Living with strangers requires patience and a rubber band-like flexibility to quell vociferous arguments at the end of the day. Admittedly, I can be stubborn as a mule, refusing to compromise but, through the years, I’ve learned to be less rigid with my dealings with people and the world. For instance, I normally went with the flow with some of my former flat mates, but I drew the line when they wanted to bring their partners (different partners) to the flat. I didn’t take kindly to strange men traipsing all over the flat or relished the idea of the flat turning into a bordello. The line was also drawn with smoking because of my sensitive respiratory system. The garden was their smoking area. Such situations don’t really require a huge paradigm shift unlike when you relocate and face a completely different set of cultural norms.
Entering the safe bubble of squeaky-clean Singapore from psychedelic Philippines is a walk in the park when it comes to shifting paradigms. Who won’t be able to get used to the ease and convenience with which one can, for example, travel up and down the little country? Everything – from paying bills to hiring a cab – is easy-peasy that one forgets the conditions outside of the bubble. Safe from being buffeted by typhoons and earthquakes that regularly plague its neighbours, one is lulled to a complacent routine that is quickly shattered as it was formed when one steps out of the country and stays out longer than usual duration of a tour package. Ennui eventually sets in easily after all the malls have been scoured for the latest editions of bags, wallets, shoes etc and after Boat Quay/Clarke Quay, Sentosa and other watering holes have been frequented for drinks to death.
Convenience is one thing. The flip side of the coin are the preconceived notions about one’s race (and religion at times) that require, on your part, a radical shift in perspective: you steel yourself against innuendoes and face them with equanimity while trying to not sound like an apologist of your country’s wayward economic policies or a zealot brimming with misplaced national pride. It’s all the more galling when you meet compatriots who quickly dismiss their origins and everyone and everything remotely connected to their origins to effect an air of superiority. Ironically, the same compatriots are not above using the card of the Filipino bayanihan spirit (the spirit of helping one another) when they’re in dire need of help from the same people they eschewed only to leave them again when they’ve got what they wanted. This cycle can leave someone completely enervated to the point of being demoralised that the only solution is to pack one’s bags and find, as James Ingram would have it, one’s heart again.
Leaving Singapore requires, obviously, a paradigm shift especially when you travel to a location that is its complete opposite. Much like the Philippines in landscape, Jakarta is dotted with pockets of towns on the brink of economic resurgence and alleys of backwardness further slipping into oblivion. Comparatively speaking, it’s a warmer climate when it comes to interpersonal relations. A smile, radiating from the lips and eyes, greets you all day. A lightness of being permeates one’s soul despite homesickness, plaintive yearnings of lost loves, everyday aberrations of floods, two-three hour traffic jams, cretinous people and abysmal service in restaurants and other commercial establishments. Shaking off the sheen of Singapore can be difficult especially when it comes to punctuality in delivery of service, quality of service and work, and general sense of discipline. Drivers, for example, used to the orderly traffic of the Garden City would certainly be aghast at the erratic, almost quirky, habits of the local drivers, which vaunt nerves of steel and wacky sense of safety. It’s reminiscent of the drivers in the Philippines who are caught between reality and the race course of an F1 race, making prophetic the talk that anyone who braves the roads of Indonesia and the Philippines make excellent drivers elsewhere.
Safety in Indonesia and the Philippines necessitates a 360˚ turn in viewpoint in relation to Singapore where the relaxed attitude vis-à-vis safety is a norm.
“Guard your bag. It should always be in front of you,” warned my mum and sister when they saw my bag resting on my hip as we walked to the main road to catch a jeepney to the train station.
“Be wary of motorcycles when you’re walking on the street. They sidle to you, hit you and grab your bag,” cautioned my mum. This is the modus operandi of the Bundol Gang (Bumping Gang), which becomes prevalent during the holiday season in Manila when everyone is seen as an ATM machine ripe for picking. It’s a similar occurrence in Indonesia I was told.
Insane driving and drivers aside, tardiness is my bugbear in Indonesia and the Philippines being a martinet when it comes to time. I am piqued at meetings starting half an hour later and students sauntering to class 10 to 15 minutes after the bell has rang. This is one shift in paradigm that I don’t tolerate; some label it Filipino time or Indonesian time depending on where you, which, I find, are obtuse excuses for indolence and utter disregard for other people’s time.
Floods, cretinoid people, traffic jams, cultural differences, unreliable service etc – these can all come to an end with the seemingly easy shift in paradigm. The question now: how long will you be switching perspectives to accommodate people and the lapses in other people? Another question – why should you always be the one to shift and adapt to a new paradigm? It has, after all, has its limits.