By July 2003, the longest duration I’ve spent out of Singapore was 20 days on a post-graduation/pre-enlistment back-packing trip in Australia together with Daniel Heng; it remains one of my fondest holiday to date – not just because of the company but because of the new experiences, like how I saw and felt snow for the first time at Mount Hotham.
By July 2009, I had just returned from a 19-month work stint in Shanghai. It was by far the longest time I had ever been away from home. And as some might know, the first couple of months were miserable, but the rest of it was nothing short of momentous. It completely changed my perspective towards living overseas for an extended period.
A couple of days ago, I read an account of Victor Yen’s conversation with Shawn Lee and asked for his permission to share it wholesale on my blog (though I added some paragraphing for easier reading). It encapsulates my wholehearted endorsement to any young person who might ask me if it’s a good idea to have an overseas adventure, but on the conditions that they:
- have saved up for it and/or their family can afford it
- have a wise and mature head on their shoulders
- are at peace with God on their decision
- have responsibly taken care of their commitments
- remember to return home
The bottom-line for my recommendation – open your eyes, get out of this bubble and discover what you’re missing. Either way, I hope you enjoy the following as much as I have… And if you do get the chance to go for an overseas exchange, employment or extended holiday, GO! (:
On “Swiss Standard of Living”
by Victor Yen
Had a fantastic night – dinner and chitchat – with my “youth” Shawn. I still think of him as my “youth”, having mentored him in a Christian cell setting when he was 15. He’s now 21 and just finished 2.5 months of backpacking Europe after National Service, couch-surfing his way throughout. The amazing thing? He claimed he did not spend a single cent on accommodation. Awesome stuff.
Among a whole lot of countries he visited, he just gave me a glowing account of Switzerland and her famous Swiss Standard of Living. I have never been to Switzerland and asked him many questions. And this is coming from a guy who did not do the tour-package thing. He lived with people, ate what they ate, castrated their pigs (yes, he helped out in farms) and got himself immersed in their lives.
This is what he shared:
Work / Life Balance
- They work 42 hours/week or 8 hours a day. This is a matter of law. If extra time is clocked, they are entitled to overtime pay or off-in-lieu. Lunch takes at least 2 hours.
- The minimum guaranteed leave they have is 3 weeks per year. But most companies give 4 weeks.
- Most people there have hobbies. I mean, real hobbies. They are passionate and spend time on them. For starters, according to Shawn, he hasn’t met anyone who has never skied. They are into archery and stuff. In Singapore, I dare say that if you grab a man on the street and ask him what his hobby is, you get a stammering answer at best on probably these 3 possibilities: “shopping” or “eating” or “sleeping”.
- There are 2 tracks after elementary and high school education: academic or vocational. If academic, you go on to university. If vocational, you go straight to work. It’s called apprenticeship. 4 days/week you are at a car mechanic workshop / kitchen etc, in the thick of real action, with real paying customers. The remaining 1 day, you go for your theory lessons. The entire post-secondary education takes typically 3 years. What happens to these chaps upon graduation? Your guess is as good as mine. They become highly-skilled specialists.
- Shawn was staying with a family who has a 6 or 7-year-old boy. Wednesdays are rest days from school. What does the family do on Wednesdays? They bake a cake together.
- Everyone is greeting everyone on their way to work, school or to the supermarket. He has not heard a single car horn in the month he was there. Pedestrians cross roads as they please, and cars will stop for them. Everyone waves and smiles at each other.
- According to Shawn, Switzerland is crazy safe. When he asked a local if there was any recent crime, the reply he got was, “I think we have a stabbing 2 years ago…”
Standard of Living
- An average clerk makes a respectable $5-6K francs a month. This pay may square off as average/middle-income in their countries but when they travel, the world is their playground. Oh, by the way, if you flip burgers full-time, your pay check’s probably $3-4K francs.
- If you don’t have a job, you can stand in a queue and get a cheque to feed your children. You don’t have to contemplate suicide during job transitions.
- He couch-surfed in a farm, where the owner got, wait-for-it, 34 hectares of land for $600K francs. On the land, there is a house and a barn. The rest of it? Forest. Man runs a b&b and guests get to take a walk in his private forest. Shawn said, “It’s pretty epic. I walked with him and he said, ‘This is my forest.'”
- Haagen Daz ice-cream costs $3.50 francs a tub. Enough said.
Hold on a second. This cannot be true, right?
- The thing is, the Swiss are not paying an incredible amount of tax. About 17%.
- The Swiss are not lazy people. They are incredibly productive and I think I’ve read that somewhere. I believe it boils down to passion and skill. They are very interested in what they do and they are very good at what they do.
- Ok, dining in a restaurant will cost you, so most people end up cooking their own meals. A Macdonald’s meal costs $19 but hey, it’s junk anyway. The beautiful thing is: necessities are cheap. A litre of milk is 60 cents. 500 grams of pasta is 35 cents. You can eat well even if you are on welfare.
- One interesting observation is people are independent. They jack up their cars to rotate tyres and change engine oil. This guy he stayed with is a one-man renovation team. He learns everything from DIY books, then heads to a giant DIY store and gets all the supplies. Before you know it, man’s drilling, cementing and sawing stuff.
Quick-a-side: This jolted my memory when I was backpacking US a few years back. This guy, who’s an estates’ maintenance man hired by an outdoors camp, saw a puddle of water on the ground. He told me, “Well, that puddle hasn’t subsided after 2 weeks.” The next thing I know, he’s on a John Deere tractor digging up the ground. Lo and behold, there’s a burst water pipe underneath all that dirt. He got into the ditch and fixed it, saving a chunk of the utilities’ bill.
This is the same guy who built an entire flying-fox structure. The camp director told him to explore building “a fun thing “over the water. The man read up and started ordering timber. Amazing. How many Singaporeans truly know how to do things? Most of us can’t even cook to feed ourselves.
There is also a huge gulf between a blue-collared worker here and a white-collared one. I can imagine that they would have problems communicating with each other. One is lowly paid, drinks beer in hawker centres and speaks Hokkein mostly. The other earns more, drinks beer at One-Fullerton and speaks fake American English.
The truth is blue-collared workers in Europe/US are able to communicate and work with anyone comfortably. They are on the internet and read books on landscaping. Can our blue-collared workers do that? Is there anything wrong with our education system?
The evening ended with Shawn sharing one last point:
When he asked the Swiss “How’s life?”, he got mostly a matter-of-fact “Yes, I think we have a good life.” How many Singaporeans are saying that?
*An Erdinger is 85 cents by the way…*
The first time I visited Australia in 2003, I went skiing at Mount Hotham with Daniel Heng and went to the Blue Mountains with Daniel, Ps Cuixian and Manrong. The second time I visited in 2007, I drove on the Great Ocean Road and saw the 12 Apostles. This time, I went to see the vastness of The Pinnacles and even went sand-boarding! I know this is over-mentioned but how can one not marvel at the awesomeness of our Creator when he or she has witnessed such marvelous natural wonders?
However, we nearly did not make it on this tour that we signed up for yesterday.
As usual, due to me waking up (slightly) late(r), we had to sprint from Coolbellup to Perth City and did not factor in peak hour traffic and navigation unfamiliarity in our planning. (Okay, actually Huiyi did, but I did not, but since we are engaged I used the collective – we – Haha!) So as we frustrated each other in the car, negotiated with an uncooperative Google Maps and took a wrong turn, we still managed to make it to the pick-up point just one minute late. The result of that however, is to pay for a day’s worth of parking (!) instead of the original plan to park at Liang’s apartment then walk to the pick-up location at Pier Street.
We have both learnt that when we quarrel, it’s like the rhino charging at a hedgehog – and both get hurt. So we naturally gave each other some time-out as we recovered from the adrenaline of chasing a departing coach. Things resumed normalcy once we woke up from a short nap in the bus.
Our first stop was at the Caversham Wildlife Park, where we saw, touched and interacted with three marsupials – the koala, wombat and my all-time favourite (for obvious reasons) kangaroo. At this point, I want to correct a common misconception. A joey isn’t just the young of a kangaroo, but of all marsupials; as long as the creature resides in a pouch after birth, it is referred to as a joey. I learnt that from National Geographic and the park guide confirmed it. I was tempted to introduce myself as Joey, but decided against it as it would be too cute and attention-seeking for a 28-year-old man. Haha! Man, I’ve really aged.
We arrived at the Cervantes Lobster Shack after another hour’s drive. I learnt some new things about the lobster industry. For example, conservation rules disapproves of catching lobsters that are either pregnant females, too young or males reaching fertility; lobsters caught with three or more missing legs are not included into its main sales but into miscellaneous categories like sashimi; the difference between lobsters sorted into Category A and G are 300 grams and a whopping 2 kilograms respectively and each category has its own market.
The older I get, the more curious I become; I could never imagine myself remembering or even being mildly interested in such trivial information when I was younger. Age seems to imbue a hunger for knowledge. Is it like that for you?
Finally, we arrived at The Pinnacles. We were accompanied by an army of flies as we walked into the centre of the attraction. Once we were about 1 km in, its vastness simply engulfed you. There were unique rock formations in every direction you looked. And I also witnessed the perversion of Man at work. While there was a rock formation that eroded into the shape of an erect penis, I also saw two smaller rocks at the base of that rock – obviously the work of mischievous visitors.
Next up – sand-boarding at Lancelin! Man, I have never seen so much sand in my entire life! The way the wind caressed the sand mounts was poetry in motion; the unseen wind was made visible with the presence of the fine white sand and that resulted in beautiful yet delicate sand formations. I could never imagine myself at the top of a sand dune but there I was, negotiating with the blistering wind as it violently stroked my exposed body parts. I froze a few times midway through my ascent as the sand got into my eyes (though I thought I had it protected by my Oakley’s)!
I felt as if the Spirit impressed upon my heart a few lessons about life from that novel experience of sliding down a 30 metre sand mount:
- 逆风的方向更适合飞翔. I can appreciate those 五月天 lyrics from another perspective. As the wind blew (the sand) toward you, you’d naturally want to turn the other direction, not knowing that doing that could actually get more sand in your eyes (as some would escape, run along the side of your face and get into your eyes). Instead, and this I learnt I when I scaled the sand dune the fifth time, face the wind head on and let the eyewear do what you paid it to do – protect your eyes from the forward onslaught. As we face seemingly insurmountable challenges in our lives, let’s not turn our backs towards these obstacles but tackle it from the front!
- When experiencing a mini-victory, don’t be too quick to celebrate. I think I’m a fast learner and besides, sand-boarding isn’t the hardest thing to do, so I thought I handled it pretty well on my first attempt and even slid quite fast. I also knew that Huiyi was taking pictures of me so as I approached the end of the slope, I raised my arms and let out a victorious “Woooh!”, loud and proud. And I ate sand almost immediately and toppled to my side. Haha! As I spit the fine fragments out of my mouth, I told myself to shut up the next time I slid down. Pride goes before a fall indeed.
- Learn to enjoy the uphill climb as much as you enjoy the downhill slide. My fitness isn’t bad but the 50-step ascent was literally more breathtaking than it looked. The first time I went up, I was so excited about sliding down that I forgot to check out the panoramic view from on top of the sand dune. I told myself to do that in subsequent climbs and so I paused for ten seconds longer (to catch my breath and) to take in the amazing visual spectacle before I took the plunge. Let’s learn to enjoy both the tests and trophies for each has its own set of memorable experiences and character-shaping qualities.
So there you go, my reflections on day 3, churned out on the return journey back to the city.
We are going to pack some chili mussels from Concas and purchase some soft drinks before we return to Leontes Way to prepare dinner and rest even earlier tonight. Can’t wait for the road trip!