Business Times - 16 May 2009
LETTER FROM PHILADELPHIA
One of the best ways to understand Americans is to engage in the activities they do, such as attending the numerous parades in the city, or simply hanging out in a bar or watching sports on television.
Khai Boon Tan
MENTION 'Philadelphia', and the images which flash through the minds of many people in Singapore may well be of scenes from the movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks.
'Philly', as Philadelphia is affectionately known to academics, is also home to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, and among its other illustrious citizens, famous entertainers such as Will Smith and the pop singer Pink.
When I first learnt that I was moving to Philly, many of my friends said things like 'Goodness! The crime rate is so high!', 'It's a boring city!' or even 'Why not New York?'. But, for me, Philadelphia has been my new-found home since September 2008 when KPMG's Global Opportunities programme gave me a chance to reside in 'the land of the free and the home of the brave'.
Settling into a foreign land was tough, but I was lucky to have a colleague from Mexico to guide me through the process, as well as the help of another relocation expert assigned by my firm. With the encouragement of fellow Singaporeans in the US, I was able to find a wonderful apartment, great furniture and a good, sturdy, used car.
As Singaporeans, there is often the perception that adapting to life in America is easy because we are fluent in English. Many Singaporeans also think we understand American culture after a steady diet of Hollywood movies, fast food and drama serials. My first-hand experience tells me that this is a huge misconception. There is just so much to learn about the American way of life that I will never be able to say it all in this letter.
One of the best ways to understand Americans is to engage in the activities they do. Examples include attending the numerous parades in the city such as the Thanksgiving Parade, or simply hanging out in a bar or watching sports on television.
Sporting endeavour is also very much a part of the American way of life, and to understand Americans, you need to understand their most popular sports - baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football.
Towards the end of my first summer, I had the chance to experience the madness of being a sports fan in Philly when the city's baseball team, the 'Phillies', won the national baseball championship. It was a historic day for the city as the team had won glory for the first time in many years. The after-victory parade brought the entire workday of Philly to a standstill as everyone cheered the team on the streets.
Experiencing the buzz of political activity and the excitement surrounding the recent landmark presidential elections has also been one of the highlights of my stay here. I especially enjoyed watching the campaign advertisements on television, and was amazed at the freedom of broadcast and speech in the country.
My favourite hangout in the city is at Chestnut Hill, located on the fringe of the city. Here, you will find cobblestoned roads and specialty stores selling exquisite handicrafts and personalised gifts. This is the neighbourhood which was voted one of the best urban enclaves in the US by Forbes magazine in 2007. What I like most about Chestnut Hill are the friendly shopkeepers in virtually every store. They are always excited to tell you about the neighbourhood and their hospitality makes the shopping experience enjoyable even if you aren't buying anything.
The local Farmers Market also reminds me of the 'wet market' in Singapore, where you can find fresh vegetables and delicious fresh food. With all the fresh produce that is easily available, I have come to enjoy simple things such as grocery shopping and cooking.
Living in Philly has also given me the opportunity to travel and visit other places in the US, such as New York City. What left the deepest impression, which to me is Mother Nature's gift to New York state and Canada - is the splendour of the Niagara Falls.
I cherish the experience of living in another part of the world and will definitely make the best of my remaining days here. But I also look forward to bak chor mee, roti prata and other local food with family and friends whenever I return to Singapore.