With the third week of the program drawing to a close, I’m finally feeling settled in. The first two weeks seemed like a blur of new places and things to do, but with week three my head has stopped spinning and I’ve been able to really get a feel for Singapore. Now that I’ve moved past most of the more stereotypical tourist attractions, I’m finding that certain places and activities really stand out in my mind. Most of these have to do with daily life in Singapore, both mine and that of Singaporeans. I feel like these are the moments from this week that will truly stand out in my memory when I think on Singapore later in life.
My strongest impression of daily life in Singapore has come from a visit to Little India on Sunday night. The sheer number of people I saw immediately made it one of the most memorable sights I’ve seen so far. There were thousands of people crowded around the shops and restaurants laughing, talking, bartering, and relaxing. Having visited Little India previously, I had a good basis for comparison. On other nights of the week it seemed like a mass of glowing neon signs hovering over dollar stores, Bollywood movie and music shops, restaurants, and convenience stores. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed. Sunday night was a completely different story. Everything felt much more dynamic and everywhere you turned there were people in motion. I later found out that Sunday night is when all of the Indian guest workers in Singapore congregate in Little India. Having grown up in a small town, this was like nothing I had ever seen before. I guess the Chapel Hill equivalent would be similar to the way Franklin Street looks after we beat Duke in basketball, except that it happens every Sunday night! Being in the middle of a crowd like that one really removes any feelings of estrangement that come from being a foreigner and makes you feel like part of the country.
Living on the National University of Singapore campus is another part of the immersion experience that I definitely won’t forget. I’ve picked a favorite food stall in the cafeteria (Dong Dong’s Claypot Delights!) and found the best place to study in our residential complex, Prince George’s Park (the lounge on level B1 with the air conditioning!). Other group members discovered an amazing climbing wall in the Student Recreation Center which I just got hooked on this past Tuesday. However, the best part about NUS has definitely been the professors. With Dr. Quek having finished her section on Singaporean history, this past Monday introduced us to Dr. Mark Emmanuel and his engaging section on Malaysia history. Just like everyone else I’ve talked to, I feel that both of these professors excel at communicating their passion for their chosen subject and passing it on to us students. Since a good deal of our time is spent on the NUS campus, I’ve really come to appreciate it. Everything is just as clean and well-maintained as in the actual city. Singapore obviously takes its commitment to higher learning very seriously.
Other parts of Singapore have also managed to inspire me, most notably the delicious and varied types of prata. Prata is a type of pancake which can include anything from cheese to garlic to chocolate. My personal favorite is banana prata, which can be enjoyed at any time at nearby 24-hour prata shop. Other group members have told me about other neat local attractions that definitely bear looking into, such as a specialty tea shop and a shop offering reflexology foot massage. I have also had the opportunity to enjoy two plays as part of the Singapore Arts Festival, the most recent one being Mobile, a ambitious look at the difficulties faced by foreign workers in Southeast Asian countries and the people they come into contact with. Singapore’s arts scene lags behind many other major cities, but the Singaporean government has recently started programs to encourage the development of arts in schools and the community. I look forward to coming back to Singapore in the future and seeing the ways in which Singapore has developed its arts community.
Another part of Singapore that I really enjoy is the sense of community that pervades it. Little India, hawker stands, corner-shop stores, they all double as communal places for the elderly, young children, and teenagers to just generally be around each other. It seems as though the people here always know that they are surrounded by friends and family. I love to just sit and listen to the people around me chat in accented Singlish as I eat at a hawker stand. I believe the atmosphere of socialization has rubbed off on me – I feel much more comfortable striking up a conversation with people here than I have in other major cities I have visited.
I have really enjoyed being able to put a human face on Singapore. Before I arrived here I thought of Singapore as just another colorful shape on a map, but now that impression has changed. Now I see it as a massive city full of people and whose mention brings to mind Malay merchants hawking their goods, Chinese taxi drivers in bright blue cabs, and Indian children playing in the sand at East Coast Beach. Being around all these people makes studying their histories and problems infinitely more interesting. After I learn something in class, I immediately have the opportunity to look for it in the real world. It’s hard to believe that I’m already halfway through my time in Singapore, but I have a feeling that the best is still yet to come!