Getting to Singapore was no simple task. It required flying from North Carolina to Newark, and then a marathon nineteen-hour flight directly from Newark to Singapore. Fortunately, the Newark to Singapore journey was not as tedious as many of us had previously thought. Each seat came equipped with its own television monitor and a plentiful selection of on-demand movies, video games, and music. Some members of the group that found it hard to sleep passed the time enjoying the plethora of entertainment at their fingertips. Others, including myself, had brought sleeping pills and spent the majority of the time slipping in and out of a blissfully vegetative state. (From what I was told, the more alert members of our group decided to include me in a mini-photo shoot in which the placed hats on me and took pictures of me without my knowledge.)
We landed around six o’clock in the morning Singapore time and found it fairly easy to collect our luggage and pass through customs. It was then time to set foot for the first time on Singaporean soil. As we passed excitedly through the airport doors, we were greeted by a blast of humid air that was all but suffocating. We had been told during previous orientations to expect a hot and humid climate. But as most of us are from North Carolina, I think the general thought process was: What can be more hot and humid that the Southeastern United States in July? Answer: Southeastern Asia at any point in the year. It was literally possible to see the humidity in the early morning air and I can guarantee thoughts such as “How are we going to survive in this?” passed through our minds. Still, we had also been told that we would acclimate, and this was also true. Even though we were relieved to enter air-conditioned spaces during the remainder of the day, I personally found it to be less of a shock each time that I stepped out of a controlled climate and into the tropical heat.
Immediately after exiting the airport, we were taken by bus to Prince George’s Park (or PGP for short), which is the dormitory complex in which we will be staying during our time in Singapore. After getting our keys, signing in, and figuring out a rather high-tech room key system (the process of opening a dorm room is somewhat like using an car-door opener and opening a combination lock at the same time) we saw our dorm rooms for the first time. Let’s just say whoever designed Hinton James at UNC should have been forced to visit the National University of Singapore campus before drawing up his plans. The dorm rooms here are extremely comfortable, and are singles that come equipped with their own bathrooms and air conditioning. In short, they are wonderful.
The next order of business was get our documentation in order, and meet the NUS faculty that will be teaching us for the next several weeks, and to take a tour of the campus. The campus here is state of the art. All of the buildings, like everything else in Singapore, are extremely clean and geometric. Also in keeping with the general theme of Singapore, the grounds are impressively well kept and appear more like they belong to a resort than a college campus.
After the tour it was time to address the greatest concern of the hour: food. Most of us had not eaten since three o’clock in the morning Singapore time. Others, who had slept through breakfast due to their self-induced vegetative state, had even skipped breakfast. Needless to say we were starving. We were taken to what is known as a hawker’s market. Hawker’s markets are the most common eateries in Singapore and resemble American food courts. One wall of the market is lined with stalls that are approximately ten feet long and specialize in one style of cuisine. Ordering for the non-Singaporean generally consists of walking up to the stall, picking either a noodle or rice base, and then asking for “this” or “that,” or even “no, the thing on the other side of that.” Even though it is sometimes hard to tell what one is eating, I have found that everything tastes great.
After lunch, we were taken to a bird park at which we walked around, enjoyed the animals, but most importantly, tried to stay awake. At that point, it really did not matter who had slept on the plane and who had not. We were all dead tired and were looking forward to making our way back to the dorms for dinner and just a few more hours of fighting the fatigue until bedtime.
Singapore Side Note: Subsidized Sustenance
The government in Singapore subsidizes food, so it is incredibly cheap here.
Singapore Side Note: Acronyms
Singapore is extremely fond of three-letter acronyms. Consider the following sentence: One can get to PGP on the AYE or the MRT, which both exist because of LKY.
PGP = our dorm
AYE = a highway
MRT = the city’s subway system
LKY = Lee Kuan Yew, or the long time leader of Singapore
Those are just a few, but trust me, the list goes on.
Wednesday: Settling into Singapore
Our first full day in Singapore consisted of one class in the morning, and then a four hour tour of the city in the afternoon. During the tour’s short stops we were able to view the major building of downtown, historical monuments such as Raffles Hotel and the cricket clubs, Chinatown, and the river that flows through the city. We ended the afternoon by driving to the highest point on the island and taking in the skyline.
During the tour, it became clear that Singapore is a well-planned and well-kept city. All of the greenery here looks like it is tended by an army of gardeners. (I was later told that this is actually the case. Much of the island’s beauty is maintained by a large number of immigrants who are paid “peanuts,” as one NUS faculty member put it.) It was also interesting to stand above the city and see how many buildings there actually are. It does not seem like the city is densely populated from the ground. The only truly industrial structures are the container ports which are equipped with giant cranes and covered with a total of six miles worth of containers (the metal box placed on the bed of an eighteen-wheeler) stacked ten to twenty deep. The rest of the city, on the other hand, appears to be fairly spacious and green. It was not until standing on a hill overlooking the area that I realized how many buildings and people there are crammed onto this one island.
We returned to our dorms following the tour and were given time to take a badly-needed shower and change before that evening’s event: a dinner with the NUS faculty. Once we put on the fanciest clothing we had thought to cram in our suitcases, we were shuttled to a restaurant at the center of town where we met up with our guests of honor. (I say guests because we finally decided that the UNC group was hosting the NUS faculty. Still, there seemed to be some confusion about this early in the evening.) What followed was a multi course dinner (I lost count) of traditional Singaporean food. By the end of the dinner, our stomachs were full and our heads were nodding. It quickly became clear that a large meal and jet lag are a dangerous combination. Although some people found it hard to sleep through the first night, I heard no complaints about waking up during the second night.
Singapore Side Note: What time is it?
I have found it humorous that almost all of the students on the trip have gotten out of the habit of wearing a watch because of cell phones. Since none of us carry cell phones here, it is not uncommon for someone to ask what time it is and the rest of us not have a clue, or have to fish a watch out of a bag.
Thursday: Visiting a Venerable
Our third day on the island was fascinating. It was a Buddhist holiday in Singapore, so our group visited a temple to watch the celebration. We arrived fairly early in the morning, but long after many of the devotees. (A total of 70,000 people were expected to pass through the temple during the course of the day, and a large number of them that showed up before sunrise.) The temple is the largest in Southeast Asia and many devotees commemorate Vesak day by circling its perimeter. Although we did not get to see this taking place (most people perform the ritual either in the early morning hours or later in the afternoon to avoid the heat), we were told that circling the palace is no easy task. To show their piousness, participants repeatedly take three steps and a bow in a process that usually lasts for two and a half hours.
We started our tour of the complex by meeting Darryl, an animated (and I do not use that term lightly) tour guide with unlimited enthusiasm for all things Buddhist. He showed the highlights of the ground which included a museum, several individual temples, spaces for meditation, and two enormous statues of the Buddha. There were also a number of stalls that had been set up for the day that were selling everything from food, to offerings, and even vinyl records. I think that the most impressive thing for me was the amount of activity surrounding the day’s festivities. People seemed to be constantly coming and going. They would make offerings, then go to meditate, or visit the stalls. More interestingly for the western viewer, was that all of this activity was unstructured. Monks were not directing any of the events and all devotees worshiped as the pleased.
After an extensive tour by the ever enthusiastic Darryl, we were introduced to a venerable monk who engaged us in an hour long “dharma talk” and explanation of the fundamental principals and ideas of Buddhism. The venerable told us that he had graduated with a degree in computer sciences, but then went to live in New Mexico where he began living in a monastery and studying Buddhism. It was easy to tell that the group was impressed by what he had to tell us and some came away saying that the venerable monk was possibly the wisest person they had ever met.
The rest of the day was a bit less structured than the morning. We were taken to Chinatown and made a stop at a museum dedicated to the area’s history. Afterwards, we wandered the streets, which were blocked off to cars and lined with stalls selling all sorts of Chinese-themed merchandise.
Singapore Side Note: Tension between the Races
Singapore, much like they United States, likes to claim that its strength comes from its diversity. This may be true, but the tension between the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and expatriates is not something that can be ignored. I have noticed that these groups tend to stick together on the streets and Jonathan (an NUS student and our program assistant) told me that it is rare for any of these groups to inter-marry. Furthermore, racial tensions go beyond just social interactions and have a tendency to rear their heads in politics.
Friday: Past to Present
We did quite a bit on Friday. It was our first full day of class which was followed by a trip to the Asian Civilizations Museum, a boat ride along Clark Quay and Boat Quay (two areas located at the heart of Singapore’s financial district that were once used as docks, but are now home to a collection of restaurants, shopping, etc.), and a performance in the evening.
It was nice to get a feel for the region’s history by seeing the wide variety of artifacts housed in the Asian Civilizations Museum. We started off with a guided tour, but were then left to wander through galleries filled with statues, jewelry, musical instruments, traditional clothing, modern art, and exhibits on Asians ways of life from the past to the present. It was also fun to see Singapore’s financial district up-close and visit the area where locals go to enjoy themselves. Nevertheless, the most memorable part of the day was the performance in the evening. It consisted of approximately two hours of modern and traditional instruments producing some form of music to accompany a barrage of images projected on screens and a troupe of modern dancers. After the event was over, most of us looked at each other and tried to figure out what had just happened. My conclusion: some things in life are not meant to be understood.
Singapore Side Note: The Napoleon Complex
I have been surprised to discover that much of the success and economic activity of Singapore has been fueled not only by its strategic position, but also by a Napoleon complex that has been engrained in the minds of its citizens. Several Singaporeans have already told me that due to their size, they must be the best at everything they do. Otherwise, other Southeast nations will dominate them and the nation will suffer a loss in quality of life and possibly its status as an independent nation. There seems to be a low-level fear of complacency as well as the possibility of violence between Singapore and its neighbors.
Saturday: Let the Good Times Roll
Saturday was a great day to say the least. We seemed to spend most of the eating and were then “required” to enjoy ourselves as much as possible in-between meals. (It’s a tough life.) We started the day by having lunch in a swanky restaurant on Orchard Road (The main shopping district in Singapore) with NUS students who have studied, or are planning to study at UNC. We then walked around the mall until it was time to go to Kelsy’s uncle’s home. It turns out that Kelsy’s uncle is the Senior Vice President of American Express and a graduate of the Keenan-Flagler business school. When we were told that he wanted to have us over for dinner, I do not think that anyone foresaw the evening in store. Kelsy’s uncle may be the greatest and most gracious host ever. (And that might be an understatement.) Our entire group was treated to an evening of playing pool, playing in a pool, and a buffet that rivaled Golden Corral’s in length and a five star restaurant’s menu in quality.
Sunday: Straying from Structure
Sunday was our first completely free day since arriving and everyone went in separate directions.