Learning Japanese; I Really Think So

by Belle Waring on November 6, 2014

John and I have stayed in Singapore so long for a number of reasons–mainly he has tenure in Philosophy now and prior to that a good tenure-track job with excellent housing benefits, which is not the easiest thing to find ever. But also it is a really good place for children, even if it might be a boring place for…older children? People in their twenties? Pure physical safety is an underrated quality. I can remember once when I was walking back home the 750 metres to our house from the children’s hospital, where Violet, then four, was deathly ill with a norovirus (she was either vomiting or having diarrhea every 45 minutes for the first five days; she would have died if she weren’t on an IV drip, and we had to carefully clean her up and change the sheets each time. And again. She was so brave. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the mothers in third-world countries whose babies were dying in their arms right then for want of this same simple treatment.) I stayed with her in the hospital all seven days, sleeping with her in her single bed, but John was spelling me so I could shower at home. The walk involves a trip under a big highway overpass. It’s decently lit, but not to way back up under the eaves of the ground and the ceiling of the thudding road. First of all, it doesn’t even smell much like pee! (I know, right?) It smells a little like pee. A little. Usually it smells like wet dirt after rain, or like dried-out leaves, or coppery mud, or stale exhaust from an idling double-decker bus (they pull a vicious U-turn there; it’s sort of magnificent, like the hippos doing ballet in Fantasia.) Like smoke, if Sumatra has been improvidently, per usual, set on fire. Like the water in the canal that runs between the two directions of the lower road, either uniform turbid red and two metres deep after the rain, or here and there transparent with skrims of various weeds and slimes that blossom instantaneously, and tadpoles that the egrets stalk in the hand-span deep water at the slack.

The point is this, though: I was walking under there by myself at like 3 a.m. with my headphones in, through the tropical night air (and as much as Singapore is too hot during the day, the feeling of a warm night breeze is a lovely one), and it occurred to me that it reminded me just a little of what this one area under the Rhodes Island Avenue Metro station in D.C. was like when I was a teenager. And that made me think of how much if I were in America I would NEVER BE WALKING IN THIS F#$KING place at all in the tar-black night and my headphones on, listening to Rare Essence. OK, maybe I would be listening to Rare Essence, but inside tho. I love Rare Essence. Singapore is hella safe! In this particular case there is a huge police station (one of the five biggest) in between my old place and the hospital, so it’s extra safe. There’s also not a culture of street harassment compared with places like the U.S. or Italy (other places I’ve lived.) There’s still some, and still groping on public trans, and dudes flashing you and stuff, but just mugging you, beating you up, stealing your stuff–for that it’s like night and day. Likewise people naturally get murdered by other people whom they know, and there is domestic violence, and abuse of domestic workers. Still, the random beatdown element is way different. Now, when I grew up I lived part of the time in D.C. and in NYC during their worst-ever crime periods, and even in SF/the East Bay in the late 90s it was not the greatest. I am partly comparing present-day Singapore with America of the past. I think people overestimate dangers in the States nowawdays. But my sister has had to bring the girls home from the park by my mom’s house because a big group of teenagers were trying to break into the closed school, and when that looked like it was failing were headed over to hassle them for the hell of it. And getting catcalled so much as a young girl is so, so, disturbing and upsetting. It ties your stomach in knots to have old men make gross soft noises with their mouths when you pass by, when you’re 12. It makes you hate your stupid high little breasts and wish they would be reabsorbed into your body so you could be normal again.

OK, that was a digression. (But, damn street harassment sucks SO BAD I HATED IT. When I think of people doing that to my daughters and making them walk along looking straight forward like soldiers in a war they’re losing, cheeks burning with shame, I want to hit people on the head with rocks.) We’ve stayed in Singapore. The safety thing is an underrated factor. Being able to afford a live-in maid on a white-collar worker’s salary is also an underrated factor because people are embarrassed to say how awesome it is. I am chronically ill as you (may not?) know, and I am stuck in bed a lot of the time. It would be a huge struggle for John and I alone to keep the household running even adequately. We don’t have any family to help. Instead of mere adequacy, we have Mary Poppins-like perfection. With the time saved by our helper Malou ironing the girls’ uniforms, I can sew their Chihiro from Spirited Away cosplay costumes by hand, without patterns, because I am so crafty! (No, ironing is not crucial. Yes everyone at school’s uniforms are ironed. The French and Japanese mothers do not hire maids but everyone else does.) But one of the main reasons for living in Singapore has always been our children learning Mandarin. They each started at three. Violet had an advantage in that the first pre-K class she was put in had a teacher from Beijing who could not speak two English words put together, and most of the children were native Mandarin speakers from Beijing. So she got a full immersion boost at the start that has kept her a little ahead of Zoë the whole way. They are both quite good, though. We sent them for many years–until last year–to a school which was in many ways totally unsatisfactory, just because it was run by a for-profit Chinese school that imported teachers from Beijing and had hours of Mandarin a day, unlike the 45 minutes you get at the Singapore American School (or did at the time I checked about placement. SAS has other issues, in any case.) They had classes like Art in Mandarin, and then for ‘Maths’ the kids would be split and the ESL kids would learn in Mandarin and the English-speakers in English. (Sort of a pain for the many native German, Korean, Dutch, Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese etc. speakers, but I guess they were used to it.)

If we had moved to Beijing or Hong Kong lo these many 14 years ago, I would have learned (some variant of) Chinese. But the thing is, Singaporeans don’t really speak Mandarin! OK, no, that’s not fair at all. Educated Singaporeans are capable speakers and excellent readers. Less well-educated, older Singaporeans still often speak a dialect, such as Hokkien, that their grandparents spoke when they immigrated. But even Singaporeans are down on themselves for their accent in Mandarin, which they (and unfortunately other Chinese-speakers whom I have spoken to) regard as atrocious. More problematic is the fact that no one really communicates often spontaneously with one another in Mandarin. Everyone can speak English. Or at least Singlish (a real live creole! With Malay, Hokkien, Hakka and Tamil loan words and Malay-grammatically-analogous particles, lah!) If I tried to speak Mandarin to taxi drivers I would run up against the fact that they don’t speak good Mandarin. It took my children years to work up the courage to explain to me that the taxi uncles weren’t asking the question, “so do you speak Chinese, little girls?” to them properly, since they were leaving out about 1/3 of the needed words. Leaving out 1/3 of the words is just how Singlish works, so this seems believable to me. Up till then I was thinking, is this school just ripping me off or what? More educated Singaporeans, closer in age to me, invariably speak better English than they do Mandarin (inasmuch as they speak perfect English), so there’s not really anyone to practice on! [Commenter david points out it kind of seems like I’m talking smack about Singaporean people here for being dumb at languages or bad at Mandarin or something. They’re not. Rather, they’re good at English, and have friends of varying ethnicities, with whom they communicate…in English. But I’m sure if I were studying Mandarin, reading Chinese-language press, and consuming the multifarious forms of Chinese-language TV/radio I would feel differently and find lots of people to practice on. Everyone else’s skills at English have caused learned helplessness in me.]

As you have no doubt realized, our older daughter is obsessed with all things Japanese. She has been wanting to learn Japanese for more than a year, and we finally got organized to get a tutor to come in starting in September. I decided I would go ahead and learn it also. Zoë’s got a huge advantage in that she hears native speakers all day (all her friends are Japanese and they switch back and forth as needed). She could already read/write hiragana and katakana at the start, while I had to learn them in the first week. Then, knowing so much Mandarin, she obviously knows a ton of kanji (characters borrowed from older Chinese) already (although they are different, being unsimplified, and also naturally stand for different sounds. Multiple different sounds, actually, and words.) I have been enjoying it a lot, although I need to get off the computer now and start memorizing words while my brain still works for the day. I am a big fan of flash cards and brute force memorization. Zoë has been studying using an interesting and effective method: she transcribes the lyrics to Vocaloid songs she likes, using the romaji (transcription into the latin alphabet) to figure out what the (single character) kanji say if needed, and then writes down the meanings, getting help from her friends and the internet to figure out which word is which. Because the songs are about similar themes she ends up learning quite a few useful words, and also some funny kanji that surprise her friends. I have been trying it and it’s fun. But this is my first time ever learning a non-Indo-European language! Or a language with non-syllabic characters! (Sanskrit’s alphabet is technically a syllabary as every ‘letter’ is followed by short /a/ unless otherwise shown.) What about you guys? How have you found it (learning some non IE language, I mean.) It’s also the first time I’ve learned a new language since I learned Italian at 27, and that’s super-easy (if you know Latin really well and French OK). I’m taking topamax for my terrible migraines and it makes you kinda dumb…I’m worried about that too. This was the real original point of my post, it didn’t end up being very balanced that way. Oh well. TELL ME YOUR STORIES.

Click cc/subtitles for lyrics translations. No romaji, sorry. (Confidential to mcmanus-sensei: we collect songs for all our favorite manga characters; this is the Ciel Phantomhive from Kuroshitsuji song. He is doomed. To hell. He could have loved other people, but he failed. It is an oft-pondered question: how will the manga end? Sebastian will eat Ciel’s soul? Unsatisfactory. Sebastian will renounce his claim? Undemonic and that’s not how binding magical contracts work. The mangaka Toboso-sensei will keep raking in money hannover-fist? Undoubtedly. Interestingly, our assumption of why they made Ciel a girl in the live-action was simply that no boy could be pretty enough, just like no boy is pretty enough to cosplay any male manga hero. Look at cosplay of Ciel online. Ain’t no boy can pull that off. But of course they could have just had the actress cross-dress as a stipulatively male character, so the point is well-taken–people couldn’t handle the implicit gay?)



Andrew Smith 11.06.14 at 7:00 am

I learned Japanese twenty years ago. The hardest thing is the reading, hands down. Pronunciation is easy. There are tons of homophones, but 99% of the time context is key. The grammar is fairly easy. Expressing complex thoughts becomes tricky because the simple grammar is sort of recursive, so one wrong word makes the whole thing nonsensical.

Slang moves super-fast (maybe it does in English, but I learn that stuff naturally), so I find myself actively forgetting and learning new slang every time I go to japan.

My experience in Tokyo was that people were mildly patient with poor to okay japanese that I spoke at first, but once you left for the country the wouldn’t understand a word of it. Or wouldn’t even listen for it. You might think that’s not the case these days, but we go to a rather remote area of Japan to visit my in-laws every year and people there routinely either don’t understand my mildy okay japanese or don’t expect japanese and just look confused. In fact, last year I went to a train station in that town, and seeing my big white face, the station agent just shut the ticket window and put an “out to lunch” sign.


ZM 11.06.14 at 7:34 am

“of course they could have just had the actress cross-dress as a stipulatively male character, so the point is well-taken—people couldn’t handle the implicit gay?)”

This is how they cast the character of Tripitaka in the Japanese live action Monkey tv series (with BBC voices dubbed over the actors for Australia). this was one of the most popular children’s shows in Australia in the 1980s.

Tripitaka was still meant to be a boy priest, but since as well as looking female Monkey had to guard him on the journey to get the scriptures, I was somewhat disgruntled as a child that the series did not have them get married.


david 11.06.14 at 8:24 am

For the typical Singaporean student:

Foreign Language Programmes

Pupils who are ranked among the top 10% of the PSLE cohort and who have a special ability in languages are eligible to apply to study a foreign language (i.e. French/ German/ Japanese/ Spanish) from S1.

Eligible top 10% pupils can apply for French/ German/ Japanese online upon the release of their PSLE results. Pupils opting for Japanese Language are required to have passed Higher Chinese/ Chinese at the PSLE as the standard written form of Japanese uses Kanji (Chinese characters). In the event that the number of applicants exceeds the number of vacancies, selection will be based on their PSLE results. To be eligible for the Foreign Language Programme, the applicant OR his father OR his mother must be a Singapore Citizen or Singapore Permanent Resident.

If selected, pupils will attend Foreign Language (French/German/Japanese/ Spanish) classes at the MOELC Bishan or MOELC Newton. The four hours of instruction are divided into two portions—a 3-hour-15 minutes once-weekly session on campus, followed by 45 minutes of online instruction to be done from home.

It’s changed a bit. MOELC Newton didn’t exist back then. It was two sessions per week, which invariably wound up being both exhausting (would you like to travel to Bishan in the blazing 3pm sun twice a week?) and consuming time needed for other school activities. You were handed a form amongst a stack of forms in the bewildering orientation programme, almost everyone in class would sign up, but attrition would rapidly reduce class sizes; precious few extracurriculars can spare two afternoons in the week.

That aside – informal spoken Chinese doesn’t really have a rigid grammar, even in the purified northern mainland. You can distinguish someone who is doing mental translation on-the-fly from a fluent speaker by whether they omit words as if they are being charged by the syllable. It is Singlish that inherits this pattern from spoken Chinese, I think – not so much the reverse.


Z 11.06.14 at 9:34 am

How have you found it (learning some non IE language, I mean.)?

No problem at all, really, but 1) the sound patterns of French and Japanese are eerily close (more accurately, the latter is more or less included in the former) so that went well whereas I understand that native English speakers tend to experience difficulties with Japanese vowels (perhaps hours of singing along Japanese virtual pop-stars helps) and 2) you have to keep in mind that what you don’t know how to say, you really don’t know how to say (whereas with romance and germanic languages, you kind of sort of know, somehow).

More generally, my experience of learning a new language as an adult is that memorization is always a (the?) problem, so languages with tons of cases, or noun-classes or complex inflectional verbal systems or crazy morphology (or all of the above) are hard to learn as adults. But, as you know, Japanese is impoverished in all these respects, in fact exceptionally so, so…

Of course, reading is the real pain memory-wise, but as your daughters have already mastered that…


Marcus 11.06.14 at 10:15 am

This entire piece is a digression of a digression, contained in a digression. But never mind, I digress.


Belle Waring 11.06.14 at 10:39 am

2: david: I am somewhat confused by this since it seems like a defense of Singaporeans for not knowing third languages and I certainly wasn’t attacking them there. (In my experience most educated Singaporeans do know at least three languages; my business partner speaks English, Hokkien, Mandarin, Portuguese, and French.) I didn’t really mean to be attacking them at all! Agreed that Singlish is structured after Chinese rather than vice versa, I was being somewhat flippant. But it’s true that the standard question in Chinese that the girls get asked by taxi uncles for “do you speak Chinese?” or “wah really, you speak Chinese, so good, ah?” or “you speak Chinese or not?” or whatever just is missing a number of words that both my daughters and my business partner agree are needed if the question is to be complete. I don’t think Singaporeans are stupid or anything; they just have a dispreferred accent (it would be sort of like learning English from someone from Kentucky. People are just as smart in Kentucky as anywhere else in America, but they have an accent that Americans themselves tend to dislike). The more important thing is that Singaporeans allspeak English, and usually very good English. The thing that pushes you over the wall with language-learning is that you struggle to be understood and have some need to communicate something and will fail unless you learn the language–that’s just not ever going to happen to a person in Singapore who speaks good English. I’ve been in wet markets where I had trouble with older sellers, and a few times in hawker centres, but infrequently, and not in the last ten years. That’s why I contrasted it with Hong Kong–not because Cantonese is more awesome, but because it’s difficult to get around long-term with only English. I do plan to learn Bahasa Indonesia soon, and I am hoping that I can learn some from analogous Bahasa Malaysia since there are many speakers in Singapore (though, again, everyone speaks English.)

Z: Yeah, it’s not like I’m learning Finnish or Hungarian or something with 20 cases. By college/part of grad school BF was a linguist who knew both, and people in both countries asked him, “why on earth are you learning our language?” Like many linguists he was a freak and could learn entire languages in three months to native perfection. Tedious of him. I went swimming in Australia and came back to the beach to find him sitting and drinking in the shade with a group of Aboriginal guys, having already learned how to say basic greetings, please and thank you, and colors. I’m not even a very strong swimmer, and the beach was netted off due to blue-ringed octopuses anyway! There’s a transformative or something in Hungarian, I think, for when one thing turns into another. Positively Alice in Wonderland! (Even setting aside the crucial vocative, “o, mouse!”) Ancient Greek is easy-going nounwise but then just goes to town with verbs, having both optative and subjunctive, and aorist as well as perfect. Also, Sanskrit is pretty awful with having singular, dual, and plural and seven cases for nouns. Lots of repeats for the dual, but still. To be honest I’ve totally forgotten Sanskrit but I think 3 months of work would make me quite decent again. Every once in a while I check to make sure I can still read Aristotle or Livy and it’s fine.

Listening to a million Japanese songs and watching lots of anime is useful for the r/l thing. The girls are both perfect at it for a sort of diagonal reason, because they’ve both had Japanese friends whose names they knew well before they could spell their names at all. So I thought Violet’s little friend Kirara was named ‘Kidada’ maybe, with very soft d’s, until I got a class email list at some point. It’s impossible to have spelling preconceptions about things you’re not writing down.


Zamfir 11.06.14 at 10:40 am

I once started tot learn a bit of Japanse, when I had applied for an exchange program in Kyoto.

I got a rejection from the program, with an extensive explanation ho they had accepted a student from my institution some years ago who went skiing in Japan, had broken a leg, and had not gotten as much out of the program as otherwise would have been possible. They did not want the same bad fate to happen to me, so they would look for students from other institutions.


David J. Littleboy 11.06.14 at 10:41 am

When I was taking first year Japanese (back in the late 1970s) there was a bloke in the class who was fluent in every Western language you could name, including several Slavic languages. He bit the dust something fierce on Japanese, though, because none of his tricks for picking up the next language worked.

To do Japanese, you have to enjoy the Chinese characters, and the perverse ways that Japanese uses them. The Japanese may or may not have come up with the idea of writing language phonetically at the time they first interacted with China, but seeing Chinese characters, the Japanese thought this was the amazingest thing since sliced bread and went way overboard using them both phonetically (kana were originally Chinese characters) and semantically, and writing in both Chinese* and Japanese. The Japanese would borrow a Chinese word (usually written with a pair of Chinese characters) with (an approximation to) the pronunciation at the period and place (in China) the Japanese were talking to the Chinese, so each character gets multiple different “Chinese pronunciations” (since each character appears in multiple different words (character pairs) borrowed with different pronunciations) as well as multiple originally Japanese words that it is used to write. Chinese and Koreans (for whom one character has pretty much one sound) find this a pain. You have to deal with Japanese as having an underlying spoken language which is vaguely hinted at by the Chinese characters used to write it.

When I was here as an exchange student in ’79, there were Korean and Chinese exchange students who were running rings around me learning Japanese; it was seriously depressing. One day one of the Japanese students in the dorm said “You’re Japanese is very good” with no intent of anything other than saying something nice, so was quite surprised when I exploded. I grabbed him by the lapel and said “Justify that or I’ll do some serious damage: I’m failing miserably compared to the Chinese and Korean kids.” He managed to come up with “But you speak correctly.”, which was flipping brilliant: while way ahead in fluency and vocabulary and reading, and probably pronunciation as well, they were having trouble with the point that a single Chinese character will have multiple pronunciations in Japanese, and would blithely pronounce everything with the same character the same, which is quite grating. I was getting a bit of the basics right, at least.

*: I finally got around reading “Fune wo amu” (we missed the movie), and there was a cute joke in which the main character writes a love letter that is so formal that the woman it’s addressed to didn’t recognize it as a love letter. After a while she figures this out and once they start going out tells him “Next time you write me a love letter don’t write it in kanbun” (Kanbun being the form of Chinese used by the Japanese to write official documents prior to (and through?) the Edo Period). Anyone reading Crooked Timber would enjoy the movie.

Movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2315226/


Belle Waring 11.06.14 at 10:49 am

but I have also updated my post to reflect your point, david, which is a fair one generally.
Marcus: I think the children of John Holbo and Belle Waring are going to have powers of super-concision, and getting-to-the-pointery!


Belle Waring 11.06.14 at 10:54 am

Zamfir, that is the most Haruki Murakami reason for getting rejected from a program ever. Perhaps if they had also sent you a jazz LP as an act of contrition…


David J. Littleboy 11.06.14 at 11:01 am

“So I thought Violet’s little friend Kirara was named ‘Kidada’ maybe, with very soft d’s,”

Yep. Japanese phonetics are subtly different from what it seems from the standard romanizations. The “R” is a flap r, so ta, da, and ra can be hard to distinguish. The “H” is a bilabial fricative, and the “syllabic n” changes pronunciation depending on the phonetic context it appears in.


ZM 11.06.14 at 11:19 am

“I do plan to learn Bahasa Indonesia soon…”

I learned Indonesian for two years at the start of high school. Unfortunately I am not good at remembering other languages. What I remember from learning Indonesian is how to sing Ten Green Bottles (Seppuluh Botol Hijau [sp?]) which we would sing in Indonesian on school bus trips. I mentioned this to my teacher several years afterwards and learned this is not the sort of thing it’s best to tell teachers you remember of their classes.

David J Littleboy,

There was not anyone with an Asian background where I grew up. When I first moved to the city and met Japanese people I would ask them if they could please tell me the meaning of the characters on various pieces of art. They would look somewhat askance at this request because it is not the writing they learn any longer. I saw a nice exhibition of Korean wrapping cloths and tried to have a conversation about wrapping cloths with Korean girls, but they had to explain to a very disappointed me that Korea was modern now and wrapping cloths no longer had quite the importance attached to them.


Henry 11.06.14 at 12:18 pm

Ancient Greek is easy-going nounwise but then just goes to town with verbs, having both optative and subjunctive, and aorist as well as perfect.

Not to be mentioning the quasi-passive.


David J. Littleboy 11.06.14 at 3:16 pm

I don’t know how much use this is to someone starting out, but the Kindle (either an app or the thingy itself) does Japanese quite nicely. There seems to be quite a bit of Manga content available, although that sort of thing would be better on an app on a color device than a B&W Kindle. The problem would be finding stuff on the Japanese site, I’d think, although there may be some Japanese content on the US site. (I was on the train the other day and a young, very blonde Caucasian woman near me was reading Manga on her color reader (even from a bit of a distance away, the screen looked really good: bright and contrasty) and giggling. I don’t do Manga, and it made me feel old and out of it. Ijiwaru Baasan is about the extent of my Manga-ing.)

A quick look at Amazon US shows that much of the learning Japanese stuff is still only available on dead trees. Sigh.

The Kindle Paperwhite (original version) is wonderful for reading novels in Japanese. It comes with a Japanese dictionary (Japanese -> Japanese, though), which I’m finding adequate most of the time: select a word (a bit fiddly, though) and the definition comes up. Screen resolution is way more than adequate for Japanese, with furigana easily legible even at some of the smaller font sizes (if you are really nearsighted and take off your glasses). The screen is kewl. I was in the train the other day, standing by the door reading, and noticed that half the screen in full sun, half in shadow, and the whole page was readable without problem. And no email or internet distractions*.

*: A true fan can always turn a glitches into a feature.


Cheryl Rofer 11.06.14 at 3:24 pm

Since Belle has mentioned Finnish and Hungarian, I’ll share a bit about learning Estonian.

In high school, I was fascinated by Latin cases and wondered how one’s brain manages five declensions and five cases in order to speak the language. We didn’t learn to speak Latin, except for memorizing a few conversations, so I never really had to test it out.

Estonian has fourteen “cases” (of which I think of three as being “real” cases, whereas the other eleven are more like prepositions attached to the end of the genitive) and perhaps 37 declensions, although there is so much irregularity that each noun is almost a declension of its own.

So a much greater problem for how one’s brain juggles all that than poor old Latin.

But it seems that even for us English-speakers, there is a part of the brain that handles cases and declensions. The first time I spoke an Estonian sentence and the endings supplied themselves, I was amazed. I still don’t have any idea how that happens.

Now I just have to figure out word order. If I spent more time immersed, I think I could get it.


Ronan(rf) 11.06.14 at 4:08 pm

My Spanish teacher in secondary school once asked my mother did she think I might be a little stupid. Nothing more specific, no clinical diagnosis. Just stupid. I thought it hilarious but my mother wasn’t impressed.
I wish you and yours all the best in this endeavour Belle. Ive been trying to learn Arabic for years, and getting nowhere slowly. But next year, goddamnit, Ill have it mastered. (along with linear algebra and three card monte)


hps 11.06.14 at 4:29 pm

I took Japanese to GCSE a few years ago (mid-40s), having only studied French and Latin previously. I’d agree with David about speaking being quite easy, and written being quite difficult.

Recognising Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji symbols took me a while, perhaps because the last time I learned an alphabet was pre-school.

For written, there are several layers of understanding: First I learned the Hiragana, then I learned the Kanji, but then I was learning the two different Kanji pronunciations, and subsequently combination Kanji words.

The one loophole on written Japanese is that Japanese has a lot of foreign words (especially for computer terms and the like), and the foreign words are mostly English, and are written in katakana. So once I learned katakana, I was able to understand a fair amount of casual Japanese.


TM 11.06.14 at 4:45 pm

Why do you think “the safety thing is underrated’? It seems to me that Americans are obsessed with that “safety thing”, to the point of having destroyed much of their urban infrastructure through urban flight (not to mention voting for Republicans), rationalized by the “safety thing”. Maybe I was missing your irony, in that case my apology for stating the obvious.


mud man 11.06.14 at 4:48 pm

Just taking a stab at Amharic for Ant 350. The main difficulty has been around lack of online resources or even volumes accessible from out here in the wilderness that aren’t from the 19th century. Apple doesn’t even support a Ge’ez font. What’s up with that?? I guess Addis Ababa wants to speak English these days …


bob mcmanus 11.06.14 at 4:49 pm

14: There is an astonishing amount of Japanese-language help and resources online. Here is Tae Kim’s Blog not as a recommendation but just random out of my desktop folder.

I have the Rikaichan Firefox plugin installed and probably use it everyday. Rikaichan has no romaji.

I spent a little time last month glancing over the work of Shimazaki Toson at Aozora-Bunko, A-B has everything but fully Japanese.

Having said this, I am really nowhere on the language and know nothing. I decided I wanted to put those hours elsewhere, and as I started hearing distinctions within what I was listening to, I also decided I didn’t like Japanese as spoken commonly very much. Too repetitive and ritualistic, too many des ka and wakarimasen, too many words forced into multiple meanings and uses in order to keep native vocabulary manageable, and OTOH, too many different kanji with interesting nuances reduced to simplified kana or romaji transliterations.

I still dabble. Got an entire book on wa vs ga waiting for me.


MPAVictoria 11.06.14 at 4:51 pm

And here I am in Ottawa absolutely failing at learning French. Good on you and John Belle for exposing your daughters to this stuff while they are young. You are giving them a real gift.


Bloix 11.06.14 at 5:00 pm

Tony Judt wrote in an essay that the way he dealt with his mid-life crisis – in the throes of a divorce, doubting the value of his career, getting old – was to teach himself Czech. As a mono-linguist who has failed to master any number of languages I can only marvel at people who seem to find that learning a language is about as difficult as learning to drive.


Ike 11.06.14 at 5:04 pm

Belle @ 6: “There’s a transformative or something in Hungarian, I think, for when one thing turns into another. Positively Alice in Wonderland!” That would be the translative case, which we have in Finnish as well. Very useful.

Cheryl Rofer @15: I’d say immersion is key. If you can already use the cases without thinking, even in limited situations, you’re pretty far along. I’ve no idea how the use of the 15-case apparatus in Finnish works in real life either, but it hasn’t prevented me from speaking it all my life; let Chomsky worry about that. And btw, I don’t know Estonian, but since it’s a lot like Finnish, I’d assume word order isn’t exceedingly rigid, and there could be several grammatically correct ways to construct the same sentence.

Also, looking at the issue from the opposite side, I don’t feel I’ve ever had any particular difficulties getting into the mindset of the Indo-European languages I’ve dabbled in, despite having a non-IE language as my native tongue. Not that I ever learned any of them particularly well (apart from English), but I attribute that more to lack of effort than anything else.


Raffi 11.06.14 at 5:50 pm

I’m friends with one of these freak linguist people. He once knocked on my dorm room door at university and announced he had “learned Catalan” and that he was leaving for Barcelona in the morning to check whether it worked.

Amazing how brains differ.


Cheryl Rofer 11.06.14 at 6:04 pm

Ike @22: Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, there are many ways to use word order in a highly inflected language, but some are more idiomatic than others. I often provoke a laugh from my Estonian friends, who will say “There is nothing grammatically wrong with what you’ve said, but no Estonian would say it that way!”


Ronan(rf) 11.06.14 at 6:06 pm

“Amazing how brains differ.”

Just on this .. since this is a place where a disproportionate number of teachers (or at least people interested in education etc) post/comment , is it a case of ‘brains differ’ or can most people train themselves to think in ways that make learning something like a language (or maths) easier ? I know the answer to this is probably complicated (and I havent phrased the question well) but is there such thing as a natural aptitude for X (in this case languages) ?


Rich Puchalsky 11.06.14 at 6:41 pm

“But, damn street harassment sucks SO BAD I HATED IT. […]. TELL ME YOUR STORIES.”

When my family had to move to L.A., I took up a hobby of driving around taking pictures of murals, and eventually took pictures of 1000 of them. I was contacted by a good number of people who wanted to use these pictures for one project or another, including one woman who wanted pictures with better image quality than I had. Since she lived nearby, I told her that she should just take some new pictures, and she said that she’d tried but had immediately gotten catcalled to the point where she didn’t feel like she could continue.

Differential experiences on city streets suddenly make certain kinds of privilege come alive. I’d already had the experience, as a scruffy middle-aged white guy, of having the police roll up and question the young, hispanic graffiti artist I was interviewing and basically ignore me. I’d gotten in one or two tense situations walking around Compton, but a black guy taking pictures in a lot of L.A. would have gotten a lot worse, I imagine.


engels 11.06.14 at 6:45 pm

Being able to afford a live-in maid on a white-collar worker’s salary is also an underrated factor because people are embarrassed to say how awesome it is.

Singapore: Domestic Workers Suffer Grave Abuses
Singapore’s Maids: No Respite?

(But, damn street harassment sucks SO BAD I HATED IT. When I think of people doing that to my daughters and making them walk along looking straight forward like soldiers in a war they’re losing, cheeks burning with shame, I want to hit people on the head with rocks.) We’ve stayed in Singapore. The safety thing is an underrated factor.

Singapore’s Ban on Gay Male Sex Is Upheld by Top Court
Massive leap backwards as Singapore resumes executions


Greg 11.06.14 at 6:50 pm

I was always pretty good at languages and was raised by two linguists. But over the course of twenty years, having learned French, German, Indonesian, Tamil and Arabic in that order, to various levels, every time I reach for a sentence in one language I can only remember how to say it in one of the others, and I basically now suck at all of them. Indonesian is the one that arrives on my tongue the easiest in most countries – except when I’m in Indonesia of course, when I keep trying to order Soto Ayam auf Deutsch.

I guess I’m not enough of a linguist to be able to really pinpoint the differences between learning an IE language and a non-IE language: the familial relationships or otherwise between them mostly pass me by. Each one was just new, and the newness overtook everything else. Indonesian was relatively simple, Tamil and Arabic relatively complex, that’s about as much as I can tell you.

FWIW, learning to read and write in the Tamil and Arabic scripts was a big part of the pleasure, and fundamental to having any understanding at all of those languages. Some people say it’s easier to start with transcription and tackle the weird curly stuff later, I don’t think that’s right. You have to put the work in at the start. Especially with Arabic, where your basic 3-letter root forms a whole bunch of related words.


Matt_L 11.06.14 at 7:44 pm

I always thought I sucked at languages, especially since I started out with Spanish and failed miserably. (It probably didn’t help that the seating chart placed me next to a native speaker who was sandbagging by taking Spanish I in High School. All he wanted to do was talk about Cream and how awesome Ginger Baker was). Similarly I struggled with Russian and couldn’t make it out of the second year even though I found it fascinating.

But then, courtesy of the study abroad program at UC Santa Cruz I spent a semester in Budapest. While living there I kind of got a handle on Hungarian but still only earned a C in the language class (and a gentleman’s C at that. The teacher said she passed me because she saw and heard me using the language at the market and on the street).

I love Hungarian. Like Cheryl Rofer said, the cases and declensions just totally clicked for me. After studying them a whole bunch, it just worked one day. (The word order thing still totally throws me though). And I love the Hungarian vowels. One of my Hungarian instructors said something liberating about the vowels. “Alright guys! None of the vowels in Hungarian sound anything like English vowels, so just forget about trying to find equivalents.”

That said, I still struggle with vocabulary and word order. Those totally make me stick out as a foreigner. I think that it was easier to learn Hungarian because it was a non IE language. Once you stop searching out Romance/Germanic language equivalents it gets a lot easier.


Matt_L 11.06.14 at 7:46 pm

PS – Belle Waring your posts are among my favorites and the only ones where I feel compelled to de-lurk. Everyone on Crooked Timber is a smarty pants, but your posts are tops.


marcel 11.06.14 at 8:12 pm

… but your posts are tops.

Well, used to be, anyway. It’s been far too long since BW gave anyone a good smackdown.


Z 11.06.14 at 9:36 pm

I know the answer to this is probably complicated (and I havent phrased the question well) but is there such thing as a natural aptitude for X (in this case languages) ?

For 99,99% of us, any such “natural aptitude” will be (as usual) dwarfed by effort, dedication, ongoing deliberate practice and perseverance. But I think it is hard to doubt that there is such a thing and that some individuals are just amazingly quicker and more talented than the rest of us at learning and mastering languages. Along professional linguists, Ken Hale was a famous example.


Abbe Faria 11.06.14 at 9:39 pm

“Why do you think “the safety thing is underrated’? It seems to me that Americans are obsessed with that “safety thing”… Maybe I was missing your irony, in that case my apology for stating the obvious.”

I don’t think there was any deliberate irony. I mean saying it “might be a boring place for…older children? People in their twenties?” may be a very oblique reference to torturing folks for using drugs. But this mostly seems like genuine uncritical praise of Singapore for the comforts it offers wealthy ex-pats. I don’t want to criticise the OP – maybe she’s oblivious, maybe she’s got to get a visa renewed – but it’s absolutely typical the usual clique of ‘smarty pants’ in the comments are lapping this up.

You’re, of course, completely right that Singapore is a deeply draconian, unsafe and oppressive shithole. Their capital punishment rate is what, 3x the all in US homicide rate? More than 5 people protesting in public gets you arrested without a lawyer. And so on and so on and so on, but the conversation isn’t about the safety of those sort of people. Catcalling, that’s where the left’s at these days.


MPAVictoria 11.06.14 at 10:16 pm

“Catcalling, that’s where the left’s at these days.”

Desperately. Resisting. Urge. To. Get. Involved. In. Off. Topic. Discussion.


floopmeister 11.06.14 at 11:47 pm

You’re, of course, completely right that Singapore is a deeply draconian, unsafe and oppressive shithole. Their capital punishment rate is what, 3x the all in US homicide rate? More than 5 people protesting in public gets you arrested without a lawyer.

The subtlety of your response indicates that you clearly have a deep cultural, political and legal knowledge of the place.

BTW: the kids water playground in the new gardens area (near the giant trees) is wonderful – my kids are still talking about it a year later… definitely worth a visit.


floopmeister 11.06.14 at 11:51 pm

Oh and Straits Recordsin Kampong Glam is a excellent place to check out interesting punk, pop and rock from SE Asia – great shop.


maidhc 11.07.14 at 1:18 am

I’ve known a few people who learned languages as a hobby.

I knew one person who spent every summer in a different country and learned the language. (She was a teacher so she had the summer off, and she lived in Europe so she didn’t have to go far to encounter a new language.) She said that she always started off by imitating the body language of the people in that country, and then started learning phrases.


Alan White 11.07.14 at 1:19 am

Belle, as you must know I just adore your posts. The title made me LOL. I do speak fluent Japanese as it turns out, at least in one dear colleague’s mind.

She’s Japanese and just got married here (Wisconsin). She spent her first 15 years at LSU and learned English there, and it shows. She’s always “fixin'” to do something and today in a meeting said something had been “rarent” (“ruined” for non-Southerners). She’s a gifted math professor and a dear friend. Recently I mentioned how much I loved the 80s one-hit-wonder “I’m Turning Japanese” (I really think so) and she howled how much she loved that song, so I purchased it and gifted. Later she gleefully complained that she couldn’t get the song out of her head thanks to me, and I started reciting Japanese lines from the 80s series Shogun. I then asked her if she dreams in English, and after saying that she did, she brightened and said, “You know, you sometimes show up my dreams, and you speak Japanese.” I actually did a 360-degree dance of joy and screamed how awesome that was!

Okay my Cartesian doppelganger speaks Japanese, and not me. But how I envy him! And you of course.


DonN 11.07.14 at 2:35 am

We are trying to raise our son to speak Mandarin while living in the states. He hears only Mandarin from his mom and grandparents at home and from native speakers at daycare. The only English he gets is from me and some tv. At this point his go to language is Mandarin. My wife is betting that by 7 he’ll only speak English. That would give me a sad. This sort of post is encouraging.


Belle Waring 11.07.14 at 2:35 am

The safety thing is underrated…saying that does seem a little paradoxical. It’s not underrated by people who move to gated communities in suburbs, obviously, but the people with whom we usually get into discussions about why we live in Singapore are not those people. Rather they are people who would, as we would if we were in America or Europe or Australia, live in a major city, and who regard Singapore as a draconian shithole. A draconian shithole that’s unbelievably boring due to its stringent law-abiding nature. I’m always happy to say that I love living in Singapore but would not like to be a Singaporean citizen, and Singaporeans understand the sentiment and agree generally. Singapore doesn’t allow dual citizenship for this reason. I have a friend who was intending to have her two sons give up their Canadian passports for Singaporean ones, a thing that would mandate their serving in the Singaporean Armed Forces from 18-20. I always figured by the time they were old enough they’d say no.

Underrated I actually mean I think men underrate it vs women. It’s a lot easier for a man to say, no you should embrace the chaotic wonderfulness of NYC. I, personally, would embrace it in a heartbeat, someone just needs to provide us with gainful employment. Because I <3 NY. But my lived experience of walking around in NYC would be a drag in a lot of ways, and I would personally limit myself in a lot of ways. It’s just strangely liberating as a woman to say, I’m going to walk through the really dark part of this big park to shortcut to the 7/11, at 2 a.m. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone–you also don’t know what you got till you suddenly have this other thing. And white privilege is extra-real in post-Colonial Asia. White women are a scary, mysterious, fat group of people who might yell at you under the best conditions, so people would incline to avoid hassling them for this reason also; like, if anyone’s going to make a fuss it’s these crazy bitches.


Belle Waring 11.07.14 at 2:38 am

Thanks Matt_L. Also, marcel, whom should I smack down? John won’t let me post on GamerGate :-( But I reeeeaaaaallly have a lot to contribute.


MPAVictoria 11.07.14 at 2:50 am

“Thanks Matt_L. Also, marcel, whom should I smack down? John won’t let me post on GamerGate :-( But I reeeeaaaaallly have a lot to contribute.”

I would love, love, love to hear what you have to say.


Belle Waring 11.07.14 at 3:53 am

I think no one cares about our academic blog so no one will hassle me. He thinks that only one person needs to link to some other feminist writing about GG before I’m deluged with unpleasant hatemail, so that the expected rewards are far outweighed by the possible non-reward, punishment-type things. There’s part of me that’s like, what’s the worst that can happen? I mean, bizarre one in a thousand fluke, /r/kotakuinaction zeroes in on me, people doxx me. I’m in Singapore! Come at me bro! [Belle feigns dodging and weaving drunkenly with fists up.] John feels this is counter-intuitive, life-strategy wise, and that I should just complain about GG to him. Then he said he was maybe going to post about it and I was like nuh, huh no fair! But the made the cogent and salient point that he has a penis, which, irrefutable. I mean, I’ve seen the evidence. Saliens, as it were. So who’s going to hassle him? No one.


Meredith 11.07.14 at 4:03 am

Oh those linguists…. There’s the old Cal Watkins story. A student mentioned he was going to Wales for a couple of weeks and was looking forward to learning Welsh. And Cal said, “So what are you going to do with with the next 10 days there?”
For most of us, though, learning a new foreign language makes us feel stupid. I try to reassure my Latin and Greek students that it’s not so bad to feel sort of stupid, stranded, that it’s even good. Not just the humility part. There’s an adventure in it. (In fact, one day years ago I spontaneously responded to the frustrations of students halfway through an introductory Greek class with a heartfelt song to Greek, saying that, if one day I woke up and Greek had become easy, “my life would be diminished.” It’s since become a spiel at the ready, but no less true for all that.)
Learning a new language is a much safer adventure than navigating certain streets at certain hours, especially for women. But the analogy is very apt. I don’t think Belle is digressing (or if she is, it’s the way Homer or Herodotus does — or maybe Aeschylus is even more apt).
What I most love about a foreign language, it only begins to make sense (not to mention have subtleties) if you just take it as it comes. There’s something sublime in that.


dsquared 11.07.14 at 4:05 am

Their capital punishment rate is what, 3x the all in US homicide rate?

I do wish people would get into the habit of looking things up. Singapore had two executions this year out of a population of ~5m. That’s up from none last year, none the year before and none in 2011.

So, multiplying by 60 to scale up from Singapore’s population to that of the USA, then dividing by three to take account of Abbé Faria’s hyperbole factor, this statement would be true if the USA had seen forty homicides in the last four years. The actual number is somewhat higher.

Sorry to be a pedant, but everyone has a view on What’s Wrong With The Left These Days and my personal hobby horse is multiple-order-of-magnitude quantitative errors.


Palindrome 11.07.14 at 4:14 am

On learning to read in Japanese: I am American, my wife is Chinese (from China), and she loves loves loves Japanese fashion magazines. For fun, we read them together. I lived in Japan for many years, but my kanji are still only so-so (I struggle to read newspapers). She has never studied the language a day in her life. Even so, with her mastery of Chinese characters, she easily understands about 1/3 – 1/2 of the meaning of printed matter (magazines are somewhat easy, since there are usually pictures or other visual aids), and my knowledge of kana and grammar complete the picture. It’s pretty clear that with only a very little effort she could memorize the kana and learn a few grammar rules, making her practically literate in a whole other language. Meanwhile, she struggles to learn even basic Spanish phrases that I absorbed out of the aether of growing up in the states. Language is a funny thing.


J. Parnell Thomas 11.07.14 at 4:23 am

Oh for fuck’s sake.


J. Parnell Thomas 11.07.14 at 4:27 am

You all know who this is. Just fucking ban him.


MPAVictoria 11.07.14 at 5:50 am

I can understand where your husband is coming from. It is sad that these man children can force those kind of calculations on us but I guess that is the world we live in.



dsquared 11.07.14 at 8:04 am

Every now and then I worry that I have done something wrong because my daughters only like fairly stereotypically “girly” stuff. Then something like “gamergate” comes along and I reflect that however much people dislike the Disney Princesses or the Cute Hairstyles YouTube channel, they in general seem to pass along largely positive messages about growing up, and no death threats or rape jokes at all.


Sam Dodsworth 11.07.14 at 9:04 am

dsquared@48 they in general seem to pass along largely positive messages about growing up, and no death threats or rape jokes at all.

I was nodding sympathetically at this and then I remembered that’s exactly what the death threats, rape jokes, and harassment are for. And now I’m sad, because you’re still right.


dsquared 11.07.14 at 9:11 am

When my oldest was six, she came out with a vehement j’accuse in response to my gentle teasing about the amount of Disney pink crap in her room – “you’re just saying that Cinderella is silly just because she’s a girl!!!”. I haven’t come up with a convincing response to this in the last for years and so have tended to hold my counsel on the subject of whether there’s anything wrong with Disney princesses. Less so on ” Lego Friends” which are great – some campaigners seem to live in this imaginary world in which unisex Lego was played with equally by boys and girls but I’ve looked at the same figures and actually the pink friendy stuff was the first Lego product that ever sold bobbins to girls at all.


dsquared 11.07.14 at 9:12 am

Bloody bold tags, will I never learn


david 11.07.14 at 10:03 am

Oh, I was certainly not intending to accuse you of talking smack. I was musing upon third language education outside of the ethereal world of the white community in Singapore – a foreign (heh) world which was always visible to us, but from a distance. Relatively rare for their children to attend local schools, even if they were not expatriates but long-term residents. Private tutors, private schools, private exams, hidden away in clubs and corners accessible only by car, to alliterate. Conversely the Singaporean elementary schooling experience is dominated by national touchstones, even if a hierarchical one. Even of the 10% elite, as noted.

Everything you said about the educated Singaporean’s command of English and Mandarin is true, I think, even of the nominally Chinese elite schools. Hwa Chong, Nanyang, Anglo-Chinese, etc. I recall the statistic than in 1965 some ~5% of Singaporeans spoke English; for Mandarin this was less than 1%. The arc of Mandarin is amazing.

I really don’t know what the curious taxi drivers inquire of your children but it seems hard to get shorter than 小妹,你会讲华语吗?which is not especially formal but is it incomplete?


Sam Dodsworth 11.07.14 at 10:18 am


No criticism of pink stuff intended. What I’m sad about is the way a perfectly rational calculus of safety leaves men with the power to exclude and control women in any space they’re able to make “unsafe”.


J Thomas 11.07.14 at 10:40 am

#53 Sasm Dodsworth

What I’m sad about is the way a perfectly rational calculus of safety leaves men with the power to exclude and control women in any space they’re able to make “unsafe”.

Yes. Literally unsafe is the issue.

If there were some people who were intrinsicly disgusting — amputees, people with smelly disgusting diseases etc, then anywhere they congregated would be off limits to people whose esthetic sensibilities couldn’t handle seeing and smelling them. There’s nothing wrong with that, they have to be *somewhere* and if you can’t handle looking at them then that’s your problem.

But when it’s socially disgusting people, and if you interact with them enough to show them you don’t want that, they might hurt you — when they might hurt you if you ignore them, or no matter what you do — then it isn’t about what you like, it’s really literally about safety.

I remember a discussion about this on a conservative blog, where somebody I considered quite conservative proposed full gun control for men in the USA, and automatic concealed carry permits for women. If a woman voluntarily loaned a gun to a man, she shared responsibility for any consequences. He felt that gun violence was far more likely to be justified if a woman approved it, and that women themselves were far less likely to shoot people without a good justification.

It was extremely blatantly sexist, but somehow I kind of like the idea.


James 11.07.14 at 11:09 am

Is the highway overpass possibly the CTE near KKH hospital? A couple of years ago a colleague who lives near there told me a body of a murder victim was found under the CTE around that area. But your point is still valid, I used to do a lot of late night runs and walks around all sorts of places in Singapore which would be off limits in many western countries – darkened back roads and alleys behind shops, empty industrial parks, canal sides etc.


david 11.07.14 at 12:19 pm


Belle Waring 11.07.14 at 12:46 pm

Yep, just there. We lived at one point closer to Newton Circus on Kampong Java Rd (and so had to walk under the CTE to get to and fro) and then for four more years between KK Hospital and the CTE itself, in one of a short row of attached black-and-whites. Walking to the local mall we’d still go under the highway though. That you’d hide a body there I could see, and drunk Bangladeshi construction workers would sleep it off under there occasionally, but still, I think they could probably hear you at the police station if you screamed loud enough.
david: OK, I understand your point better. It does seem unfair to me that local kids can’t go to the international schools; there are plenty whose parents would be happy to pay the *cough*painful amounts*cough* to send them (local elites), and then there would be those who would merit scholarships that SAS and so forth could easily afford to provide with the money they absorb from banks and oil companies and the like, which are paying most of the tuition anyway. The schools themselves would be bettered by more connections to Singapore itself, and there are benefits like 3rd language instruction that are hard for local kids to access otherwise. It’s always been my understanding that the government doesn’t want its youth getting any funny ideas. So bi-national Singaporean kids get to go (mom is Australian, say, and son hasn’t yet had to decide) but that’s a very thin slice of upper crust and it means the kids like my own can go through life-long schooling in Singapore without having Singaporean schoolmates (the very thing that would prevent the heartbreak of losing their transient expat friends year after year.)
dsquared: as I mentioned the other day, Violet is a truly obsessive gamer, and crazy good. Watching her play Mario games is like watching it in Luigi instructional mode. Oh, that’s how you play that level without losing the squirrel suit, eh? OK. She’s never yet played a game online in multi-player mode and she’s such a cheerful, kind person, who makes friends so easily. Her schoolfriends have fought over her in the past! I don’t know quite how I’m going to be able to watch/listen to assholes threatening to rape her to death with a broken bottle because she didn’t do things perfectly in Call of Duty VII the first time out. I mean, you can get voice modulator things for the headset that lower your voice, but isn’t that kind of yielding the online gaming to the assholes? But what is she, the feminist burnt offering of first-person-shooters? Fuck, I don’t know.


engels 11.07.14 at 1:07 pm

[Second and final try before taking a hint/hike:]

But, damn street harassment sucks SO BAD I HATED IT. When I think of people doing that to my daughters and making them walk along looking straight forward like soldiers in a war they’re losing, cheeks burning with shame, I want to hit people on the head with rocks.) We’ve stayed in Singapore. The safety thing is an underrated factor. Being able to afford a live-in maid on a white-collar worker’s salary is also an underrated factor because people are embarrassed to say how awesome it is.

Singapore is not a safe place if you are gay, accused crimes such as possession of cannabis, or a domestic worker.



dsquared 11.07.14 at 1:07 pm

I would still say encourage her to put those fine motor skills to work by joining the Cute Hairstyles community. (Also, one of the few YouTube channels where the comments are all helpful, positive and pleasant). I’m only semi serious as always but I’ve been really impressed by how nice little girls are, never having had experience of their strange alien culture before. I am a little bit worried that my daughter now thinks Fort Worth is the cultural centre of the USA but that’s second order. I’m now being taught how to do a Dutch plait.


david 11.07.14 at 1:28 pm

Local kids could go to the international schools when I was schooling, it was only banned in 2000. Only a trickle of families opted out, though, since Singapore public schooling is by no means shabby. To be fair I think the funny ideas were not so much Western ones inasmuch as madrassahs, and that was over the funny idea being “the kid should drop out and come help in the shop (i.e. abysmal Malay dropout rates) rather than radicalization concerns (which are minimal). Over the past decade-and-a-half the govt has delicately persuaded Malay community leaders that, yes, madrassahs are really that awful at getting Malay students past the PSLE and therefore deserve to be quietly wound up (that this has tacitly become the standard by which Mendaki and the other Malay organs judge the schools is a sign of the government’s success).

Still, if you stop the Malays from having their own non-state schools, however justifiably, you can hardly let elite Chinese Christians go to their own.

Are you considering sending Zoe to a local secondary or sixth-form college? I know some parents who dislike the cavalier attitude of the schools toward tailoring education.


Trader Joe 11.07.14 at 2:09 pm

This post recalls a tremendously delightful evening some years ago. It was in the early weeks of business school when everyone was trying so hard to impress. After a class in which we discussed a case study of the U.S. tire industry, a Singaporean classmate came up to me and asked “What’s with Americans and their cars and guns?”

She said it with a smile, but it was no less provocative and I felt an immediate patriotic need to defend the homeland, the freedom of the open road and everything from apple pie to motherhood. I thought about responding with “What’s with your beatings and police state” but refrained and instead suggested a coffee and a chat.

As the coffee became dinner and the evening stretched to last call (I was drinking, she was not) I learned everything I still know about Singapore (which is possibly dated, but probably not). She came from a wealthy family so her views were somewhat colored by that perspective, but she spoke equally about all classes and the reasons for order and control. Limiting the influence of organized crime as dominates Macau and Hong Kong was a big undercurrent of the discussion – as was, reading between the lines, buttering the bread of the wealthy and insuring their dominance.

Safety and cleanliness were also big features given population density. Not becoming Hong Kong, but rather their own independent nation while surrounded by larger countries was another big driver – establishment of a culture that isn’t perfect, but is distinct. Her passion for her country was quite strong, more than I’d have expected given the negative stories that escape from time to time. What Westerners see as bugs, she tended to regard as features, at least up to a point.

I appreciate there was much propaganda in all she said, but she did a better job of defending “What’s with your beatings and police state” than I was able to do with “What’s with Americans and their cars and guns?” I’ve never been to Singapore, but hope to do so one day, I have great regard for at least one of its citizens.

I don’t know if this ramble adds much to the discussion, but thanks to Belle for an excuse to tread down a particuarly happy part of memory lane.


Belle Waring 11.07.14 at 3:23 pm

engels: I specifically said that the safety feature is for women who want to feel safe walking around their town. Singapore sucks for gay rights in comparison to Australia–that they didn’t overturn their anti-sodomy law after (apparently) seriously considering it was actually payment to the influential Chinese evangelical Christian community in exchange for legalizing gambling, which the fundies opposed. It was like, ‘we’ll take this thing, but leave you this other.’ Singapore doesn’t suck for gay rights in comparison with Malaysia. In practice gay people live in Singapore and are long-term domestic partners who own properties and businesses together. Public figures and entertainers are out as gay and no one thinks they should be arrested. They are on the lame Chinese-language stations. Lesbian sex isn’t even illegal due to the way the law is written, while heterosexual acts not consummated with a rousing PIV closer are illegal even between married couples. In practice these laws aren’t enforced. In neighboring Malaysia they’ve been used as a tool to fight political opponents, but not here. Lee Kuan Yew himself has said it’s obvious that gay marriage and full gay rights are coming to Singapore since it’s the way of the future, but that the conservative citizenry isn’t ready for it yet.

Drug laws are also insane, yes. I know people who’ve been sent off for seven years for a single straw of heroin because it was their third offense. I also said in my post there’s abuse of domestic workers. It’s just a way better place to work as a Filipina maid than…Malaysia, IMO although they more commonly hire Indonesians. Better than the Middle East is the relevant comparison and on that it’s like a billion times better. There are NGOs to help abused maids; they can go outside and get help from other people; their neighbors are also famously kaypoh (all up in your business) and will know if you are starving someone. I’ve never pretended Singapore has the world’s most egalitarian government so it’s stupid to play gotcha like this: it’s an amazing place to live for white-collar expat professionals. It’s also a surprisingly well-run country when you consider its neighbors, history, and analogues, and the government is much more genuinely popular than I imagined before moving here. I assumed everyone hated the government because it was a one-party system. Instead, people like to bitch about the government, like everywhere, but as long as economic growth continues most citizens are pretty satisfied. As Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence approaches people are feeling quite justifiably proud, and my own kids feel strongly enough about it that while they were representing America for UN day at school this year they’ll be walking for Singapore next year, and want to be here for National Day next year (a planning PITA from my point of view, hmph). They are horrified by gun violence in America, just, confused and frightened by it. They think it’s weird and don’t understand why it can’t be changed. After every school shooting Zoë says, “do you think now they’ll be able to have gun control in America, like they did in Australia?” Nope, nope, and nopeity nope.

david: we’re planning now that the girls will get their International Baccalaureate at the Canadian International School, but apparently they’ll have to take the SAT as well to apply to U.S. colleges. They want to apply to schools in the UK as well; it would be a shame if they also had to do their A levels–I think the UK schools are OK with the IB certificate. I hope. I didn’t know the U.S. schools were going to be little bitches but it figures.


david 11.07.14 at 4:02 pm

Hmm. If you do the A levels, take it as an independent candidate. The SEAB-Cambridge A levels are substantially more difficult than the OCR/Edexcel/AQA papers, but are considered the same by UK admissions (apparently). You may have to inquire with Edexcel and the British Council as to whether they will invigilate the A levels here – their site only definitively states that they invigilate it at the British Council at Kuala Lumpur, but nothing about Singapore.

The IB is a bit odd in the context of local students. I remember some snickers when Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), the independent/elite-state-school which switched to offering the IB in 2005, started and continued obtaining preposterously high numbers of perfect scores – the difficulty of the IB may not be tuned for students who are accustomed to ten-year-series revision batteries. I don’t know whether this has impacted the value of the IB offered by the international institutions located in Singapore, but you may like to discreetly find out.

The SAT is a maybe/kinda/sorta – check with US college websites before embarking upon it. e.g., NYU does not require the SAT if you have the IB. It is true that most want the SAT or the ACT though.

If they intend to become Singaporeans, better earlier than later; Singapore government scholarships are generous.


david 11.07.14 at 4:30 pm

The struggle over gay rights in Singapore is starting to become a self-fulfilling prophecy on the Singapore government’s longstanding suspicion (esp since the bitter break with the Socialist International in the 1970s) of Western actors pursuing Western cultural politics with Singapore as a battleground – it is one thing for AWARE to fight a Singaporean megachurch, it is quite another for Focus on the Family and Google to be weighing in.

Of course today the interior ministry’s refrain is not that the New Left is full of cryptocommunists, it is that these are powerful monied interests who have no compunctions about provoking instability in Singapore – and furthermore that the government, as always, remains and must remain the last word in cultural politics in Singapore, not civil-social NGOs. The Singaporean, especially the Singaporean religious or ethnic identities, must never worry for their positions in society out of a lack of political mobilization, as long as the government remains the government. It is enough to acquiesce to its arbitration – you do not also need to watch your back.

engels has a finger on the unusual kind of civil peace being pursued here, even if s/he was being hyperbolic.


engels 11.07.14 at 4:35 pm

Belle, thanks for the reply and sorry if that came across as a ‘gotcha’. I agree that if anyone has health problems that require paid live-in support they should get it but I wouldn’t conceptualise that sentiment as ‘[b]eing able to afford a live-in maid on a white-collar worker’s salary is…awesome’- it don’t that is awesome- and I think formal state harassment of people for their gender is worse than informal street harassment of same (which isn’t to diminish the latter). I’ve only ever spent a week in Singapore but I never assumed that everyone hated the government- I thought it seemed like an air-conditioned Alphaville but à chacun son goût.


Dogen 11.07.14 at 5:24 pm

There’s a restaurant in Berkeley called Kirala. From the hiragana spelling of it’s name you could also call it Kirara or Kilala or Kilara or no doubt other things. But the owners choose to pronounce it more like Kirala.

I haven’t been there in several years, but it used to be wonderful. It probably still is, I still see lines out the door.


marcel 11.07.14 at 5:30 pm

Belle: whom should you smackdown?

Based on your past performance, I don’t think you need any advice from me. Perhaps some inspiration, but, again from past performance, I’d rather not be the one to provide you that.


dr ngo 11.07.14 at 6:14 pm

Just a small note on the Hong Kong comparison – it was twenty years ago now, but when my wife was dubbing (putting English voices to Chinese films) in Mongkok, literally the most crowded place on earth, she might wind up finishing at 3AM and walk from the studio to the MTR (subway) without a worry in the world, winding up at home after a ride under the harbour and then a taxi thankful for living in such a safe place. Yes, there’s crime in HK, but much of it is (was) as safe as Singapore.


L.M. Dorsey 11.07.14 at 6:25 pm

re: language learning
Spaced-repitition flashcards can be helpful (and no more boxes of grubby index cards quietly rotting in the back of the closet).

I’ve used Anki (http://ankisrs.net/) for several years. Mnemosyne (http://mnemosyne-proj.org/) is reputedly savvier in its spacing algorithm; but I don’t expect a program to teach me, just to remind me. (Very useful for Latin/Greek, possibly less so for languages you can speak and write on a daily basis.). Fwiw, Anki looks very sporty on my digital device, and supports various media attachments/inclusions. Too, it is popular with those learning Japanese — lots of user-contributed decks (some with 1000s of cards) on offer.


clew 11.07.14 at 8:33 pm

engels, it sure sounded to me like a `gotcha’, and one assuming that women’s public safety should only be attended to after that of, apparently, every other category, even though the safe streets are useful for anyone who can pass. I agree no-one should have to pass as not-their-gender, but was incredibly grateful when I *could* because it was better than the alternatives.

I spent a couple weeks working in Tokyo a while ago, and closed down the office in the wee hours with my Japanese colleagues and took the subway home without the interpreter, and was gobsmacked at how safe everyone obviously felt. Businessmen with expensive suits and watches and bags falling asleep, schoolkids out in small groups not paying any attention to everyone else on the train. (Well, each other!) There were little things in the architecture and land use that seemed to follow on, efficiencies we can’t use in the US because it wouldn’t be safe. When I got back to the States we felt like a failed society, or the beginning of one.


engels 11.07.14 at 8:56 pm

engels, it sure sounded to me like a `gotcha’, and one assuming that women’s public safety should only be attended to after that of, apparently, every other category

Yeah well your post sounded like a ukelele, and one which assumes that torturing kittens is perfectly fine.


Emma in Sydney 11.07.14 at 9:44 pm

Belle, you should look into Australian universities too — now very good at dealing with overseas qualifications, and much closer for visits. JQ’s and my alma mater ANU is a fine institution. One of my sons is now in London, and only seeing him every couple of years is very ouchy.


MPAVictoria 11.07.14 at 9:46 pm

“Yeah well your post sounded like a ukelele, and one which assumes that torturing kittens is perfectly fine.”

Aww, come on now. Ukes are awesome!



clew 11.07.14 at 11:40 pm

Aw, engels, were you expecting a cookie? *Do* you think we only ought to care about women’s safety after, etc?

Kitten torturing ukelele


Wallace Stevens 11.08.14 at 2:17 am

I find this OP wretched and appalling. But since so few others do, I wonder if it’s just me. Isn ‘t Waring really just saying “It’s great to be rich!”? I know the feeling. I was an expat in Hong Kong in the early nineties: the private schools, the maid-ironed uniforms, people coming and going from one exotic place to another, etc. Most of the OP sounded like back-handed, covert bragging–splinkled with a heavy dose of cloying, corn pone “y’all’s” to show that she’s a good Ioway farmer’s daughter at heart, or whatever. And the kids! Oy! Smart as whips and learning all these languages! I’ve been trapped by elderly people like this who then want to show you all the pictures in their wallet/purse. But Waring, I take it, is a relatively young woman. Hard to figure. (I did a little research. According to her wedding announcement she is related to the robber baron, Jay Gould. Now, no one is responsible for their ancestors. But why make such a point of it? Especially when John “only a Holbo” Holbo’s ancestory gets no mention at all.)

But so much for form. What about substance? Yes, in places like Singapore, even philosophy profs can live well. But for the most part this is because it is a Republican paradise. No minimum wage, tough on crime, control of the media to ensure that the right peopleget elected, limited concern for due process and human rights–oh yeah, and lingering “white privilege” makes being a WHITE woman extra safe, in a kind of belt-and-suspenders way. What’s not to like? Singapore is by no means the worst place on earth. Some people on the Left, apologists for Castro for example, believe that there must be some kind of necessary trade-off between human rights and economic
development. I’m not one of them. But for those that do, Singapore should be ashining example. They have achieved far more–in terms of living standards and health for the poorest–while being much more free than Cuba. In fact I have always wondered why Singapore didn’t get more attention and praise from the the authoritarian Left. But for anyone with democratic instincts…? I don’t think so.


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 2:25 am

74 – Oh for christsake. Engels comment might have been a little ungenerous (and I think it was) but he’s certainly not arguing the strawman you’re claiming.

for example, Engels said – “and I think formal state harassment of people for their gender is worse than informal street harassment of same (which isn’t to diminish the latter)”

There is nothing wrong with ranking the seriousness of issues. From my reading, all Engels is doing is mentioning the costs(semi authoritarianism) inherent in a system that maintains certain types of order (less street harrasment) as not being worth it.* (or at least worthy of mention)
This is NOT a case of ‘dude doesnt care about the safety of women’.
And if Engels was a little ungenerous in his reading of Belle (which I think he was) then you’ve more than made up for it in your response.

*I dont know if this is right. Plausibly it’s also culturally. Ive lived in non western authoritarian countries that were X1,000,000 worse than the worst US/european country (Italy?) for (what I percieved as) street harassment, so perhaps this is a local thing ?


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 2:30 am

“Isn ‘t Waring really just saying “It’s great to be rich!”? ”

No. It’s a perspective of life in a country from a specific vantage point. I think the societal costs (to a degree), and the fact that it’s from the viewpoint of someone with wealthy white expat ‘privilege’, are pretty clearly laid out throughout.
(although my priors are to not like the rhetoric of ‘privilege'(which is identity politics nonsense, to my mind) so I was never going to respond favourably to your argument)
A bit of generosity people, no ?


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 2:38 am

@75 – I have to admit, I hadnt read all of your comment before I replied above. Most of what you said is ad hominem, but that’s not my business so it’s neither here nor there.

On the authoritarian development part (and maintaining order in dodgy neighbourhoods /ethnically divided countries – although i dont know how much that applies to S-Pore) there’s certainly an argument to be made for it, from a left or right perspective.


MPAVictoria 11.08.14 at 2:39 am

‘A bit of generosity people, no ?”

Unfortunately I find that the female contributors to this blog are unlikely to be granted that courtesy.


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 2:46 am

I dont know, I dont think it’s a gender thing. I dont think anyone in the internet gets any generosity. It’s just the way of the world.


The Temporary Name 11.08.14 at 2:56 am

See? Ronan’s BEGGING for a GamerGate post!


Rich Puchalsky 11.08.14 at 2:57 am

There’s nothing wrong with writing a post that is in large part about how Singapore is a great place for white ex-pat professionals with young kids, but I do find it a bit off that the immediately presented counter (in both the OP and in comments) is about how Singapore may be boring for white ex-pat professional young adults who want more vibrant nightlife. Right in the first paragraph there’s a bit about how the highway underpass doesn’t smell like pee — because rich and poor alike are barred from sleeping under it, presumably. Singaporeans may think that a draconian one-party state that keeps order and maintains nationalism to repress ethnic conflict is a worthwhile tradeoff given the local alternatives, but ex-pats with no real connection to local politics aren’t trading off anything.

I used to find the combination of maids and Southernness in these posts a lot more grating. Then I figured that I was literally living in the same area as Thoreau and I should just put it down to culture clash.


pretendous 11.08.14 at 3:00 am



Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 3:14 am

@81 – I just can’t believe ‘gamers’ have managed to get themselves recognised as an oppressed minority.


MPAVictoria 11.08.14 at 3:23 am

“@81 – I just can’t believe ‘gamers’ have managed to get themselves recognised as an oppressed minority.”

Actually it’s about ethics in game journalism.


J Thomas 11.08.14 at 3:33 am

#75 Wallace Stevens

Isn‘t Waring really just saying “It’s great to be rich!”?

I read it more as, “It’s better to be rich in Singapore.”.

If you’re rich in a place where you need a fortified compound and lots of bodyguards, you give up something.

And the kids! Oy! Smart as whips and learning all these languages! I’ve been trapped by elderly people like this who then want to show you all the pictures in their wallet/purse.

Why begrudge her that? You don’t even have to read it. She doesn’t do it every day.

My, my oldest daughter is in 9th grade. After awhile they realized she was skipping class a lot. She wasn’t with the kids who hid in the bathrooms and did drugs, she’d find a quiet place all by herself and read. That weirded out the counselor. She just didn’t like school, so she tried to ignore it. They explained to me that the teachers collectively were supposed to assign about 3 hours of homework a night. She didn’t do it, so at that point she had 4 As and 3 Fs, she did OK in the classes that didn’t assign homework. It’s supposed to be one of the best public schools in the country. My sister explained that her son had the same problem, and they had to explain to him repeatedly that he just had to do it. They had to stand over him and make him do it. They got tutors to help him understand. They got a psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants, and he’s been on antidepressants ever since. But now his grades are fine, and he’s an eagle scout, and he has a bright future ahead of him. With every conversation when she gives me advice about what to do, she repeats “Ninth grade is just a very very hard year.” Apparently 20% of the students are on antidepressants. I’m thinking maybe I should get her a school that isn’t as good, but a move would be so disruptive….

It isn’t that she’s stupid, exactly. She took a 2-week summer course learning to program an arduino board and didn’t really learn much, but once she had her own she quick learned enough Python to get by and got her board to do some things. She plays an online game where she has memorized thousands of variants on things to buy and sell, and she does trades all over the world and gains much more trading than she does by playing to get stuff. She learned a complicated breeding system and breeds rare items. She might be learning more about how to get by in the world from that than from her school. But I tried to explain the system to her. First she works hard all the way through high school, and that gets her into a good college. Then she works hard all the way through college, and law school or business school etc, and that gives her a chance at a good job. Then she works hard until she makes partner, and then she can make a lot of money and keep working hard.

Or she can slack off a little, and it goes the same way except she works hard for the rest of her life for much less reward.

Or she can make her own way. There are big rewards available if you live by your wits, but you need to learn everything you can about everything, and look hard for things people believe that are not so. You don’t have to work hard if you get an occasional big win, but the rewards aren’t steady even if you work steadily. But you have to pay attention. We offered to homeschool her but she didn’t want to.

She refuses to play Eleusis. Any time she runs into the slightest difficulty she wants to quit. If she doesn’t understand something *immediately* she feels stupid and looks for a distraction. I have the impression she somehow learned that at school.

I would love to have Belle’s problems with her children’s education.


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 3:48 am

These are fair criticisms, but it’s also worth considering whether I’m going to say a million negative things about the Singapore government, realistically. John’s an actual employee of the government. I’m not bubbling over with unspilled feelings, but neither am I likely to go on about every negative thing? I’m happy to constantly say that the rights afforded citizens are meagre but the pleasantness afforded visiting expats is unparallelled. I think that makes it pretty clear it’s bad in some ways. They only have straw pallets in men’s prison rather than beds because this is some fucking Three Musketeer’s shit. But, in fact, is it totally great that America lets homeless people live under its highway overpasses? Those people suffer from untreated severe mental disorders. It was bad when they forcibly medicated people and shipped them off to unpleasant mental homes, and I don’t know what Singapore’s psych wards are like, but it’s actually not one of our favorite freedomy freedoms.

Wallace Stevens: on the wedding announcement, you gotta take that up with my family. Was I going to disappoint my grandmother, I ask you? Was I? Did you like to make your grandmother a sad, unhappy person who was shamed by all her friends? Just to stand on principle and not have a wedding announcement in the NYT? I would have had to feel bad about that for the rest of my maternal grandmother’s life. And also my grandfather’s. No, so there you are.


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 3:55 am

Emma in Sydney: we’d actually like to go back home to the States once our kids are off to college, so Australia wouldn’t be great from that point of view. Of course, if we’re lifers at that point we’ll suddenly be in love with…like, Sydney’s really nice, you know.


ZM 11.08.14 at 4:22 am

I am afraid to say I will now always picture Belle’s grandmother as Emily Gilmore.

There are a number of Singaporean students in the course I am studying. Discussions can be interesting because Australia and Singapore have tense relations sometimes, most epitomised in Lee Kwan Yew saying our government would make us the poor white trash of Asia in the 1980s (I cannot recall how the argument started or the details since I was too young) — this is still bought up whenever we have economic difficulties on the horizon.

In Australia around the same time as Jane Jacobs in New York we had various community protests and upset about comprehensive planning programs , particularly in relation to slum clearances and slum upgrades.

In response, in Victoria we have a planning legal system that mixes 1980s era systems theory with 1980s era neoliberalism.

Singapore did not go in this direction and I understand still has comprehensive planning — as a result Singapore does well in infrastructure and transport provision, affordable housing , and green space provision (in the latter better than Malaysia, when otherwise Malaysia should be better due to natural advantages).

Singaporean students are often bemused that Australian students on the one hand want more democratic planning and on the other hand want more comprehensive planning with better public transport, green spaces, appropriate development etc etc.

Singaporean students usually think it a worthwhile tradeoff to have more government and technical official authority to get better infrastructure etc. Australians tend to want both a democratic means to planning and ends that are probably best achieved by comprehensive planning . I am not sure that this is impossible – you can involve the community in comprehensive planning — but this is problematic in that it either significantly depoliticises the planning process (seen as a problem by some politicians), or might politicise planners; also it might be a fairly slow way to respond to the timely issues eg. causing climate change and living unsustainably both of which are built in to current urban development and economics.


Rich Puchalsky 11.08.14 at 4:28 am

“But, in fact, is it totally great that America lets homeless people live under its highway overpasses?”

This has the same problem as Trader Joe’s comment wondering if he really should be defending guns and cars. If you’re on the left, however vaguely that is defined, then you probably think that America really should be funding treatment for mentally ill homeless people rather than making them sleep under bridges. If you’re on the left, however vaguely, you also should be like “One-party state WHAT?” Or, I don’t know, maybe some authoritarian socialists think that’s a great idea. But for 99% of the people on the left, Singapore is doing much more basic and troublesome things that are incompatible with a leftist worldview than that.

I can understand the tradeoffs, I guess. But it’s an authoritarian set of tradeoffs and it’s one that can’t be made almost anywhere else. Singapore is a city-state with a huge income from trade, so they can afford to spend a lot on social control. Its GNI per capita is actually higher than that of the U.S. (From here.)


ZM 11.08.14 at 4:45 am

Singaporean students say that Singapore is not a one party state anymore, other parties are allowed, but most people like to vote for the same party as before.

I think political parties are highly over rated, all having 2 major parties/coalitions does is stop people from learning to co-operate with people of other view points, and strengthens pointless opposition that derives not from principle but only from wanting to differentiate one party from another .

I can see that having government and opposition should be useful for arguing over matters like in debating teams — but this structural utility is never realised since the parliament fills most of the time for debate with instead insulting members from the other party and making useless rhetorical points for their own parties.


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 4:56 am

I’m not advocating that America adopt the policies of Singapore. But it is a genuinely weird mix of things that are properly conceived of as right-authoritarian like not allowing people to sleep under highway overpasses, or anti-sodomy laws, and Fabian socialist, like extensive housing development planning that preserves green space, ensures adequate access to public transit, and allows Singaporeans to own their own public housing to a very high percentage (whether home-ownership is a per se good thing or not, it’s a thing that Singaporean people value very highly, and in general ethnically Chinese people. Shit, OK, Asian people.) I do think it’s worth listening to the testimony of a person who’s lived here for 14 years and also started a company here, almost 6 years old not, as long as I’m upfront about the ways in which I’m protected from most of the downsides (and surely that’s what I’ve been saying?). I write personal reflections on our blog, it cannot have escaped everyone’s notice? Am I supposed to lie about my life? Not discuss the interesting ways it differs from the life I ever thought I’d have? We’d all gain what now?

One of the things that happens when you live in Asia is that you go to all the other places in SE Asia which are not Singapore, but which could in principle perhaps be Singapore, such as KL, or Jakarta or…aw, man, Phnom Penh, that’s not even fair. Singapore is bad on a lot of human rights indices compared with other countries with equal levels of money, like Switzerland. But this is kind of looking through the telescope the wrong way around. Singapore is, rather, insanely rich and non-corrupt when compared to the cities in the Malaya it was once part of. Obviously it has no hinterland for people to migrate from and live in shanties, but that was widely seen as its downfall at independence–there’s nothing! Just one city, and no water! And now their once-insane goal to have the SDG gain USD parity is easing into sight; it’s like $1.20 now and was a stable $1.70 when I moved (they weight it against a basket of currencies.) Singapore did something amazing in achieving this, and it is not merely expats but Singaporeans too who have the plane land at Changi, get into a clean taxi, then race along the wide, perfectly maintained lanes of the AYE, black and then glowing under streetlamps, endless rain trees at the sides making almost a tunnel, bougainvilla running riot through the median strip (Ha! Not running riot! Pruned recently!), and thinks, ‘this is a bit more like it.’ I imaginarily asked the question, ‘Belle, why on earth have you and John lived in Singapore so long, it seems kind of weird of you, really,’ (because I ask myself this a lot) and then I answered the question. I wasn’t implying that the trade-off in Singaporean policies ought to be whether 25-year-old expats think it’s fun.


dsquared 11.08.14 at 5:07 am

Am I supposed to lie about my life? Not discuss the interesting ways it differs from the life I ever thought I’d have? We’d all gain what now?

As far as I can tell, the party line of CT commenters is that one is allowed to exist, but never to say anything good about one’s life and career. In principle, there might be some level of wailing and repenting, sackcloth and ashes and general screaming about what a horrible person you are for being part of such a horrible system, which might excuse you, but nobody’s ever found it yet. The crazy thing is that it’s not just you living in Singapore or me being a stockbroker that they object to; even the academics on the blog seem to get the same treatment for mentioning that they’ve been promoted or got a prestigious scholarship or something.


Emma in Sydney 11.08.14 at 5:31 am

Oi, Dsquared! #NotAllCTCommenters!


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 5:39 am

We cool, Emma.


Wallace Stevens 11.08.14 at 6:25 am

Dsquared @ 93: I’d like to distance myself from any of the CT commentators that begrudge Waring, or anyone else for that matter, their good fortune. I’ve enjoyed great good fortune in life myself, so it would be hypocritical for me to resent others. For example, I have enjoyed immensely Daniel’s CT posts on his travels–even though Daniel is clearly in a privileged position to do the kind of the trip he is doing. It is just that Daniel writes well about interesting things, and Waring doesn’t. So all you have is this parading, unselfconscious privilege.

My objection to this OP, in its original form at least, was two-fold: first it had the preening, “look at me” tone that I found distasteful; second it seemed to blithely ignore
the price at which the affordable help and public order in Singapore are purchased.

As Waring points out herself, tenure or no tenure, she’s not really at liberty to say what she thinks anyway. That’s a handicap for a writer. Maybe she should write about something else.


Emma in Sydney 11.08.14 at 6:38 am

So it basically comes down to “Bitches ain’t shit” then, Wallace. Why don’t you go read some bloggers you like? If I wanted to know your opinions, I’d be reading your blog. I don’t but surely someone else might?


J. Parnell Thomas 11.08.14 at 6:40 am



Nine 11.08.14 at 6:40 am

Do your children now have singaporean accents to the point of ending every sentence with a “la” ?


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 6:59 am

Hmm, I don’t write well about interesting things. I will say, Wallace Stevens, that your opinion is not widely shared on the internet. Additionally, the degree to which personal reflections on life by our male contributors are considered interesting and relevant vs. those by our female contributors is really rather shockingly bad for a nominally left-skewing blog. Like, so, very bad. Additionally, if you were a slightly more careful reader you might note that I mentioned most people are embarrassed to admit that one of the main appeals of living in Singapore as an expat is the ability to afford live-in help. They will talk about anything under the blazing equatorial sun, but not that, because they find it awkward to discuss and would rather not admit it. So it goes totally unmentioned even though it’s really a big motivator for many people to stay in a place far from home. Since I am willing to discuss difficult personal questions I am willing to discuss this one, but I think that is called is not ‘obliviousness’ but ‘acknowledgement’ surely? Likewise I benefit from white privilege in a post-colonial culture; mentioning this is not the same as being oblivious to it, for logical reasons? Finally, I do write in a “look at me tone” sometimes. You’ll definitely be able to notice, though. This wasn’t one of those times.


ZM 11.08.14 at 7:00 am

Wallace Stevens,

“second it seemed to blithely ignore the price at which the affordable help and public order in Singapore are purchased.”

I am now awaiting all your comments on dsquared’s travelogue OPs complaining he has left out the high costs incurred by the wealth plundering activities of traders in the City of London (or elsewhere where ever he worked).

This costing could then be added into every travelogue – how wonderful the sights of Spain! Alas! What a cost The Golden Hind!


js. 11.08.14 at 7:37 am

It is just that Daniel writes well about interesting things, and Waring doesn’t.

For fucks sake. Belle writes well about everything. She writes well, that’s why a lot of us just wait for her posts. There’s a lot about this post that I find somewhat objectionable, which engels and others have covered well enough, but the idea that it’s badly written is sheer nonsense.


jkay 11.08.14 at 7:59 am

But the US’ a VAST country. Isn’t it wrong to assume the WHOLE country’s unsafe? I was able to sleep safely in SF’s BART/Muni without being robbed; surely you’d be to blast loud music safely, too.

And the West Coast has decent availability of Japanese teaching and culture.

But Singapore’s oligarchy must be better. After all, SHRUB the sonny-boy was total perfection and good. And rules like the mutual Drug War work rather than being excuses to send the little to prison.


dsquared 11.08.14 at 8:04 am

While it kind of kills me to say anything negative to a fan, I really must say that I think Wallace’s #96 doesn’t make any sense at all even in its own terms. You don’t mind people talking about having a good time, it’s just the “privilege” you object to? Kind of confirms me in my view that privelege-talk in general is all to often just a way of saying “booo to X” without getting yourself dangerously bogged down in specifics.


JakeB 11.08.14 at 8:09 am

Wallace @ 96–

If you’re going to go on in this strain, perhaps you could do me the favor of changing your cognomen? I don’t particularly want to be reminded of this pompous & whiny overtone next time I pick up the selected poems.


ZM 11.08.14 at 8:34 am


I agree wholeheartedly, there should be a clause in the comments policy not allowing the besmirching of good names.


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 8:50 am

nine: not only do they speak Singlish (when appropriate), I fall into it by accident. Like an hour after a discussion of how Singlish was not great, Zoë told me something cool and I responded “WAHREALLY!?”
jkay: as has previously been stated on multiple occasions, I favor the decriminalization of all drugs, including crack and heroin.


david 11.08.14 at 9:26 am

Contemporary Singapore tends to silently elide its ideological foundations but in fact the PAP broke decisively with European socialist sensibilities over very particular issues – specifically, an acrimonious divide with New Left, incarnated in the form of the Dutch Labour Party during its radical period. Singapore is not so much alien as representing how the old-school democratic socialists, had they defeated the new left, would have responded to traumas of the Cold War and then neoliberalism: retaining confidence in planning and material outcomes, emphasis on the total supremacy of the democratic mandate wrought by formal processes, a regard of the media as a transparent toy of the rich or foreign or both, open contempt for social revolutions, civil disobedience, symbolic politics, etc.


ZM 11.08.14 at 10:16 am

I have not heard of the divide between Singapore and the Dutch Labour Party before. In Australia the difference with Singapore is usually couched in terms of the Asian Values debate, although I think this division seems to have eventuated when the Australian Labor party decided to implement neoliberal economic policies .

I had not really thought about it before, but Singapore was left with more damage than Australia after WW2. And before independence even after the war Britain just liked to exploit Singapore as a trading post and not help with housing people adequately. Slum settlements in Singapore were amongst the worst in the world even in the 1960s , so they made a vast difference and although some people did not like to have to move from shanties into apartments, they mostly got used to this.

“Mr. Lim Kim San, the first HDB Chairman recalled of his visit to Chinatown in the early 1960s:

I went into a three-storey shophouse with one lavatory and two bathrooms. We counted 200 tenants living there. It was so dark and damp. It was an inhuman and degrading existence. Underneath the staircase was a single plank. A man was lying on the plank. He had rented it. That was his home! And he was lying down covered by a blanket; the thick red blanket made in China. I paused to ask him if he was sick: “Why are you covering yourself with a thick blanket?” He replied: “I am covering myself out of respect for you. I am wearing only undershorts. My brother is wearing my pants.” They were too poor to afford clothing. In those days, there were shops which pulled clothing and shoes off the dead to sell them. “My God,” I thought to myself, “I really must help those people.” (The Straits Times, 9 Aug 1997)

At night, many others would sleep on makeshift canvas beds placed along street pavements (Chen, 1983).
The core objective of the public sector housing initiative is to make housing affordable and accessible to the lower income families, which until then suffered from discriminatory actions. As elaborated by the Minister for National Development in 1959:

Most of the houses will accommodate those in the lower income group, who have never been cared for in the past. The previous Government cared only for the middle class group, who can afford to pay tea money to get S.I.T. (Singapore Improvement Trust [the colonial administration housing authority]) flats. (The Straits Times, 19 Sep 1959)”

Squatters No More: Singapore Social Housing, Belinda Yuen, PhD


Zora 11.08.14 at 10:30 am

Languages: I am probably the only Tongan speaker here. Non-IE, and fun to learn. Some things simple (most nouns and verbs), some things hard (a baroque complexity of possessives and counting words). Yes there is a dual, yes there are two kinds of “we” (inclusive and exclusive), but those are not as difficult as one might think.

One feature that can challenge even native speakers is the existence of specialized vocabularies for speaking to, or about, nobility and royalty. Everyday words for “eat” or “fire” , for example, are too vulgar to utter in the presence of those of high rank. Genteel synonyms are used. Not everyone has the expanded vocabulary necessary to avoid offense, so commoners often speak to chiefs through representatives who do know the linguistic etiquette.


david 11.08.14 at 11:07 am

The fracture between the DLP (the PvdA) and the PAP was what led to the expulsion/resignation of the PAP from the Socialist International in 1976.

A careful observer should remember that Singapore had a very different politics as recently as the 1970s. The reason the tenor is largely forgotten is because it is useful for both the governing establishment to let it be assumed that the opposition ‘back then’ were uniformly dangerous communists and for the opposition to let it be forgotten that their forebears freely campaigned under assorted communalistic banners that would be regarded as both deeply dangerous in modern Singapore, and deeply alien to modern Singapore which has largely discarded old identities. A Western liberal in 1975 thinks of the Catholic church as a rock upon which an anti-authoritarian liberation theology is to be built; in 2014 it is the platform upon which homosexuals are persecuted.


William Timberman 11.08.14 at 12:17 pm

Ferchrissake, WS, what does it take to interest you? Both Belle’s and Daniel’s posts here are fascinating. No, I don’t have the means to do what they do, but even if I did, I still wouldn’t have the talent to write about what they’ve done the way they do. Simply put, they open windows for me into another world, one filled with amazing things that I can actually understand, even though I’ll never get the chance to experience them myself. A not inconsiderable gift, free to all willing to spend a few minutes reading. What on earth is there to complain about?


engels 11.08.14 at 12:22 pm

*Do* you think we only ought to care about women’s safety after, etc?

Clew, no, I don’t, but I’m inclined to question a safety audit that extends to cat-calling but not to non-consensual BDSM:



Val 11.08.14 at 12:28 pm

Belle Waring @100
” Additionally, the degree to which personal reflections on life by our male contributors are considered interesting and relevant vs. those by our female contributors is really rather shockingly bad for a nominally left-skewing blog. Like, so, very bad”

Indeed. And more power to your arm.


ZM 11.08.14 at 12:33 pm


They are quite interesting links. I am not well versed in the differences between socialism and communism at the time which seems to be at the crux of the grievance by the Dutch group against the Singaporean group:

“It may be difficult for West European socialists to understand that communists in Southeast Asia are different from their own communists. They think of communists as somewhat odd and eccentric people who, having moved close enough to get into government in coalition with socialist and even non- socialist parties, have now become so patently democratic as to renounce the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Singapore, it is difficult to persuade the communists whom we have arrested, so as we can release them, to denounce communist use of terror and armed violence to bring about their dictatorship of the proletariat. We do not try to persuade them to renounce the dictatorship of the proletariat as undemocratic in a multi-party system.”

But thinking of the time, it might just have been crafty strategy to distance Singapore from communism so America didn’t go to war on them. Asian values might have been another use of rhetoric – William Saffire I think complained Asian values should be treated as European totalitarianism , but the Asian values argument seemed to elide the matter quite well for a decade or so.

In Australia I don’t think that was the attitude to the Catholic Church in 1975 – there was an earlier schism in the Labour Party here over Catholicism/Marxism which resulted in the small catholic Labour Party the Democratic Labor Party. I think this party mostly ended up supporting the liberal party. Catholics are still a fairly mixed bunch here – some like the Jesuits are more left wing, others are more right wing,


engels 11.08.14 at 12:40 pm

PS- in case that sounded dismissive- to re-iterate again, I think street harassment is an important issue. However. Although it’s a shitty experience in itself I thinkits most important aspect is its role in preventing women from participating as equals to men in public life. There are, of course, other mechanisms of effecting this and I think you could consider whether despite street harassment being less prevalent in Singapore women are closer to being full citizens in Singapore or in US, but I don’t know enough about either country to pursue this.


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 12:49 pm

I would say (and not to curry favour with the management) that I like these posts. I MUCH prefer these types of posts than,say, something on gamergate (that’s just my personal preference, neither here nor there)
I (personally) would find it much more tedious if it was just an endless jeremiad against the Sinaporean government, or apology for being white and wealthy. The best way (imo) to learn about a place is to listen to people who actually live in that place tell you what it’s like, for them (while being aware of their position within the society) I dont see why that doesnt apply to long term expats as well as locals (or guest workers) There is a specific perspective that comes with being a (relatively wealthy) foreign resident in another country. That’s the story I’d expect Belle to tell, not what it’s like to be an underpaid domestic worker or day labourer (any more than if Henry Farrell wrote on his life in the US Id expect it to be from the perspective of someone broke and unemployed in the ghetto) I mean, christ almighty.
I’m surprised as well if people are saying (although I might have misread) that Belle’s post isnt being ‘honest’ in some way. The one thing that I would say about Belle’s posts is that they are always personally honest, to a point that I’m taken aback at times that someone could be that open about themselves in a public forum (people can judge whether that’s good or bad – I’d say good, although I wouldnt/couldnt do it personally)
If someone hires, and enjoys the benefits of, a maid (or domestic worker, whatever the term) then I think it’s better they mention that. It’s more honest to say that it’s ‘basically awesome’ than to bemoan the exploitation while benefiting from the service. If someone has found themselves enjoying the safety and comfort of a middleclass family ex pat life in Singapore after also enjoying the wildness of New York in the 90s, then mentioning that is also being honest. It’s saying this is how my perspective evolved,when my life changed in X manner. I dont see how it ignores the costs. It explicitly recognises them (and the hypocricy, I guess)
And *there is* merit in telling about family(or just personal)life on its own, devoid of politics. A person has to be allowed live their life without apologising for it endlessly, or being tuned in politically. Stories are also worth telling because theyre funny, or interesting, not only when they serve a larger political interest.


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 12:50 pm

..that turned out a little long, actually.


Ronan(rf) 11.08.14 at 12:53 pm

..also crossposted with a number of posts above (anyway Im off, g-luck)


J Thomas 11.08.14 at 12:55 pm

WS, I heaitate to contribute to the pile-on, but you’ve got to expect that sort of thing when you criticize somebody popular on moral, ethical, and esthetic grounds.

What is your goal? Do you want Belle to write less? When you don’t have to read it, what’s the harm?

Do you want Belle to apologize more? Would that help?

Do you want her to not hire people, but do all the work herself? Who is that good for?

Maybe she should give her employees an extra good deal? How do you know she doesn’t?

I can understand your esthetic complaint — de gustibus — but I don’t get the rest of it. You have not made your point in a way that makes sense to me.


ZM 11.08.14 at 12:58 pm

“Maybe she should give her employees an extra good deal? How do you know she doesn’t?”

She did say in another post that she bought a former maid a plot of land or a house for her return to the Phillippines, but it was a sad story because the maid’s children were missing her and resentful she was living far away from them, even though she was providing for her family financially by doing so.


engels 11.08.14 at 1:04 pm

It’s more honest to say that it’s ‘basically awesome’ than to bemoan the exploitation while benefiting from the service.

I don’t want this to turn into some kind of PC policing operation but I disagree. It’s good to disclose the fact but if you say it’s ‘awesome’ then you open yourself up to criticism of that judgment (justified imo). And there is a third option- not to benefit from it (not saying that anyone should do that or that I would in the same place, and as I said above in Belle’s case apparently she needs live-in help for health reasons so this is somewhat academic anyway.)


Rich Puchalsky 11.08.14 at 1:17 pm

“Singapore did something amazing in achieving this, and it is not merely expats but Singaporeans too who have the plane land at Changi, get into a clean taxi, then race along the wide, perfectly maintained lanes of the AYE, black and then glowing under streetlamps, endless rain trees at the sides making almost a tunnel, bougainvilla running riot through the median strip (Ha! Not running riot! Pruned recently!), and thinks, ‘this is a bit more like it.’”

Personal reflection, beautifully written, aestheticizes a politics that I find highly objectionable. Note the differences between this and ZM’s quotes in #109: those quotes are about housing; this is about cleanliness and control. “Wallace Stevens” is annoying and has pretty much poisoned the well for talking about this, but personal reflections they bear on Singapore politics are still going to cause argument even though they’re personal reflections.


William Timberman 11.08.14 at 1:46 pm

Yes, but the politics are palpable enough through the aesthetics — or so it seems to me. What would Singapore be if it wasn’t Singapore? Something else, something better for the majority of its inhabitants perhaps? Is it at any rate a dystopia of the Orwellian or Gibsonian kind? I’m inclined to think from the descriptions here, not least from Belle’s, that the latter is more likely, and in that very modern sort of dystopia, there are opportunities, and possible outcomes that even Lee Kuan Yew in all his glory could neither predict, nor entirely control. The same is true here in the U.S. Maybe it’ll turn out after all that the more they tighten their grip, the more star systems will slip through their fingers. To the extent that the rational systems of oppressors suffer from the same flaws as other rational systems, there are at least some interstices they can never cover, and so some room to hope for the rest of us.

One thing I will say about Belle’s aesthetic; it’s a very rich one, and not at all innocent. I’m inclined to believe that she’s thought as deeply about the contradictions lurking behind her reporting as any of the rest of us have.


Rich Puchalsky 11.08.14 at 1:58 pm

“One thing I will say about Belle’s aesthetic; it’s a very rich one, and not at all innocent.”

I’ll argue via poem. Here’s one about trash (and children’s TV).


William Timberman 11.08.14 at 1:59 pm

To amplify a little, I remember middle-class American tourists in the Sixties, back from their European tour, bending my ear about how wonderful it was in Spain. Unlike, say, in Italy, no one ever hassled them, and hell, you could drop your wallet on the sidewalk, come back two hours later and find it still lying there. It was those guys in the leather hats — the Guardia Civil, was it?

Annoying, very annoying to a young leftist, but a real stimulant to the imagination nevertheless.


William Timberman 11.08.14 at 2:00 pm

Nice poem. Not a bad argument, either.


david 11.08.14 at 2:02 pm


‘Asian values’ is very much a product that came later, in the 1990s, as Cherian George emphasized – it was a product of the PAP swinging right-wing to prevent the opposition from playing a “more Chinese than the PAP” card at home. PM Mahathir Muhammad across the border then quickly adopted it as his own cudgel – it is only later that Western intellectuals began rationalizing it in terms that matter most to Western intellectuals, i.e., the decades-old obsession with the inauthentic nature of the oriental’s democracy. In the 1970s-1980s there was no “Asian values” conceived as such – there was also no obviously successful material prosperity, in any case, to motivate an argument that Asians sacrifice democracy for prosperity. “We are rich and we are rich because of our policies” is more of a 2000s thing.

In the 1980s S. Rajaratnam instead emphasized that people in general (including Asians) demand a hierarchy that produces respected leaders (this was in the context of remarking upon Nixon and, I think, this is where the concept of white-trash Australians erupted from – not so much that Australia was in an economic slump (which it was) but that Australia was also in the thrall of some very dodgy but very public scandals; the attitude was that these two invariably go together by producing dysfunctional leadership. The ‘Asianing’ of this argument came hand-in-hand with a harsher attitude toward a particularly confrontational second-generation opposition in Singapore (the episode of Francis Seow, etc.).


J Thomas 11.08.14 at 2:12 pm

What would Singapore be if it wasn’t Singapore? Something else, something better for the majority of its inhabitants perhaps?

Americans have traditionally believed that benevolent tyrants provide the best government and the most prosperous nations etc. The problem is how to choose your benevolent tyrant.

It sounds like Singapore has done pretty well at that so far. Maybe they could do better if they could find a good way to choose a better tyrant. Possibly some other system would work better for them, if they could agree on it and switch to it without tearing stuff up much.

Other nations can’t follow their example until they figure out how to choose good tyrants. So there isn’t that much to learn from them along those lines.


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 2:24 pm

Thanks to people for the defenses–it’s also perfectly fine for people to make political criticisms of others’ work, and it’s not like I’m right all the time, or could never stand to see hypocrisy brought to my face, or am never tone-deaf. It’s not unreasonable for engels or Rich or others to make objections. I just think judgments like: ‘Singapore’s one-party rule privileges low crime and cultural homogeneity over the freedoms that make human flourishing possible, and so it’s childish to praise one’s personal experience enjoying the low crime rate’ or ‘it’s not acceptable to outsource the most intimate domestic labor to other people and so it’s morally wrong to hire someone to do this job and then enjoy having it done’ are not the most apposite in the case of a personal reflection. Maybe the latter if you’re committed to certain beliefs. It’s clear I am answering a hypothetical ‘why so much with the Singapore?’ And the truth is that I remember an expat friend asking people for her book, trailing spouses (mothers) what the best thing about living in Singapore was, and I said ‘being able to afford to hire a maid.’ She said, I was the only one willing to say that for the record, but that all the others said they would have said that, had they considered it an acceptable answer, except for the Japanese mothers, who did not hire maids (in the cases she interviewed).

But on the specific point, ‘can love of Singapore’s cleanliness be anything other than the obverse of a sinister coin of quite domineering politics,’ OK, this is a reasonable complaint in one way. 10 pts to Ravenclaw for Rich. In another way, if you have never been in an actual real city populated by humans who sell fresh fish, eggs, tofu and meat in the morning at giant wet markets periodically hosed down so that bloody, fish ice can sluice through gratings, which is nonetheless cleaner than you ever thought anyplace could ever be, it really is quite striking and unusual. One of the reasons people don’t need to pee under that underpass, for example, is that they can walk 400m further to United Square Mall and use the really, really clean toilets in there. Toilets that include a large ‘family’ room with places to change babies but also a chair to sit and nurse a baby in. New York smells like pee because there aren’t any public bathrooms anywhere, and whichever get used as de facto public bathrooms (Starbucks!) often become gross really fast, or require the Starbucks workers to clean shit off the walls (I was just reading sad complaints about this from servers in various restaurants.) When I go back to America it looks amazingly dirty (this is an aesthetic issue) but it also looks run-down (a public services issue.) The roads have huge holes in them. There is cracking concrete everywhere. Pre-WW1 bridges are lurking around under their 10,000th coat of enamel paint that you only notice the filipp-y cast-iron balustrade of when idling in traffic on the way to a regional airport. Before I lived in Singapore I assumed it was a tradeoff between freedom and a short-cut to UK levels of wealth. Then I moved here and realized it was a shortcut from current Manila to a thing that no other city is even like at all. That it’s William Gibson-like seems right. They built the shopping mall The Ion in about a year, working 24-hours a day. It has big ‘come to the offworld colonies’ screens on it like in Bladerunner (though way better resolution, obvs.) It’s just…it’s different. I think the most reasonable thing is for me to tell readers of the blog my actual experiences. I think probably asking me further questions would be more useful than sheer bitching about the things I’ve said, given that I’m obviously perfectly willing to talk to people, ne?


QS 11.08.14 at 2:29 pm

“That’s the story I’d expect Belle to tell, not what it’s like to be an underpaid domestic worker or day labourer.”

Actually, she wrote about this awhile back, after the riot in Little India. As a fellow Singapore expat resident, I find her insights quite interesting. I too love the rain trees, perfect asphalt, mix of languages, and government planning.

There are all sorts of one-party or not-so-democratic states in the world yet Singapore routinely is singled out for criticism. How about this hypothesis: Westerners find Singapore upsetting not because it’s a one-party state but because it’s rich and a one-party state. Or to put it another way, it’s rich but not liberal democratic. That’s not supposed to be the recipe, the tide of history. It unnerves Westerners.


Belle Waring 11.08.14 at 2:35 pm

Except not, in fact, now, because I’m going to sleep. I used up all the Sherlock in the world in the last week and a half and now there’s no more. Goddamn I think being chronically ill should get me out of ordinary transitory illnesses but noooo, I have to have asthmatic bronchitis too, and take steroids, and they made you feel so revolting, and struggling for breath in your sleep makes you have nightmares. Y’all argue amongst y’all’s selves. I was already pretty much bedridden! How tireder can I be?! Oh yeah, like this. Stupid virus, stupid secondary bacterial stupid stupid. It’s better in Singapore, though! In the States I used to get asthmatic bronchitis twice a year, and usually pneumonia. I hardly get it but once every three years now. The climate agrees with me. THE PAP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS. PROBABLY. BUT MAYBE. WHO CAN SAY.


david 11.08.14 at 2:36 pm

in 1958 JK Galbraith railed against “private opulence and public squalor” – as I noted, Singapore is what happened when a generation of leaders who retained those aesthetic attitudes swung into power and were simply never pushed out by New Left-flavoured community awakenings.

there is a tendency for contemporary Western writers to react as if Lee is an oriental alien but in fact the outlook of him and his cabinet was very much present in the West, American intellectual life included. It simply died in the face of changes in the political culture.


engels 11.08.14 at 2:57 pm

Singapore routinely is singled out for criticism

I suppose we could put this to the test: if Dsquared makes it to Saudi Arabia he could write a post enthusing about the low crime rate and see if anyone objects…


david 11.08.14 at 2:58 pm

Seriously, click the link. Even in my own jaded context it reads like the most transparently frenzied pro-policing statement to be ever issued by a local mouthpiece. But no! This is the leading light of the American intellectual liberalism, circa the 1950s!


J. Parnell Thomas 11.08.14 at 3:15 pm

[aeiou] engels/dsquared and all your other identities on this thread you really are a fucking lunatic


NickM 11.08.14 at 3:34 pm

I enjoy the way that Belle’s posts balance adroitly between anecdote and argument. Or, particularly this one, between joie de vivre and “liberal guilt”. Why should that enjoyability be suspect? (Not entirely a rhetorical question. How much did I find myself siding with John Holbo throughout the recent lengthy abortion thread — against the critics who felt that he wasn’t being serious enough about the real-world danger posed by the likes of Kevin Williamson — because I enjoyed his own evident enjoyment of subtle argument “for its own sake”?)

A less obviously hedonistic enjoyment of mine, 26 years ago, was the “brute memorisation” of 2000-odd-kanji (in P.G. O’Neill’s primer), with all their variant readings and all the accompanying sample words and phrases. It took me about an hour a day for more than a year, but stood me in good stead for reading (over about the same number of hours, but this time with more straightforward pleasure) “Sasameyuki” (“Fine Snow”, or [!] “The Makioka Sisters”).

But I think I would now recommend to my past self reducing the macho bench-pressing to just the first 300-500 most common Kanji, and proceeding from there with reading books and looking up the characters as I came upon them. This would make the learning process more like a slower version of an IE language speaker’s learning another IE language, and starting on an unsimplified novel after just a basic grounding, and with just the aid of a dictionary and grammar reference book.

What makes a big difference, as others have said above, is if you can get hooked on the aesthetics. It may be the norm for westerners to be attracted by Kanji right from the start, but fatigue can easily wear away most of the delight. And many (though by no means all) Japanese will say that they don’t notice let alone savour their script, any more than we do ours. All I can say is that while I’ve never pursued Shuji or Shodo, reading about Abe’s boring cabinet reshuffle, or his slipperiness over nuclear power and Yasukuni, in the Asahi Shimbun — and in whatever humdrum digital font it is that they use, and in the relatively unpleasing format of left-to-right — has one particular fun element for me that no IE language will ever have. As if, throughout even the dullest of meetings, someone kept bringing me exquisite canapes or tapas or sake-no-sakana, while the Bill Evans Trio played softly in the background.


engels 11.08.14 at 4:35 pm

Hope you feel better soon, Belle, and I think I might say sayonara at this point too.


Lynne 11.08.14 at 4:50 pm

J Parnell Thomas, You said in Corey’s thread that you were banned under another handle. What handle was that?


Nine 11.08.14 at 8:09 pm

david@108 – “emphasis on the total supremacy of the democratic mandate wrought by formal processes”

Isn’t this a bit of a stretch as a description of what currently prevails in Singapore ?

BTW, your posts have been very informative.


Nine 11.08.14 at 8:19 pm

JakeB@105 – “I don’t particularly want to be reminded of this pompous & whiny overtone next time I pick up the selected poems.”

That’s what Wallace Stevens (Mr Harmonium , not the CT commenter) sounds like on tape – not whiny but definitely pompous. I imagine that’s how the patriarchs in Edith Wharton or Auchincloss novels sound.


david 11.09.14 at 4:26 am


No – in general international observers rate the electoral process as free and fair. There is an amount of gerrymandering going on in drawing constituencies and the Group Representation system, but it is nothing as stunning as what regularly goes in, e.g., the United States. Political observers who remark upon defamation laws tend to omit the fact that its laws are essentially no more favourable of the plaintiff than in English law; it is merely that political actors in England generally do not sue. Electoral eligibility laws on bankruptcy are likewise generally no worse than in English law; it is merely that relevant political actors in England are generally able to afford their participation.

Rather, Singapore reverses other relationships, e.g., between the government and the press. The government wins elections, the press does not, therefore the press is duty-bound to be deferential to the state agenda; it can critique it but it cannot mock it, it can oppose it but it cannot obstruct it – unless it wants to go form an opposition party. The government wins elections, the ethnic community leaders and the religious leaders do not, therefore &c (with the exception of the Malay and Muslim community, which gets a soft touch). The government wins elections, but the Western NGOs and their activists, both conservative and liberal, do not, therefore &c. There is public deliberative debate but it happens at the government’s tacit permission and in open acquiescence to its role as arbitrator.


dr ngo 11.09.14 at 6:12 am

Except for one brief interjection about Hong Kong, I have stayed out of this, but let me go on the record as saying I greatly enjoy Belle Waring and all that she has written, definitely including this . . . what? effusion? screed? slice of consciousness? I have not lived in Singapore, but have visited it, know a number of people who have lived there, have taught its history, and have lived elsewhere in Asia. These cities (and I have never lived in the countryside) are – as one might anticipate – full of contradictions, frustrations, and delights, which we encounter at different levels depending on who we are and what’s happening at the time we’re there. For expats (and wealthy locals) having a maid is often part of the experience, which was new to me (us) when we first lived in Manila, but both there and later in HK we found that trying to do without meant cramping other aspects of what we were doing there for what seemed inadequate reasons. But of course we felt ambivalence (as well as spasms of “awesome”), and it is very much to Belle’s credit that she acknowledges this, as many of us did/do. If someone is not interested in what life is like for expats in Asia (or elsewhere), fair enough; but anyone even remotely curious about it should welcome her honesty as well as her exuberance. Well done, Belle!


Nine 11.09.14 at 10:06 pm

david@145 – Imaginatively argued but not particularly convincing. It’s not convincing in the same way that arguing any semblance of J.K Galbraith to Singaporean thinkers is not.

Thanks for the response though.


david 11.10.14 at 1:12 am

Nine – in 145 I am paraphrasing Cherian George’s own analysis of the Singapore govt’s attitude toward state-civilsocial relations, as in his book Singapore: The air-conditioned nation : essays on the politics of comfort and control. It is meant to describe, not normatively persuade.


Nine 11.10.14 at 5:22 am

K, ty. I’ll give George’s book a try.


David J. Littleboy 11.10.14 at 8:00 am

Re: Spain: “and hell, you could drop your wallet on the sidewalk, come back two hours later and find it still lying there.”

Hmm. That reminds me. On a Japan-related list that I no longer subscribe to, one of the denizens (a long-time Japan resident and academic who is well-known as one of the go-to foreigners for both TV and government think tanks) went off on a what at the time sounded to me to be a racist rant; what had set him off was that he had dropped his wallet and it had been returned with even the cash untouched. He thought that this was completely and insanely crazy and the product of a unique and sick Japanese personality/psychology. If he had argued that the Japanese were victims of a police state and too terrified to even not return found cash, he’d have had an argument that would have had a grain of truth to it: the legal system here doesn’t like losing, and if it gets you in their sights, you’re in trouble, long term trouble. But returning things to their owners is part of the “culture” here. It’s just expected and seems natural. What’s interesting is that when you actually do return a found wallet, they make you fill out so many forms that it very much seems that they’re trying to persuade you to never ever again even think of returning a lost wallet. (I was around when my wife’s aunt made this mistake.)

Japan, like Singapore, is an extremely low-crime country, and at least part of that is a larger than would seem necessary police presence. When I was here as an exchange student (1979) with hair down to my ass*, I was stopped fairly often (3 or 4 times in a year) by very young policepersons who were almost always extremely apologetic about stopping me, and seemed honestly interested (in a friendly, personal way) in what I was doing in Japan. But they needed to see some ID. (Once, I ran into an officer who had woken up with a nasty headache and busting a hippie was going to make his day attitude; he was really pissed when I politely showed valid ID (the Japanese friend I was with was majorly pissed/embarrassed). My understanding is that this policy of asking foreigners for ID got them so much grief they stopped. Also, interestingly, there was a left-wing student demonstration of some sort, so I pulled out my camera. The students were all wearing surgical masks, so there was no way they could be identified in a photo, but one of them came over and asked me not to photograph them. My assumption is that this was the University of Tokyo, and they were expecting to get posh and/or important positions later in life and didn’t want youthful indiscretions to come back biting them. Sheesh. Nowadays, I live in the (tiny remnants of) a rather ordinary (except if you try to buy property therein) residential neighborhood a stone’s throw from the imperial family residence, and the whole area is heavily patrolled 24/7. Just before I first moved here (25 years ago), some lefties had tried to fire homemade rockets at the imperial family residence, but only succeeded in blowing up their car.

Really: http://www.pbase.com/davidjl/image/151837214/large


Nick 11.10.14 at 6:02 pm

This was a very interesting bit of personal history — I lived for many years in rural Thailand, and I’m curious how you feel about your children growing up in an authoritative, highly stratified society (apologies if this is an incorrect assumption). My first child was born in my wife’s village, where her family are well-off, and about two years after that we emigrated to Canada. One of the reasons for this was our shared desire for the kids to grow up in a place where it’s assumed that all people are equal; rural Thailand definitely does not make this assumption. We want them to speak Thai, to be comfortable in Thailand, etc. etc., but also to live in a place where the hierarchies of power and status aren’t quite so raw.

As for the IV drip . . . this is totally standard practice throughout Asia, Asian’s love IV drips . . . My father-in-law, a 5th grade dropout, is the local amateur doctor for his village, and he’ll give an IV drip to anyone who gets diarrhea. One time I refused one (from my wife, a nurse), and she eventually told me “If you don’t let me give you an IV drip, then when my father comes home he’s going to do it, and he’s not taking NO for an answer.” Such, such are the joys of life East of Suez.


MPAVictoria 11.10.14 at 6:12 pm

The whole returned wallet things seems like a weird point to make. I live in Canada and have valuables returned to me by total strangers more than a couple of times. Is it really that unusual?


Lynne 11.10.14 at 8:11 pm

MPAV, I’ve returned wallets to their owners twice, contents intact. No, make that three times if you count the wallet my husband and I found together.


Lynne 11.10.14 at 8:11 pm

And no, it didn’t seem like an unusual thing to do.


Doug 11.10.14 at 8:27 pm

And here I was wanting to talk about languages a little bit.

Slovene has retained the dual; alone among the Slavic languages, I think. Wikipedia (fwiw) confirms my recollection that one of the Baltic languages had also retained it, but since I get no further than “good day” in either of them, I can’t say much more.

The only non-Indo-European languages I’ve grappled with to any degree are Hungarian and Georgian. My Hungarian learning was irregular and colloquial, and all I have retained 20 years later are counting, a few practical functions and a tiny bit of colorful swearing. I tried Georgian somewhat systematically, and it’s hard. Seven cases, post-positions, and funny (but not ha-ha) things called polypersonal verbs. Basically, the verb conjugates not only to the subject but also to one or more of the objects. Plus lots of stem changes, both among verb forms and noun plurals. And tongue-stopping clusters of consonants; I think the maximum is seven consecutive, but even just four in a row are found all over the place, and that’s generally counting things like “kh” and “zh” as just one.

Matt’s experience (way upthread) with Hungarian is not unusual, particularly among people with a quantitative cast of mind. A good friend who is also an accomplished computer scientist has acquired good Hungarian. What this has to do with people like John von Neumann, Leo Szilard and Paul Erdös is left as an exercise for any readers remaining in the thread.


MPAVictoria 11.10.14 at 8:32 pm

“And no, it didn’t seem like an unusual thing to do.”

Yeah. I didn’t think so. Thanks for taking the time to respond Lynne. :-)


engels 11.10.14 at 8:48 pm

I’ve also returned a wallet for my sins- handed it in at a police station- it was during a Marxist conference as it happens…)


J Thomas 11.10.14 at 9:44 pm

I returned the only wallet I found. It was in a library bathroom and I could spot the guy easily from his photo ID. I’d have had no trouble giving it to the library lost&found, but I’d have to think about turning it in to the police. He seemed kind of hostile and suspicious when I first handed it to him.

I don’t think it’s at all uncommon for that to happen, but you can’t expect it to.

I can imagine a place where people are so scared of police and informers that they just leave wallets on the sidewalk rather than either take them for themselves or pick them up to turn in. Sometimes it’s safer to just not get involved.


clew 11.11.14 at 1:04 am

I’ve returned wallets and had mine returned. It rains a lot here, it would be an unkindness to leave them on the street.

since you’re still here, engels: I wish I were confident that the violence the US prison system does underhandedly and by neglect isn’t worse than the Singaporean canings. Also, I wish you didn’t keep comparing government violence to cat-calling, because it elides the bleeding-and-broken-bones violence that the catcalling is there to keep us afraid of.

But mostly I’ve been thinking about the Maid Question. It’s not clear we can automate away all housekeeping (mass-production possibilities: Lunchables, public canteens, Tyvek union suits). Even what rich people mostly do in the States tends to rely on labor that’s not paid or treated well (chicken processors, dry cleaners) and on throwing stuff away (Swiffers, one-use packaging). Possibly we need housekeepers, but we don’t know how to choose, distribute, respect, or pay them.

The 19th-c feminists thought we’d get around this with some cooperation and some professionalization:

[…]It is not economy of time or money for every little family of moderate means to undertake alone the expensive and wearing routine. The married woman of the future will be set free by co-operative methods, half the families on a square, perhaps, enjoying one luxurious, well-appointed dining-room with expenses divided pro rata. […]

The girl of the future will select her own avocation and take her own training for it. If she be a houseworker, and many will prefer to be, she will be so valuable in that line as to command much respect and good wages. If she be an architect, a jeweler, an electrical engineer, she will not rob a cook by mutilating a dinner, or a dressmaker by amateur cutting and sewing, or a milliner by creating her own bonnet. The house helper will not be incompetent, because the development and training of woman for her best and truest work will have extended to her also, and she will do housework because she loves it and is better adapted to it than to any other employment. She will preside in the kitchen with skill and science.

The service girl of the future will be paid perhaps double or treble her present wages, with wholesome food, a cheerful room, an opportunity to see an occasional cousin and some leisure for recreation. At present this would be ruinous, and why? Because too frequently the family has but one producer. The wife, herself a consumer, produces more consumers. Daughters grow up around a man like lilies of the field, which toil not, neither do they spin. Every member of every family in the future will be a producer of some kind and in some degree. The only one who will have the right of exemption will be the mother, for a child can hardly be born with cheerful views of living whose mother’s life has been, for its sake, a double burden. From this root spring melancholy, insanity, suicide.[…]

I don’t know that treble wages and an occasional cousin (!!euphemism??!) are just renumeration. Really, it can’t be just unless the housekeeper can have a family too (later? in the concierge’s flat??). There’s a nasty strain of apocalypticism, eco- or political, that assumes we’ll go right back to every family having servants and many women never being anything else. I

(Many of the speeches in that collection are worth skimming, what with the wild variety of 19th c. opinion and the ambages of oratory.)


ZM 11.11.14 at 4:27 am


The collection looks well worth reading.

“But mostly I’ve been thinking about the Maid Question. It’s not clear we can automate away all housekeeping … Even what rich people mostly do in the States tends to rely on labor that’s not paid or treated well … and on throwing stuff away…. Possibly we need housekeepers, but we don’t know how to choose, distribute, respect, or pay them.”

Housekeeping needs to be done so long as people live in houses, but that does not mean people need housekeepers.

Belle has said she has a chronic pain disability that prevents her from doing housekeeping, so she needs a housekeeper.

But she also suggests having a housekeeper is quite normal for most expat households in Singapore (except Japanese).

The households without disabilities should be able to do their own housekeeping. If they can’t manage this they should move to a smaller house they can manage, share housekeeping more equitably between household members, or decrease the hours of work they do so they have more time for housekeeping.

In Australia there are some government social support services for people with disabilities (who can’t otherwise afford it) to help with housekeeping or other caring needs such as showering etc, but depending on the circumstances some people do not qualify or get insufficient assistance.

Often the caring and housekeeping burden can fall on children, who may not be any older and sometimes younger than Belle’s daughters. This is very difficult for the children and affects their ability to study and participate socially. Belle’s daughters are fortunate not to have that onerous duty, but it is very unfair that the world is so un-equitable.

It is quite hard to discuss un-equitableness with people from diverse backgrounds and lives. I studied a subject on gender and agency in Asia, and one week the topic was female domestic/reproductive migrant labour. I felt very sad for the women having to go so far away and have to work as maids, and not only that but often things don’t turn out well for them and they could get trafficked into slavery or raped or not paid and not allowed to go home etc. But another student in the (small) class was used to having migrant maids as her family were diplomats. It was quite a difficult discussion .

This is an interesting article –

“Relegated to women more so than men, reproductive labor has long been a commodity purchased by class-privileged women. As Evelyn Nakano Glenn (1992) has observed, white class-privileged women in the United States have historically freed themselves of reproductive labor by purchasing the low-wage services of women of color. In doing so, they maintain a “racial division of reproductive labor,” which establishes a two-tier hierarchy among women (Nakano Glenn 1992).

The globalization of the market economy has extended the politics of reproductive labor into an international level. As I show in this article, the migration and entrance into domestic work of Filipino women constitutes an international division of reproductive labor. This division of labor, which I name the international transfer of caretaking, refers to the three-tier transfer of reproductive labor among women in sending and receiving countries of migration.While class-privileged women purchase the low-wage services of migrant Filipina domestic workers, migrant Filipina domestic workers simultaneously purchase the even lower-wage services of poorer women left behind in the Philippines. In other words, migrant Filipina domestic workers hire poorer women in the Philippines to perform the reproductive labor that they are performing for wealthier women in receiving nations.

Various case studies on domestic work establish that women often use their class privilege to buy themselves out of their gender subordination (Palmer 1989; Romero 1992; Thornton Dill 1994). As Mary Romero (1992, 129-30) puts it:”The never-ending job described by housewives is transferred to workers…

As Saskia Sassan has further indicated, globalization has sparked the feminization of migrant labor. Contributing an insightful theoretical framework on the position of women in the global economy, Sassen (1984, 1988) establishes that globalization simultaneously demands the low-wage labor of Third World women in export processing zones of developing countries and in secondary tiers of manufacturing and service sectors in advanced, capitalist countries.”

Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labor Author(s): Rhacel Salazar Parrenas
Source: Gender and Society, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Aug., 2000), pp. 560-580


J Thomas 11.11.14 at 3:48 pm

It’s not clear we can automate away all housekeeping….

We could do a lot more if it was a priority.

Like, now we tend to have plaster walls and ceilings with a carpeted floor, because that’s cheap to build. And there’s a tradition of heavy bulky furniture with a lot of wood and a lot of padding that is not waterproof.

If we built with an eye toward housework, you could just quickly wheel everything out of room and then bring in a mostly-automated machine like a carwash in reverse that cleans all surfaces. Then clean each item you moved out as you move it back in, and you’re done.

Yucatan hammocks are very comfortable to sleep in once you get used to them. And you can fold them out of the way when you don’t need them, too. Plus you can wash the whole thing in a bucket etc. The more heavy furniture you don’t have, the easier it is to clean.

If you can easily hose down your dining room with water that’s high-pressure (but low volume, so you don’t waste water), then you really don’t need plates. Depressions on your dining surface would be enough for most foods, though you might still want drinking vessels etc.

I’ve suggested some of these to my wife. She changed the subject a few times and I got the idea she was not interested.

My father offered to set up a labor-saving thing for my mother. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, you’d have an air compressor in the basement, and vacuum sockets in each room, and instead of lugging a vacuum cleaner around you just carried the hose and plugged it in wherever you wanted. He had that at his office and it helped. She said no.

She didn’t like maids, either.


Rich Puchalsky 11.11.14 at 5:19 pm

“Really, it can’t be just unless the housekeeper can have a family too (later? in the concierge’s flat??).”

BW has written about this in the context of her own maid’s children. Look, it’s impossible to point this out and still be polite, but BW has written about how she knows how to hire / employ maids in a sense that people uncomfortable with doing so don’t, and I believe that this is true (i.e. that she pays them more than usual, is comfortable with them being around and makes them more comfortable, gives them extraordinary bonuses that don’t interfere with their work, etc.) but at the same time it’s clear that she knows about this kind of thing because it’s knowledge from childhood in a wealthy or ex-wealthy Southern family, or in other words it’s a remnant of U.S. Southern slavery traditions. When NickM @ 140 admires a certain joie de vivre and and asks “Why should that enjoyability be suspect?”, well, that’s why. Of course it’s enjoyable to have someone else doing work for you, someone for whom your job is the lesser evil and the best deal they’re going to get even if it keeps them away from their family. Or with John Holbo, who NickM brings up, sure it’s fun to have subtle argument for its own sake and not be primarily concerned with the outrage involved.

So people are like, why are you so grumpy, Oscar the Grouch? Why are you saying mean things about someone being happy and enjoying their aristocratic privilege? (Well, meritocratic now. Or whatever you call being an ex-pat professional with a family member with a professorship in Singapore.)

Against which, as in upthread, I can again only say that what I’m saying isn’t new and is just as old as Southern tradition. While people in the South were learning how to deal with service issues in a fine and civilized way, people around where I live were being grumpy and uncivil and generally no fun. Thoreau was going to live in his garbage can in the woods, and later coming out and telling everyone that John Brown was right.

And people have always hated that. Here’s Packer on Snowden (quoted second-hand from a post here):

“Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. … he type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau […]”

People who are grumpy on the Internet are not Thoreau, or Snowden. But there is an actual difference of morality involved, not dsquared’s rendition of Morrissey.


clew 11.11.14 at 7:45 pm

The joie de vivre may be Southern, but servants were common even in the North of US and Canada until at least WWI. Live-in domestic help, a weekly for the heavy work (laundry, floors), the `hired man’ on the farm. The orphan trains. Anne of Green Gables (Utopian not only in her adoption, but some of the job-for-life housekeepers in PEI households.) We don’t apply labor protections to domestic workers because most of the country hoped to keep a servant (plus racism!).

If they can’t manage this they should move to a smaller house they can manage, share housekeeping more equitably between household members, or decrease the hours of work they do so they have more time for housekeeping.

Sounds good, is about as realistic as J Thomas’ proposal of prison-cell layout for all. (Also, J Thomas, the housework done in actual cinderblock-and-hammock Central American houses is still significant, in my observation.) Size isn’t always the problem — crowding is as troublesome. “Share housekeeping more equitably, work less”: yeah, very familiar way of suggesting that we solve systemic problems with private heroism. And even then it isn’t obviously fairer than hiring the work done, because (a) we no longer marry people because they’d be good at housework, and (b) we still have to decide what counts as housework.

Consider just food as a representative sample of all housework. In the last 150 years, less in some places, we’ve moved most food processing out of the house; it’s now possible to not cook at all in a lot of families. There’s no natural line to draw to say “This much should be automated, this much families should take care of by working less.” It’s different for rural and urban families, for people with little kids, for people with allergies, for people who like or hate cooking. *Someone* is going to get paid to cook for others; better to concentrate on making that a decent job and let everyone decide how much to pay for.


clew 11.11.14 at 7:57 pm

Oh. Lordy, I dropped the Thoreau reference. Thoreau, at the most generous reading, didn’t eschew trading for (highly gendered) labor: he didn’t do his own laundry or raise children at the Pond. Come to think, people tend to say his mother did his laundry, but they seem well-off enough that I doubt she did it alone. There’s someone else with chilblains in there. (I’m reading Longbourne, which is long on chilblains and reasonably kind to everyone but Mr Bennet. Even before the Gothic twist, Mr Bennet looks even more like a defalcator from the servants’ view. His comfort, their risk.)


Rich Puchalsky 11.11.14 at 8:41 pm

I agree that Thoreau’s mom doing his laundry calls everything he did into question. I’ve heard that he did chores at her house too, but this must be best thought of as him trading for (highly gendered) labor. And indeed he didn’t raise children at the Pond — this was perhaps because he didn’t have children, but we may be sure that he never would have worked as a children’s tutor or anything like that.


J Thomas 11.11.14 at 9:06 pm

Sounds good, is about as realistic as J Thomas’ proposal of prison-cell layout for all.

Prison cell? Anyway, I’m not talking about making everybody create less housework, I’m suggesting that it should be possible for people who want to.

(Also, J Thomas, the housework done in actual cinderblock-and-hammock Central American houses is still significant, in my observation.) Size isn’t always the problem — crowding is as troublesome.

I think with careful design a lot of the housework could be minimized. Design the layout to make it easier. Something like the carwash machine is potentially good, you lead it to the room you want to clean and turn it on. It cleans the empty room — windows, everything — and then you turn off the cleaning and lead it to the next empty room. A bunch of apartments or houses could share one, if they wanted.

It takes a big effort to reduce clutter, but then it’s easier to clean.

I’m not sure how to improve sanitary arrangements. Fewer and smoother exterior surface. But the first warning that one of my family members was getting diabetes came when the toilet that one used needed to be cleaned sooner than the others, sooner than the schedule.

Consider just food as a representative sample of all housework. In the last 150 years, less in some places, we’ve moved most food processing out of the house; it’s now possible to not cook at all in a lot of families.

There’s a trade-off, it’s more expensive and creates more trash, and may be less healthy, but it’s easier and you can get arrangements of spices and fancy effects that are not practical for one family. No need for everybody to do the same thing.

If you like to cook, you can save money and get better meals. If you hire a cook, they’re competing with mass-produced food. You need to be pretty well-off to afford a real cook for decent pay. It’s like John Henry competing on cost with the steam drill.

Anyway, my point is that we could automate a whole lot more housework than we do, and there are reasons for that — construction codes, zoning, tradition, etc.


clew 11.11.14 at 9:08 pm

I don’t think Thoreau’s non-autarky calls everything he did into question. He apparently was doing house and yard chores for his mother; he certainly worked for small cash amounts around town. He simplified his life much more than a bachelor of his class was expected to, and then kept his accounts current in favors or cash (except maybe with Emerson’s wife). I can’t tell if his rhetoric meant `autarky’ in his day, in which case he was putting it on, or `as solitary and non-consumerist as I can be’, in which case, he did pretty well — at the lowest difficulty setting: friends with land, no kids.

A woman in a tiny cottage in the woods, scratching a garden, trading chores in town, speaking oracularly and criticizing the town’s way of life, is… a witch?

George W. Carver proved up a claim *without enough capital to own tools*. He worked on another homestead most of the day to earn the right to use their tools on his land. I cannot even imagine the tiredness. And he was on the wrong side of the rain line, so his farm was doomed to fail. And then he kept on for decades, mycology, extension work, crochet (!), whatever was needed.


clew 11.11.14 at 9:23 pm

Non-permeable room surfaces aren’t pleasant to live with; usually loud, and the humidity is difficult to control. There’s someone who builds rammed-earth houses in ?Iraq? and figured out how to glaze them inside and out (domestic-sized firestorm) to make them weather-durable. But they had terrible moisture and mold problems if animals, e.g. humans, were respiring or cooking in them. (Excellent for food storage, though.)

I’m more perplexed that the kind of housekeeping you think is the basic challenge would be solved by hosing the room down. You get your walls that dirty? A Roomba wouldn’t do you? Do you have toddlers? Sealed, hose-blastable surfaces literally are prison architecture — and some RVs, I guess — Dymaxion plans tried similar stuff for the House of the Future and people tried them but they didn’t get more popular. Legal and buildable, though.


J Thomas 11.12.14 at 12:03 am

Non-permeable room surfaces aren’t pleasant to live with; usually loud, and the humidity is difficult to control.

I think noise gets worse when there are walls that are too parallel. Design the angles so noises tend to cancel and it’s better, or just do it sloppy enough that they aren’t parallel.

Wood frame buildings with porous walls have their own problems, but we’re mostly used to them. If you’re going to have an air-temperature control system anyway, you can handle humidity that way. Have some part of the system that’s colder than the air temperature you want, and get excess moisture to condense there. And why would anyone choose to do indoor cooking without a chemical hood?

I’m more perplexed that the kind of housekeeping you think is the basic challenge would be solved by hosing the room down. …. Do you have toddlers?

Not now, but I have had toddlers. Also I have lived in rented apartments. Plaster walls do get dirty, and they never really get cleaned, instead they get a new coat of paint. If it’s a nice impermeable paint then this won’t cause any problems unless mold or something grows through the paint etc.

My thought is to have something that’s easy to clean. If you don’t have lots of furniture that’s hard to move, then you don’t have trouble cleaning behind, around, and under furniture that’s hard to move. And the simpler the task, the easier to automate.

If you live in a way that it’s easy to empty a room, then it’s easy to automate cleaning empty rooms. And if the stuff you move out of the rooms is easy to clean, that’s a plus too. Traditional yucatan hammocks are not supposed to be good in washing machines or driers, but it’s probably possible to make hammocks and washing machines that work together.

Etc. People have problems with dust mites or bedbugs etc because they live in ways that are susceptible to infection with such things. It doesn’t have to be that way. With careful design we could live far cleaner than most people do now, with cheaper and easier cleaning.

If prisons have stumbled on a few efficient cheap methods, we shouldn’t reject everything that works based on the social stigma of that.


Harold 11.12.14 at 12:33 am

In countries where there is a lot of wood there are also freezing temperatures. People leave the bedding and carpeting to air out in the snow and that kills the dust mites.


dsquared 11.12.14 at 12:36 am

I notice that all the blokes opining away that everyone ought to do their own housework (and that housework is qualitatively different from any other form of labour; personally I think it’s disgraceful that people are too lazy to manage their own mutual funds or write their own novels) are …well…blokes.

I am less amazed that the main form of reasoning is “everyone must listen to me because blah blah blah Thoreau”


J Thomas 11.12.14 at 12:43 am

In countries where there is a lot of wood there are also freezing temperatures. People leave the bedding and carpeting to air out in the snow and that kills the dust mites.

That makes sense!

New York City has freezing temperatures, but I hear about New Yorkers trying far more complicated and expensive methods that tend to fail.

First world solutions….


ZM 11.12.14 at 12:59 am


“I notice that all the blokes opining away that everyone ought to do their own housework (and that housework is qualitatively different from any other form of labour; personally I think it’s disgraceful that people are too lazy to manage their own mutual funds or write their own novels) are …well…blokes.”

You noticed wrongly since I am not a bloke .

I also said housework should be equitably shared by household members not made to be a woman’s responsibility.

in public spaces of commerce, industry, or civics it is appropriate to have people employed to do the housekeeping and cleaning. In domestic spaces people should do their own housekeeping unless they have a disability and need assistance.

i hope with your argument that domestic housekeeping is a field suitable for paid labour you also think housekeepers should be paid the same as managers of mutual funds?


engels 11.12.14 at 1:13 am

everyone ought to do their own housework (and that housework is qualitatively different from any other form of labour

I haven’t read all the comments, but I don’t think housework is qualitatively different from any other forms of labour. But living in someone’s house full-time, likely without colleagues, and taking orders from them imo creates a qualitatively different working relationship and conditions to eg. preparing food in a factory (and that’s leaving aside other factors- low pay, precariousness of employment relationship, immigration status of workers- which while contingent to full-time domestic work seem to be strongly asssociated with it).


engels 11.12.14 at 1:17 am


ZM 11.12.14 at 1:44 am


“Sounds good, is about as realistic as J Thomas’ proposal of prison-cell layout for all. (Also, J Thomas, the housework done in actual cinderblock-and-hammock Central American houses is still significant, in my observation.)

Size isn’t always the problem — crowding is as troublesome. ”

Very crowded houses would be troublesome for housekeeping – but people who are impelled by necessity to live in overcrowded arrangements are not very likely to be able to afford a housekeeper to assist them in housekeeping.

“Share housekeeping more equitably, work less”: yeah, very familiar way of suggesting that we solve systemic problems with private heroism. ”

It is only a systemic problem because of private choices – there is not a law that says people holding over X amount of money must buy a big house and employ a housekeeper. People just do this of their own volition, so they can just as easily not do it. If you like there could be a law made to Address it – The Act of Equitable Household Housework Duties 2014, although I think people might complain of government overreach. Perhaps it could be a Code instead, with a tribunal to oversee it.

“And even then it isn’t obviously fairer than hiring the work done, because (a) we no longer marry people because they’d be good at housework, ”

A married couple should be able to complete the housework between them whether or not either of them are especially good at housework. Housework is not rocket science , but if people are very particular about housework they can go and take a course like in the movie Sabrina.


dsquared 11.12.14 at 2:06 am

In domestic spaces people should do their own housekeeping unless they have a disability and need assistance.

… Because blah blah blah Thoreau. Apologies for getting your gender wrong but really, this is so much gasping rubbish that I can’t believe people don’t notice they’re mistaking a personal aesthetic preference (or more likely, a half remembered childhood rule) for an insight into morality


David J. Littleboy 11.12.14 at 2:17 am

I wonder what the people who do housework think? My father’s parents were working class immigrants, and his mother’s family were all English servant class, cooks and the like. (Aside: the English servant class was a significant share of the English workforce as late as 1900 or so, but was down to zero by 1950.) As a result, father had a violent and visceral negative reaction when mother suggested hiring housekeeping help; he really didn’t want to be on the other side of that relationship. But questions arise: do they think they are being exploited, is housekeeping work better paying and less gross than other near-minimum-wage work, do they even have other options at all?

Obviously, there’s some amount of exploitation going on in the housekeeping industry; there can’t not be. But the Irish (!) woman my father had clean his house (in Boston, when he was in his 80s) once a week seemed happy to do the work, and seemed not happy when (after my father died) my real estate agent insisted on taking over responsibility for making the house presentable to potential buyers and I had to fire her. I only met her two or three times, but she seemed quite businesslike about doing housework.

In the US, prior to ACA, the lack of benefits would have been a major problem, making any employment of part-time workers exploitative. Here in Japan, universal affordable health care and a pension system (albeit an extremely minimal and painfully regressive one) have been in place for an age, so working part time/freelance is not a complete disaster.

Most of the people I know who hire maids are somewhat older or are taking care of an elderly relative (that was us for the last few years of my wife’s aunt’s life; now that we renovated the place, we clean religiously every week, especially since the apartment we lived in for the previous 20 got completely out of control).

But what about the MA/MS level middle-class two-income family? Most such jobs in the US have required doing the work of two people to keep a reasonable career going for an age now. My father was home for dinner at 6:00 pm every day of his career, that lifestyle is a thing of the past. I asked a friend at Microsoft if they’d hire me (my SB in comp. sci. is from the mid 70s, this was early 90s). “Yes, but they’d eat you for breakfast.” If two people are going to both avoid getting eaten for breakfast, housework is going to be a problem and they’ll have enough disposable income to pay someone twice minimum wage for one day a week. It sounds as though that could be a plus for both parties. If not, why not?

Speaking of other languages, the local convenience store has four employees from Nepal, so I looked into Nepalese. Ouch. It’s got just enough phonetic things not in English that it’s not going to be easy for a native English speaker, and the script is terrifying. Sigh. They’re really sweet kids: three sisters with radically different personalities and a somewhat reserved bloke. The serious one of the sisters asked what I did, and gave me a thumbs up when I didn’t answer “English teacher”.


ZM 11.12.14 at 2:19 am


I have not mentioned Thoreau at all. Everybody knows he availed himself of Mrs Emerson’s great hospitality as often as possible for a hermit in the woods.

I do not see how aesthetics comes into the idea people are responsible for looking after their own domestic spaces (with the exceptions of people with disabilities needing assistance.)?

I am hardly stating “Oh it is so beautiful for a household to do its own housework – maids spoil this beautiful homely spectacle!”

Housework is at times pleasant but often just a chore. It is better if you can make it pleasant , but that is not always the case.

If you think housework is such an aesthetic loveliness I am surprised you don’t wonder that people hire housekeepers at all when they could enjoy the beauty of housework themselves.

It is unfair and unsustainable for wealthy people to have too big houses they can’t manage themselves and make poor people do their domestic work for them. Poor people have their own domestic work to do. And it is even worse when poor women are compelled by circumstances to work far away from home – not as a pleasant jaunt like your own holiday, but because they are so very poor.


ZM 11.12.14 at 2:33 am

David J Littleboy,

“I wonder what the people who do housework think? ”

The women I have known who have worked as domestic housekeepers have done so on a part time basis to supplement their partners income .

There is not a great difference practically in the type of work done in domestic housekeeping and in some public realm housekeeping wg. hospitality.

Householders/guests can be either fairly clean and tidy or somewhat gross in their mess in either situation (although a study could quantify whether these situations are more common in one field or in another).

Sometimes women might prefer housekeeping over other sorts of work available to them – although this is reflective of another gender issue because often they can be mothers who have taken time out of the paid workforce and find it difficult to get into ‘skilled’ work again.

Also, housekeeping is different from being a live-in maid. But I still think people should do their own housework.


engels 11.12.14 at 2:45 am

Householders/guests can be either fairly clean and tidy or somewhat gross in their mess in either situation (although a study could quantify whether these situations are more common in one field or in another).

From experience, some people tend to be a lot worse when they know it is someone else’s job to clean up their mess, and not just out of laziness. I remember living in a shared house where we had a cleaner once a week and everybody seemed quite capable of doing their washing up straightaway except the day before she came, when they’d just leave everything to fester in the sink for 24 hours. Once I asked them why did this, as it made everyone’s life less pleasant that day, and they said they wanted to get their money’s worth from the cleaner (immigrant minimum wage worker — they were all yuppies).


clew 11.12.14 at 3:32 am

But living in someone’s house full-time, likely without colleagues, and taking orders from them

Yes, this is past what I think is manageable in an egalitarian society. There’s a difference between cleaning up after someone, as a service, and colluding in the pretense that their sh*t doesn’t stink, which servitude keeps coming to. And the cleaner in your shared house, engels, needed — hourly wages? an understanding that more dishes meant less dusting?

On the other hand, if we had a livable minumum wage, even for domestic workers, and national health and free education, I’m not sure cleaning and cooking and organizing (things, time) as a service is so bad, as jobs go. It does have to be done by someone, unlike PR. Better than chicken processing, tied with childcare? Why not Wages for Housework — *all* housework paid by the hour, even if it’s within the sanctity of marriage? You think you’re joking about the Act, ZM, but Wages for Housework is serious.

The oligarchette (!) has such hopeful little glimmers of sanity — don’t break the laws! don’t make a servant pretend she’s your friend! it’s unethical to be angry at your servants! and then the whoppers.


dsquared 11.12.14 at 3:49 am

(with the exceptions of people with disabilities needing assistance

I am, as always, interested in the exceptions, because they tend to really highlight these cases where people’s argument is literally “nobody should X, because nobody should X”. What degree of disability do you need to have in order to get the dispensation? Missing a limb? If, say, I am generally healthy but I catch a winter flu, would I be allowed to hire a cleaner for the few days I’m stuck in bed? Would, say, crack cocaine addiction count as a disability in this context?


ZM 11.12.14 at 4:13 am


now I think of it I am also against management of stocks as a field of employment. If people insist on businesses being owned by shares, then the least the shareholders can do is take on the responsibility of owning a share in a business themselves. This would hopefully improve the ethics of business which is so low at present.

People with disabilities can need assistance with housework and this should be provided in a caring society.

Some people missing a limb would be ok with housework, others would not. That is why the council employs people to assess actual people’s needs in the community.

I myself have never heard being temporarily ill with flu called a disability – it is an illness. There could be cases where people gravely ill with flu might need assistance, for instance if they live alone so there is no partner and children and they are far from other family and have no close friends so no one will volunteer to do the housework and their flu is so serious they have delerium and are bedridden. Then they or their kindly neighbours could call the council and arrange some home assistance for the period.

Crack cocaine addiction is also not a disability, it is an addiction. Crack cocaine is often used by poor people who can’t afford to hire a housekeeper. Likely they might not ask council for help because 1. It is illegal, and 2. They might be ashamed. However, if they are having trouble with housekeeping and potentially also childcare etc – then the council should give them assistance to stop their addiction and help with housework and child care in the meantime.

Anyway, I think it more likely a woman with a crack cocaine addiction would become a maid rather than hire one.

It is an interesting topic, addiction, disability, and maids. There is a movie called Passionfish about a black woman who had an addiction and then she eventually stopped the addiction and broke up with her partner who from memory was a dealer. She needed a job and her farther wouldn’t let her look after her young daughter anymore – so she became a maid for a white Southern woman with a disability who also developed a drinking problem since she did not have use of her legs anymore . But the black woman said the white woman didn’t know what addiction and troubles were really like, and was just being selfish with her drinking.


clew 11.12.14 at 4:19 am

Possibly ZM is *not* joking about the Act to reward housekeeping. The helpful council is a nicer w0rld than I live in. (In the US, I think a sick person likely to have to go through a couple EMT visits to the ER before being processed into being taken care of.)


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.14 at 5:39 am

dsquared: “I am less amazed that the main form of reasoning is “everyone must listen to me because blah blah blah Thoreau””

I think that your #1 fan, “Wallace Stevens”, really appreciates the quality of your writing.

clew: “Yes, this is past what I think is manageable in an egalitarian society.”

Yep. Look, the original sentence was “Being able to afford a live-in maid on a white-collar worker’s salary is also an underrated factor because people are embarrassed to say how awesome it is.” BW then says that she’s chronically ill, but then that all the people in her circle of ex-pats except the French and Japanese mothers hire live-in maids. And this: “And the truth is that I remember an expat friend asking people for her book, trailing spouses (mothers) what the best thing about living in Singapore was, and I said ‘being able to afford to hire a maid.’ She said, I was the only one willing to say that for the record, but that all the others said they would have said that, had they considered it an acceptable answer, except for the Japanese mothers, who did not hire maids (in the cases she interviewed).”

OK, so we’ve made the shocking discovery that Singapore is not an egalitarian society. But let’s follow this one a bit further. All right, *why* are people “embarrassed to say how awesome it is”? *Why* was BW the only one willing to say that for the record? Because people generally understand that they are taking advantage of a privilege that by its very nature can only be available to a few people, and that it’s a privilege that they couldn’t have in their home societies because their home societies are generally more egalitarian.

Maybe some people here think that no one should hire anyone else to do any housework at all, I don’t know. But that’s not really what the question is when you talk about hiring a live-in maid.

To get back to why I brought up Thoreau. It’s not an argument of the form “Thoreau was cool, so I’m right.” It’s implicitly in answer to this:

“I just think judgments like: ‘Singapore’s one-party rule privileges low crime and cultural homogeneity over the freedoms that make human flourishing possible, and so it’s childish to praise one’s personal experience enjoying the low crime rate’ or ‘it’s not acceptable to outsource the most intimate domestic labor to other people and so it’s morally wrong to hire someone to do this job and then enjoy having it done’ are not the most apposite in the case of a personal reflection. Maybe the latter if you’re committed to certain beliefs.”

Why might some people be committed to certain beliefs that mean that they have to insist on their moral judgements in response to a personal reflection? Because this is connected to American history that is still very much alive. dsquared can call it a personal aesthetic preference as part of his amazing grasp of stockbroker leftism, but it’s anything but personal.


js. 11.12.14 at 6:12 am

Rich totally has a very good point here.

Obliquely: I grew up in India. Not as an ex-pat, or the son of ex-pats. Here’s the thing: everyone who’s middle class in India has hires domestic workers. We had one—no wait, we had a couple, a cook and someone to do the cleaning. Not a live-in one though, we weren’t rich, just middle class. (No, seriously, this is not a joke. My aunt had a live-in with servant’s quarters; she was genuinely well-off.)

Now when I go back, relying on household help makes me deeply uncomfortable, but not necessarily for reasons that I can totally articulate or defend. Also, they don’t want you to do the dishes. Seriously, it makes them uncomfortable.

This probably seems like a lot of data without a point. But at least one point is that it’s really hard to generalize about attitudes towards hiring household help without taking some account of the social-cultural context. And to bring it back to Belle’s post, I’m mostly curious about the French and Japanese families. What’s up with them?


js. 11.12.14 at 6:39 am

I looked into Nepalese. Ouch. It’s got just enough phonetic things not in English that it’s not going to be easy for a native English speaker, and the script is terrifying.

Isn’t the script just Devanagari? It’s actually a lot easier than it looks. As a child, I was supposed to learn both Devanagari and Persian* (both as second scripts, I already knew Roman), and I failed miserably at Persian and I can still read Devanagari passably. (Although… Devanagari is I think really easy to sound out if you already know the spoken words, in a way Persian absolutely is not, so I have no idea what it would be like if you were also learning the spoken language.)

*Yeah, yeah, Perso-Arabic.


David J. Littleboy 11.12.14 at 7:33 am

“Isn’t the script just Devanagari? It’s actually a lot easier than it looks.”

Yes, it is. Thanks for the encouragement. But aren’t you a native speaker of a language for which it makes sense???

But thanks for the encouragement, again: you’ve made me realize that learning Devanagari is worthwhile. (Not that I’ll get around to it immediately…)


clew 11.12.14 at 7:45 am

Is the living American history Thoreau, as one who sacrificed for his beliefs although those didn’t require doing all his own chores; or slavery, skipping over the history of domestic service or servitude in most of the world for the last couple centuries?

Carver is a richer example in either case.


dsquared 11.12.14 at 8:16 am

Because this is connected to American history that is still very much alive.

Most arguments which make even a lick of sense can be set out in a small number of simple declarative statements. I really don’t think “because this is connected to American history that is still very much alive” qualifies. There’s no connection to the actual conclusion you’re aiming to establish, it’s just one of those empty phrases people use when they don’t want to give a proper reason for something.


dsquared 11.12.14 at 8:21 am

I mean, one possible interpretation of Rich’s point is that he’s harping on about Belle employing a housekeeper because of her family background and the constant blah blah blah Thoreau is just meant to convey the message “I’m the side that won the civil war, you’re the side that lost, neeny ner ner”. But that would be so pathetic I can’t believe anyone would bother with it.


engels 11.12.14 at 12:16 pm

Clew, I don’t know what the solution would be. The conclusion I drew was that part of what being purchased was not practical assistance but the warm fuzzy feeling that there was someone lower down the food chain than they were.


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.14 at 3:18 pm

dsquared: “it’s just one of those empty phrases people use when they don’t want to give a proper reason for something.”

dsquared’s crushing rejoinder has made me completely revise my understanding of contemporary American politics. I had thought that the rough divisions between American left and right as they showed up in who-won-what electoral maps followed the geographic boundaries of the Civil War almost exactly. Academics have even done studies showing that — well, I’ll quote an article by Chait that is worth reading despite its hippie-punching:

And the truth is almost too brutal to be acknowledged. A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents.

And I’d thought that one of the ways this history manifests itself among people from the South who really are not racist was in the sanitization of these kind of relationships as market relations — the whole neo-liberal – to – libertarian idea that if you can hire your servant and pay them well, and it’s a better job than they could otherwise get, that’s awesome. Who’d want to deny someone a good job, and what’s so important about egalitarianism anyways, and who cares about why they can’t get a better job? But again, I think that dsquared is so much more insightful about American politics than I am that I should just give up on this idea. Being on the left means market liberalism, and I shouldn’t think that it’s anything more than that.


js. 11.12.14 at 3:26 pm

But aren’t you a native speaker of a language for which it makes sense???

This is true. My point was just that I think it’s *relatively* not-hard because when trying to learn two very different scripts for more or less the same spoken language (Hindi/Urdu), I found it to be much easier of the two. Maybe the way to put the point is that I find Perso-Arabic, at least as used in Urdu, to be near impossible.


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.14 at 3:28 pm

“Carver is a richer example in either case.”

Belle Waring’s personal reflections are inextricably joined up with the history of the South, clew. Carver, admirable as he was, isn’t part of the history of the North in a similar way. If you’d rather not talk about Thoreau, I could go on about Sojourner Truth, who was part of a commune in my home town.


bill benzon 11.12.14 at 5:32 pm

Language Log has a fascinating post about the prevalence of myopia in Chinese kids:


It seems that the combination of not spending enough time outdoors and spending a lot of time learning to recognize and write those characters leads to a rate of myopia that’s three times the US rate and that for a significant number the myopia is so bad that blindness may follow. The myopia rate is lower in rural areas, but still higher than in US or Australia. There is some evidence that the problem isn’t so bad with simplified characters.

There’s nothing in the piece about Japanese, though I’d think there might be a problem there as well, though the existence of kata-kana might mitigate.


Harold 11.12.14 at 6:01 pm

Berfore World War II, it was not unusual for middle class and professional families in the North to have live-in maids. That is why all those pre-war West Side apartments had maid’s rooms. During the Depression, my grandparents, who lived on Riverside Drive, had a live-in maid, of German origin, while their children were growing up. They were far from having great wealth, in fact, my grandmother’s job as a school teacher in Harlem kept them from being homeless, since my grandfather’s business made virtually no money until after the war was over. Nevertheless, thanks to my grandmother’s job, they were able to help their parents and various in-laws who had fallen on hard times, as well as pay for piano lessons and summer camp for the children.


bianca steele 11.12.14 at 7:31 pm

clew @ 164 Longbourne

I’ve borrowed Death Comes to Pemberley, which isn’t at all bad. Mr. Bennet is probably the only one who comes out looking good, however. And James makes it clear that Darcy and Elizabeth have only the faintest idea what their army of servants, the steward, and so on, do all day.


clew 11.12.14 at 9:41 pm

Longbourne just got better and better and less dependent on the P&P plot as it went on. The sentences are lovely shapes, too.

engels, 193; so if the employee had enough negotiating power to profit off the unwashed dishes, the icky housemates would be the more unsatisfied and looking to dominate. Ech.

Wasn’t it Agatha Christie who described the social change in the 20th c. by saying that, growing up, she couldn’t have imagined she would be rich enough to buy a car or too poor to keep a servant?


engels 11.13.14 at 1:42 am

Clew, I don’t understand your last post. If people are hiring cleaners for status-display / self-validation reasons (‘I’m too good to do that kind of work and I’m important enough to have other people running around for me’) then in a world where cleaners were earning the same as lawyers, say, and considered their equals I’d expect that motive to go away. People would be more likely to do their own cleaning or to make less mess in the first place.


clew 11.13.14 at 2:21 am

I am assuming that housecleaning is tiring and complex enough, and a clean house pleasant enough, to be worth spending money on even if you don’t get domination jollies from it. So the domination isn’t actually a necessary part of having someone else clean.

Then I leaped to, if people want the domination for itself, improving the labor status of the cleaner (enough that you can’t get an edge on the cleaner by leaving more dirty dishes, because she’s paid for all her labor) won’t actually make the would-be-dominators nicer. Would leave the cleaner slightly better off, though working for bullies is unpleasant in itself.


ZM 11.13.14 at 3:08 am

“I am assuming that housecleaning is tiring and complex enough”

Housekeeping is really not that tiring and complex . If people insist on living in too big houses they can’t hope to housekeep themselves or in being overly particular then that is their own fault.

If they do not like to move to a smaller house, they can take in lodgers and share the great amount of housekeeping.

“‘If you want to do well”, Virginia Bottomley told a conference at Inclusive Employers this week, “do not do your own ironing, do not bake a cake. Women do well in India because of domestic help”.

This was a conversation about how to get women into boardrooms, but there’s an inevitable follow-up question, isn’t there? What about the domestic help? Do they do well?
For her book, The New Maids – Transnational Women and the Care Economy, Helma Lutz interviewed both cleaners and employers, and noted dryly: “Employers like to see their domestic workers as service providers; it is largely a form of exculpatory rhetoric which conveniently diverts the debate away from relations of power and dependence, since the (academically) educated upper-middle-class clients will usually know that they are not party to a legally safeguarded service-provider contract.”

Helma Lutz pans out to form a fascinating historical trajectory of domestic service – from a serf class three centuries ago, through the “professionalisation” of service two centuries ago when unions introduced some basic rights, contracts, days off, that kind of thing. After that, in the late-19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, men’s wives became all the domestic help they needed; and finally, the emancipation of women has taken domestic work back, not to that professionalised era, but to the era before it, when workers had no rights, no contracts under law, no career progression and no public visibility. Lutz wonders whether this amounts to a “refeudalization”.




dsquared 11.13.14 at 5:31 am

Oh my God. Puchalsky’s point literally was “Belle’s family were on the wrong side in the 1850s, so she isn’t allowed to talk about having a housekeeper now”. I sometimes think that it’s pretty tragic the way that British people keep going on about the second world war and the 1966 world cup, but this is a whole new level.


Rich Puchalsky 11.13.14 at 6:28 am

dsquared can get very exasperated about the fictional characters he’s made up.


clew 11.13.14 at 8:21 am

Where were domestic help unionized two centuries ago?!? Heck, even one century? You mean labor power when the unions were strong was shared with domestic help? That’s a badly phrased paragraph, or I just disagree with its facts: A really tight labor market won days off and so forth, with the threat of leaving service entirely, but in the US at least domestic labor has never been protected by labor law or (as far as I can find) unions. It’s been getting slightly better very recently in the US: http://www.udwa.org/.

I’ve been arguing throughout that it should be protected, note: also “party to a legally safeguarded service-provider contract”, as in the example with engel’s housemates.

Your claim that the tiring-ness or tiresome-ness of housekeeping is never significant is… not congruent with most people’s experience. Also, how far does this extend into the reproduction of labor? Making one’s clothes? Garment makers are also immiserated.


ZM 11.13.14 at 8:33 am

“Your claim that the tiring-ness or tiresome-ness of housekeeping is never significant is… not congruent with most people’s experience. ”

Tiresome it may be if someone doesn’t find it pleasant. It should not be that tiring (especially with modern things like plumbing instead of carrying buckets) unless someone has a great infirmity of some sort. In which case they would get help as they have a disability.

I will look at an ebook to see what it says about unions later on.


Collin Street 11.13.14 at 8:53 am

Housekeeping is really not that tiring and complex .

Then it’s an easy job, innit. Money for jam. Maybe I should stop looking for work in my doomed industry with all the typing and indoor work, take it up as a manservant. ‘parrently — sez you — it’s a piece of piss.


J Thomas 11.13.14 at 11:15 am

I don’t understand the point about the dishes left for the cleaner. If he’s getting paid for, say, 8 hours work, and they don’t mind paying him to do their dishes once a week, where is the issue? If he spends X minutes doing dishes that he could otherwise spend making something else cleaner, and that’s what they want to pay for, OK. If they want more done, they can arrange with him pay for another X minutes?

There’s a certain amount of D/S stuff in business generally, isn’t there? When it’s a small team with thousands of customers, not so much. When there’s one big customer and the boss deals with him, the customer is always right and the boss grovels to him and then takes it out on the employees…. But maybe it isn’t always like that.


ZM 11.13.14 at 12:04 pm

Collin Street,

“Then it’s an easy job, innit. Money for jam. Maybe I should stop looking for work in my doomed industry with all the typing and indoor work, take it up as a manservant. ‘parrently — sez you — it’s a piece of piss.”

You are being silly.

My argument was that housework is not sufficiently complex and arduous that a household without disability is not able to manage to do their own housework.

If the case for having a maid is that housework is very tiring – then the households most in need of maids would be households without modern devices in developing countries where they have to carry buckets would be the ones most in need of assistance.

Perhaps you can take up being a manservant helping women in their arduous bucket carrying in Africa.

I certainly was not arguing that maids and manservants do a job that is “money for jam” — although they are often paid as if they were especially female domestic migrant workers from developing countries.

These women are often taken advantaged of, paid poorly, and work in poor conditions, or are not allowed to go home, or assaulted and don’t have any recourse to legal remedies etc.

If you wish to work as a migrant domestic worker then then you would at least have an understanding of the conditions.


ZM 11.13.14 at 12:22 pm


According to the book the first trade union for maids, washerwomen, and cleaners was founded in Nuremberg in 1906 and 1000 women attended.

They finally won the abolishment of the Servants Law in 1918, although were still not equal with free workers. “Nevertheless it reigned in the personal whims of employers, gave guaranteed control of adherence to working hours, better food and payment, a monthly right to give notice, and established health insurance and educational facilities. In the long run professionalisation raised the costs of labour and led to the gradual disappearance of the profession in the second half of the twentieth century.” p. 13

“Manservants and maidservants have existed since time immemorial. In ancient times they were principally slaves, taken in conquest and forced to work in the households of the victors. Only the work society of the modern era elevated servanthood to an occupation, to which the traits of servility and dependency were as integral as the collec- tive and individual employee rights which, over the course of time, constrained the whims of the ‘masters’ to a certain extent. Disposi- tion over domestic staff, whose duty it was to perform the ‘lowly’ but necessary chores of the household, was a privilege of the bourgeois family. Retaining domestic staff not only elevated one’s status but provided a means of exerting social dominance.

The sociologist Trutz von Trotha (1994) described this by citing the extreme example of the colonial family. In the colonies ‘… the domination of servants in colonial society took place at precisely the intersection point where political and social domination visibly meet; where political dominance is translated into social dominance in the eyes of all. In exerting power over […] servants, the conquerors visibly became a ruling class. In exerting power over […] servants, the conquerors visibly became a ruling class. In terms of the sociology of dominance, therein lies the significant function of servanthood’ (ibid.: 216f.).

In summary, it can be pointed out that for all the historical differ- ences, one common feature emerges: the majority of these migrant domestic workers were women. The feminization of this occupation began in the mid-nineteenth century, a trend that has not been halted to the present day, despite the global rise in educational levels among women.

On the contrary, domestic helps of the twenty-first century are women who are better educated than all their predecessors, hav- ing not only passed advanced school leaving qualifications but even gained university degrees (see Appendix 1 of this study). Women who contemplate working abroad must know a foreign language, or at least have the ability to find their bearings in a foreign country.

The situation a century ago differed from today’s in a number of ways:

a) in addition to live-ins – principally au pairs and twenty-four-hour carers for old people in need of nursing – who become resident members of their employer’s household, many migrants take live- out domestic employment, either on an hourly basis or for certain parts of the day;

b) employees are often from the middle class in their countries of origin, clearly indicating that this migration – which is characterized as ‘unqualified’ in migration research – is by no means undertaken by unqualified female migrants;

c) their average age is higher;

d) their ranks include many mothers who have had (no choice but) to leave behind children and/or elderly parents in their homeland;

e) the women make efforts to commute back and forth to see their families at regular intervals, and lead transnational lives;

f) the most important category-difference between employers and employees is not rooted in any educational disparity but in the economic weakness of these migrants’ countries of origin;

g) the hard-won achievements of professionalization in the past have been jeopardized by
the slippage of domestic work into the informal and illegal sector.”


engels 11.13.14 at 12:28 pm

201/202 I didn’t make a very good point. I’m contending that part of the benefit of hired help (in an inegalitarian society) is status or self-esteem boost of not having to do ‘crappy’ work or being able to force someone else to do it. In an egalitarian society, where cleaners were paid the same as lawyers, that work might no longer be considered crappy and people might take pride in doing it themselves. Maybe.


clew 11.13.14 at 10:05 pm

J Thomas, I assume the cleaner was getting a flat fee for `cleaning the apartment’, so that the messier it was the worse the compensation, and the cleaner didn’t dare complain. engels, do I have this right?

201/202/212: it seems to me we’re talking about three separate things: the utilitarian value of having someone else do housework, and the economic cost/compensation to domestic workers, and the social status problems. Which aren’t independent; way too many people are scornful of cleaning and care workers because they aren’t paid well, and then there’s little social support for improving their wages. Do you think we’d have to pay all occupations equally before the scorn went? Like Ithaca Hours?

Housecleaning and dishwashing aren’t the nasty end of the problem, even. Care work, that is, looking after the physically incompetent, often in their houses, is hard to improve in a lot of the US because we need *so much* of it and we barely fund it even with immiseration wages for the workers. As the Boomers get old-old, I expect this to get bitter.

ZM, a *title* for the book would be useful. It seems to be discussing modern European domestic work — the US has always had international immigrant domestic labor, from its founding, definitely through the 20th century, and we have not applied most of our labor protections to domestic (or agricultural) labor. I’ve been arguing throughout that we should protect domestic workers like all other workers (and should improve that, passim). Extensive quotations about how badly it’s paid now don’t affect this at all.


clew 11.13.14 at 10:26 pm

Oh, since I ask for a title; my references are Daphne Spain’s _How Women Saved the City_, Laura Schenone and Laura Shapiro (different books) on the history of cooking, esp. w.r.t. migration between continents and/or classes, the Beecher and Beecher-Stowes proposing skilled, rationalized and paid domestic labor as part of the first wave of political feminism in the US, Susan Strasser’s several books on housework, recycling, and consumerism. Isabella Beeton for a detailed list of just how much has to be done in the last generation in which is was all done by hand, and Olwen Hufton’s _The Prospect Before Her_ for a glorious analysis of women’s work in Europe 1500-1800.


ZM 11.14.14 at 12:53 am

Sorry, the book was the one mentioned in the quote from The Guardian in my earlier comment.

The New Maids: Transnational Women and the Care Economy, 2011
by Helma Lutz

Another book on the topic historically in England
Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England Eds Frye & Robertson
Eg. “Serving in a London household was mandated for any woman from 14 to 40 years of age by a London statute passed in the fifth year of Elizabeth’s reign, in an effort to cut down on vagabonds. The law empowered any two “Burgesses” or aldermen to command any unemployed woman “to serve and be retained by yeere, weeke, or day…”

Otherwise the reading I have done mostly focuses on the experience of migrant workers from Asia and the Pacific


David J. Littleboy 11.14.14 at 2:19 am

“Housecleaning and dishwashing aren’t the nasty end of the problem, even. Care work, that is, looking after the physically incompetent, often in their houses, is hard to improve in a lot of the US because we need *so much* of it and we barely fund it even with immiseration wages for the workers. As the Boomers get old-old, I expect this to get bitter.”

Exactly. Especially since Medicare doesn’t cover care of the elderly if you have any resources whatsoever. So people paying for this care are not in a position to pay generously.

Still, the US has it really really easy in this respect. Currently there are 2 retirees for every 10 working age persons in the US. In Japan, there are slightly over 4. In 2060, the US will have slightly _under_ 4 retirees for every 10 workers (Japan will be 7 for every 10; ouch), so Japan is already in worse shape than the US will ever be. There used to be stories in the news here of someone in their 60s breaking bones trying to lift an 80-year old relative they were caring for. I missed a talk here on this recently, but friends (early 70s) who went said that the take-away was “80 is the new 65”, which they really liked. The pianist/bandleader in the jazz quintet I play guitar in is 84, at least four of the players in the big band I sit in with for two concerts a years are over 80.


clew 11.15.14 at 12:47 am

How Not to Do It, startup flavor… at Forbes, of all places.

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