Monday 17 March 2014

Be nice, lah!

Talk of the town: An Ang Moh (foreigner, literally redhead) has been negative about Singapore in the press. Again. Singaporeans would be uncompassionate and uncourteous. The attack is not coming from an arrogant British banker this time, but from a British lady. A pregnant lady. 

In a column on the BBC website, freelance writer Charlotte Ashton writes about her experiences in Singapore. She loves it, initially. Until one day, a couple of months pregnant, she feels unwell in the MRT. Nauseous and weak. Does someone offer her a seat? No. 

Charlotte describes how, for the fifteen minutes of her journey, she crouches on the floor, head in hands. It makes her very unhappy. Singapore, she writes, has let me down.

My thoughts immediately go back to myself, pregnant and sick, in the London underground. Did people offer me a seat in this country that is supposedly so polite? Often not. I too, have spent an uncomfortable journey on the wobbly floor of the tube, my piercing eyes trying to force someone of their seat.

Did I blame Great Britain? Did I feel the country had let me down? Or was I just mad at that car full of commuters too busy with their phones and e-readers to notice me?

A friend who commuted daily on the underground had a good trick, a button: Baby on Board. It did help, she said, most of the time. I was never pregnant in the Netherlands, nor in Singapore, but I think not giving up seats for fellow passengers, pregnant or not, is a universal problem. Like many expats, Charlotte Ashton sees her home country through homesick stained pink glasses.

Singaporeans fight back. Netizens throw generalist platitudes as bad as Charlottes. In online comments, they wish her back home, together with the rest of the complaining bunch. Prime minister Lee Tsien Loong comments the article is a good reminder for everyone to be more gracious and kind to others.

Yes, customs are different in every country. Everyone should value that, guests and hosts alike. I propose a button, in good Singlish: Everyone be nice, lah!

Thursday 13 March 2014

Milestone splash

She jumps in, and splashes away. Sometimes a real stroke can be spotted in her movements; sometimes it’s a doggie paddle. The teacher encourages her, smiling, and she plods on, swimming the whole half lap she is supposed to. It is Jasmijn’s first swimming lesson in the ‘big kids lane’, where no parents have to go in to support their offspring. I stand on the edge of the pool, my guts clenched with mixed feelings.

Pride, off course, for my daughter who just turned three, and now swims her half lane independently, without flinching. Elation as well, as I have been looking forward to this moment for years. The moment that the last of my kids would be able to swim, and I no longer had to join them in the pool for their classes. This moment signals the end of an era. The era of parent and child classes, where we have to sing ‘wheels on the bus’ and ‘sleeping bunnies’, while our kids splatter and splosh, learning to be confident under water and to do simple strokes with pancake-, and crocodile arms. 

My thoughts go back to those first classes with Tijm, in a sweaty English public pool smelling of chlorine, where the baby pool was cold enough for Tijm to turn blue at the end of the lesson, before we bundled him off to the hot and sweaty changing cubicles which were always too pokey to move with our small crowd. 

From there to the sunny outside pools of Singapore with their icily air-conditioned changing rooms was a big improvement. I remember Linde’s first lesson, who, being too old for parent and child classes, was encouraged to ‘jump right in’ and swim to the teacher in the middle of the pool. Before I could shout ‘no, she cannot swim!’ Linde was in the water and had, I am still not sure how, reached the teacher.

From Jasmijn’s classes I mostly remember the cloudy afternoons, where the kids and I managed to feel chilly even in thirty degrees, and the sparkly blue pool just did not look inviting enough. Thirty odd years after my own frustrating experiences, I still don’t like swimming lessons.

So here I stand, my toes dipping in the cool water, together with my friend whose daughter trudges next to mine. We speak, jokingly, of afternoons of leisure, of poolside gin and tonics, of the books and magazines we could bring next week.
And I know I am happy, deeply happy, with this new milestone. But somehow I can not ignore this nagging feeling deep down, that makes me just the tiniest bit sad. The feeling that it all goes too fast, that it will never come back again. That I will miss my little monkey jumping off the edge to swim to me, her little arms grabbing my neck and hugging my wet body tight. That I might even, one day, miss 'the wheels on the bus.' 

Gin and tonic, anyone?

Thursday 6 March 2014

Rainless rainforest

Singapore is in the tropics. It is hot and wet. Even in the dryer season it rains almost every day. In the wet season it just rains a bit longer, and a bit harder. With the kind of hammering showers that will soak you to your underwear whilst running the twenty meters it takes to reach your car. Luckily, it never lasts long, and the heat dries you almost as fast. That is Singapore. Hot. And wet. 

It is still hot, but now, Singapore is dry, it has been for months. Fifty-five days, to be precise. And I can be precise, because the last drop of rain in our garden fell on January 11th. We were annoyed, because it rained on Jasmijn’s birthday party. We had no idea how much we were going to miss the rain.

Our garden, that is normally a muddy mess, is dry and barren. The earth is red and cracked, making us feel like we live in Africa. The lawn is bald and arid.
Despite daily spraying, green leaves droop down withered and brown. The jungle has lost its lustre. The normally lush and impenetrable vegetation seems scant and dusty. The first bush fire in McRitchie Nature Reserve has been spotted, less than a mile from our house. A bushfire! In a tropical rainforest! 

Most Singaporeans seem unperturbed by this longest dry spell on record. Inside their high rise flats they turn up the air-conditioning a notch. The news is slowly, slowly picking up the story. Talking about the weather? It’s just not done, in this city where lives are lived inside, apart from those crazy expats in their forest bungalow, which makes taxi drivers wince when they turn into our road. 

Singapore has enough water, for now. The large central reservoirs are emptier, not empty yet. Desalination plants run overtime. Neighbour Malaysia has not yet closed the water taps, despite problems with their own, same drought. The other neighbour, Indonesia, is still struggling with the aftermath of the flooding of its capital, just a few islands away.

The first rain is predicted for the end of the month. We wait. We spray the plants, and our heated kids. Tomorrow twenty people will visit us for a barbecue. It must surely rain?

photo by my friend Andrea Galkova