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22.8.10

At The Crossroads

WARNING~

The following post may contain words and/or phrases that offend, anger or upset some people. If you have not read my other posts, then you may not be prepared for the fact that I use language, with all its connotations and permutations, to make points, in the tradition of William Safire or George Carlin. If there is a word or phrase that offends you here, then examine yourself, not my usage. You have been warned...

Having spent the night in the men's room of T2 at Changi Airport in Singapore, I have come up with a couple of revelations, as it were. One is, the restrooms at T2 have a nice shelf area behind the toilet, which if you are carrying your towel like I told you to, makes a rather nice free hotel room. Use the towel as a pillow.

The other is that I live at the crossroads of two very different cultures, complete with separate ideologies and goals. You may think to yourself, "Well, duh, doofus." But the profundity of the realization is startling. Living on the Far Side is 180-degrees from EVERYTHING.

So, there I was in Singapore. I was supposed to meet a long-time acquaintance and spend the day/evening discussing business and pleasure. I sent him a text from the airport at 10am, letting him know I had arrived at the precise time I had predicted, allowing for the fact that I was flying on an Indonesian airline, which meant that I had to give an hour to the posted time. I told him that I would take the MRT down to Orchard Road, which was very near his place. I received his confirmation to meet when I arrived at Orchard, so I boarded the MRT and made my way downtown.

Keep in mind that I am perhaps 80% blind due to MS. This was my third trip to Singapore and my second since becoming blind. I had never used the MRT and I was a bit apprehensive.

The first thing to mention is that Singapore is very friendly to the handicapped. Most stairs have rails and the treads have light-colored strips to highlight the end of level ground. There generally aren't any surprises, although that is not universally true. Outdoors is a bit of a challenge. But for the most part, I was able to get around effortlessly. There is almost always an elevator wherever a set of stairs exist, as well.

Another point is that people are paid to help. They actually look for someone who looks lost and offer assistance, particularly around the public services. Just because I was reading various signs around the MRT station, a woman, God bless her, came up and all but led me by the hand to get a ticket and explain the system to me, and yes, she was a uniformed employee of MRT.

I boarded the train and made my way, fairly effortlessly, to Orchard Road. Unlike someplace like New York, people in Singapore are more than willing to answer questions. Of course, you will want to use your most formal and polite English, just to be sure. English is the default language of Singapore. The locals speak Singaporean, which is a curious creole of Mandarin, Malay and English. Knowing a smattering of Mandarin and Malay/Indonesian will buy you Brownie points and get secret information and additional discounts, if well applied. It's kind of like knowing the secret knock at a speak-easy.

When I arrived at Orchard, I looked for a place to alight. I found an Italian street restaurant just outside of Ann City mall, where I proceeded to order Cajun fries and a Japanese beer (2-for-1 special in the afternoon). I sent Rajan a text and waited for the next five hours for a response. Being a planner, I also had another contact that I had made prior arrangement with, an Indonesian who was staying in S'pore at the same time. As backup, I sent Ivan a text, as well. In all that time, I received no response from either party.

And there you have the set-up for this post. Two very different cultures. Don't see it? Let's review. I spent the night in a toilet and both contacts did not respond to my text messages. If you are a Westerner, your feathers are already ruffled. There are two primary concepts at play here. One is punctuality and the other is frugality.

The first concept is something uniquely Western, in my experience. The idea of setting an appointment and actually being there at the appointed time is part of my British/American culture. If I say I will be at a place at a time, I am there at a minimum of five minutes early. I am bound morally and ethically, and perhaps genetically, to meet that schedule. For some unknown reason, Westerners have a punctuality fetish. For Germans, this rises to the level of obsession. The British invented the use of clocks for navigation and arbitrarily set Greenwich as zero hour. The Swiss are known for their precision in making time-pieces, not to mention cuckoo clocks. Which brings up a great quote from the Orson Welles character in that brilliant film, The Third Man:
In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!
But I digress.

In my experience, people closer to the equator have a distinct "get round-to-it" attitude. This is not a hard and fast rule, as one look at South America and Africa might tend to shoot a hole in the theory. Certainly, northern Europeans have cultures that are focused on time and punctuality. British high society has regulated its life around day parts, what with tea-time being a central part of those rituals. The invention of atomic clocks and alternating current are futher examples of this focus on time. Cettainly, the development of astrology for telling the future, and more recently the work of Clif High and George Ure with web bots displays a cultural focus on time and future.

It is possible to generalize the idea that cultures that focus on time are more successful than those that don't. No one would argue that American, British, German, and even Japanese cultures have been wildly successful in propagating themselves and in amassing wealth. Many American exports involve the concept of repeatability (e.g.-McDonald's, KFC, Holiday Inn), which I see as a function of time, and others about saving time (e.g.-assembly line, appliances, mass transit). Even the Dutch invention of the telescope was not about something so frivolous as looking at stars. They were to give the user a jump on the competition by being able to see arriving ships before anyone else, and thus have information that allowed for beneficial investments. Indeed, the whole idea behind computers was to save computational time for complex mathematical tasks. Ironic, since things like Facebook and games have become some of the greatest wasters of time. Even the medical focus on life-extension is all about having more time.

By contrast, cultures such as Indonesia, Mexico, Italy, and India all have cultures that view time more as a blob with fuzzy edges and certainly less linear. If you set an appointment with an Indonesian, you can almost bet they will be up to an hour late. There is no apology or worry about it, just a fact. If they arrive within the day, that is doing pretty good. These cultures even have expressions for this attitude. Indonesians talk about "jam karet," or flexible time. Mexicans use the expression, "mañana," or tomorrow.

With the obvious exception of Italy, which produced one of the most complex languages on Earth (Latin)and Hindi, many equatorial languages has simple or non-existent tenses. Malay/Indonesian and Mayan languages have very simple tenses which indicate general timing of events in a cause-effect manner, but little else. They really only see time as before now-now-after now, with NOW being the key idea. It's almost as if what is past is not worth talking about and the future doesn't exist. Perhaps that is the origin of Ram Dass' Be Here Now concepts, or the launching point for Buddha's Eternal Present.

The second idea I want to deal with is the lack of concern about the future, which is neatly capsulized with the distinctly American expression, "nigger rich." This goes to the idea that you really have nothing, but you finance the appearance of having something. It also refers to the habit of blowing all your cash on payday for temporary fun and having nothing tomorrow for dinner. This idea is related to the concept of time because the person who is nigger rich does not think about future consequences or needs, only about current looks and comfort.

It has been explained to me that the reason many Indonesians are not successful is that they tend to fling their pay out the window of appearances and never worry about saving for the future. I was told that the reason the Chinese are successful, and universally hated, in Indonesia is that they save their money and plan for the future. Indeed, it could be argued that part of the reason the Chinese culture has survived intact for 5,000 years (with some notable political upsets) is their focus on very long term planning. Surely, the Great Wall is a display of that attitude.

Nigger rich is not limited to equatorial cultures, though certainly the term implies that the practice in American culture comes from people of African origin. One could argue effectively that the collapse of the global banking system is caused by greed and expediency, which are both driven by a lack of long-term vision. Certainly, part of the cause of the fall of Rome, Egypt and Athens was predicated on the devolution of the cultures into immediate gratification.

In Indonesia, the holiday of Idul Fitri is fast approaching. At this time of year, sales of gold and cars soar. People buy flash to take home to the family in the village, to show how successful they are, and then promptly sell it all when they return to the big city. In fact, the best time (for planners) to buy gold and cars is immediately following Idul Fitri, as everyone unloads the flash.

I am told quite often that the reason Indonesians are not more successful on the whole is because of their short-term view. Certainly, I have witnessed similar practices in Central America and among certain demographic groups in America. By contrast, the Dutch have been quite successful over centuries, arguably because they are notoriously cheap (think Dutch treat).

Blowing your wad on payday and saving for a rainy day seem to be competing ideas that separate indemnic poverty from long-term success. Certainly, it appears that cultures that practice nigger rich are not as successful over the long term as cultures that save. I have heard it argued that the turning point for America is when people ceased to save and started hocking themselves to the rafters to buy gee-gaws and bling. Without a doubt, it is a massive debt load that is sinking America, and western civilization with it. The American desire for immediate gratification (i.e.-Halleluia! We found the printing press) has endangered multiple generations, and the same can be said for any group whose guiding principle is "nigger rich."

So, how does all this tie together, you wonder? Well, my frustration at not being able to contact and meet people in a timely manner, and my sleeping in the men's room at the airport are examples of cultural punctuality and saving money. I was extremely put out that just one hour after telling someone that I was in town and ready to meet after a week of preparation, and all of it failed. Also, my desire for immediate comfort was not enough to overcome my desire to save money, thus I found the shelf behind the toilet and my towel to be ample for my needs.

In the end, my delay of immediate gratification paid off by having a little extra jack to buy a bottle of Absolut reward, which this time actually made it all the way home. So I guess this saving thing does pay off.

Yeah, this post is a bit rambling, I know. But I am still jet lagged and a little stiff from my cheap hotel. Hopefully, the next one will be a little more focused.

Oh, and cheers!

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