Nakedness

As an Asian in Germany, one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had would be to enter and enjoy a sauna.

Because of its geographical proximity to the Scandinavian countries, who stand by this truly, Germans have taken up the culture of being entirely naked in a sauna. To them, saunas are the one place that is truly clean, rid of all unnatural materials – including your bathing suits.

Well, okay, bath towels are fine to sit or lie on.

When H first suggested visiting a sauna place three winters ago, I said, sure let’s ask your brother if he’d like to come along! H hesitated. Later I found out why.

The sauna place was like paradise, with indoor swimming pools and a large variety of sauna rooms. Germans take their saunas very seriously, except everyone was naked. Being short-sighted and a spectacles-hater, I wore contact lenses everywhere possible. This was the first time I decided to go blind as a bat. Somehow I thought if I couldn’t see clearly, neither could people see me.

But after the second and third and fourth time, I thought this makes sense. I mean we wear bathrobes everywhere else in between sauna rooms anyway, which is sort of a dream come true. Apart from that, it is just a body!

That was the interesting part. I have a theory that because many people here take bodies as just bodies (and are not / should not be associated with something sexy in a sauna), nobody looks at a naked body and immediately gets turned on. The same goes with artistic films and pictures. As long as it is not associated with sex, a naked body does not make it pornographic – unlike what Facebook thinks.

But don’t forget to do what the Romans do in Rome.

While we went on an adventurous honeymoon trip last year, we ended up in a hotel in Montenegro that had a sauna. When we got there, the first thing H did was to strip naked and enter. A horrified employee got in quickly and told him to cover up immediately! Oops 🙂

While we were in Poland last week, we were a little more careful with our behaviour, so we waited and observed.

First, nobody stripped when they went into the sauna, so we went in with our bathing suits. How very uncomfortable and unnatural, I thought to myself. Wait – did I just turn Northern?!

And then we got out and observed that a couple stripped before entering – it must’ve been okay. So we followed suit. Except a man entered thereafter without stripping. Then it felt incredibly uncomfortable for me, as I tried to cover up whatever I could, because I felt extremely naked.

This must’ve been what Adam and Eve felt, when before and after the fruit!

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Birthday culture, as I know it

It's funny that after living here for four years, you still find yourself alienated by the smallest rituals.

The thing that struck me recently was birthdays.

Now, there are things I have come to accept:

  1. It is the worst luck ever to wish someone happy birthday in advance. Big no go. Always on the day or later.
  2. You have to bring your own cake to work on your birthday. Don't expect anything from your colleagues.

So those are (weird) stuff I got used to. But there are just some others that I find it hard to live without.

Without them I was not just visually unhappy on my birthday, I was also verbally unhappy.

Let me explain:

  • Birthdays only count when you have a birthday cake with candles on it.
  • There is preferably a physical present wrapped with wrapping paper.
  • When you have the birthday cake in front of you, others must sing you a birthday song.
  • This is closely followed by the request that you make a wish with your fingers intertwined and eyes closed. You're not allowed to reveal what you wished for.
  • Then you blow out the candles, all at one go.
  • And you make sure you make the first cut on the cake. Whether you end up separating the pieces is secondary.

After making the most amazing cake a few days later, submitting to my tantrums on my birthday, my husband wondered aloud why I blew out all the candles, thus making the room extremely dark.

Oh honey, you don't know anything about my culture.

“Growing Up” in Germany

Sometimes I feel like Germany has moulded me in the past year and a half, although early mid-twenties hardly ever counted as the impressionable years. But indeed, the impressions are imprinted on me.

Right as I’m saying this, I’m struggling slightly to type quickly and accurately on my good old macbook. I’ve gotten used to the German keyboard since starting work.

I’ve become more careful with my manners. Back home, we don’t show appreciation or give thanks as much as the Germans. Now it becomes more natural to say that “I’m looking forward to it!” when arranging a meet-up with a friend. Or to say “it’s so nice to have met you!”

I’m also in the midst of creating a new habit. I’ve started trying to use people’s names when speaking. It could be a personal habit or an asian thing, but I’ve never been comfortable using people’s names. This is especially so for the older generation (I never call my aunties and uncles by their first names in Asia), but it also applies to the younger generation. But lately it’s becoming easier to say, “How’s it going, (name)?” and “(name), thank you for your help!”

I’ve learnt to look out for quality over quantity when purchasing, because Germans buy things with the aim of keeping it for a long time. I used to buy tons of flats for $20, so that I could switch among them, but the reason why I end up switching so much is because none of them last a season! I’ve become a little less stingy while shopping.

Most importantly, having the German language all around me, hearing it and speaking it all day isn’t as exhausting as it used to be. In the past, a two hour intense conversion in German is enough to kill me for the rest of the day. Now it’s like meh.

It’s interesting to be a foreigner and not really feel like one anymore. 🙂

Perspectives

Returning to my parents’ in Singapore after being away for 8.5 months has been rather interesting. Spending a long time away from everything here, and a long time together with the love of my life has really changed my perspective.

As we know, the Germans are stereotyped to be direct, frank, honest, straightforward. S, in particular, is all about going straight to the point or opening up a discussion. It was a say-it-and-mean-it culture. When something is bad, one discusses the many solutions and evaluate which is better.

Coming back to the land of reservations and judgements, it was a slight culture shock. I’ve forgotten what sarcasm and bitchiness was like. I’ve forgotten that what one says doesn’t necessarily dictate the truth. I’ve forgotten how one shouldn’t say this and that to this person because it would cause him or her to lose face. I’ve forgotten how power play was like. I’ve forgotten how I should shut my mouth because some older folks aren’t interested in hearing what I’ve to say actually.

But approaching these folks with no judgement also helps (I think!) to bring out the best in them. It does surprise me how that changes. Sometimes we behave according to the thoughts of others, which is really weird.

But if that’s true, I’m glad S has brought out the non-judging, the problem-solving person in me.

On a side note, I’ve not much time left to refer to S as my fiancé. So from this point on, S shall be referred to as the fiancé.

Another perspective I’ve gained is that leaving the fiancé for an indefinite amount of time while we first got together, or leaving the fiancé for a fixed number of months, or leaving the fiancé knowing that I’ll live with him soon, or leaving the fiancé with an engagement ring on my finger has no effect on my crying. It’s equally bad each time.

But it really sucks to be apart from the one you spend every waking happy moment with. Perhaps in a way, the leaving always makes us more appreciative of each other. In any case, ohne dich ist alles doof!

Culture Shock and Living With It

Last weekend I travelled west to Stuttgart for an assessment center, which took place on Monday and Tuesday. Okay, so I didn’t get the job, but it was an amazing experience, where I got to meet lots of like-minded (i.e. business-minded and high-achieving) Germans and just not through S.

It was nice to be reminded that I am also a qualified person, I also seek many high-achieving dreams like these people, and my German was truly conversational. I could understand 95% of the time, and could respond in a way where my grammar was off and on right, but completely understandable. And I didn’t have to nudge S to say, hey what did he just say? Well, he couldn’t be there at that very spot with me, though he did do the big trip with me.

The city was also beautiful and quaint, with (very) German-styled architecture, yet with the view of the mountains and rivers. Apart from that, I would say the city is more similar to Singapore. The cars were fancy, the roads were clean, the people were rich and career-driven.

Returning to Berlin was a little strange. There I was, back in the capital of this country, and then I hunched back and returned into my comfort zone of jeans and sneakers. Then I went to class and met with artists (painters, directors, photographers) and spoke to people 10 years younger than me, or 20 years older than me, with their dreams of making it in Berlin – the fellow jobseekers.

The buildings are grey but the city still sparkled in an unconventional way – and it’s strange to still find it unconventional. It should be conventional now that I see it every day for seven months. It’s the city where rules aren’t rules.

It’s interesting now that I can really foresee living in both cities, it would be perfectly okay. It used to be just a catchphrase, a way to sound cool. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months. I don’t know where I’ll live in a few years. It depends on so many things – my career for example would play a huge role. But it is a good feeling to truly be at peace with myself and say, it’s true. I can foresee myself living in a different city.

Too German, Too Asian

As S and I come from different countries and thus cultures, we enjoy poking fun of the stereotypes that hold true.

For instance, Asians are less direct, as Asians are uncomfortable with saying “no”, or anything negative, in the other person’s face. Germans are possibly most comfortable when they are able to be direct, though this is typically constructive rather than derogatory.

Rewind nearly two years ago, while shopping,

S: What do you think of these shoes?
I: Uhh…
S: I like the sides. Do you like them?
I: I think you should look around some more.
S: (laughs) You’re being so Asian.
I: What would you have said?
S: I would say, I don’t like them.

I have thereafter coined extreme directness as German direct. If I said someone was being direct, and he asks how direct was the person? German direct.

And then something happened. A few days ago, I sent him a song I fell in love with that was on the radio. After he patronizingly listened to it,

I: So what do you think? Do you like it?
S: Uhh, I like the lyrics.
I: So you don’t like the tune? Have you become Asian??
S: (bursts into laughter upon self-reflection) … Maybe.

Oops. What did I do? 😀

PS: Don’t worry, I’ve also become more German direct.

Speaking with Acquaintances VS Loved Ones

In parallel with the previous post about being blessed – I noticed something at work today.

I’ve a colleague who was previously in a position where she had to liaise with customers all the time. She is absolutely brilliant on the phone. She has amazing phone etiquette and she speaks to cold callers, service providers, etc with extreme courtesy.

I adore her. I really admire her ability to make small talk, her ability to make others comfortable around her, her comfort with her job, in her own skin, her faith in running, how she juggles work and family, etc.

Her husband’s currently abroad, and I think they hit a slightly rough patch. So when he called the other day, she switched to a clearly irritable-sounding tone.

And then it hit me because I think we’re all guilty of it. How is it that we speak with acquaintances in a nicer manner than when with loved ones?

I mean – do we care about strangers on the streets? Do we care about our customers? Do we care about the acquaintances? Do we care about the colleagues we make small talk with? Do we care about them as much as our loved ones? How is it that we’re extremely nice to them instead?

Even if we’re having a bad day, we still mask it in front of others. But with our loved ones, we let it show. We let it all out. I’m upset, and I want you to know it. But in some ways, that seems really sad to me.

I’m not saying I’d rather mask my feelings when with my loved ones. I definitely would rather let them know what’s truly going on than anyone else I don’t care about. And it’s not about being close enough to not stand on ceremony, or skip the formalities.

But if we’re so nice to others, shouldn’t we try to say these “please” and “thank you” to our loved ones too?

When was the last time you said, “Mum, thanks for cooking the meal. It was delicious.” When was the last time you said that to somebody’s mum when you were invited over?

When was the last time you said, “Thank you” when your sibling decides to give you a ride to somewhere you needed to go? When was the last time you said that to cab driver?

When was the last time you said, “Could you please help me…” to your boyfriend instead of demanding it right away? When was the last time you said that to a colleague?

Shouldn’t we care more about sustaining that relationship with our loved ones – enough to speak to them in a nicer manner?

Filial Piety

Filial piety is so bizarre.

It’s not the concept that I find bizarre. To be good to your parents, to be respectful towards them – that I completely agree and understand why. But how do you display filial piety? That is the question.

I recently met a friend from the past, we reconnected one random day while bumping into each other on the train and discovered we had so much more in common now than ever before. And both of us have ideas and plans of travelling the world and working in a different country. We shared the same joy for being in a foreign land, and had the same adrenaline rush of overcoming that adaptation barrier.

But being an Asian in a conservative country where filial piety is of utmost importance, we know it breaks our parents’ hearts that we want to get away from our mother land, that we’re not within x kilometres radius from them. If and when we do move away, we won’t be there for them whenever they need it. We can’t be there to take them on weekends just because. We can’t fulfil the Asian idea of being a filial child, taking care of them till they’re old; giving back everything they’ve given to us, which also means sacrificing our hopes and dreams to be with them, like they did for us.

But I constantly wonder if there’re other ways of displaying filial piety.

It doesn’t help that there was recently an article about how an ex-classmate had such thoughts about moving away but she was willing to wait as she had an ailing father. While I congratulated her on an article well written and published, everyone else was complimenting her on being the perfect daughter.

I love my parents, I really do. I appreciate that they’re so amazing. I appreciate that they made do with circumstances and painstakingly brought both my brother and me up. I admired the fact that my dad stayed still in a job for stability to ensure we had everything we needed. My mum stayed home to watch us.

Now, both my brother and I have wings. We have our own ways of thinking. He will soon be married. My future is unplanned and I like that I could go anywhere I wanted to. My parents were a careful balance of strict yet liberal with us, and I guess because of that we could go anywhere and do anything we wanted but we knew how to stay within the boundaries.

When my grandma passed away, my dad told me that he will always want to remain in Singapore, and that he would give me his blessings if I did move away. And while that was all I ever wanted to hear, it pained me to hear that as well.

We were always brought up to consider our parents’ feelings, and to really look deep into what they say. If they said they didn’t mind an issue, were they just being nice? Did they really not mind it? This was one of the cases where I knew that it would pain my dad but he loves me so much that he would rather have me happy elsewhere than stay here for them.

I think I always knew that I would want to be out of this city. I’ve prepped them up when I went away on exchange. I prepped them up when I returned and constantly raved about Europe. I’ve prepped them up when I took up the Skype interview for an internship in New York. I even searched for jobs in UK, France, Germany and Switzerland upon graduation. And I think they got the idea when they found out I was dating a foreigner. I think they got even more certain when I started doing a lot of travels without ‘adults’ (as in parents) or tours.

While I haven’t got a solid plan to leave yet, I know I will eventually regardless of the outcome of my current relationship. It is never about feeling like Singapore is insufficient for me but I’m in love with going through the process of adapting to a foreign city, and it isn’t just for holiday sake.

So now the question is, is there no way of being apart from your parents and still show that you love them? Would moving away mean one isn’t filial? Is this all very selfish?

Misunderstood

This is just me but I get really frustrated when something, someone or somewhere I love is misunderstood. And for some reason, some of my friends really fear travelling to Europe. Most have a misconception about my dear (vive la) France too! These are the common reasons:

1. Pickpockets

Well, hey, I don’t blame anyone for worrying about this issue when we’re from Singapore. For heaven’s sake, we take everywhere to be our home. In school, we leave our bags open and our laptops beneath them to reserve seats. In trains, we hold onto our iPhones and play our ass off without worrying that someone’s gonna snatch it and bolt. In crowded streets, we walk around with our bags unzipped. Of course anywhere is more “dangerous”.

I think I’m getting arrogant about this because I escaped Europe unscathed for half a year. My closest encounter was having my bag unzipped while in a souvenir shop of a chapel after some old man allegedly bumped into me. Thankfully nothing happened. Oh, and a couple of boys were cycling really slowly down the street. When approaching a corner, they sped up and snatched the mobile phone of the lady in front of us. Creepy.

But I was really thankful and these things taught me a lot. If you’re in a dodgy town, don’t show off any blings – iPhones included. Don’t leave anything valuable in your pockets because they will be gone before you realise it. Just have one bag, with one big zip and guard the zip like hell. Also if you look nervous the whole time, duh people know you’ve got something worth guarding! Ladies got it easy cos with shoulder bags, they can keep it as close to their bodies as possible. And don’t get distracted by gypsies and kids, … basically anyone. It isn’t Singapore where you smile to people on the streets because they may be your friend’s friend’s friend. It is also unlikely that anyone would ask you for help at the ATM and enter their passcodes in front of you. (Yes that happened today, and in Singapore, nobody deems that as dubious.)

2. Service Quality

In France especially, their trade union works like hell to gain that power. They’ve got that French Revolution too, as a “success” story to show that they can do anything they please, for their rights. If you were working in a place where it doesn’t matter if you perform well at work, you’ll get paid anyway and nobody will dare to fire you – how many of you would honestly say you’d still put in your 100% all the time? The only reason we do is because we’ve got it drilled in our heads that if we don’t deliver, we’re out. (Not to say it’s a bad thing at all.)

Hence, generally speaking, most of them don’t give a shit about your money. Their people don’t like sales staff bugging them either. Neither do I like them bugging me and following my every step around the store. I like being left alone. But heck, over here, we have the mindset drilled into us that customers are king. If I don’t like you, I complain, and you’re going down. But there, nobody cares. Nobody cares if you’re gonna buy, nobody cares if you like the store, nobody cares if you like the hostel, especially if you’re paying such a low rate for accommodation. So don’t expect service quality. They’re not being rude, it’s understandable!

3. Language

Especially in France, tourists think locals are snobbish. They’re arrogant, they only care about their language, and they don’t want/like to speak to you if you speak in English. How many of you can honestly say if a foreigner from e.g. PRC or India speaks to you in their native accent, you would respond with a smile and struggle on with the language?

Hell to the no.

I would maintain my English until I realise they suck in English more than I suck in (e.g.) Mandarin, so then I’ll struggle with Mandarin. Otherwise I’m just embarrassing myself, in my home land. Likewise, their primary language is French. Their pride in their language is enormous it’ll put all our Singlish shame, well, to shame. They think their English suck so why should they try to speak in English to you? (Also see point #2.)

Hence if you struggled in their language, you’re showing respect. And now that they know you suck in French more than they suck in English, they’re more willing to speak it. (And most of them don’t really suck in English, it’s just their accent!)

Conclusion

If you go with a preconceived notion that they’re gonna be mean to you, you probably are gonna do something that encouraged that. E.g. Hmm let me see if it’s right, do they hate English-speaking people? Then proceed to babble away. D’oh.

If you go expecting to be treated like king, well you’re not. Because they thrive mostly on internal tourism, unlike us in Singapore where we worship the ground tourists walk on.

And if you go expecting to be robbed/pickpocketed, you probably are gonna walk around weirdly and attract more attention than you need.

So if you wanna do like the Romans do, pretend you’re local. Walk around like you know that place (read: don’t hold on to your map 24/7!) and when approaching people, ask nicely in their language. Show some respect! Don’t expect all you expect in Singapore everywhere you go.

Disclaimer: This could change greatly if something horrible happened to me while I’m there in summer. But hell yes, I’m gonna act like I’m from there.