One of the toughest things about plonking yourself down in a new country is dealing with the constant tension between your own cultural values and those of your borrowed homeland. Sometimes the differences are so slight, it hardly matters. But when accepted practices in the host country are polar opposites of the norms back home, what’s an expat to do?
If you’re me, the answer is easy: you make a mess of it.
When I started working in Singapore, I struggled to achieve a sense of equilibrium. Returning to the workforce after a ten-year hiatus was tricky enough, but being the only foreigner in the office was an added complication that upped the anxiety factor considerably. I managed to settle in without getting too much egg on my face, but along the way I made one colossal blunder that still pains me to this day: I insulted the tea auntie.
I didn’t mean to, of course. The tea auntie was a jolly woman whose job it was to make tea for everyone in the office. With her creased face and gnarled hands, she looked to be about a hundred, and she walked with a rolling gait that made me suspect her feet hurt.
Being a thirty-something Canadian woman with a culturally-ingrained distaste for servitude, I found the idea of an elderly woman waiting on me a bit hard to swallow. I wanted nothing to do with it, so I brought my own tea from home and washed my cup when I was done. When she arrived at my desk, I would always thank her politely and explain that my tea-time was over.
I wanted only to lighten her load; the thought that I might be causing her distress never crossed my mind. One day, though, the realization that Tea Auntie’s smile wasn’t as cheery as usual finally penetrated my thick expat skull.
“You want tea today?” she asked as she parked her cart beside my desk.
“Oh, thank you, Auntie, but there’s no need,” I smiled. “I’ve had some already.”
She nodded, and turned to go. After taking only two or three steps she stopped, squared her shoulders, and turned around again. She looked alarmingly like a woman on a mission.
“Is my job to make the tea.” She spoke quietly, but something in the way she said it made my heart sink. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d never seen anyone else in the office making their own tea. In trying to safeguard my principles in this very Asian workplace, I’d implied that Auntie wasn’t doing her job properly. What a schmuck I was, clumsily bruising the obvious pride she took in her work. I felt like dirt.
“Yes, yes, I know. But” – and here I guiltily fished my stash out of my desk drawer – “I prefer this tea, and I don’t want to cause any more work for you.”
“Is my job,” she repeated firmly. She peered at the box doubtfully and gave it a little sniff.
“It’s green tea with mint,” I said, squirming with embarrassment. As if it weren’t bad enough that I’d insulted one cultural institution, now the whole world could see that I drank an ang moh adulteration of another. Auntie gave me a conspiratorial wink.
“I lock it in my cupboard, lah,” she murmured. “No one can take.” She was kind enough not to point out that no one would want.
“Lovely,” I said, with a relief I didn’t deserve. “Thank you.”
“And,” she threw over her shoulder as she walked away, “I wash cup.” I nodded, chastised, and she marched off in triumph.
Once it became clear that I knew my place, Auntie and I became the unlikeliest of friends. She would always stop for a little chat when she brought me my twice daily cuppa, sometimes pulling photos of her grandchildren out of the pocket of her smock to show me, sometimes asking me questions about my children. Occasionally, she’d bring me a treat from home: cookies or dried fish snacks. And she kept a close eye on my secret cache. Whenever supplies were running low, I’d find a torn scrap of paper on my desk with a single word written in a shaky hand: Tea.