Singaporean Diversity and Politics

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A mosque in Singapore ^

I think if there’s one striking difference between the US and Singapore- it’s the diversity that’s here. Everywhere you look, there are people of 20 different skin colors and 10 languages are being spoken in a room at any given time. This isn’t just the “tourist-y” places but pretty much everywhere in Singapore. Women working in burqas are a common sight and traditional clothing aren’t worn only for special events. Chinatown isn’t just a place filled with Chinese restaurants but has been enriched with Chinese cultures, including temples, a village filled with statues inspired by Chinese mythology, and rituals the public can join and participate in. Little India and Arab Street have huge mosques and places of worship welcome to visitors and street after street of traditionally painted murals. I’ve heard there is no Freedom of the Press here, and the government does this in order to maintain peace between the different races here. The government also instills quotas in neighborhoods so there can’t be more than a certain percentage of a race in one concentrated region. Prior to coming here, I wasn’t sure what living under an authoritarian regime would be like. The word ‘Authoritarian’ in my political science classes almost always carries a negative connotation. The role the government plays in Singaporean daily life is much more present. Walking through the metro, the ads are seldom ads for new watches or perfume, but ads sponsored by the government to be more active or a new housing grant for those earning below average wage. A running joke among my friends and I is that every subway station drops you off at a shopping center (proven to be true in the majority of subway stations we’ve gotten off at!) and many of these malls will have posters inside promoting healthy eating (reject fried food, choosing veggies) as well as posters that brand “Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime”, warning citizens to always be aware. Further, most of the best museums, sport complexes, and tourist sites here are sponsored by the government, further emphasizing the role of the government in people’s daily lives. As an expat trying to experience daily life as a local Singaporean would, I’m honestly impressed by the services provided- perhaps this calls for a change of perspective on how we should be viewing these loose political terms and how a place with stricter rules can help lessen racial tensions in an extremely diverse society.

Finals culture

Singapore is culturally known as one that has extreme focus on academics and grades. Therefore, it is no surprise that around finals week, the level of stress for all students is at an all time high. The libraries gets packed, and sometimes students even sleep overnight in the libraries while studying. I too got sucked in to the culture and fell into a state of high stress, reviewing all my lecture notes, re-watching all my lectures, and repeatedly doing practice final exams.

I think that NUS students study just as hard (or harder) than NU students for sure. They are all highly motivated and I think the fact that all classes are graded on a bell curve push every student harder, since they are in the end all competing against each other. I felt that Northwestern’s final culture, albeit still stressful, was a little bit more lax than in NUS. I strongly felt this way especially after my first final. NUS has separate venues for examinations (meaning you don’t just take the finals in your classroom), and they are gymnasium-sized buildings, with rows upon rows of tables, filled with students from multiple classes. This kind of mass standardized testing setting only furthered my test anxiety.

 

As stressful as it was, at least I got to study in the warmth of the constant summer in Singapore, rather than the cold atrocious winters of Chicago.

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The Beginning of the End

Finishing up my semester in Singapore is such a bittersweet feeling. It feels like I just arrived off the plane with my giant luggage in tow, desperately hoping that I’d adjust to the intense heat and humidity quickly. While I still haven’t adjusted to the weather here after 4 months, most everything else about Singapore has started to feel like home. I have my favorite pockets of Singapore, my favorite hawker centers, and my go-to study spots on campus. I can navigate the subway system with absolutely no problem, as well as the bus system on campus. I know the best spots on campus to watch the sun set, the most relaxing nooks along the beaches, and the most interesting islands along the coast of Singapore. I’ve finally gotten used to life in Singapore, and now I have to leave it.

While I’m sad to leave Singapore, the friends I’ve met here, and all the places I’ve traveled in Southeast Asia, I’m excited to see my friends and family soon. I’m also relieved to almost be finished with classes. While all interesting and engaging, the courses at NUS have proven to be quite difficult and intensive, comparable to that of courses at Northwestern. I also wasn’t expecting there to be such an emphasis on group work; all 5 of my courses had major long-term group projects throughout the semester. Sometimes I had to plan shorter weekend excursions or skip dinners or events with friends due to meeting for group projects. While the group projects and intensity of classes presented obstacles, I’m still so glad I picked Singapore and NUS as my study abroad destination.

Elevator and escalator etiquette

If you want to stand on an escalator, be sure to stand on the right. If you wish to walk up or down the escalator, do so quickly on the left. As for elevators, if you are standing by the door, press the door open button until all nearby passengers may enter the elevator. As soon as the elevator is boarded, immediately press the close door button. File into and out of the elevator very swiftly.

 

These are the unwritten rules of Hong Kong elevator and escalator etiquette.

A very long escalator in Mong Kok, Hong Kong

Back in the states, it would have seemed odd to me that I would find myself writing a post on vertical vehicles, but Hong Kong’s idealized and practiced elevator and escalator norms I find to be emblematic of the kind of serious efficiency which the city has mastered. Lines that I would have previously considered too long disappear within a few short minutes. Payments with a tap-and-go “Octopus” card allow purchases to happen in a blink. Store clerks and waiters avoid small talk at all costs to ensure the service tasks themselves are done properly and quickly.

 

One can never fully understand this kind of environment, these seamless queuing practices and high standards of efficiency, until one visits this place. There is sort of a mutual understanding among all citizens—and integrated foreigners—to play their part, melting into the steady rhythm of the city’s fast pace.

 

While some might initially perceive this as a sense of coldness across the city, I find that it comes out of the necessity to make-do while living in one of the world’s most densely populated cities. For one, the sheer number of buildings over one hundred meters (1,303 to be exact) necessitate not only functioning elevators and escalators, but a culture of efficiency to make it all work. And so, I find myself standing on the right and walking on the left: getting onto Hong Kong’s level.

Beyond Singapore

It’s surreal how quickly time has flown by here in Singapore. As much as I love Singapore, though, my favorite part about my study abroad experience has been traveling to other countries in Southeast Asia. That was actually one of the main reasons why I wanted to study abroad in Singapore; I can easily jet off to different countries within Asia for a weekend.

So far I’ve been to Tioman Island in Malaysia, Batam Island in Indonesia, Bangkok in Thailand, Siem Reap in Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. All of them have such different but incredible experiences, given how unique the culture is in each country. It’s difficult to even pinpoint my favorite destination because of how different the experiences have been in each. If I had to pick my top two favorite visits, though, I’d pick Bangkok and Siem Reap.

I traveled to Bangkok with a large group of friends (about 20 of us) so it was a packed weekend of exploring the bustling city during the day while also enjoying the nightlife. Bangkok offers a rich culture with hundreds of Buddhist temples and the largest outdoor market in the world, as well as an exciting nightlife with busy restaurants, bars, and clubs. I loved experiencing cultural aspects and social aspects of the city all within one weekend.

I enjoyed Siem Reap equally as much as I did Bangkok, although it was a completely different adventure. I traveled to Siem Reap with my mom during my university’s week-long fall break, so we had much more time to explore the city compared to other places I’ve been. The city is much less crowded than other Asian cities like Bangkok and Hong Kong, although it has evolved into an increasingly popular tourist destination. Siem Reap serves as primarily a cultural destination; very little nightlife exists. During my visit to Siem Reap, my mom and I visited numerous temple sites, such as Angkor Wat, as well as a floating village. One of the best aspects of Siem Reap is how kind and generous everyone is; all of the people we interacted with, whether it be our tour guide, hotel staff, or restaurant waitresses, were so grateful that we had traveled to Siem Reap.

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Livability of London

London…worth living in? Absolutely! The city of London is home to over 8.5 million people, which does not include the curious travelers passing through its borders each year. About 31.5 million international and UK tourists come funneling into the city every year excited to see Big Ben, the London Eye, the British Museum, and the hundreds of other sights the city has to offer. All these sightseers within London’s 607 square miles means that the streets, museums, restaurants, pubs, and galleries are always busy. However, this does not mean you have to run into crowds everywhere you go. You can escape the massive queues and visit all the places and restaurants you’ve dreamed of going to while in London. All you have to do is talk to the locals. The locals have experienced every period of the year in London, and they know when it is best to visit all the most popular sights. A small conversation with a resident Londoner can save you hours of waiting behind anxious tourists taking pictures of everything they see. The precious time you cave save with a quick conversation could mean the difference between tasting one delicious treat at London’s famous Borough Market and eating everything your heart desires.

Living and studying in London is not just about finding the best restaurants, markets, and museums, it’s about learning how to navigate the intricate public transportation system, finding your favorite grocery store, and joining the most interesting student groups around. With transportation applications like Citymapper you can easily learn how to move around London. With more than 10 grocery stores within walking distance from UCL you can expect to find delicious food at affordable prices anywhere. And with over 250 clubs at UCL you can be sure to find the most interesting club(s) to be a part of. All in all, London is a very livable place that only takes a few weeks to get used to!

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Adventure is Out There

Wow, I can’t believe how much Singapore feels like home already. The country is such an interesting mix of Western and Asian culture — everywhere I go I see people of all different ethnicities and religions, food from all over the world, and so many different languages being spoken. I knew Singapore was considered a “melting pot,” but I didn’t think it would be to this extent.

Despite Singapore’s constant heat and humidity (I checked the weather app on my phone the other day and it said the weather felt like 108 degrees!), I try not to let that stop me from exploring. One of my favorite destinations in Singapore is Haji Lane, located in a pocket of Singapore known as Kampong Glam. This area isn’t actually much of a tourist destination, but maybe that’s why I like it so much. Haji Lane reminds me of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco — it has a very hipster vibe with lots of vintage boutiques and small cafes, as well as murals painted on the walls. I’ve been there both during the day for shopping and the night for dinner; during the night it’s quite bustling with people eating and drinking outside.

My other favorite area to visit in Singapore so far is Gardens by the Bay. Gardens by the Bay is definitely a tourist destination, but it completely lives up to the hype. It’s essentially a nature park filled with different pockets of scenic walks, conservatories such as the Flower Dome, and tree-like structures. It’s absolutely incredible at night, as the “trees” are lit up and the skyline looks so vibrant behind it.

Four months seems like such a long time for studying abroad, yet my time here is already flying by. I hope at the end of journey I’ll feel like I took advantage of every opportunity I had to explore.

The dreaded midterm season

Libraries are packed, extracurricular activities slows down, and studying is at an all time high– yup, it’s midterm season.

Academics in NUS has a slower pace than NU because NUS has a semester system. Instead of the usual 3 hours of lecture per week , modules usually have 2 hours. Nonetheless, midterm season is very much real and can be stressful as all the midterms for every module will usually be packed into the first week after recess week. In NUS, many classes provide webcasts ( recorded lecture video for every lecture) which has come very much in handy for me in my midterm studies as I can go back and rewatch the lecture and pause or skip to my liking and made me really wish NU will pick up on webcast technology also. The only thing that I would have wanted in NUS in terms of academic resource is office hours. None of my modules have standard office hours from the TA or the professor, so it is a little hard to get outside of class help. Even with the slower pace, NUS still is definitely academically challenging and all the professors I have are very engaging.

As I reach the midpoint of my stay in Singapore, I have started to feel a little homesick. Even though I love Asian food, I have come to miss American food and have tried out the McDonalds in Singapore to try out the Singapore McDonalds specialty called the McSpicy (a very spicy chicken burger) and crab flavored curly fries. I always feel kind of guilty when I don’t eat something more local, but the McSpicy was definitely worth trying out.

 

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Surviving International Fees

Money. By far it is one of the most stressful things to think about when it comes to living in a foreign country. What is going to be the easiest, and cheapest, way to pay for food, housing, pubs, tours, events? Foreign transaction fees, currency conversion fees, and ATM fees…they’re all horrible. Oftentimes they can end up costing a lot of money, and soon enough you realize that the cup of coffee you paid for cost as much as buying an expresso machine. For this reason it is important that you take a little bit of time before you embark on your study abroad journey to look at what bank accounts can waive these charges. One of my good friends that had just gotten back from studying in London over the summer had mentioned that Charles Schwab waived all international fees and even reimbursed you every time you withdrew money from an ATM, unlimitedly. After doing a little bit of research, I made an account and it seems to work exactly as she mentioned. I’ll definitely make sure to follow-up on how the account treats me after a few weeks in London.

Similar to packing, knowing how you are going to pay for everything in your new country can take a little bit of time and brain power. However, with enough preparation you can reduce the number of headaches you could experience down the line. All it takes is a little bit of research and a whole lot of patience.

 

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10 things you must have done if you celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival

  1. 1. You heard that there once were 10 suns

This begins the legend of why Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated. The legend goes (as told by a fellow HKUST student) that 9 of the 10 suns were shot down by a super-strong archer. For his feats, the archer was given two pills that could make him immortal. Somehow, his wife got a hold of them and ate them both. The effect was so strong from the two pills that she flew like a rocketship to the moon. She is still there, and that is why the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated.

  1. 2. You spent quality time with friends and family

I was lucky enough to go to a local student’s family’s home to have dinner with them and a couple other international students. Then we hung out with a bunch of other local friends later in the evening. Mid-Autumn Festival is always about being with the people that you care about.

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  1. 3. You ate traditional Chinese food

On the menu for me were a couple kinds of dumplings, fish, bacon-like pork, meat and vegetables wrapped in meat, shrimp, and more. A truly fabulous meal.

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4. You went to a park

Families, children and friends gather in large public parks in the afternoon and evening to celebrate. Many have light displays and traditional music and dance performances.

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5. You saw pretty lanterns

Lanterns are a true symbol of the festival.

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6. You light your own pretty lanterns

lantern + candle + fire = beauty

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7. You ate a traditional mooncake

The traditional mooncake is a special pastry made of lotus seed or red bean paste. Mooncakes are quite sugary and dense, so they are usually cut and shared among friends.

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8. You ate a snowy mooncake

A Hong Kong special! One bakery in Hong Kong started making a cold version of the mooncake (hence their “snowy” description) and Hong Kongers fell in love. With a more rubbery, fondant-like outside than its more cookie-like predecessor, the snowy mooncake has now been copied by bakeries all over town. My favorite flavors were mango and green tea.

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9. You learned why mooncake is eaten for mid-Autumn festival

Many moons ago, the Han Chinese people wanted to start a revolution against the ruling Mongols but didn’t have Facebook messaging or Morse code to relay the message. So they turned to hiding messages in mooncakes about the planned revolution which was to take place on the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

10. You saw a full moon

Seeing the full moon clearly on Mid-Autumn Festival’s night is like having snow on Christmas: it just makes the holiday feel more special. Despite forecasts of severe typhoons that threatened to cancel classes and shut the city down, the night ended up being perfectly clear for my first mid-Autumn Festival. And for that, all the Hong Kongers and I were grateful.