washing Up Liquid: Dish soap. Ellen loves this one…
Sweets: I just remembered being a little confused by this when I arrived in the USA, because in the USA, “sweets” refers to pastries or other kinds of baked goods, most of the time. Again, in Singapore, I grew up with the UK convention - sweets refer to candy (thanks Ellen!) though the term doesn’t include chocolate, unlike in the USA (thanks Sam Bell!).
Cake: Used sort of like “sweets” in the USA. When you’re having friends over, you may say “we’ll have tea and cake!” Though I suppose having tea and biscuits is more common…
Biscuits: Commonly thought of as the British equivalent term for the USA “cookies,” but I personally think British biscuits and American cookies are very different things. They do have American-style cookies in the UK, and they do refer to them as cookies, especially classic drop cookies, like oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip. Biscuits - custard creams, digestives, shortbread, tea biscuits, just to name a few - refer to a set of very different creations, made with very different recipes. I’d say they perform the same function in Britain as cookies in the USA, but not that they’re equivalent terms. Am I making sense?
Muffins: If I’m not wrong, they’re basically what people in the USA call “English muffins.” Logically enough (surprise, surprise), what you call “muffins” in the USA are called “American muffins” in the UK. No confusion here!
Crumpets: Sweet, (English) muffin-shaped treats. You can get them in the USA too. Mmmm.
Pancakes: In the UK, they’re more like French crepes - thin and eaten traditionally with sugar and lemon juice. American-style pancakes are - again, surprise, surprise - referred to as American pancakes. Additionally, Fat Tuesday (Tuesday before Lent) in Britain is also Pancake Day! :D
Scone (pronunciation): Note that it doesn’t rhyme with “cone;” it rhymes with “con,” as in “con-man” or “convict.” (Thanks for the reminder, Bimin!)
Tea: Could be the drink, but could also be a meal - and not necessarily the 4.30pm Victorian mini-meal. It’s often used to mean dinner.
Supper: I’ve just been informed that it refers to the pre-bedtime/midnight snackage. Pretty similar to Singapore then - we use it to mean the late night meal we have after dinner, because we’re (A) greedy and (B) want to hang out.
Lash: Drink (alcoholic). The British equivalent of “pre-game.” Fiona tells me it’s a posh/rah term.
Chunder: Throw up. Usually a product of over-drinking. Again, see Gap Yah - yes, again, a posh/rah term.
Sconce/Sconcing: The game “blow-wind-blow,” but with drinking involved. Someone stands up and says, “I sconce everyone who _________!” - for example, “reads Economics!” - and everyone who qualifies has to drink. Essentially a drinking game for the formal dining table.
Penny (verb)/Pennied: When you flick a penny into someone’s drink, and they have to chug it on the spot and finish it in order to save the Queen (who’s on the penny). Judith told me about a chant they usually say when this happens, it goes something like “IMBIBE OR _____!” but I don’t remember what the second word is (fail). Different institutions or regions/cities have different rules for when your penny-ing counts and when it doesn’t. I know Oxford and Cambridge’s rules are the opposite of one another - one disqualifies penny-ing if the drink is in the person’s hand, one disqualifies penny-ing if the drink is on the table - but I don’t remember which is which… I never pennied or got pennied at Oxford!
What are you like?!: A personal favourite of Bimin’s; a response to unique/strange behaviour (that she’s often the recipient of… ;) ).
Can’t be arsed: Can’t be bothered to.
Oxford Christmas: Now this isn’t an actual Britishism - it’s the tradition at Oxford, mostly for the colleges but also for the city and local churches, to have a round of Christmas celebrations early in the month of December, while all the students and faculty are still around. There’s a Christmas festival out on the streets, Christmas dinners in College Halls, Christmas carol services at all the College Chapels… It’s a wonderful thing, to get to celebrate Christmas two times over each year! :)
Mince Pies: Yummy little mini-pies - more like filled tarts - that are had during the Christmas season. The filing is sweet and red, and doesn’t actually contain any meat, unlike those in the USA.
Mulled Wine: I’m sure they have this in the USA as well, but it’s much more common in the UK, especially during Christmas time. Wine steeped in spices and served warm.
Lie-in: Noun for the act of sleeping in late. As in, “I’m going to have a massive lie-in tomorrow.” If only…