I am not sure where to begin. It has been over two weeks since I first landed in Singapore. This period of time feels like months in terms of what I have done, seen, learned, and discovered. My first impressions of Singapore are constantly shifting. Upon landing at the airport around one in the morning and traveling to my hotel, I admit thoughts of apprehension and regret crossed my mind. At first glance, Singapore is a city of cafes, shopping malls, and skyscrapers much like any other metropolis. At first glance, it is too young and new to have developed any sort of “culture” or “history”. This view is quite superficial. However, as I’ve learned in my time here, it is also somewhat intentional.
It is well known by both the locals and students of Singapore’s history that this city was created as an “accident”, not too long ago. Singapore, a former British colony, did not begin to develop in to the country we know today until the mid-1950’s, long after the Chrysler building in New York was erected. The government and economy were largely built upon an idea of “pragmatism”, described by one Singaporean as “do what works”. The government initiated this philosophy shortly after Singapore gained independence by promoting Singapore as a place for education and tourism. It’s not at all ironic that these are some of the primary reasons for my choosing to study here. This idea of pragmatism also explains a bit of the rapid economic success of Singapore and the reason Singapore is generally regarded by the West as a major world economic player as opposed to the tiny, resource-less island that it really is, or at least was, just 60 years ago.
As a child of the late 20th century, my view of “Singapore” is very different from the view my grandparents might have had at my age. I’ve found, since my arrival, that Singapore seems to have two personalities. The first is the personality that one might encounter after a weekend visit to the city-state. That is, that Singapore is an architecturally and naturally beautiful city full of a diversity of flavors, lavish shopping malls, savvy businessmen, efficient processes, well-dressed inhabitants, and a never-ending list of things to do. These things are all true, but Singapore is also home to culture, history and a certain homey-ness that I think might be difficult to immediately find elsewhere. After just two short weeks, I’ve automatically begun to call my hostel (the word used to describe the modern apartment I currently reside in) “home”.
The goal of these first few weeks was really to get the more tourist-friendly adventures out of my system, if you will, and to meet as many new friends and people as possible.
I met friends and we’ve done some touristy things, and now, I’m craving more and more culture. Last week, we headed to a burger place for a friend’s birthday. Upon chatting for a while, our cab driver half-scolded, half-encouraged: “you should really experience the real Singapore”. We had, a bit, at that point, and he drove us to a really great burger, but it was nothing in comparison to a Nasi Padang (an Indonesian dish), Sambal fried rice (a Singaporean dish of Malay and Indonesian influences), Roti Prata (Indian influences), complete with lentil curry and phenomenally spicy vegetables, pork and leek dumplings (Chinese), and dragon fruit juice (a fruit which migrated to Asia from Central America).
I’ve started a list in my iPhone of places residents of Singapore have encouraged me to visit. Among these are a nature trail, an island, a cemetery, a Mosque in Little India, a road full of statues, an outdoor shopping mall, and a really great prata place. This growing list really displays the multi-cultural and dynamic environment of Singapore. After visiting the Merlion, seeing the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, encountering both a large, fully natural lizard and Universal Studios on Sentosa island, briefly visiting Chinatown and Little India, exploring the Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple and its museum, spending nights on the bridge at Clarke Quay, browsing the malls and restaurants of Orchard Road, swimming in the infinity pool at NUS, eating in a Hawker Center, shopping at several local markets, viewing a Lion Dance in celebration for Chinese New Year, and joining the climbing club on campus, among other endeavors, I am astounded by the overwhelming list of additional experiences I hope to have in my short time here.
A new friend of mine from NUS asked how long I was staying when we first met. When I replied, she was astounded by the short amount of time I have. Four months truly is not long in a new place. I already look forward to going abroad again and cannot imagine being able to really get to know a place in even four week’s time. This said, I am also increasingly overwhelmed by the ease of travel here. Tropical islands are ferry rides away and weekend getaways are neither impractical nor expensive and difficult.
Last week, I was issued my “student’s pass”. This is a fancy card complete with my “particulars” (name, birthdate, etc.), as the Singaporeans would say, and my thumbprint. To obtain this, certain documents and verifications were needed. From there, though, this card-from-the-future was the source of many-a-happiness last week as I traveled with eight others to Krabi, Thailand. See future posts for details. Upon arrival at the Singapore Airport, we obtained our boarding passes in under one minute, scanned our passports and thumbs and were through the first security checkpoint in under 3 minutes. From here, security proceeded at the gate. Not including walking time, the entire check-in process took under 5 minutes. At the gate we were greeted with ample room, free computer and Internet access, and potable water. It was like magic. I’m hoping to get this system installed in America upon return, but for now, I’ll enjoy living in the future (I am 14 hours ahead, you know), the beautiful efficiency of the city, and fact that I haven’t worn a sweater for over two weeks.