Yawning Bread. April 2007

Gobsmacking days




The other day, I was helping a friend set up a new Gmail (Google mail) account. Among the questions about the account holder's name and password was one about where he lived.

He selected "Singapore".

All went smoothly until we came to the checkbox that said that one agreed to the terms and conditions of use. To our surprise, the terms and conditions were presented in Chinese.

Now, my friend was English-speaking, of Indian ancestry, and while I would have nonchalantly checked it and moved on without actually reading the terms and conditions -- not that I'd be able to read the Chinese anyway -- my friend was a relative newbie when it came to the internet. (That's why he waited till I was around to stand by before he set up his Gmail account.) Thus, it bothered him somewhat not to be able to read the terms and conditions.

There seemed no way to switch the language to English except for unselecting Singapore as our location. We had to choose "United States" instead.

This incident was no fluke. That same week, my sister created a Gmail account for herself too. She wanted a web-based email for the duration of her travel. She too observed the same thing -- the terms and conditions presented to her were in Chinese. "Does that mean that in future all the administrative notifications from Google will come to me in Chinese?" she asked with some apprehension.

This incident reminded me of the days when we'd get (snail) mail from America with addresses written on envelopes, for example, thus

226A Teck Lim Road
Singapore 0815

* * * * *

The day after Reynaldo accepted a job offer to work in Singapore, he decided to set up a personal profile on a popular website, in the hope of making some contacts before moving here. He had quite a few questions to ask, since he had never been to Singapore before. Except for a brief visit to Hong Kong, he had spent all his life in the Philippines.

But halfway through setting up his profile he was stumped by one question on the online form.

He said, "It only gave me these options, which, recalling from memory, were Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, Caucasian, Others." There might have been more, he said, but certainly, there was no "Filipino".

He thought of selecting "Chinese" since he had some Chinese ancestry, but he could likewise have selected "Eurasian" since one grandfather had been an American serviceman. As for "Others", he didn't feel like an "other" at all.

"What should I have selected?" he asked me. I didn't know either.

* * * * *

Nor do I know what I should do whenever I have to fill in a form that asks for "first name" and "last name". It happened again the day before yesterday when I was making an online purchase with my credit card.

What is meant by "last name"? Is it really the name at the end of a string, or the family name? If the family name is intended, the question that arises would be whether everyone on this earth has a family name. And for that matter, only one family name? Not two?

In my case I assumed that I'd have to fill in "Au" as my "last name", but then it took forever to do a credit card check. Perhaps it had to go through a manual authorisation loop. It took so long that I started wondering whether the system might be hanging, in which case I would be unsure whether I should click again or backspace or what... none of which are recommended moves if you have a credit card transaction in progress.

The failure of a vendor to provide a culturally applicable form for online purchases would make me think twice before I purchase again.

Take a look at some names from around the world. How many of these people would navigate with confidence a form that asks for first name and last name?

Chile: Luis Jorje Lopez Castillo 
China: Li Qiang 
Hungary: Szekeres Imre 
India: Thottathil Ravindran 
Indonesia: Subianto 
Japan: Inoue Tetsuya 
Korea: Park Myung-joon 
Syria: Mohammed Hassan ibn Abdul Malik al-Tibni 
Tanzania: Yonana Madole 
Thailand: Pairat Suttithamrongsawat

* * * * *

Of course, we all do that. Not only vendors and online portals. Every individual unthinkingly tries to reduce the complexity and variability of the world to manageable checklists and categories. Once we place somebody or something in a category, we tend to make assumptions about its other properties based on the category that we've assigned it to.

Thus Google thinks that if you live in Singapore, your language is Chinese.

Or we create categories that make sense in our world ("Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others" or "First name, last name") that doesn't make any sense in others'.

* * * * *

One evening, I was walking home past a row of shops. Being rather late -- it might have been nearly midnight -- all the shops were closed and the area relatively deserted. Here and there however were some men, mostly foreign workers, sitting on the kerb talking among themselves, or using the public telephone to call home.

I wasn't paying any particular attention to them, except to register vaguely that I had walked past 3 guys at the kerb, probably Bangla, 1 guy further back using the phone, and so on. And passing me from the opposite direction was a slim young man, with North Indian features and dressed quite smartly.

A moment later, I heard something that seemed completely out of place.

"Ta de zuofa, wo hen taoyan de." (I dislike his method of doing things - in Mandarin Chinese)

There was no one in front of me, so it could only have been from one of the guys I had passed. But weren't they all Indian or Bangla? Did I miss someone in the shadows?

I turned around to look closely into the shadows -- no one I could see -- and at each of the men I had passed. The 3 guys at the kerb were laughing among themselves in what sounded like Bengali. As for the one talking animatedly on the phone, he was now too far away for me to catch what he was saying.

That left the slim guy, whose back was now turned to me. In any case, he was Indian, wasn't he? And he had no one with him either; whom would he be talking to?

So who was speaking Chinese within earshot?

And then the slim guy started up, "Wo you gaosu ta..." (I have informed him...), in well-pitched Chinese. Into his hands-free mobile phone with earpiece and microphone.

How interesting! How wrong I was to make the immediate assumption that because they were various kinds of Indian, none of them could have been the speaker. And how glad I was to be wrong. It is always a thrill for me to see people break boundaries.

* * * * *

Coming up the escalator from the underground Dhoby Ghaut metro station, I saw that it was raining cats and dogs. Without an umbrella, I was going to be stuck at the portico for a while. So were lots of other people. This portico had two exits, facing north and south, both without any shelter connecting them to other buildings. To the north, steps led down to a pedestrian crossing on Orchard Road. To the south it led to a field and Penang Road -- the direction I wanted to go.

Although I was headed south, I chose to wait it out at the north exit, since the wind was driving the rain into the south side.

A few minutes later, I noticed a Malay guy come up the escalator. He was perhaps in his mid or late twenties, rather good looking, but decked out in heavy-metal gear. Accessorising his black T-shirt and black denim jeans were chunky chrome crosses and other pendants, sharp-studded leather wrist bands, an outsized belt with a buckle so heavy, it was a wonder it hadn't fallen to the ground. On his blue-denim jacket were a couple of patches with words that I have forgotten now, but that were totally consistent with the rocker look. And of course, there was the dyed hair.

While my eyes first landed on him because his face was good looking, my further interest was really in examining, and trying to commit to memory, his attire. He provided the one point of interest in an otherwise boring wait.

He stood about 2 metres from me at the north exit, watching the downpour with some dismay. It was so heavy, it half-obscured the Orchard Road crossing barely 10 metres ahead, and would totally mess up his look. While he had an umbrella with him, the rain was sweeping sideways more than straight down. Would the umbrella do any good?

It wasn't long before he noticed me watching him. He turned and our eyes met. Oh dear, is he going to challenge me to a fight for "staring"?

He turned back to look at the rain and the traffic.

Seconds later, he looked at me again. And again. We made eye contact a few more times. He didn't appear to be upset with me for looking at him, I noted to myself, breathing a sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to fight someone who might have a knuckle duster.

Then a thought occurred to me. Did he think that I was cruising him? If so, was his repeated returning of the gaze his way of acknowledging reciprocal interest? But how could that be? Weren't heavy-metal rockers always straight?

"Pip pip pip pip" went the traffic light that controlled the pedestrian crossing, now flashing a green man. Rocker boy lifted his umbrella to open it. He looked at me one last time, smiled a little and flicked his head as if to say, "Want to share the umbrella with me?"

I was so, so mistaken.

"Thanks very much," I said to him with a big, big smile, "but I'm actually headed the other way," thumbing the south exit.

And so off he went, into the rain, his black-and-white plimsolls immediately soaked by the first puddle he stepped into. "Shit!" I saw his lips say.

It was a joy to be proven wrong. I should rebuke myself for the assumptions I had made of his character. Heavy-metal boys aren't necessarily what we think they are. Here was one with more social graces than most people I know.

Yawning Bread