Singapore Week One

It’s been a month now since I’ve been in Singapore so there will be some foresight in these next couple blogs on my time so far. These weeks have been met with ups and downs and an overall feeling of being overwhelmed with my new environment. But one thing that has been driving me as I have been here has been a quote from the new documentary Free Solo which I watched on the 24hour plane ride to the other side of the world: “ Nobody achieves anything by being happy and cozy… you face your fear because your goal demands it- that is the warrior mentality.” It has been observed by people around me that I am not a warrior- I don’t necessarily fight my fears head on with a tough face, but I am hoping to change that.

My first week here was challenging. I realized I was not prepared for the tropical heat, which manifested from my face of melted makeup after my first day- I don’t even bother with it anymore. My first day I attempted to navigate around my little area of Whampoa and went to Orchard Road to shop for things that I had forgotten back home. I realized quickly that despite English being the national language of Singapore, I was definitely going to run into more communication problems than I had anticipated. As I walked around I realized the strong abundance of Chinese and realized that there was still a strong presence of the culture that is absent in my American experience. Considering that the population of Singapore is around 70% it makes sense but it made me feel the disconnect of being an ABC (American born Chinese) more than Rachel Chu.  

My second day I went into work at the Training Vision Institute. The one hour commute from Whampoa to Jurong East involves getting on a bus with a transfer to a train. Luckily the public transport here is efficient and honestly easier to figure out than NYC transit. Once I arrived to the office tower I took the lift up to the eighth floor anxious to meet the Professor Singh that I had been messaging and hearing so much about. I can barely remember what all we talked about the first day, but here’s what I gathered from him: Dr. Singh is an intelligent man that is a bit of a trouble maker- for good reason. He has been all over the world (his latest adventure being Antarctica) and has met so many important people (easily the most geek-worthy for me was how he snuck Paulo Freire into Singapore to speak at his university). He is a world renowned poet and professor with hundreds of thousands of books in a warehouse needing to be sorted out. He is very strong in his beliefs but is always willing to learn more about the world. As we closed our meeting, he told me to do some research on lifelong learning over the weekend as he figured out tasks for me to do.

The next day I decided to lean into my foreign tourist persona and spent a day out and about visiting the National Museum of Singapore, Fort Canning Park, and the Gardens by the Bay. I loved being able to immerse myself into a new history and see some of the most notable places of Singapore, however it was on this day where I was taking in all of these amazing things and realized I had no one to share it with. I was sad.

casual tourist pic

casual tourist pic

marina bay

marina bay

The first person that I met in SG (aside from my Grab driver) was Ann. Thankfully Prof. Singh had arranged for me to stay with his former assistant. My jetlag and her busy schedule hindered our ability to get to know each other in the beginning, but now I definitely can say that I have found a friend in Ann. She describes herself as not a typical 30-something-year-old Singaporean woman- she is fiery and outspoken (a Sagittarius sun and Scorpio rising) and doesn’t overly concern herself with money. She had worked in theatre since she was 14 years old and but has settled down for a job at one of the local universities, Singapore Management University (SMU). Ann occasionally indulges me in her past life as a 20 something year old: her time studying at Oxford, traveling across Europe, her past relationships and partying. She is an amazing worldly person who gives off a sense of security in herself and fearlessness. I want to be like her.

The first time I went out to eat with Ann she invited her friend Kelvin as well. Kelvin had a cafe for six years but recently shut it down so he isn’t working right now.  Luckily, him and I hit it off after the initial awkwardness and he has been an amazing tour guide and companion to be with when Ann is busy (as she usually is) and I don’t have to go into the office.

For our first day out, he brought me to the Asian Civilization Museum. There were so many beautiful pieces of these cultures: Chinese pottery, Islamic art, Malay instruments etc. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit on Asiatic religion, as once you have Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Hinduism plus indigenous tribal beliefs altogether, I could see such beauty in the diversity of thought of the region and how religion can inform a culture and culture can inform a religion.

"Jains believe the earthly realm where mortals live is most important because it is where liberation from the cycle of rebirth is possible, and because Jinas are born there. The diagram shows the world in concentric circles, The inner circle includes the Indian subcontinent with Mount Meru, the home of the gods, at the center. Paintings like this are thought to be teaching aids for monks to explain the order of the world to their followers."

“Jains believe the earthly realm where mortals live is most important because it is where liberation from the cycle of rebirth is possible, and because Jinas are born there. The diagram shows the world in concentric circles, The inner circle includes the Indian subcontinent with Mount Meru, the home of the gods, at the center. Paintings like this are thought to be teaching aids for monks to explain the order of the world to their followers.”

Talking to Kelvin as we walked through the exhibit of Malay cultural artifacts, I started to understand that mysticism is a lot more prevalent in this area than it is back in the United States. He openly talked about seeing spirits- which he attributes is heightened by his condition where he sees color- and that there are higher powers at work in this world that still inform occurrences today. He told a story of him accidentally walking into a spirit and how he fell ill for days afterward. He mentioned a friend where after moving into a new house, she was told by a friend that she had a spirit living there to bring luck to the house, and then when a plumber came a couple weeks later, he mentioned the spirit too and described it in the exact same way. More stories like this continued. I don’t exactly know what to make of these stories, however as I was taking it all in they gave me a sense of uneasiness and relief at the same time. It is daunting to think past the limits of the human experience, but with the tremendous abundance of spirituality here it doesn’t seem like a hard concept for people.

After the museum Kelvin took me to meet with his other friend Jolee who is a teacher at a local school. Kelvin mentioned his desire and interest for autistic and learning disable persons, and he was bringing me to the Enabling Village which is basically a community center for people with learning disorders to thrive. One part of the center utilizes artwork made by autistic children and sells items with the designs on them- therefore celebrating creativity while supporting the community. We later met Ann for dinner in Little India. It was traditional South Asian cuisine that you eat with your hand; however, all I could think about was Filipino Kamayan.

Food in Little India after a loooong hot day of roaming the city!

Food in Little India after a loooong hot day of roaming the city!

I navigated my first week in Singapore with a lot of anxiety. Everything reminded me of something or someone back home. But that first week is when I started to realize that I had become way too comfortable with my life back in Virginia and that to grow, it is my agency to shape my life however I need to.