Over the past three months, Brad and I have adopted a fun tradition: labeling the odd things we overhear or witness as “quotes of the week” or “images of the week.” Images of the week have included a goobery American expat with a fierce-looking sunburn wearing cut-off jean shorts (imagine The Village People) and Teva sandals with socks; an 80-some-year old Chinese guy dancing and hip-thrusting in the park to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems But A B**ch Ain’t One” (and with a tinge of sadness and humor, I realize that as his age, there’s probably a lot of truth to that); and pretty much any one of a hundred or so people who line the riverbank every morning doing Tai Chi—especially the ones who are able to “harness” their chi and start quaking all over with their eyes eerily rolled back in their heads.
And then, of course, there are the quotes of the week. Brad was in Japan all week, and emailed me his from Tokyo: “That bowl of pink sauce is for dipping your ox tongue in.” And mine comes from a cab driver who, after I told him where I needed to go, asked if I was Australian. Oddly enough, this isn’t the first, second, or even third time a local Singaporean has asked me this. I sound nothing like an Aussie. When I tell him I’m an American, he shrugs and says, “We Asians all look the same to you, and you all sound the same to us.” We both laughed.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve received wonderful emails from friends and family, generally asking the same two questions: You haven’t posted in a while… is everything okay? And, What is a typical day there like?
In many regards, these two questions fall hand-in-hand. So in answer to the first question: I’m doing okay… most days. Things have been a little rough here, with Brad traveling a lot and Dagny having lingering issues from her bout with scarlet fever. She wakes up every couple of hours screaming during the night—from what I can only surmise are nightmares—and refuses to take naps during the day. I probably don’t need to explain in any detail how exhausting this becomes after a while. And I think every mom out there knows what I mean when I say that right now is one of those times when I find myself wondering why I slaved for a 4.0 GPA in high school and went to college at all, just to find my days and nights devoted to diapers and Dr. Seuss. There are wonderfully rewarding aspects to motherhood, but there also LONG stretches of time when you forget what your own thoughts sound like, or if you even have any personal thoughts and opinions left at all. So I’ve amped up my search for some help, to no avail. Babysitters here charge $20-$30/hour, and part-time preschool or daycare runs 5 days a week—which I don’t want. I’ve met dozens of other expat wives here, and they all say the same thing: “You’ll eventually give yourself over to having live-in help. You’ll realize the way of life in Singapore pretty much forces you to do so.” This sentiment simultaneously frustrates me and makes me all the more determined to not go the live-in route.
Okay, so what exactly is the Singapore way of life? What is a typical day like here? Up until now, I’ve never responded with much in the way of detail to this question, basically believing that my days are fairly tame—borderline boring—and not really worth chatting about. There are, of course, some peculiar little differences. For instance, there are still language hurdles from time to time, even though most people speak English. The thing is, it’s not American English… for the Singaporeans, it is something called Singlish, and for the multitude of Aussies and Kiwis here, it’s… well, just sort of odd. One afternoon, a mom from New Zealand told me she bought too many “nappies” at the store and wondered if I wanted some. Thinking “nappies” was short for napkins, I said, “Oh, no thank you. I stopped buying them years ago. I pretty much only use paper towels now.” And she gives me this incredibly confused look, and we just kind of stare at each other for a second before another woman at the pool puts two-and-two together for us and says to me, “Nappies means diapers.” Ohhhh…
And I run into other strange little nuances on a daily basis, for example:
This is what some of the public toilets look like. Ladies, start toning your quads. Notice no toilet paper? There’s one communal role on your way in… take what you need and hope it’s enough.
There’s no Dr. Pepper here. Oh, how I miss my Dr. Pepper! But they do have this stuff… Kickapoo. What cracks me up is what it says at the bottom: “Original USA Joy Juice Recipe.” Ummmm… Does anyone back in the USA ever remember drinking something called Joy Juice?
Okay, back to the rundown of a typical day… It starts with coffee (a strange Middle Eastern brand because Starbucks is $25/bag… and you thought it was overpriced in the US) and a load of laundry. Our washing machine is tiny and since anything you wear basically needs to be peeled off your skin by the end of the day, laundry becomes a daily chore. And since we don’t have a dryer, I go the pilgrim route of hanging them on lines with clothespins. Next come the dishes. Endless. Freakin’. Dishes. No dishwasher or garbage disposal, so I find myself bent over the kitchen sink for far longer than I would like. I know, I know… it’s not like I’m having to lug my laundry and dishes down to the river and wash them with leaves and rocks as I squat on the shore, but it all still takes some getting used to.
Another aspect of apartment living here that takes some getting used to is the cleaning schedule. There are no seals on the windows and doors, so you wake up every morning to floors and countertops covered in humidity-soaked grit. Likewise, there is no AC in the bathrooms, only screen-less windows, which invites in lots of mildew, mold, ants, cockroaches, and salamanders. So yes, just like the laundry, the apartment needs to be cleaned pretty much daily. This has served as a breaking point for many-an-expat wife.
Dagny enjoying breakfast with a baby salamander... or is it a HUGE salamander climbing the apartment building next door? You be the judge.
Hands down my favorite part of my day right now is the morning, after I put in a load of laundry and mop the floors, when Dagny and I set out for an hour or two to explore our peninsula. She gets to lead, which takes us to some pretty fun, but also pretty weird places. One day she found a hidden picnic table beneath a beautiful grove of palm trees. Another day she led me to the underground dumpsters. It’s a crapshoot with her.
Follow the leader.
Dagny likes to clear all the flowers, leaves, and palm fronds (pictured here) off the path while we walk.
Not so easy.
We always end up walking past the coy ponds, and if we get there early enough, we sometimes get to feed them.
This is a reflexology path… they are everywhere here. The wide, more rounded stones are for beginners. The smaller, more jutted ones can be a little more difficult—and painful. But after you walk over them, your legs feel kind of tingly and rejuvenated.
We usually walk the fitness trail that winds through our complex, stopping at all the different stations for Dagny to play. She’s already tackling the balance beam and tries to do pull-ups on the parallel bars, which is hysterical.
This is the upper-level baby pool, and behind the pavilion you can see the playground. By the time she turned 18-months, Dags had this playground officially conquered. She can climb the ladders and go both down and up the slide. Same with the waterslide at the pool… my little adventurer.
And then the day moves on. A couple of mornings a week, Dagny and I visit the wet market, which is a 3.5-mile roundtrip walk from our apartment, entirely accessible by the bike trail that runs alongside the river. The wet market is like a local farmer’s market. I wouldn’t necessarily say the food there is cheap, but it definitely costs less than anything you would find at the grocery store. You can find a pretty big selection of flowers, fruit, vegetables, and fish here.
Pictures of a typical wet market. There is a roof, but no walls.
This is a hawker center that is next door to the wet market (in case you were wondering what a hawker center looks like when I talk about eating lunch there). Again, there aren't really any menus, you just point to something that looks and smells edible. Generally the food is really good (and really cheap) but you definitely need to go with an open mind. It was only 10am when I took this picture, so it wasn't very crowded, but by lunchtime it is packed. A difference between hawker centers here and food courts in America is that everyone sits side-by-side at the tables, whether you know each other or not.
Now, visiting the wet market takes a little getting used to, for several reasons. First, I find it’s best to breath through your mouth and not your nose while you’re there. The smell of raw fish on one end of the market competes with piles of durians on the other, which, as Brad and I have already explained, smell awful. Imagine rotting vegetation soaked in gasoline… that’s what durians smell like to me.
Another thing that takes some getting used to is that many of the fruits, veggies, and fish are different here than what we are accustomed to seeing back in the States. And the mystery surrounding the strange fish or spiny fruit you’re staring at is intensified by the fact that there is very little, if any, signage (and any placards you do find are usually written in Chinese).
The third thing that takes some getting used to is bartering. I’m terrible at this. I generally just pay what the people running the stands ask, even though I’ve been told prices are hiked up for anyone white. Now last week, I was buying some lychee for a picnic for Dags and I, and the man wanted to sell me a kilo for $5. I told him that was way too much, meaning I didn’t want an entire kilo of lychee (that’s about 2 pounds). But he thought I meant the price, and said, “Okay, how about $2?” So my first attempt at bartering was a success, and I didn’t even mean to barter! For our picnic, Dagny and I ended up walking away with fresh kiwi, papaya, lychee, and a 6-pack of sami rolls… all for $5.
Here’s a pic of Dags mowing down on lychee and sami rolls. Sami rolls are basically tubes of fried honey rolled in sesame seeds, and lychee tastes a lot like grapefruit (in my opinion).
Sidebar: Okay… notice the whole “kilo” versus “pound” thing mentioned above? This is another aspect to living abroad that takes some getting used to. Weight is in kilos and grams, measurements are all in centimeters, the clocks are on a 24-hour read, distances are in kilometers, and temperatures are listed in Celsius. I’m finally starting to get used to this, but for a long time my brain literally hurt from doing constant conversions (p.s. - I didn’t go to college for math). When I got home from Dagny’s wellness checkup at the doctor, Brad asked how much she weighed and how tall she was. I told him I had no idea… The doctor might as well have said she weighed 11 googlemapoos and been 50 kerfloppies tall.
Once we get back from exploring and visiting the wet market, Dagny and I have lunch, clean a little more of the apartment, and then usually duke it out over whether or not she’s going to take a nap. She usually wins. By mid-afternoon, we can be found lathering up in sunscreen, outfitting ourselves with water bottles, and heading out to run errands. This is another glimpse at “the Singapore way of life.” Taking public transportation everywhere is nice, but it also takes forever! First we have to walk ¾ of a mile to the MRT station, make a transfer or two, walk to whatever store or playgroup meeting place we need to go, and then amble all that way back home again. I have to be choosey about what I buy and when, as I need to be able to carry it all back with me. I think that's the biggest issue for an average mom to contend with here: errands that were once so simple and took at most an hour back in the States take up an entire afternoon or more here.
Making a stop during some errands in Boat Quay for Dags to cool off in a fountain. Fortunately, they have a lot of these "splash pads" all over the island for kids so they don't get heat stroke.
By late afternoon, once the sun has dipped behind a few of our buildings and the pool isn’t quite so hot and glinting, Dagny and I usually head to the pool for an hour. This is also fun, but never relaxing. She’s obsessed with the slide, playing on the stairs, and sprinting (as much as an 18-month can sprint) back and forth between all the different pools. Any conversations I attempt to have with other moms or nannies who are there end up being pretty disjointed.
After swimming, we change our clothes, I load Dags back in her stroller, and we head to the grocery store (another mile and a half, round trip). This is a nightly routine because food goes bad quickly here, and again, I can only transport what I can carry. The evening walk is usually pretty nice though… I really don’t mind it. The river glows red at sunset, the patio diners are coming to life, and kids are out riding bikes and laughing all along the boardwalk. It’s a beautiful atmosphere.
Dags trying out her new scooter one evening. Believe it or not, this girl can really get going on one of these! She's not real good at steering yet, though, and frequently ends up in the bushes. We had no idea she had any interest in scooters until she swiped a girl's at the playground one day and took off on it! When we went to buy her one the next day, the salesman at the store said she was much too small... it was for 3-year olds at the very youngest. But then she hopped on the floor model and started scooting around the store and I thought we were going to lose the clerk... He starts shouting, "That's amazing! That's the smartest baby I ever seen!" Okay, I personally think that might be pushing it a little, since she can't speak three languages and already do math like most of the local 18-month olds here (no joke), but she definitely does kick some serious diaper bootie on a scooter!
Once we are back from our evening walk, Dags has dinner and then we read books—sometimes for almost an hour. The girl is a straight-up "cardboard-page-turnin', iPad book tappin', snuggle down with a smile and a story" bibliophile! I love it... what parent wouldn't?
I don’t usually start making dinner until after Dagny goes to bed, because it requires my full attention. I’m working with food I’ve never eaten—never mind cooked—before. On the days I’m feeling adventurous, this is great. But on the days that I’m worn out and just want to plow through a plate of something simple (like lasagna or burritos), there is none to be found. I’ve stopped making grocery lists because, just like Dagny’s little quests around the property, going to the store is a total crapshoot. Crackers aren’t big here, so if they have Ritz or Goldfish on the shelves for Dags, I snatch them up—because sometimes weeks will go by before they have any in stock again. There have been times that the store is out of anything familiar for her, and I’m left looking at my options and wondering, Would Dagny eat seaweed crisps? Or puff-dried baby shrimp? Maybe she would, who knows? I’m never brave enough to buy them… but last weekend she ate an entire plate of scallops in pear sauce, fried rice, and kang kong (a veggie kind of like cooked spinach)… so maybe she would have surprised me with the Asian variety of crackers.
Speaking of food and grocery stores, below Dr. Pepper on my “missed items” list, add Mexican food, red meat, and cheese.
That about concludes a typical day here. I’ve already balded a pair of running shoes with all the miles we cover in single day (I kind of wish I had an odometer for the BOB so I would know just how much ground Dagny and I have covered in our 3 months here). I’m on the search for a new pair of shoes, but have given up for the time being… I’ve gone to 7 different stores now, and when I tell them I wear a 9, they look at me like I’m a martian and tell me the largest size they carry is an 8. Apparently I’m a freak of nature over here. Cirque du Soleil is currently in town at the Marina Bay Sands, and when Brad saw the ad on TV, he suggested I go look them up and see if they have a spare set of clown shoes I could borrow… So even though we are having moments of wanting to click our heels together and scream for the Wizard of Oz to let us go home, you can all rest happy knowing we still have our sense of humor firmly in tact!