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Navigating Singlish as an English-speaking foreigner

While several of my exchange student friends have noted that one of their main reasons for choosing Singapore as their study abroad destination is that they would not have to face a language barrier, they also report that the reality is far from their expectations. In their defense, it is true that English is Singapore’s language of education, and as is the case in many other countries around the world, the language of law and commerce. However, Singaporean Colloquial English, or Singlish for short, is no doubt a challenge for English speakers foreign to Singaporean life.

A local classmate described Singlish as economical, efficient, and expressive. And that line of sentiment seems to be dominant among local Singaporeans. I find it similar to how in America, there are prevalent metalinguistic discourses surrounding nonstandard English varieties, such as Southerner speech being slow and drawn out, and African American Vernacular English being rough and to-the-point. While such characterizations are, linguistically speaking, largely unfounded and meaningless, people nevertheless seem very eager to imbue fun and quirky (but also often prejudiced) qualities to what are otherwise logically coherent and highly structured languages.

At the same time, it would be a lie if I said I found Singlish uninteresting. Several of my native Singlish-speaker friends have been very excited to teach me some unique features of Singlish, such as the use of sentence-final emotive particles (“lah”, “meh”, “sia”), reduplications (“think think”, “boy boy”), and uninverted wh-questions (“what is the answer to this problem is what?”). I’ve also found that some other features of Singlish might appear more familiar to younger Americans such as copula absence (“she (is) at work”, “you (are) weird”) and optional marking of plurality (“it costs ten dollar(s)”), as these structures are frequently seen in texting and internet slang.

Notes from a student-led presentation on Singlish for exchange students.

But I don’t really mean to go into the structural details of Singlish here. Rather, I want to reflect more on the different ways in which I have personally been trying to navigate Singlish as an English-speaking foreigner.

The most glaring difficulty that I continue to face since arriving here is getting used to an accent that I am not accustomed to. For me, this means being more attentive both to the spoken sound of Singlish and to my own use of Standard American English. It means learning common Singlish words and phrases such as “tapao” (Chinese phrase meaning “take-out”) and becoming familiar with syllable-timing (Singlish is a syllable-timed language, which means that each syllable takes about the same time to articulate. On the other hand, Standard American English is stress-timed) and also, funnily enough, British pronunciation and spelling (given Singapore’s colonial history).

If I pronounce something wrong (yet another valuable lesson I learned: pronunciation standards are subjective even regarding the “same” language), I often get feedback where the person I’m talking to says the word they think I am saying back to me with emphasis on the part that was unintelligible to them to make sure that we’re on the same page. Talking with native Singaporeans has made me appreciate the amount of work they put in for communicating with foreigners. For example, my native Singaporean friends were, at the beginning, very conscious of using sentence-final emotive particles (which are as common and indispensable as the use “lol” or “omg” in texting) when I would enter into their conversations. Similarly, vendors are often seen keeping pen and paper nearby so that they can communicate in writing if speech should fail.

It’s an obvious fact that communication is a two-sided effort, but as a foreigner with relative privilege, I am often not the one who bears the bulk of that burden when talking with local Singaporeans who may be having as much of a difficulty understanding me, as I have understanding them. I struggle with the part of me that feels entitled to my accent on the pretense of it being the “standard” or the “norm.” Upon reflecting on my experiences, I am learning to be more mindful of the fact that, in our globalized world, English is multiple – both in its form and its social dynamics – and they are all valid in their own right.

Rematch

The last time I was in Switzerland, Switzerland had won.

On my last visit to the land of chocolate and fondue, I was romping through Western Europe with my close friends and, as one traveling on a budget does, we had decided to visit the second most expensive country in the world where we planned to enjoy the scenery, eat some Swiss delicacies, relax and recover from the school year we had just finished in the states.  We arrived in the Basel airport where we soon learned that the train tickets to our hostel would be replacing the dinner we had planned to have that night. While our wallets were considerably lighter, our spirit was no less diminished, so we embarked on a short hike up the side of a cliff where our labor was rewarded with breathtaking views. The following day we awoke at the crack of dawn hiked along a precipitous ridge-line connecting Interlaken to nearby Brienz and stumbled down the mountain after a 26.2 mile hike to realize that we had missed the last train to Interlaken for the night. After hitchhiking back to our hostel, we caught a few hours of sleep before departing again for Luzern, a beautiful city that perfectly blended its history with modern flare.

Though we were thrilled to take a break from activity and relax for a few beats, upon checking into our hostel, we quickly came to understand that the company’s IT platform had been down for a few days and the room we had booked months in advance was no longer available. Scrambling to avoid the rain we searched for a place to stay and came upon a website called couchsurfing.com where we contacted Jean, a french national with an affinity for peanut butter and American heavy metal. After arriving safely at Jean’s flat, we collapsed on his living room floor — tired, wet, cold, and hungry. We had challenged Switzerland and it proved to be a stout competitor.

Now, almost a year later, I am returning to Switzerland to redeem myself (and learn quite a few new things in the process). Careful planning and preparation for this semester abroad is the only means to a trip where I have a chance to gain some footing on the fine ledge between living abroad and surviving abroad. Hopefully, a year’s time will have been sufficient to plan for success in this remarkable country, and as the final hours to my departure tick away, I wait in anticipation for my chance to even the score.

 

Rediscovering my identity abroad

As I mentally prepare myself for study abroad at NUS, I reflect back on my first study abroad experience – to here, America, 10 years ago. I entered America feeling both excited and nervous, and, while those feelings have now all but faded away, I still struggle to call America home. In fact, I feel as though I never had a home, just places I dwelt in and a vague specter of my culture that haunts me.

Experiences like mine aren’t new to diasporic communities, and children of diaspora take on many strategies different to navigate their own struggles. Personally, I find it liberating to double down on the fact that I don’t have a place where I can trace my roots or feel nostalgic about. Since I don’t really feel like I’m from anywhere (I think many of us who struggle to give a straightforward answer when someone asks them “Where are you from?” can relate), I’m more comfortable entering new environments. It’s what I’ve been doing for the most of my life.

In that spirit, I want my time abroad at Singapore to be a personal journey as much as an academic one. Significantly, Singapore presents me with opportunities to rediscover my Korean identity outside of American contexts. I’m no longer forcefully tied to my citizenship under liberal multiculturalism (“We’re all equal, proud Americans under the same flag!”) but at the same time I’m faced with new challenges such as confronting my East Asian privilege in Southeast Asia (as a Singaporean friend jokingly advised me, “Don’t tell them you’re American. Just present yourself as Korean and you’ll quickly make friends with the locals”). Just preparing for study abroad has made me realize that there’s no neutral choice when it comes to presenting my identity – there are only different extents to which I can choose to acknowledge this fact.

Above all, I have to be conscious of glorifying or criticizing Singapore as an outsider. As much as I am interested in Singaporean politics, society, culture, and language (if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have applied to this program), I shouldn’t suddenly be pretending to be an anthropologist, assuming the guise of an apolitical participant-observer. I will still blog about my experiences, but I will commit myself to refrain from making any statements beyond my own personal thoughts (if at any point I am overreaching, please call me out!).

**On a tangential note, registration has so far been a very difficult process for an unorganized person like me. Word of advice for future exchange students to NUS: start getting into contact with other exchange students early (NUS makes Facebook groups for exchange students about a while after admissions are out), because it’s better to struggle together than alone. Most importantly, stay calm if something goes wrong because literally anything can happen, including accidentally getting sent a rejection letter when you, in fact, got into the program.

possibly the worst three days of my life between the two emails

 

Back Again

There were many times in Paris where I actually felt desperate to go home. I missed my friends and iced coffees and the feeling of being somewhere that felt familiar. At the time though I knew I’d miss being in Paris so much. By the end of my 4 months there, the novelty of just waking up and moving around Paris as part of my daily routine had only worn off the tiniest bit, and I found myself panicking a little as the time to go home drew closer. I felt ready to leave, but I was also dreading the inevitable realization of what I had left behind.

Settling back into life on campus, at Northwestern, was surprisingly easy. Everything seemed to just click back into place once the initial vertigo of being back had worn off. Because of this, though, my life back in Paris feels like this weird, insulated dream. I look back on days wandering around not just Paris, but other European cities like Amsterdam and London and find myself shocked to think of how far away I was from the people and places that were familiar to me.

I find myself constantly in the mood to evoke some vibes from my time there – I listen to a lot of French music and constantly look back through my own photos and others of just the streets, trying to recreate that feeling of being there. Even though I got to experience that feeling for 4 entire months, at this point it feels just like a single instant I keep mentally returning to. I’m already thinking ahead to post-grad life, wondering when I’ll have another opportunity to go back.

Some photos I took on my last walk around this beautiful, extremely photogenic city

An Afterword

So, it’s been a while since I’ve been back home. After weeks of waiting, some serious trouble accessing cash, and about 7 flights across Europe in two weeks, I’ve survived “study abroad.” Here’s to that!

A picture from Berlin, at the Gendarmenmarkt (a very nice Christmas market)!

My last few weeks were a lesson in stress-management. After having all my assignments due, I suddenly had to also manage all of my friends leaving at different times, and trying to say goodbye to each of them, while also finishing all of my goodbye-Europe travel plans (I only went to Rome, Berlin, and Prague…. did you know that I studied abroad in Euuuroooope?). Add on any logistical mishap, phone malfunction, or even slight delay in catching the 83 bus line, and I started to get very homesick. I missed Northwestern, I missed my classes, and I missed my friends. To me, I was about to return and continue the work that was already 6 quarters and 2 summers in progress – study abroad felt like a bit too much of an aberration, knowing that I was soon to return to one and a half more years of that same Northwestern environment.

And of course, since I’m nothing if not predictable, now I’m missing the hell out of Paris. I started writing this post during Week 3 of Winter Quarter classes, so I’ve mostly had my chance to answer everyone’s greetings of “Hello!! How was it over there?”, and each time I’ve responded, I’ve missed Paris a little more. There’s elements of my life that just aren’t the same – the crêpes are gone, it’s harder to leave my campus to go and meet friends, my weekends are less filled with new sights, and I’m meeting fewer people. On top of it all, I’ve lost the constant challenge of navigating and reflecting on difference – of trying to make sense out of a different culture’s daily life and experience that is so different from mine.

(Addendum: yes, even though I was studying in Western Europe, French society is still different. And if anything, its proximity to American culture makes the small differences, be it in education structure, in civic participation, conceptions of politeness, or social order, so much more interesting).

The more time I spend away, the more I realize that I also miss the beauty of Paris. It’s hard to describe Paris in a way that hasn’t already been said, written, sung, or played, but man, the city is beautiful. It’s uniform, in a way that’s frustrating at first. You can never really know where you are, since every set of buildings looks the same – short, with old windows, a gray-yellow colour, and a probably-really-old entrance door always equipped with a stark blue number sign. But that uniformity is also so striking. From any vantage point, Paris seems to simply sprawl itself out to the horizon. Its erratic street pattern adds texture to the city. It’s a place for getting lost, where you can just wonder upon a restaurant-studded main street (Rue Oberkampf) or yet another museum related to a 19th century novelist (the Maison de Victor Hugo by the Place des Vosges).

Paris is now a memory, and that’s a very very hard statement to reconcile. I’m not in any way dissatisfied: I know I learned a lot, and I know I grew exponentially as an independent, young, adult. There’s a distinct happiness and lightness in my daily life that I felt, where now I feel a (perhaps much more American) need for “work” and “goals.” But that stress does get a little sweeter every time I think of the wonderful people, places, and memories contained within that 4-month memory bubble.

Nonetheless, I’m so happy to have gone. The next question is when I go back. And, for how long…

New memories with new friends

Since arriving home, tons of people have asked me about my time in Singapore, expecting lengthy answers about traveling, experiencing new cultures, and eating good food. And even though I had a great time doing all those things, they didn’t feel like the most valuable or memorable part of my time in Singapore.

So when my good friend from Northwestern innocently asked me about my favorite memory from Singapore, I struggled to answer with one specific memory. All that came to mind were snippets of my best friends and I chatting in the dining hall for hours, our impromptu trips to malls, our late night deliveries of Al Ameen’s (a nearby restaurant with delicious North Indian cuisine), and the hilarious encounters we had whenever we went out to a bar. I didn’t have a singular favorite memory of Singapore, because my favorite memories were all threaded together by my new best friends.

Because I was in a totally new country where I knew almost nobody, during my first week in Singapore I had an intense (albeit irrational) fear of feeling alone and isolated for the entire semester. So when I planned to visit a museum with another exchange student who bailed at the last minute, I was devastated. But one of my local suitemates offered to come with me instead, and ended up spending the entire day showing me around. Fast forward a month, and we already had a list of twenty different things we wanted to do along with even more inside jokes we already had with each other.

By the end of the semester, I had a small handful of friends in a tight-knit group who I could talk to anything about for hours on end. They were all so different from me – three of them grew up in Singapore, while one of them was on exchange from Australia, and none of them were studying science like I was. But our eclectic and random memories together showed me that close friendships can form anywhere with anybody. Going abroad comes with a lot of new incredible memories, and they deserve to be shared with new incredible friends.

Three weeks into the semester, two of my suitemates and best friends from Singapore celebrated my birthday with me at a lovely afternoon tea.

At the end of the semester, all five of us celebrated an American Thanksgiving.

My Experience vs Theirs

Nearing my last few days abroad, I feel like I have become an expert on the differences between an exchange program and a study abroad program. Comparing my experience to those of my friends, I have noticed some key differences in my experience that make exchange experiences unique and appealing to different types of people.

One of the main differences is the amount of autonomy and independence that you have in an exchange program. Being in an exchange program almost felt like freshman year all over again as you’re pretty much on your own in terms of picking classes, meeting new people and making friends, and assimilating to a completely new environment. While Bocconi does organize a few orientation events, they are not really conducive to mingling with your exchange-mates. Compared to my friends who enrolled in study abroad programs, they had a set group of students who they attended every class and even trips planned by their program together. The independence definitely can be overwhelming, but as long as you put yourself out there and are open to meeting people from different walks of life from all over the world, you will find people who will enhance your exchange experience tenfold.

Another main difference between my experience and study abroad experiences was the diversity of the people I met. Through my exchange program, I was able to meet people from all over the world from Norway to Australia. This was probably the coolest part of my experience as I got to interact with so many people from different cultures, and learn about so many different parts of the world through my one exchange. It was also helpful that my classes were taught in English and all exchange students also spoke English. Not only was I introduced to so many different cultures, but I was able to make friends that I will keep in touch with for the rest of my life. While you meet new people on both exchange and study abroad programs, study abroad programs usually consist of other American students. I was so thankful for my ability to be exposed to so many different cultures and to branch out of my American-dominated educational experiences. Although everyone’s exchange experience is different, I am sure that most can relate to these characteristic elements and differences from study abroad programs and can decide which program is best for them.

Wrapping it up

Though it’s probably just cause I spent the better part of my my last couple weeks traveling, to the point where sleeping in hostels started to feel like some temporary new norm, I weirdly didn’t feel the need to make some grand use of my last few days in Paris. In a way, it felt like going to such lengths to create some kind of “perfect” last day would only result in frustration, a search for some sort of sense of completion that wouldn’t just appear out of thin air.

I made sure to get one last look at all my favorite/most-relevant-to-my-life spots in Paris however. This included one last walk through Montmartre cemetery, which was always my go to when I was too antsy to stay inside and too lazy to hop on the metro. The cemetery was so huge that there was always some new section to explore, and I deliberately avoided looking up where the famous graves were in the hopes of discovering them myself (I only ever found Emile Zola). Plus the cats wandering around and the leaves all over made for the perfect autumn vibe.

I had to take one last visit to the center of the city too. Completely unintentionally, I had never actually come across the Arc de Triomphe in my day-to-day life, so I forced myself to start there just so when I got home I’d be able to say I’d seen it. From there I went all the way to Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre for one last look at this area that always felt way too iconic to be a part of my everyday life. I ended up back at Rue du Bac, the metro stop where I would always get off to go to school.

The last place I went before I left Paris was back in Montmartre – one last quick walk up to the Sacré Coeur. It felt pretty fitting given the view over the entire city. It’s weird knowing that I really have no idea when I will ever come back to Paris and to know that though I’m a little relieved to be going home, it’ll be a few weeks before I’m missing it like crazy.

Mundanity in the study abroad experience

Everyday when I step outside the apartment, it’s hard not to feel like I’m on some extended, ridiculously long vacation rather than somewhere I’m actually just trying to live my life. Every shop and every bar feels like a potential opportunity that it’s up to me not to waste. One thing I’ve had to (force myself to) learn is that even though 4 months is a long time, it’s really not that long and I can’t count on myself to do everything there is to do or see everything there is to see within it.

The Gardens of Versailles!

I feel like teaching myself to be mundane has taught me a lot of good life lessons, mainly about appreciating the little things there are to enjoy in this city. Sitting in a café or taking a walk at home is generally a boring, bland way to pass the time whereas here it’s all about the vibes you’re able to soak in. Paris is special in all the little ways: the baguette you can buy just around the corner, the way you can sit in cafés and people watch, listening to people gab on in French. And then the constant beauty of being surrounded by this city makes every walk feel like an opportunity to reflect, to soak up an ambiance you’ll only get to experience for a short time.

Study abroad is a pretty iconic experience, not just in the context of college but also in life. The constant question is how you can “make the most of it” but it’s a train of thought I felt I had to abandon before I really could feel like I was fully feeling out what my experience meant to me.

A tropical Christmas

A tropical Christmas fast approaches and rests in my heart in a cozy way. In my last week I have visited the extensive flora shops to see rows of poinsettias in the sweltering humid heat — and I laugh to myself at the ride that has been the past few months. It’s strange to think that I had spent the past three years of my life in the frigid midwestern winter, nose hairs freezing and knuckles cracking under excessive Chi-berian climate, and here I stood in December of 2017 in shorts and a shirt, looking at poinsettias in a greenhouse.

This semester has passed by me at the perfect speed. Not too fast, not too slow, and it allowed me to grow without feeling rushed. Everyday felt full, and meaningful, and in every moment I felt grateful for the time that I was able to spend here. It is strange to think that a few months abroad can generate so much affection, affinity, and attachment to a place and its people. To think that I have to leave so soon is daunting, perhaps more so than how I felt as I prepared to come to Singapore leaving Evanston.

I think generally for those who are participating in study abroad programs, the impression may be that they have a semester more relaxing in nature in a foreign place in which they can enjoy themselves and have a lovely time. But I more than ever want to emphasize that studying abroad is no easy journey. It’s a curriculum in and of itself that students have to live and breathe through, and in living through it grow from in often difficult and painful ways. I’m happy to know that I have completed my program here and have gained so much insight and learning through it.