Reserving seats in food centres by putting items such as name cards, tissue packets, umbrellas, staff passes or plastic bags on them. Demystifying the myriad of acronyms and abbreviations from 4D to PIE and ERP. Addressing older people as “aunty” and “uncle” as a sign of respect.
These are just some of the quirky and colourful local practices that foreigners like Brian Witte are greeted with when they arrive in Singapore.
When the American first started living and working here in 2010, he was confounded by two other things about Singaporeans: Lunch and personal belongings.
Brian quips, “It took me awhile to get used to how important lunch is to colleagues. I have the habit of just grabbing lunch and eating it at my desk while I work. This is very different from some of my colleagues, who insist on going out together for lunch. I guess that it is because in Singapore, most people go home after work is done, whereas in other places I’ve worked, we socialise more after work at the local bar or restaurant.”
On the issue of personal belongings, Brian observed that many people were casual about leaving their purses and cell phones lying around without watching them, or even walking away from them in the office and at public places.
“I was amazed at the level of confidence in the locals that nothing was going to get taken [if left unattended]. Although it shocked me a little, I guess there is good reason why Singapore has such a low crime rate,” he muses.
Over the past decade, Brian’s acceptance of Singaporeans’ quirks and his appreciation of the city has deepened. Although he does not reserve seats at food centres using items, he tries to eat lunch with his local colleagues whenever he can – and still finds himself gaining new insights about Singapore each time. He remains cautious about leaving his own belongings lying around, but no longer bats an eyelid when he sees his Singaporean friends doing that.
Currently a deputy general manager at the Singapore office of a global communications consultancy, Brian has lived in seven countries his whole life. However, Singapore is where he has stayed and worked for the longest, apart from his childhood home in Upstate New York.
“I actually find it easier to have a work-life balance in Singapore than in other countries I’ve been at. I love that when I go to the gym at lunchtime, I see many other office workers taking a healthy break from their hectic day to exercise, socialise, and then go back to the office,” he shares.
On Passion and Places
Despite having been in Singapore for some time, Brian still likes to see himself as a tourist. When he is not working, he enjoys exploring new places in Singapore. An avid photographer, architecture lover and history buff, Brian often shares his photos of Singapore’s buildings and everyday life on his social media accounts, accompanied by the hashtag #beingatourist.
He enthuses, “There is a huge misperception that Singapore is very sterile or is not as ‘cultural’ as places like Taipei or Bangkok. But Singapore definitely has some interesting neighbourhoods and great old shophouses in places like Geylang, or nice architecture and colours in Little India… even the HDB flats are interesting!”
Brian is also passionate about animals and environmental conversation, so it was only natural that he sought out volunteering opportunities in these areas to ease himself into life in Singapore and make friends with the locals. He joined the Singapore Zoo as a docent and has participated in beach clean-ups at Changi Beach Park and Pulau Ubin.
The Singaporean in Him
Over the years, Singaporeans’ quirks have certainly rubbed off on Brian, who also speaks Mandarin from his years of living in Taipei and Beijing. He says, “Whenever I go back home to the US, I always get questions about my ‘new’ accent. That and I’ve been called ‘kiasu’ as I’m a little competitive about booking travel during public holidays!”
What advice would Brian give to someone who is relocating to Singapore? “Don’t compare places,” he says. “Singapore is a great place to have a career, have a stable life and enjoy work-life balance. If you get bored and want an adventure, you have access to so many places within a few hours. But take time to see everything that is here as well. If you like shopping and nightlife, it’s all here. If you enjoy nature and travel, it’s here as well!”