Hazy talk rules Down Under

SINGAPORE - Ordinarily, Australians are never sure what to say. Whenever I visit the country and open my mouth long enough for them to trace my accent, they exclaim: "Ah, you're from England. What do you think about the Ashes?"

"Actually, I don't live in England," I mutter. "I live in Singapore."

Their faces drop. Aussies love meeting Brits - just to tell them how much they hate Brits. They don't actually say they hate Brits, they instead bring up all the sports where they are superior to the Brits.

There used to be cricket, rugby and cycling and now there's er ... and er ... But at least they have the sports connection with the Brits. Singapore gives them nothing.

I am typing this column in Queensland's Gold Coast.

Yes, the trip was booked months ago. No, I didn't flee the haze. Yes, I feel dreadfully guilty. There's a part of me that wishes for an Australian bush fire or a flash flood just to make me feel better.

I'm thoroughly delighted that - as I write - the PSI index is in the healthy range. But I can't lie. The haze has proven to be a terrific ice-breaker in Australia.

Until the haze came along, I watched Australians struggle.

As soon as they realised that I lived in Singapore, rather than England, their minds were off and racing. They tried to join the dots.

He's a white man. He's a white man with a London-ish accent. He lives in Singapore. So he lives in China. Maybe he leaked national secrets... No, wait, Singapore isn't near China, it's near Hong Kong... What do we know about Singapore? They ban all chewing gum.

That's it. He's a white, cockney, chewing gum smuggler.

That's an obvious exaggeration. I've never had a cockney accent. But you have no idea - NO IDEA - how many inane conversations I've endured (as I'm sure you have) about the tedious topic of chewing gum.

Last weekend, a kind, grey-haired chap and I had the following chat verbatim...

Aussie chap: "So what are you doing over here? Have you come to buy chewing gum? Ha ha!"

Me: "No."

Aussie chap: "Oh, I see. Don't want to take the risk of being caught with any, eh?"

Me: "No. I don't like chewing gum."

That's the truth. I've never understood the fascination with chewing something shaped like a mouse's brain simply because it's minty-flavoured.

Besides, no one in Singapore actually fixates on the subject in quite the same way as foreigners.

In the past, well-meaning friends from overseas have asked if they should pack some chewing gum before they visit. Somehow, they've confused the stuff for cigarettes and me for a prisoner in maximum security.

But my Aussie friend had exhausted his single topic of Singapore-related conversation almost immediately. His brain scrambled for a relevant topic like a first-timer playing Trivial Pursuit.

I'm sure the usual suspects flirted with his curiosity. Caning? Drug smuggling? Littering? Spitting? Return to a Sexy Island? And then, his eyes lit up.

"The haze!" He shouted. "Singapore's got the haze!"

He practically did a dance.

I wish it'd been a rain dance. The wind might have blown it Singapore's way.

"I watched it on the news," he continued excitedly. "Singapore's got the haze." He sounded like the island had caught a sexually transmitted disease.

"Yes, Singapore's got the haze," I admitted. "We didn't catch it. Indonesia gave it to us."

"I knew there was something about Singapore." He thought he was a TV detective cracking the case.

But he was only the beginning.

As last week went on, Australians queued to discuss the haze, ask questions about its origins and provide me with PSI updates (at times, their updates appeared more reliable than official sources).

And then a guy working at a Gold Coast theme park threw me a curve ball that caught me off balance.

The ride operator said: "So you're from Singapore? Wow, it's crazy over there. What about those hailstones?" I thought he was on drugs.

He tried to tell me that haze-ravaged Singapore had also been hit by a hailstone storm. He made me nervous. I told my daughter to stay away from him.

But I checked my phone and discovered that Theme Park Crazy Man was right.

Singapore had indeed suffered a hailstone storm. What the hell is going on over there? I leave the country for five minutes and the atmosphere goes nuts.

Still, I've never previously visited a foreign land and heard as many queries or concerns about Singapore than I have in the last week in Australia.

Honestly, it's been heartening. Every Australian, without exception, has been just as appalled by the haze as you have.

In fact, now the haze has dissipated a little, we're once again searching for a common topic of conversation.

It's only a matter of time before someone offers me chewing gum.

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