An Evening at the Park

Singapore does not have seasons, per se. Someone I can’t remember said it best: “it’s either hot and wet, or hot and dry.” Which is very true; in the summer, it rains every now and then but mostly maintains a steadfastly humid atmosphere, and in the winter it rains nearly every day, making it very humid.

But there are certain spots in the island where this sort of thing doesn’t matter, and no, I’m not talking about the airconditioned interior of the newest shopping centre. Try the Botanic Gardens instead.

I’m not much for plants, really. In fact, botany and statistics are probably my two most loathed subjects in the world. But as long as I don’t have to study the plants, I find it completely enjoyable to dwaddle along the pristine pathways of Botanic Gardens. There’s actually a very nice brook or river or something that gurgles its way along three levels of the park, and that, combined with a clear sky and the incredible greenery around you, is really something.

The first place we landed up at was the Swan Lake, which I thought was kind of funny; the atmosphere certainly wasn’t anything like Tchaikovsky’s classic. Instead, about a billion children toddled along the edges, watched by overprotective parents. People tried to feed the fishes or the swans or both with bread – we passed two women and their children squealing along the lake edge (“No, don’t throw it into the water, give the bread with your hand! Ooooooh!”) and my dad muttered, “Wait til that swan pokes your hand with that vicious beak of his. I bet it’s one of those vampire swans, the ones that take a chunk out of your hand.” As a matter of fact, there is a pretty alarming sculpture of five swans taking off in flight in the middle of the lake, which my dad described as a monstrosity (I can only account for this behavior by noting that one of my uncles was visiting and was actually the reason for us walking down to BG).

There are spots inside Botanic Gardens where the noise fades away, where you are surrounded only by towering trees and a rough stone path. They’re not that many, because honestly it’s not a huge park (given the size of Singapore, it’s a miracle they maintain this much space for non-industrial, non-housing related activities) but they are there, and it’s lovely to find them.

But I think the next spot we discovered was the best – the Symphony Orchestra Stage. When it comes to prettifying a place and attracting all kinds of people to it, I think Singapore does a fantastic job. They didn’t intend for BG to just be somewhere you take your kid for a walk in the stroller – it’s somewhere to be educated, it’s somewhere you can have a picnic, it’s somewhere you can come with your family and see flowers and enjoy the outdoors. So they’d also roped in this guy from Poland, who was playing Chopin to a remarkably responsive crowd.

From the brief glimpses I got of him, he was the real deal – fingers flying over the keys, plunging into them and the music. I’m absolutely no judge of Chopin or most other music, but I did enjoy what I heard (whatever it was).

Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage

photo courtesy

Equally enjoyable was just watching the people around us, many of whom had brought huge mats and, of course, food with them, and were picnicking under the almost-twilight, surrounded by Chopin and greenery. There were the requisite oblivious couples, families with dogs, families with hyperactive children, families with both dogs and children, an Indian family quite close to us whose sons had lit up in defiance of the No Smoking signs everywhere. What was really impressive was the – I don’t know how else to put this – complete Singaporean-ness of the crowd. It’s true that there were way more Caucasians than the national average, but there were Chinese, Malays, Indians all sitting under the same canopy of sky, listening to the music. And they seemed to be, against all my own expectations, enjoying themselves.

I think it’s a misconception that an apparently peaceful multicultural country’s citizens will automatically coexist and mingle and all that. I don’t think I’ve seen very much evidence of this, to be honest. This might seem unnecessarily antagonistic of me, but I’ve never really felt at home in Singapore, despite the fantastic family and friends. It’s an awfully convenient place, but I think the point is that Austin feels far more like home – I make my own friends, I live by myself, I “cook”, I take care of my own life. Perhaps that’s the end of it, but I’ve also encountered a much more open society in Austin. Here, I feel like I’ve spent my life seeing people dodge each other’s glances in the shopping centers, the MRT trains, the restaurants. I learned to be polite properly only in Austin, where a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ or an ‘excuse me’ are all forms of human interactions as well as sociably acceptable responses.

At the Botanic Garden today evening, though, I could feel some of that dissipating. Especially when, at the end of the performance, the crowd around the stage erupted in applause, united in their appreciation of real talent.

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2 thoughts on “An Evening at the Park

  1. As you requested, posting my extended ramblings to you here in the form of a comment – for you to read whenever you get disillusioned with the state of Singapore. =D

    I’ll begin by stating up-front that Singaporean society could certainly use a little more graciousness. We’ve a lot of room for improvement in that respect… but the point of this comment is to demonstrate that we’re not quite as bad as we’re sometimes accused of being. Two points to consider:

    1) Definition of being polite

    A lot of us – and I think you’ll find these are the people who complain the most about Singaporeans being an unfriendly/rude lot – have been conditioned to accept a very Western idea of what “polite” behaviour is. The problem arises from the fact that this tends to conflict with a more Asian (pardon the gross generalisations!) idea of politeness.

    For instance, making direct eye contact is seen as positive in a lot of Western cultures – I’m sure you’ve seen that for yourself in America. It’s seen as a sign of regard for the person you’re conversing with. Making eye contact means that you’re giving them your full attention. On the other hand, a lot of Asian cultures perceive direct eye contact to be extremely aggressive. I like comparing it to primate behaviour (although I’m not sure how many people would appreciate the comparison… I’m of the opinion sometimes that our primate cousins are better behaved than us, so…). In any case, direct eye contact for primates is a challenge. It’s a threatening gesture, and so, harmonious behaviour in the troop involves avoiding prolonged direct eye contact, especially with the leader.

    I was looking through an etiquette forum yesterday, and a section on how to behave in other countries caught my eye. In particular, one post seemed appropriate to what I’m saying here. This girl said: Find out what “friendly” means in the country you are going to. I found that my lack of eye contact, dislike of being touched, and shy smiles were actually seen positively in India. People seemed to respond to me better than to the typical American friendliness.

    There’s a reason for stereotypes, I reckon – the Western perception of Asians as “cold,” and the Asian perception of Westerners as “aggressive.” We’re coming from two different types of cultures, and there’s inevitably a clash when people from either party don’t understand what’s considered polite in the other culture. As an aside, I think it’s only polite (there’s that word) to adhere to the generally accepted cultural conditions of the country you’re in. So if you’re in America, by all means, make direct eye contact and make small talk with perfect strangers. If you’re in Japan, respect the fact that you’ll need to give others a wider personal bubble, and refrain from making direct eye contact.

    2) The meaning behind the words.

    I should preface this with a disclaimer: this, as I mentioned to you in a chat, is a rather more cynical, personal perspective.

    In a lot of Western countries, I think you’ll find that phrases like “How are you?” and “How’s your day been?” have become placeholder greetings. The person’s not actually interested in how you are, and if you give an honest response about how your day’s been quite terrible, chances are you’ll get a very awkward/weird look in return. You’re supposed to reply “Oh, fine, and you?” and therefore provide a segue into whatever the person wanted to talk to you about.

    So. The more cynical part of me wonders how many people actually mean it when the say “Have a nice day!” The less cynical part thinks that it doesn’t matter even if the person saying it doesn’t mean it – what matters is if it positively affects the recipient. Me, personally? When I hear that at, say, a check-out counter at NTUC, I always leave in a better frame of mind than I was before. So even if it’s a placeholder phrase for whomever’s saying it, if it cheers me up, it doesn’t matter.

    That said, I wish more people would genuinely feel the sentiment. The world would be a nicer place!

    In the context of cultural differences: this is the main area where I do agree that Singapore could use some work. A simple “thank you” to the cashier when you’re done buying your groceries would be nice. And for a cashier to say “thank you; have a nice day” would also be nice! At the same time, I actually know some people for whom that’s a difficult prospect; they’re that uncomfortable saying anything to a stranger. Also, there’s the language barrier. I know someone (names withheld to protect privacy etc) whose grandmother is simply not comfortable speaking in English, even if it’s for a short phrase like “thank you,” where she wouldn’t be expected to engage in extended conversation. Instead, she smiles and nods before leaving. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable alternative for those who are painfully shy, but I also know that some people will choose to see that as rude, since she doesn’t say the words. Those people, I reckon, need to understand that not all cultures place the same importance as they do on particular gestures/actions/words.

    Singapore could use more of at least smiling and nodding in acknowledgement, rather than grabbing your things and leaving like the cashier doesn’t even exist. You know my theory on this, of course – relating to the development of Singapore over the past forty or so years, the length of time it takes for any country to develop various aspects such as technology and “soft skills,” the unrealistic expectations placed on Singapore because it’s done amazing things in certain areas, the fact that that generation that has had to dig deep and hold on for every little thing (necessary for the country’s survival, at the time) is still around and passing on their values to their kids… and so on. I could get more in-depth, but I’m not entirely certain it’s exactly related to the topic of this comment, so I’ll refrain. =D

    So there you have it. A slightly more positive look on Singaporean society. Of course, if you’re more comfortable with one form of politeness than another, there’s nothing wrong with it. This is another article I think you might find interesting; it speaks about the two types of polite cultures. I guess the important thing is just to make sure none of us jump to conclusions about the politeness of a particular society, without first ensuring it’s not a cultural misconception we have.

    And on a politeness-unrelated note: How much of your feeling more at home in Austin has to do with the fact that you get to live more independently there? If you were able to live away from the family here in Singapore, do you think your opinion would change at all?

    1. I totally forgot to reply to this! SORRY.

      So in reverse order:

      – A lot of it probably has to do with independence. That means I’d have to actually go out and talk to people more to get things done, which I’d never have to do if I was living with my parents. But I think it’s also the culture, a bit more – I mean, even for an introverted person like me, I find it quite nice to encounter people not reluctant to speak to other people or approach them. Of course, there’s the flip side – unwanted attention – but still.

      – And yes, at least smiling, yes that would help! I notice, now that I’ve had to shove myself onboard a lot of packed trains during rush hour, that people are so silent, too – not even an “excuse me” or “sorry” if they shove past someone. I’m sure they don’t mean to be rude, and they do wait for someone to move before trying to shove past, but it really wouldn’t hurt to speak up.

      – This “how’s it going” – I dunno whether it’s just America, or American college kids, but that does, actually, elicit a non-positive response and the convo goes from there 🙂 Except, you know, if you call someone to ask a favour and say “Hey, how’s it going? Listen, I was wondering…” and of course the other person needs to have the sense not to launch into their lifestory.

      – Finally – yeah, there’s a cultural difference for sure, and I think I’m definitely picking up more American cultural cues now that I’ve lived and interacted with a lot more people there than I did here 🙂

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