Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fitting In

It’s one thing to be unique and stand out; it’s an entirely other thing to be rude or inappropriate.

One prime example of this dilemma is the ever-mystifying conundrum concerning office attire. Quite simply, what is “business casual”? No scary heels or three-piece suits I can understand, but when one editor shows up in jeans and a T-shirt while another wears stilettos and pencil skirts, is the implicit message “anything goes” or that you can only dress the way you want once you’ve reached a certain status? And if so, what status is that, when half of the men in your office show up in polo shirts and jeans, while the rest of the men in the very same building wear ties and shiny black shoes? Parents advise dressing for “the position that you want”; however, reality proves that such get-ups will only earn you stares of “who does she think she is?” contempt from female coworkers and raised eyebrows from male colleagues. Fitting in, it seems, is the best—if sometimes most elusive—option. A chunky turquoise necklace or flashy earrings are fine to give your appearance some “personality,” but beware the statement you are making when you start with suit jackets. Thus, the question of What to Wear remains.

The same issue of “fitting in” was just as imperative for me, if not more so, when I was in Singapore. Certainly, I had no chance of fitting in aesthetically, with my 5’9” Caucasian female self, but I was more determined than ever not to appear the arrogant, offensive American stereotype the world has fashioned. I would speak more softly, try eating whatever was offered to me, try to identify and respect whatever boundaries existed in Angela’s household, and do my best to listen patiently to and decode Singlish conversations instead of demanding that everyone speak in “proper” Standard English. The last thing I wanted to do was peg myself as The American Foreigner with Angela’s friends or family, so I figured that the best way to do this would be to do as they did! After all, there is some truth to the phrase “When in Rome….”

This is not to say I went so far as to become a completely different person. I never lied and said I enjoyed a certain food when I didn’t. That would have been torturous for me, and I was there to enjoy myself! Furthermore, if it had been Angela visiting me, I would have been mortified if she pretended to love every single new food item we gave her to try, just to be polite. Therefore, I voraciously attacked each new dish, scarfed down the ones that appealed to my tastes, and tried my best to graciously decline the remaining few that were not so appetizing. (I know several people who would have loved that papaya milkshake, though. If only my sister had been there to finish it for me!)

Yet, I didn’t want to impose myself where I was not wanted. I would have loved to watch Mrs. Tan make dinner and perhaps learn something about Chinese cooking, but I noticed that the other members of the family tended to stay out of the kitchen when the white gauze curtain was pulled over the doorway to the kitchen (indicating that she had begun making dinner). Thus, I did not intrude. The kitchen seemed to be Mrs. Tan’s domain (I rarely saw anyone else in it, cooking or otherwise), and so it was only after much internal debate that I took the courageous step to get a Yakult drink from the refrigerator one evening. Angela’s family was being so hospitable in putting me up for these two weeks; I did not want to take all of their food, too!

As for napkins and ice water, if Angela, her family, and her friends did not need these things at mealtimes, why should I? Just because I was raised to expect these trifles every time I sit down to eat certainly does not mean I need them. Quite honestly, I never even noticed that I came to expect them until they were no longer offered. I certainly didn’t miss using a fork, spoon, and knife at mealtimes, perhaps because I voluntarily chose to use chopsticks throughout most of my college career, making me somewhat of a spectacle in the dining halls. (“You’re going to eat a salad with those?” I was frequently asked. “Why?”) Imagine how awkward I would have felt if I had been incapable of using chopsticks in Singapore; I would have had had to ask for utensils at every single meal! And the food courts and coffee shops in Singapore may not even have offered utensils! Then what would I have done? Been the really pathetic, disgusting American and eaten with my hands?

In any case, I did the best I could to be polite and proper in a country of different size, nationalities, customs, and expectations. If I did anything wrong or offensive, I apologize profusely to anyone I may have offended, but I can assure Angela, her family, and everyone in Singapore that in spite of any seemingly less-favourable observations I may make, I loved every minute I spent on my trip, and while America may have “freedom of speech,” we have plenty of homeless people, trash-ridden sidewalks, and an unemployment rate that is twice as bad as yours (for a population that is 66 times lager…) to make up for it.

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