east meets west (jayemsey x singapore, part I)
Greetings from the other side of the world!
Notice anything different? The truth is, I liked the whole "The Californian Takes..." thing, but honestly, having graduated college and moved across the ocean, I'm ready to not be a Californian anymore, just for a while, if only for the reason that I want to see how far I can go before I come back someday. Plus the URLs/hashtags were getting obnoxiously long. But wherever I am, I'm always a Californian at heart.
Introducing my second travel blog series: JAYEMSEY x Singapore! If you read my post last month, you know that I'll be living here and working at POSSIBLE Singapore for the next six months, and if you followed my The Californian Takes New York travel blog series last summer, you pretty much know what what to expect (lots of attempts to be artsy + close-up pictures of food).
Today marks the end of a month and a half in Singapore, and it's still so surreal. I keep having to remind myself that I'm living in a foreign country, because sometimes it doesn't feel that way. Everyone told me that it would be really good for me, and they were right. If there ever were a country in which to start a new life completely on your own...it would be Singapore. I'd highly recommend it.
It seems like just yesterday I was in Asia, since my family just vacationed in China, Hong Kong, and Thailand over the summer. But Singapore is a country all its own.
As soon as I arrived, I immediately noticed how clean it was. Impeccably clean, AKA my kind of city. All of the signs were in English. The radio played the Spice Girls. Lots of people were walking around playing Pokémon GO. There was very little indication that I was 8,000 miles from home, except for the miniature Buddha that dangled from my taxi driver's rearview mirror, and the apparently ubiquitous Singaporean flag (Singapore just celebrated its 51st National Day, which marks the day it declared its independence from Malaysia).
It's very green and lush, with trees dotting the spaces in between skyscrapers, and the weather is hot and humid, but not nearly as awful as I expected. On a scale of "San Diego" to "baking cookies in Death Valley in the summertime," I'd say Singapore would be "slightly uncomfortable and occasionally inconvenient." I don't even need air-conditioning most of the time, which is a welcome change from Hong Kong where it was so stiflingly hot and humid that I'd feel dizzy midway through the day and couldn't use my camera because the lens would fog up.
What I wasn't prepared for were the random thunderstorms that are apparently very common here. As a Californian, I was deeply fascinated by the fact that it absolutely pours for around 15 minutes mid-afternoon every day, and then just stops as if nothing happened. The most amusing part is that the people here are completely unbothered by it—my coworkers will continue talking to me over thunder so loud it rattles the windows, and don't seem to notice the rain at all. I forget it's pretty much a tropical island, but torrential downpours in 89°F weather are a nice reminder. The buildings are colorful, strikingly geometric, and meticulously designed (which is apparently due to the fact all of the building façades are renovated every five years). Everything is very orderly here. It has none of the grime of China or Thailand.
Singapore is tiny. It only takes around two hours to cross the country, which is mind-blowing to me considering that it takes two hours just to reach LA. But it helps that the MRT is flawless. It's super-easy and straightforward to use, and the bus system goes everywhere. By my second day, some of the areas and buildings had already started to look familiar. And so far, I've managed to use the MRT system without getting lost once, which is quite an accomplishment if you know how directionally-challenged I am.
It's also a very international country. There are a lot of foreigners, so it's not uncommon to see women wearing hijabs next to Chinese businessmen and European tourists. I find I am more surprised to see white people than actual Singaporeans are, and I always have this strange compulsion to be friends with them because my first assumption is that they're American. But there actually aren't a lot of Americans here, despite the large expat population. Staring isn't as much of a thing, so I don't feel quite as much like an outsider, but since the majority of the population here is Chinese, people still think that I'm mixed or Filipino or Malay (which is funny because my dad was born in Malaysia). Everything here is written in English, but with Asian translations. Some in Chinese, some in Thai, and some in a language I don't recognize.
But it's actually not as expensive as you might think to live here. The cost of housing is very high, since space is so limited, and owning a car is equally as expensive because of astronomical fees and the legal requirement to replace it after ten years. The Certificate of Entitlement for owning a car will set you back around $150K, which is why the MRT is so accessible. But otherwise, everyday expenses aren't terrible. Food is much cheaper than I expected, especially when you eat locally (you can get a full meal for $2.50 USD!), and clothing/cosmetics are around the same price as they are in America.
I dedicated my first week to being as touristy as possible, so I went to Merlion Park and walked around Marina Bay. Nothing says culture like a 10-foot-tall sculpture of a merlion, gushing gallons of water from its mouth. I noticed a lot of lion iconography around Singapore, so I Googled it...as it turns out, the lion is the national symbol of Singapore, and the merlion is the "personification" of Singapore.
The fish body represents Singapore's origin as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means "sea town" in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore's original name—Singapura—meaning "lion city."
Marina Bay is gorgeous. It's just this huge expanse of water surrounded by all of these very pretty buildings. Its most famous hotel, Marina Bay Sands, is a 50-story-tall glass hotel topped with an incredible infinity pool, the largest one in the world.
I have this thing for city skylines, especially at night, and Singapore's is exceptionally stunning. If there's one thing I'll say about Singaporean architecture, it's that it's not afraid to be different, which makes it distinctive among other big cities like New York or San Diego, where all of the buildings look relatively similar. Singaporean architects like to play with different shapes and colors and textures, and it makes for a very interesting skyline. It's probably one of the most Instagram-worthy places I've ever seen (which is why after a year I decided to revive my account...you can check it out here or in the slider below).
There's also this thing called the double-helix bridge, a massive twisted-metal bridge studded with purple lights that looks like DNA. There were lighted letters on the walkway, in alternating pairs, and at first I couldn't figure out what it was. But then I realized...CGAT. DNA sequences. Brilliant.
I also visited the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, and I chose the Future World exhibit, a blend of art and technology. It was honestly one of the coolest exhibits I've ever been to, and I go to a good amount of them. But I liked this one because it was so relevant; it's always amazing to see so many real-world applications of science and technology, but it's especially refreshing to see them used for such a beautiful purpose—to create something of meaning for pure aesthetic pleasure.
It was divided into four sections: "Nature," "Town," "Park," and "Space," which housed different installations and demonstrated various aspects of life using technology. It was fully interactive, from A Table Where Little People Live, which responds to the objects you place around the little digital people and animals; to Sketch Aquarium, where you could draw fish, scan them, and watch them swim to life on a giant screen, and the "poetic and devastating" 100 Years Sea, a mesmerizing digital visualization of rising sea levels over time as a result of climate change.
Crystal Universe was by far my favorite installation. It was a room full of mirrors and curtains of small twinkly lights that glittered in time to music. You could use a "Create the Universe" app to choose different light patterns and sounds, and when you were standing in the middle of it, it felt like you were in another world, moving through space. Being enveloped in light and sound is one of the coolest experiences; it's awesome to look up and see all of these tiny illuminated constellations all around you, shimmering in waves. It reminded me a little bit of The End of Us, an indie video game I analyzed for my Literature and Technology class back in junior year, kind of whimsical and awe-inspiring but in a very simple way.
At night I went to ArtScience Late, "a buzzy, chilled-out, night-time destination." The night I went, it was "The Psychoactive Jazzhop Trip," a blend of "progressive modern jazz, future-soul inspired beats infused with notes of R&B and hip hop." Some of the artists were DasGeFoo, a jazz trio, FZPZ, a prodigal producer from Singapore described as "boom bap, sensual soul, and otherworldly synths that come together perfectly in one poignant package," and The Tim De Cotta Triad. It was pretty cool.
It was in one of the upstairs exhibits, and there was a dance floor with cool visuals. They offered free beer and free music with the purchase of a museum ticket...not the worst way to spend a Thursday night.
The thing about Singapore is that it's just a really visually appealing place, and very culturally rich.
The architecture ranges from Asian-inspired to European-esque (or at least I thought so; maybe it's just indicative of how little I know about architecture). And of course it's all very vibrant. The sharp contrast between old and new never fails to amaze me; it's like an exploration of a new city everywhere you go. There's always something to marvel at. There are little "districts" like Chinatown, Little India, Little Thailand. Each one carries with it the flavor of its respective country. Chinatown was actually very unimpressive to me, as I'm very partial to the ones in New York and San Francisco.
I also met up with my friend Coco, from AKPsi! She's from Taiwan, went to school at UCSB with me, and moved to Singapore a year and a half ago. She walked me around Haji Lane and we got lunch at an Indian restaurant, which was amazing. I haven't seen Coco since she graduated two years ago, so it was nice to catch up.
And we went to a Cat Café! Which has been a dream of mine ever since I found out that there were actually places you could go to be surrounded by cats for indefinite periods of time (besides shelters, which are very fun; Britt and I made an outing of it in Santa Barbara for some stress-relief during finals week).
It was such a cute little space, with small tables that cushions for guests to sit on and shelves on the wall for the cats to climb around. You could order a cup of coffee or dessert, and play with all of the cats just walking around. And they were so adorable. Cats have so much personality; I was in love. I was about three seconds from smuggling one out.
It was full of hipster food, like raindrop cakes, fancy matcha lattes, and gourmet marshmallows that were like $12 for five. I had the raindrop cake, because I'd seen it on BuzzFeed; it was this appealing little droplet of gelatin with brown sugar sauce and peanut powder. It was so cute, but predictably tasteless. It was like unflavored Jell-O. Now that I've had one, I don't feel the need to ever eat it again.
The festival was free, as was admission to all of the museums, so the lines were unbelievably long. I visited a couple of the exhibitions; none of them stood out too much to me (I've been spoiled with some really cool museums), but I liked the fact that all of the galleries featured local artists, and I was happy to support them. I noticed that unlike a lot of museums, the art was very evocative of joy and whimsicality and vibrancy. It was a nice change from a lot of modern art which is often monochromatic or very edgy.
I started work! I actually love it. I stay late most days but it doesn't even feel like work because I actually really enjoy what I'm doing and my bosses, Dixi and MK, are super-chill and treat me like their child.
On my first day, they took me out to lunch and we went to this little curry rice place that's been in business since the '70s. It was right next to a hawker center, and we went to one of the fruit stands after. It had some of the strangest fruits I've ever seen; they were all oddly-shaped and had been imported from Malaysia. The seller was very amused by the fact that I was carrying a camera with me and told Dixi that I was "obviously a tourist," but was very nice about it and opened each of the fruits to let me try them. My favorite was the mangosteen, this purple-shelled fruit with green leaves that, when opened, had soft, white fruit in it. Kind of like the texture of a lychee, but with a subtly sweet taste like a plum.
Dixi and Xindy, the account director, took me for drinks afterward. And by "afterward," I mean we started with gin and tonics in the office at 6 pm, and ended at a rooftop bar at 2:30 am in the middle of the city. It was fun, but also thoroughly exhausting. We'll see how long I survive here.
Work culture here is pretty similar to that of the US, and it's surprisingly relaxed (praise the lord for being able to wear Nikes to the office!), so I feel pretty comfortable with everyone at the agency (this really funny woman who I was talking to on my second day I later found out was our CCO), and I often serve as the token American millennial. It's also strange coming from university and being the oldest one (class-wise, age-wise, year-wise) and then being the youngest one in the office. But the perks of being the baby are that everyone is so nice to me and always feeds me :').
The only negative thing is the commute...it's all the way across the country, so it takes me about an hour and a half to get to work every morning. It's not terrible, though. I usually just sleep, to make up for waking up at 6:30 am (is that even early for working people? It's too early for me).
We have five people on our team: MK, David, Christine, Eileen, and me. My old boss, Dixi, actually left two weeks after I started, to work in the Shanghai office. I'm convinced he left to get out of training me (a fact which he has neither confirmed nor denied), so now MK is top banana. We went out for drinks for his farewell party, and then somehow ended up at Zouk, one of the most popular clubs in Singapore. It was very interesting. I've never been clubbing with the CEO of the company at any of my previous internships. But it was a lot of fun.
Strategy (or "planning") is tough, but rewarding—I get to put all my research skills I learned as a journalist to use, and I get to work on some pretty cool clients (PayPal, Starbucks, MAC, LEGO). But it's a whole different playing field, and much more in-depth. I have to un-learn a lot of what I've always been told about scientific inquiry and the process of asking and answering questions, and understand how think within an entirely different context. It's amazing how little I actually knew about marketing prior to working here, and how much work goes into every step of the process. It's also an interesting contrast not only from "traditional" in-house marketing (agency jobs are simultaneously more comprehensive and more specialized), but also from Canopy in New York last year.
It's September now, the seventh month of the year according to the lunar calendar, and it's the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival. According to my boss, it's like Día de Los Muertos, and they believe that the dead walk among the living for a month. The streets are lined with large metal things that look like trash cans, but they're for burning things. When you walk down the streets at night, you see people praying and lighting bundles of incense, planting them along the pathways so you can see a trail of light guiding you home. They leave pieces of paper and food as offerings for their departed ancestors. There are traditional things like fruit, but some people leave full cups of boba or McDonald's Happy Meals. It's funny, seeing these old traditions in the midst of a rapidly developing culture. It's a perfect metaphor for Singapore.
Speaking of festivals, there's another one called the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it's everywhere. It's a very big deal, from what I gather. There are waiting lists to purchase mooncakes, a box of which costs like $50. It's pretty wild. I chose a black one with a milk custard filling. I've only had mooncakes maybe once in my life, and I don't remember liking them, but it was part of my philosophy to never say no to food here (you'll see where that got me in a bit). It was actually really good. The outside was chewy, kind of like mochi, and the inside was this egg-based filling that had a light vanilla taste. It was very heavy though; I can see how that tiny little cake is sufficient for one person, even as someone who has a very unwavering "more-is-more" attitude toward dessert.
And, lastly, the food. You can't possibly mention Singapore without mentioning the food.
I'm not allowed to use the kitchen for cooking, so it's kind of taking me back to freshman year dorm living. But it's not the worst thing in the world because a) groceries are expensive, b) local food is cheap and the portions are great, and c) street food is GOOD here. We're talking first-street-food-in-the-world-to-earn-a-Michelin-star good.
I haven't had much Western food yet (except french fries and chicken nuggets, which are the obvious exception), something I'm quite proud of, considering that I used to be a very particular eater. But I'm trying to be adventurous, so I've tried a lot of different things. AKA I am all of these people, simultaneously. Sometimes I go to restaurants I let people order for me, and I'm not even quite sure what I'm eating. And sometimes I let my boss drag me to an outdoor coffeeshop (a word which really means "food court") and feed me pig intestines. Yeah. I was really impressed with myself on that one. It was all right, too, although I don't know if I would intentionally seek it out as a meal.
I always say that my two favorite parts of going to any country are the markets and the temples: where they eat, and where they pray. It's a pretty good encapsulation of the local culture, as well as the country's history, in my opinion. And Singapore's is a delightful hodgepodge of all different kinds of Asian food, borrowed from the cultures that populate it. I've asked several people what exactly "Singaporean food" is, and no one can really give me a straight answer. There's a lot of Thai and Indian food, lots of curries and spices, and an endless variety of Chinese noodles. And the Hong Kong-style dim sum here is excellent. Hawker centers, or street food stall centers, are the backbone of the Singaporean food culture, which I've been informed is taken very, very seriously here. It's known for a few key dishes: laksa, chili crab, carrot cake (which is not a dessert, but a savory radish dish), prawn mee, ban mian, and kaya toast (toast with coconut jam).
But the most famous (and its unofficial national dish) is "chicken rice," which is exactly what it sounds like. Sometimes it's roasted chicken, sometimes it's boiled, sometimes it's fried, but it mostly always looks the same: expertly-sliced chicken atop a generous mound of rice. I'm not quite sure what's in it, other than the two main ingredients, but it's amazing. It's the rice. I've ruled out crack cocaine because it's highly illegal here, but there is definitely something in the rice that makes it very addictive. I don't think the boring, generic name of the dish does it justice at all.
Like in Thailand, they eat everything off of spoons, and chopsticks are merely used to shovel the food onto the spoons to compose a perfect bite before eating it. My coworkers found it amusing that I only ate with one hand because it's "so inefficient." As someone who didn't really grow up eating a whole lot of Asian food, this has definitely been a new experience for me.
One of my favorite things is the milk tea (called "teh") here. It's just tea with milk and sugar (a lot of sugar, I'm guessing, because it's really good) or condensed milk. Singaporeans drink this and coffee (kopi) religiously, even on hot days. I have no idea what kind of tea it is, and no one can really explain it to me (some kind of black tea), but it's delicious. But IMPORTANT PSA: this tea is not the same kind of black tea they have in England. It's strong as hell. I have a very adverse reaction to caffeine, as in it makes me super-jittery but not more awake, and apparently teh has a lot of it. One time I drank it first thing in the morning without breakfast and I couldn't focus the rest of the day because I was so wired; my heart was beating so fast and I swear I could hear colors.
There are a lot of different variations, like "teh-C-kosong," which is tea with evaporated milk and no sugar, "teh halia," which has ginger in it, and "teh bing" which is iced tea.
These names are indicative of the multi-racial society in Singapore as they are formed by words from different languages, and have become part of the lexicon of Singlish. For example, teh is the Malay word for tea which itself originated from Hokkien, bing is the Hokkien word for ice, kosong is the Malay word for zero to indicate no sugar, and C refers to Carnation, a brand of evaporated milk.
I like this. Singapore doesn't really have its own unique culture because it's so new, but is an amalgamation of a bunch of different ones, and I like how its language (like its variety of food) reflects that. I like teh-C-bing, but I usually order in English because whenever I try to order like a local, they always respond in Chinese and then I panic.
Singapore is actually a very lovely country. I could actually see myself living here long-term (although then I'd have to sacrifice all of my cute fall clothes, because it's pretty much summer all year round here). And just the experience of living somewhere other than my home country is such an enriching thing. I am a very fortunate girl.
But what they don't tell you in those amazing "I-quit-my-job-to-travel-the-world" stories is that it's not for everyone. It's sometimes very lonely. I knew it the night before I left the US, when I was having a lot of anxiety over the fact that I wouldn't be back for half a year. The truth is, it takes a lot of grit to move to a foreign country alone, even one as westernized as Singapore; grit I wasn't even sure I had. I consider myself fairly independent, and I actually like being by myself a lot of the time. But one day you're sitting alone in your room at night or riding the MRT home and watching everything rush past you, and it all kind of hits you at once, when you realize just how far away your real life is. Being surrounded by unfamiliar things in an unfamiliar place is overwhelming, especially knowing I won't see the country or the people I love for quite a while. That inexplicable feeling late at night in hotel rooms? It's ten times worse when you're an ocean away from home. There are a lot of things I miss right now, and a lot of people I miss right now.
You never really know, though. Maybe by the end of the six months, I'll feel differently. Maybe I'll want to stay here. Maybe I'll go to South Korea for a year (another working holiday program I was interested in). Life is beautiful and absurd. I never thought I would be here a year ago, but here I am, so I'm just going to enjoy life for the moment. I was talking to a friend of mine, and he asked me what my plans are after the six months are up. I told him I don't know, and that's okay. And I never really believed that, as someone very preoccupied with planning. But now I think I'm learning how to appreciate the unknown. There is one thing I do know for sure: no matter how much I love it here, or where my life takes me in the future, California will be the one place I always go back to.
On that note, thank you so much to everyone at home who subscribes to me and reads all of these long blogs, and to everyone who has Skyped me or messaged me or Snapchatted me while I'm here. It makes me feel very loved :') and it's always nice hearing from all of you, whether it's to comment on my blog posts or just to say hi. I appreciate it a lot, especially considering the insane time difference.
That was quite long. I'll try to ramble less. But no promises. As The Californian Takes New York series illustrated, that's not really my style. So I hope it's at least a little bit interesting. Until next time!