Your Culture is our Culture

A Journey Of A Lifetime

Singapore was an experience. Most people refer to it as a country or city, but for me, it was more than just a location. I was there for 6 months, but the entire time was one massive life changing event.

 

The people are wonderful. Though it’s located in Southeast Asia, the population is made up of way more than just south-east Asians. There’s plenty of people from China, Japan, Korea, the U.k, the States, South Africa, and India. Knowing that people from India would be living there in mass put me at ease before my trip. I’m of Haitian descent and a medium brown skin tone; though I’m not any part Indian I was glad that I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb because there would be other darker skinned people there. Even though there were plenty of people there significantly darker than me, I stuck out like a sore thumb anyway for two main reasons. One: I had cut all my hair off roughly six months prior to going to Singapore and I had a small, but distinct fro growing in. It wasn’t long enough to do anything other than let it fro, but it was long enough that it was noticeable. In a country where most people have long, pin straight hair, my short fro was a major attention grabber. Two: I’m 5’11. The average height for men in Singapore is 5’6 and for women it’s 5’2. Even by US standards (5’9 and 5’4 respectively) I’m very tall. So when plopped down in the middle of a country where the general population is shorter, I’m seen as a giant.

 

Singapore is a somewhat reserved country so I never got strangers asking me about my height or hair, as I would in the US. What I did get is what I’ve coined the triple look. A stranger at a stoplight or on the MRT (train) would look at me in disbelief, then check my feet for heals (which I never wore) and then would stare at my face, presumably to make sure that I’m a girl. Singaporeans are rather discreet about doing the triple look, but after having it happen to me roughly twice a day for 180 days, I got very good at spotting it. It became amusing. Children are not nearly as reserved as the adults. I had one train ride where a little boy, maybe 8 years old, was staring directly at me for over 5 minutes while I pretended not to notice. When I did finally make eye contact, he blurted out ‘your hair is so cool!’. He then promptly Naruto style ran off the train. Another time, also on the train, I was sitting next to  a mom with her son on the other side of her and I could see our reflections in the window across from us. The boy leans into his mom and ask “mom why is her hair so (he made scrunching motions with his hands). His mother looked mortified. She tried really hard to shush him and I laughed. I thought it was beautiful that he wanted to understand.

 

Over time, I made friends in Singapore. They were very eager to hear about my life in the US and were very open to comparing their notions of the US to what I had told them. I was also very eager to pick up Singaporean culture. Timeliness is very important, which was a challenge for me who doesn’t have a reasonable concept of time. Though everyone speaks fluent English, they have a dialect of sorts called Singlish which I picked up a good amount of. The sentence ‘yes, of course, I’ll have that done right away’ simply became ‘can’. A ‘lah’ would sometimes be added to the end of that ‘can’ to show additional enthusiasm. ‘Can’ wasn’t just used in casual conversations between friends. ‘Can’ was often a whole and complete email to or from my boss. The simplicity of it was refreshing.

Another huge component of the culture, as with any culture, was the food. They had American chains there such as Domino’s and McDonald’s (and I ate there to compare; they do it better), but that’s not the way to get to know a new country. I was told that I needed  to eat at a hawker centre at least once and I thought that meant it would be hard to find one. I was shocked to find that they are everywhere. A hawker centre is essentially a covered area with mas tables in the middle and various booths along the side that sell various, cheap, sanitary food. Think of a giant public cafeteria and you’ve got it. They had every type of Asian food you could imagine plus some from other parts of the globe. At one lunch with my coworkers, most of my coworkers had some variation of noodles, and I having spotted a Hispanic booth, got a chalupa. None of them knew what it was. I was happy to explain what it was, what was in it, how to eat it, and so on. They had after all taken me under their wing and are the sole reason that I know what bean curd is. I do want to note that I did know how to use chopsticks properly before getting to Singapore. Years of dad ordering Chinese food had taught me well. My coworkers were always amazed that I didn’t cross my sticks at the back (that’s incorrect, though you’ll accomplish what you need to), but servers always assumed that I (usually being the only one not of Asian decent) didn’t know how to use chopsticks and would give me a fork. I’d often just switch with someone as they weren’t particular about it and I liked feeling ‘authentic’. There’s something wrong to me about eating laksa( a popular spicy noodle soup) with a fork.


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