One of the interesting things about Singapore is the language. Everyone knows English here but not everyone necessarily speaks English. If you’re from Singapore you speak Singlish which is a cut up version of English words in a Chinese accent. You then add “La” to the end of any phrase or word; which throws me off sometimes because it sounds like a totally new word.
The way I think about Singlish is it’s kind of like when Jamaicans are talking in their Caribbean dialect and you have no idea what they are saying but it’s still technically a version of English. Same goes for Singlish, there are many times I have no clue what someone is saying.
That being said I haven’t had any major issues with the language here except for a couple times when I’ve been ordering food. Take the other night for example: I was coming back late from the gym and I stopped at one of my go-to spots called Toa Payoh for dinner. It’s a busy train station on the outskirts of the downtown area with some great little food vendors that are conveniently right outside as you walk out the station.
I did my standard walkthrough of all the different food stalls and looked around to see what everyone had already ordered. This one stall had a long line and there were two Chinese ladies behind the counter; one cooking with an enormous Wok and the other taking orders while prepping the food.
This was the spot.
I wanted to try a different kind of soup with flat noodles and I noticed that everyone was ordering in Chinese. I figured since the pictures of the food are all in English that shouldn’t be too hard. I mean, I can read and phonetically sound it out, right?
I get up to the counter and blurt out “TOM-YAMMM-MEE-HOON-KEUY”.
No response from the lady as she looks at me with a blank face. I’m about to say “do you speak English” but I refrain and say “Tom Yam Mee Hoon Kueh!” again; this time slower and longer.
She just continues to stare and then starts to belly laugh. She’s laughing so hard I begin to laugh as well. She continues to laugh to where she can’t even stand up straight. I’m cracking up at this point and so confused. What did I say? I then just point to the picture and say TOM YAM. Ends up she didn’t really speak English anyhow so I guess I’ll never know what I said. She did keep reiterating that it was “VETI SPICE”. And it certainly was spicy.
In the end, the Tom Yam Mee Hoon Kueh was fabulous. Tom Yam is a hot/sour soup and the Mee Hoon Kueh is a flat noodle dish cooked in pork broth with spinach, sausage, little dried fish called ikan bilis, and topped off with a soft boiled egg. Mee Hoon Kueh is a very popular dish by itself and not traditionally cooked together with Tom Yam. I highly recommend trying it the next time you are at a Chinese restaurant.
I also had another language barrier experience in Chinatown last weekend. I ended up hitting up a place directly across the street from the Sri Mariamman Temple on my way to go check out Club Street. I don’t know the name but you can’t miss as it’s right between the Chinese Bank and Jade shop. As soon as I walked in I realized this is where all the Chinese workers came for a late night meal.
This meant it was definitely a good spot for food but not that helpful when it came to ordering. I ordered a beer and looked at the menu and figured out they specialized in satay and anything skewered. Luckily at this place you ordered by writing on a sheet of paper.
I ordered the chicken, grilled spring fish, prawns, and beef skewers. I thought the prawns were the best. The prawns in Southeast Asia are so much bigger and it seems like they are much fresher than the ones I get on the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.
The grilled spring fish was also quite good with whatever seasoning they used to neutralize the fishiness – though it was a bit salty. They grill the entire fish so you eat it whole which is neat.
Towards the end of my meal I struck up a conversation with some Japanese guys sitting across from me who owned a restaurant in Singapore and they too were struggling with ordering. I left feeling a little bit better that it wasn’t just my English. But I definitely need to work on my Singlish!