University of Wisconsin–Madison

An American in Asia: Singapore Edition

For the first time in my life, I am highly aware of my Western-ness. Both on campus and in the city, I continuously feel the differences, and I really welcome them.

We were recently put in to project groups in my genetic medicine class. What is interesting about this is that we are allowed to do a “mutual exchange” with another group if we are not working well with one of our team members. Upon completion of the presentations, we are to rank “best group”, “worst group”, “best individual”, and “worst individual”. I’ve found that America is much more team oriented than is Asia, both in group settings and simply within lecture sections. Questions are often kept secret until the end of class when a group of students will flock to the professors to get their individual questions answered. It is clear that the professors dislike this as they continue to encourage group discussion within the tutorial and lecture sessions. The professor will often address the most frequent, individually-asked questions the next time the whole lecture session meets.

I am the only Westerner in my project groups for the two classes in which I am to complete a project. One is in the arts and social science faculty and the other in the science faculty. The differences in the dynamics of the two groups are similar to what I would expect back home. In the science group, I find myself continuing to be the most outgoing (though this is just my natural demeanor, I think) and constantly feel the need to almost over-compensate in terms of work in order to assert my competence. This personality difference, both inside and outside of classroom environments, is one of the most striking cultural differences I have found between Eastern and Western populations.

My European and Latin American friends and I laugh at the same jokes, grew up with much of the same popular culture, and have a very similar outlook on the world. I would equate my relationships with my European and Latin American friends as similar to a relationship I might have with someone in California back home. There are differences, but these are mostly geographical.

This is why I really enjoy and cherish my project groups. I am learning how to work with those much different than I in terms of behavior, style-of-work, and background. I’ve recently learned that many families in Asian countries with strong economies, including Singapore, often only have one child. A taxi driver mentioned that this is because the schools are so competitive, from primary school onward. That taxi driver also proceeded to show us pictures of his four children, while driving, at night, with the lights on. He was the best. Many students at NUS still live at home, and, because Singapore is so small, go home quite often and are still very attached to the culture of being at home. Because of this, many of the exchange students who have been here for almost a year might describe them as very “youthful” and “giggly”, if you will. I might use the word “happy”, which is a sad but I think accurate contrast to many of the youth in America who are working several jobs, dealing with heavy student loans, cooking their own food, dealing with the cold, etc.

This is sort of a classic “Asian” stereotype. I’ve also found that many Singaporeans reject classic Asian stereotypes. They seem to want to divide themselves from the “real” Asia – images of villages in Indonesia, small towns in China, etc. – as much as is possible. Singaporeans of Indian ancestry whole-heartedly reject the caste system. Singapore really truly is unique and I welcome the continually changing dynamic I have with the country and its people. I think I can now fully distinguish the Singaporean Chinese accent from the Chinese accent. Though many students of Chinese ancestry look the same – though I should be careful when I say this as my student buddy confided in me that she thinks all white people look the same – they are really quite different.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to be one of the millions of people in this world who hold Singapore close to their heart and for the relationships I am forming with Singaporeans and other Southeast Asians, alike.