My approach is to be mindful, observant, and appreciate everything. From my previous travel experiences, I learned that it’s best to put away preconceived notions and prejudices, yet learn a few things about the culture before hand. And be vary of going by the book. It’s a paradox. I have lived and traveled in the Eastern hemisphere before and familiarity with many Asian cultures helped me.
So here are my first impressions or rather observations.
SPATIAL DISTANCE. Different cultures have different ideas of what appropriate distance means. When I first got off the Tokyo airport and headed to the transfer security check to find a line. I noticed that people stood closer to each other. I had a person cut in front of me and then another lady asked me if I was in line. That’s when I realized the person behind was only a couple of inches away from me. And I moved closer up. It felt awkward. From noticing people around me, I picked up on the norm. So, I wasn’t offended. This is an example of being observant. As I’m living here, I noticed that buses can get packed and there are people in all four sides and an inch away from you! At least, when I say “excuse me” and need to get off, they accomodate. It still feels weird to me. At least in Singapore, the laws are strict, so unlike some countries I don’t have to worry about being groped on a crowded bus.
SAFETY and BEING FEMALE. I’ve been told that Singapore is a very safe city for women living alone. I could go running by myself and not have to worry. I went out and about by myself and didn’t feel uncomfortable.
BIG BROTHER and THE LAWS. Before I came to Singapore, I was told, “Don’t spray paint cars there” as a reference to the Michael Fay case in the 90s. Singapore is known for its fines and strict laws. There are cameras everywhere. However, it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. I had someone tell me that in some Singaporean restaurants, for every gram of leftover food you have to pay a fine. It is total BS. To confirm the rumors, unless you plan to vandalize, attack someone, do drugs or anything illegal, there is nothing to worry about. Caning is legal for serious offenses such as rape, child abuse, vandalism, attacking someone, illegal immigration and for males under 50. Women and elderly are not caned. Death penalty is for drug traffickers.
We can all argue about ethics, law, and political philosophy, but things are different in different cultures. The constitution does not follow us when we leave the USA. And when you move to a foreign country, it’s your responsibility to learn about and accept the local customs. If you have an issue with it, then don’t go! For example, I would not want to be in a conservative Islamic country like Saudi Arabia, because I have an issue with the laws and attitudes towards women and lack of religious freedom for non-muslims.
HOT and HUMID. I was inside the bus and fanning myself with a paper fan that I just bought. A Chinese lady next to me asked, “It’s very hot.” I nodded. Other people around me looked like their usual selves while I was extremely uncomfortable with beads of sweat under my clothes. The weather is 90 degrees and humid all year round. It’s a tropical rainforest. After being in Portland for 18 years, where it’s dry and 70 degrees could be considered a hot day for some people, this is a big change. I can’t help wondering if I’ll ever get used to this weather. I also discovered that I better keep chugging water. I also noticed locals holding an umbrella to protect themselves from the mid-day sun. It makes sense.
FLORA. On the bright side, there are some beautiful plants and trees. I’d normally expect a big city to lack greenery; however, there are plenty of trees and plants. I am excited about orchids. I can finally grow orchids in my apartment and workplace.
HOUSING. Housing is very expensive in Singapore. Rents may come as a shock. That’s typical of big cities. And I’ll be living in a high rise apartment or flat as they call it here. Most people don’t live in houses. Houses are extremely expensive and only Singaporean nationals can own land. The other thing is that housing application is different. I am still waiting for approval for my apartment. I hope it passes.
MILLIONAIRES. 1 out of 6 people in Singapore are millionaires. I remember the afternoon when Dave, my host, told us that. In that case, my question is: out of that pool, who is single, no older than mid 30s, and attractive. That’s the important details. I’m not a gold digger. If I had a choice between a sleazy, unattractive, old millionaire versus an average, educated middle-class guy who’s honest, hardworking, I’d choose the average guy. I assume that millionaires are usually old men.
BUS and SUBWAY. Owning a car and gas price is even more expensive than the housing. Most people take the bus and train. It’s efficient, easy, and convenient. This is my second week and I am getting around fine. There are also taxis that I can flag down if necessary.
DURIAN FRUIT and DURIAN MCFLURRY. It tastes weird. Too mushy and I can’t stand the strong smell. It is not allowed in buses and trains. Even if it was allowed, other passengers wouldn’t be too happy about it.
LOCAL CULTURE. Singapore is a multicultural city. But the general culture is what I’d describe as modern Asian culture fusion. In the beginning, we all noticed Kelly calling the cab driver uncle and she explained it. She explains that she calls locals uncle or aunty out of respect. Even in India, we had that custom. The next day, Andy called the cab driver uncle and the cab driver in his 30s looked at him funny. Let me confirm: you only call much older local people aunty or uncle. Older means a person old enough to be your father or mother. It’s a great story about encountering cultures.
FOOD. I am excited about the food. There are all types of Asian food: Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and others. Western food and groceries can be more expensive. I am enjoying it. However, I must confess that today I missed a burger and fries and had my dinner at Burger King. Burger King occasionally has good deals. I had a Whopper Jr meal, which was S$3.95, which is considered cheap here.
Hawkers: this is a food court, where you can get cheap foods. It’s generally asian food.
Dairy such as milk and cheese can be very expensive. But, I am lactose intolerant and try to avoid dairy products, so this is a good place to be. Milk makes me sick. I can have small amounts of cheese and icecream. Pizza Hut is very expensive here. They have some interesting things in their menu. I got into pizza after watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons as a kid.
Bakery. Back home, I used to drive to Uwajimaya or H-mart, which are Asian grocery stores to get their baked goods. Here it’s all around me. For example, I grabbed a few buns with ham and cheese. It makes great snacks. There is a good French cafe with croissant sandwiches and macaroons too.
Unfortunately, Singapore is not a good place to be if you are a coffee snob. I can occasionally treat myself to Starbucks, but spendy to frequently visit. I will have to make it at home. I packed two bags of coffee in my suitcase. My request to friends and family back home is to send me ground Stumptown coffee.
DIVERSITY. I love the fact that you meet people from all over the world. I have run into other Americans, Canadians, Australian, British, South African, Mexican, Swedish, Indians, Pakistani, Chinese, and others. I look forward to meet more people from different walks of life with their own unique story. I truly enjoy the international mix.
Overall, Singapore seems to be a nice, modern big city. I am enjoying the internationalism of meeting people of all backgrounds. I like it so far. In some ways, I am reminded of growing up in Dubai. A possible issue is not about adjusting to this culture. What if I like it so much that I do not want to return to the USA? So far, I have a 2 year contract. What happens afterwards is up to Singapore immigration and where the Lord decides to place me. In my workplace, there are people who’ve lived for 10 years or more. That’s a good sign.