11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture

How time has flown. As of the 5th July 2011, I’ve been living in London for 11 years. It was 11 years ago when I wrote a ridiculous feature called ‘a Singaporean Bimbo in London’ for a Singaporean newspaper and it still makes me giggle to remember the girl that I was. Looking back, there has been some valuable lessons in those 11 years, somewhere…and perhaps living here both as a participant and an observer could somewhat make me an ethnographer of London pop culture, albeit not a systematic or academic one. On that note, here are the top 11 things I’ve gathered from my past 11 years.

1. Personality

My assumption: Enthusiasm and confidence are clearly positive things.

My experience: I used to greet my fellow housemates with a loud and cheery ‘Good Morning!’ and one day, overheard a conversation between two of my housemates that went something like this, ‘What’s she on? Nobody can be that enthusiastic. I can’t trust her. It seems so insincere’.

Lesson learnt: Enthusiasm and overconfidence can be regarded with suspicion (especially coming from a woman)

2. Intonation

My assumption: Coming to a country that speaks the same language, I immediately assumed that what I said would be understood in the same way too. Now, if you are not familiar with the Singaporean accent, imagine putting the word stress on the last syllable of every word, and the last word of every sentence. Now imagine this situation.

My experience: I was living a houseshare and the bins regularly were filled up but not emptied. After taking out the bins for the 11th time, I politely asked a housemate, ‘Could you take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ I later heard rumours that I was very aggressive, and so I tried to change the way I said things, ‘I was wonderING if you could possiBLY take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ to no avail. To them, I was still aggressive.

Many years later, when shown Gumperz’s research that featured two different accents saying ‘That’s the wrong one. It’s the Wembley account,’ to a bank manager and how they were perceived differently, I suddenly realised that the unconscious placement of my sentence stress and intonation had created an impression I had no intention of making.

Lesson learnt: Accents may be part of your identity, but that identity could be misconstrued (so please don’t judge me for changing my accent…)

3. Forming new friendships                                                               

My assumption: The thought of moving overseas almost seems like an adventurous prospect. A chance to start over, to start afresh.

My experience: Most people I have met have close friends they have met at university or at school, and those seem to be the main friends that stay with you for life. Coming to a new environment in my mid-twenties only means that most people already have an established circle of friends, and this makes the task of making friends even more challenging.

Lesson learnt: By starting afresh, this includes the social circles that you’ve built. And if you don’t go to the pub, you might have problems making new friends.

4. Indirectness

My Assumption: People say that the Brits are very indirect and pride politeness.

My experience: I wrote long-winded work emails in the belief that I was being polite and indirect. When asking for time-off, I would write 3 paragraphs explaining why I needed it. When I received what I considered to be curt and abrupt replies, I spent nights worrying that I had offended them.

Lesson learnt: Generalisations can backfire. Context is everything. Regarding emails, it is totally acceptable to get to the point.

5. Perceptions of attractiveness 

My assumption: Being cute and silly is what you do when you flirt. Girliness=Sexiness. When showing affection, hit the member of the opposite sex playfully.

My experience: When I did the very same things that would have worked for me back in Singapore, the guy I was hitting (on) said, ‘What’s up with you? Grow up!’

Many years later, I had a heated discussion with a British friend about what she thought was the ‘infantilisation of women’ in Far Eastern cultures…strangely, we never saw it as infantilisation…just uh…cute?

Lesson learnt: What is considered attractive and flirty can be extremely different culture to culture.

6. Machismo

My assumption: Being romantic, liking romantic comedies and cheesy love songs are not gender-specific characteristics. (Some of my male Korean students will even attest to romantic comedies being their favourite genre of films)

My experience: Countless discussions with British and European men quickly brought light to the fact that it is just not cool for a man to like romantic films and cheesy love songs. This is further affirmed by the phrase ‘chick flicks’. But it is not just the British men who are wary of the Hollywood brand of romance. Several years ago, when I heard someone say, ‘Your eyes are like the stars in the sky’, I instantly responded with a cynical ‘Oh please…’, at which point I thought, ‘Oh my! I’m turning British!’

Lesson learnt: Cliched romantic notions could be considered not just very girly, but rather insincere.

7. The Media

My assumption: In Singapore, there is a relatively heavy-handed censorship of the media. The number of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows far exceeds those in my country.

My experience: A student pointed out to me that she found it admirable that the mass media in Britain constantly chides celebrities for having cheated on their wives. When I probed further, she said that many women in her culture would not want to talk about their partner’s infidelity as they feel it might be a reflection of their unattractiveness. She added that if such news was in the papers in her country, the men would probably want to pat the celebrity on the back and celebrate his manhood. The open criticism of such behaviour in the media, whether it be on tabloids or the Jeremy Kyle Show leads to a public mentality that cheating is unacceptable, no representation of one’s manliness and definitely not the norm.

Lesson learnt: Tabloid media can serve to uphold certain values in society and reflect the beliefs and the values of a culture (and can be good ‘fry-your-brain’ entertainment too).

8. Studying

My assumption: When I was at school, the popular kids were always the ones who had the straight As, in addition to excelling in other extra curricular activities like the piano, dance, chess. The boys who studied hard were the ones other boys wanted to be, the ones that the girls were drawn to.

My experience: I was never really the hard worker or the star pupil back at school, but perhaps growing up and finding a passion for teaching and Applied Linguistics has propelled me to put quite a bit of effort into my teaching qualifications. But I soon realised that one’s grades or knowledge is not something one should publicise.

Lesson learnt: Studying and the procurement of knowledge is best done quietly (otherwise you’ll be known as a nerd)

9. Class

My assumption: Having money and being upper class are considered desirable qualities. Coming from a country that had moved from third world to first world in such a short period of time, a rat race had developed to push people to compete so as to learn more, produce more and achieve more. The fight for status and the 5 Cs (Cash, Car, Career, Condominium, Credit Card) was what elevated the country’s economic status.

My experience: The rich and upper class are sometimes treated with disdain. Many have a fierce pride in their regional accents. People protest against bankers’ wages. Of course, it is no secret that the TEFL world I work in is populated by liberals in pursuit of fairness, but I would like to think that it is a fair representation of the majority.

Lesson learnt: Being or sounding posh can be detrimental in the UK. Obviously, I frown upon any kind of discrimination, but the citizens of the UK can be proud to be striving towards the values of altruism and meritocracy.

10. Wit 

I could almost write a whole blogpost dedicated to this. But better yet, read pop anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ which dedicates a whole chapter to this topic, and a whole section to irony.

My Assumption: There are several things I had taken forgranted in this area. Among these are – humour is important but just one of many character traits that could be nice to have; Mr Bean was a good representation of British humour; winding someone up is usually done with malice. But the examination of different brands of humour deserves much more than just a few throw-away sentences that can hardly summarise the underlying features of what we intrinsically find funny.

Situation: Couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a Singaporean friend’s video on Facebook that was shot during a house party. A boy at the party teases a female friend as being very girly in front of the others, she throws her hands up, stomps her feet in a girly manner and screams, ‘Ai yoh! Don’t sabo (Singaporean English short for sabotage) me! You always like that one!’ (translation: Oh my! Don’t tease me! Why are you always like that?) and the rest of their friends laughs along at her display of ‘cuteness’.  Upon watching this video, I intrinsically found myself laughing adoringly, relating to the scenario. There was a part of myself that understood that brand of humour, despite knowing that there was a stark difference between that and British wit. At that moment, I realised that humour was something deeply entrenched in our upbringing.

Lesson learnt: In Britain, humour is everything. Irony permeates everyday life and best delivered with a dead-pan face. I love the wit of Mock the Week, the self-deprecation of Little Britain, but I probably will never really be able to ‘do it’ the British way. And that’s ok.

Most importantly,

11. Speaking the same language does not mean having the same culture.

The above might seem pretty obvious, but it was something I simply hadn’t considered when I started living here. Basic concepts which I took for granted as universal were clearly not. And these are concepts no book about culture could shed light on.

I’m glad these 11 years have taught me that.

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

5 thoughts on “11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture”

  1. Chia …

    what a perceptive and honest piece of writing. Perceptive in your description of the British/English/London people around you and honest in your admissions about your Singaporean behaviour when you first arrived.

    I’d just add that a lot of your observations about London life and mores rings true for those of us who live in the city but come from other parts of the UK. Coming from Manchester and having lived here for 40 years, I still find Londoners in the street or on public transport incredibly stony-faced, but the fact is they often open up with a friendly smile if you engage them in conversation. Asking directions is a good way to do that – something that my northern family do a lot when they’re wandering the streets and getting lost.

    I think I still have culture bump problems, but my wife Dede, a native New Yorker who has lived in London more than half her life, has a different set of challenges. She sometimes feels caught between the insularity of some of the Brits around us and the in-your-face instant friendliness of North Americans, either there or here. She still thinks she makes cultural ‘errors’ all the time. Thank goodness for that, otherwise social interaction would be so dull!

    i also concur that EVERYONE with a modicum of interest in behaviour and cultural norms should read Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ken. In terms of ‘stony-facedness’, I think it’s true for all cities and to be honest, Londoners are actually much more polite on public transport than Singaporeans. I think the issue with friendships was more about finding good friends…the kind of friends that you can count on, that you can be yourself with, that know you…and that process does take time…that’s probably why most people stick to their ex-uni-mates or schoolmates through their lives. Finding acquaintances is not a problem, London is a big city full of people…but how many of these go beyond a drink at the pub? (Am I starting to sound melancholic and dramatic? Sorry…) Add to that the fact that London is a transitory city and many people you meet might not stay here for long…so you meet someone you can become best friends with and the next moment, they’re gone…sob sob…

  2. I delight in, cause I discovered exactly what I was looking for.
    You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have
    a great day. Bye

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