7 Years in the US, But You Can’t Take the Singaporean Out Of Me

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Come July, it would have been seven years since I moved from Singapore to New York City at the tender age of 18. It’s funny how I’ve spent all of my adult life here, yet I still retain several attributes that earmark me as an immigrant. Some of these attributes are retained by sheer defiance, and others are involuntary reflexes etched deep into my core.

I use Celsius instead of Farenheit.

Farenheit simply doesn’t make sense. Only five countries in the world are still using Farenheit. Whenever I am aboard a flight, I am heartened by the pilot’s announcement of the arrival city’s temperature in Celsius because which man of science doesn’t Celsius?! I’m certain that I could adapt to Farenheit quickly but it has not been a problem in my everyday life except for when people ask me the temperature and I respond with some variation of  “sweater weather,” or the like.

I prefer subtitles on my shows.

More often than not, I don’t have a problem understanding what’s being said. My ear is, at this point, well-attuned to the American accent. However, my comprehension drops significantly when people talk fast or vary from the standard American English accent. In the movie The Revenant, for example, I had a pretty hard time with the gruff, throaty, mid-Atlantic mountain man accent.

I also prefer to put on subtitles when I’m watching comedies, when punchlines can be missed in a split second. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just particular about hearing every single sentence that’s uttered, or if other people don’t care about missing a few lines. If I’m watching TV with someone who hates subtitles, it’s a trade-off – do you want text on your screen, or do you want me to interrupt you constantly because I have no clue what’s going on?

I lapse into Singlish with my nearest and dearest.

When I first moved to NYC, after countless instances of having to repeat myself, I made it a point to learn the American way of speaking. English *is* my first language, and I probably had a wider range of vocabulary compared to my peers in college at the time. Still, the fact that I didn’t sound American was enough to be a stumbling block. So on to the YouTube videos I studied. Litter is pronounced “lidder”. For Clinton, say “Clint-NNN” instead of “CLINT-tUHn.”

Although I now know to use trash instead of garbage, standing in line instead of queuing upelevator instead of lift, I recall queuing (or, ahem, standing in line) at a MacDonald’s once and I asked for some serviettes with my order. The cashier was like, “You want what?” I repeated myself, this time louder and slower. She remained quizzical. A helpful guy behind me chimed in (as is common of the American way, to butt in and interrupt when it is not your business): “She means napkins. Serviettes is like, a weird British term.”

It was a lot of trial and error in those days. These words are now ingrained into my lexicon, but the accent and the choppy, ungrammatical Singlish syntax is the toughest to shake. I speak the most American when I’m meeting someone I need to impress – a date, people at a party, job interviews – but since my friends and my boyfriend loves me, they get the full force of my Singlish and are also at liberty to make fun of me endearingly for it.

For those who are interested in what Singlish sounds like, I’ve included a video below of Xiaxue, an eminent Singaporean blogger, against her Texan husband.

I’ve definitely evolved as a first-generation immigrant in the US, from being offended when people are ignorant to the fact that Singaporeans are taught English as their first language, to being able to laugh with my boyfriend who lovingly teases me for exclaiming “aiyo” in my most unguarded moments. I feel somewhat obligated to make commentary on what it means to be a minority in the US, but I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience but my own.


The Author

Singaporean in NYC, analyzing relationships with a boozy brownie in hand.

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