a love letter to the lion city (jayemsey x singapore, part IV)
Hello there! I know I've been away for a while and it's been a bit quiet on the Western blog front, but I'm finally back in the good ol' US of A (I feel like that's something only white dads say, but the more I read this, the more I'm convinced that that is who I am at heart)! I finally finished the last part of my travel blog series, so here it is ^_^ it's written in the past because I've procrastinated terribly on actually publishing it, but such is life...
Well, here we are, six months later: the final chapter of my Singapore adventures. How very surreal.
I can't even process the fact that in one short day (more or less; I'm traveling for 18 hours over nine time zones, so I essentially do February 18th twice), I'll be back in California. I've missed California. The last time I wrote a post for this series was back in December, so quite a lot has happened since (you can check out the travel tag if you want to see what I've been up to!).
I don't feel like a stranger to the country anymore, but I don't quite feel like a Singaporean yet. It just goes to show you that even after six months of working and living as a citizen, there's always so much to learn. Countries are such complex organisms. There are so many things that you do every day that are a result of your cultural upbringing, and you aren't even fully aware of why you do them.
Speaking of, I finally learned how to use "lah," after no one could give me a straight answer as to what it meant and Googling proved inconclusive. My boss explained that it's slang used to express an emotion at the end of a sentence, but it's very versatile as to which emotion. It's basically like an emoji in word form.
The weather's been lovely lately, even cool and breezy sometimes. But it's still Singapore, so it was still 90°F heat and 80% humidity in mid-January. And the thunderstorms. The thunderstorms are still intense. I stood outside Marina Bay Sands in the rain to get this shot, and you can see actual lightning which is pretty rad.
The only thing I could do without is the cockroaches. I still maintain that anything that can survive a nuclear explosion and flies only in the presence of water is the devil incarnate.
When I wasn't traveling, I spent the last month and a half going back to my touristy roots, visiting all of the places I'd neglected, and eating as much local food as possible.
I visited Gardens by the Bay (for real this time!), and finally saw the whole park, including the two conservatories: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.
Gardens by the Bay is actually an insanely gorgeous place (it's world-famous for a reason), one that I never really knew existed because I'd never really ventured past Marina Bay Sands.
It's always pretty crowded but still worth going to, especially the Cloud Forest, which has an indoor waterfall and feels like you're walking in a magical fairytale. And when you're standing inside these glass greenhouses, you get this stunning 360° view of the Supertree grove and the entire skyline, from Marina Bay Sands to the Singapore Flyer.
The domes have a lot of rare, beautiful plants from different regions of different countries, but I honestly didn't even pay attention to where they were from. I just liked wandering around.
I notice that I'm significantly happier when I live in places that have water. It's oddly soothing to me; I could sit still and watch it for hours. I guess I'm spoiled, having always lived next to a beach, but I also love the view of the river from the Upper East Side, or feeling the chill of Karl the Fog rolling over me as I walk along Market Street.
And that's why I like Singapore too—you're never very far from the water. My favorite thing is seeing the stretch of the whole skyline, because you can see everything. And because the country's so small, everything is familiar.
I went to the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, which I've wanted to visit since I got here, but they were all the way on the west side of the island. It's strange how distance is relative. I think nothing of driving five hours back home from Santa Barbara for the weekend or driving two hours to LA for a concert, but for some reason an hour and a half MRT ride is a hassle now that I'm used to everything being within a half-hour radius.
It was a very zen place. The architecture was very true to form, and I actually felt like I was back in China sometimes. It's a really nice park in which to just spend the day—some families brought blankets and picnic baskets, a whole affair. It reminds me of the Summer Palace in Beijing: sloped-roof pagodas, a large stone bridge over glassy water, delicate curtains of tree branches dipping into the lake.
The Japanese garden was a bit smaller but just as nice.
For some odd reason, the gardens also contained a turtle museum, which was my jam because I love turtles. There's something so inherently comical about them, and I'm not sure what it is. Graceful creatures they are not, but anyone who thinks turtles are slow hasn't tried to give Lily a toothbrush bath. They bolt. I happened to go on a day they were cleaning it, so all the turtles were just kind of ambling around the enclosure, chilling. You had to be very careful of where you stepped.
They had a bunch of red-eared sliders, which were particularly fascinated by my toes, but their beaks are actually very sharp, so I was wary. There was an alligator snapping turtle in a little concrete pen, which is the closest I'll ever get to an alligator snapping turtle after watching one eat a watermelon. Their bite is so strong that they can crush bone. No thanks.
But my new favorite were the pig-nosed turtles. They were exactly why I like turtles: they were cute but in an ugly way, with long necks and little pug noses.
There were at least a dozen of them, and they would all flap around like mad when I got close. Then I noticed a sign:
Do not be alarmed! These pig-nosed turtles will flap excitedly whenever there are people near by. They are not in distress. They were once raised as pets in the collector's home and are accustomed to receiving food and a pet whenever they flap for attention.
On my last weekend in Asia, Eileen took me to Pulau Ubin, a little island off the east coast. It's a quiet little place—you have to take a ferry to it, and there are only a hundred or so inhabitants
It reminded me of the forests in Hawaii or the beaches in Thailand: very green, and mostly unspoiled. It was beautiful. Apparently not many people visit there, but I loved it.
It was like a mini vacation. When we got there it was very grey, and actually started pouring, but after it cleared up it was lovely and perfect for exploring.
We rented bikes and cycled around the island, walking through the jungle-y parts and climbing to the top of the viewing terrace so we could see the entire coastline and the thick blanket of trees covering the island.
It really was another one of Singapore's hidden gems—gorgeous, and a nice change of pace from the city. There are few places in Singapore that remain untouched, so I'm hoping this kind of stays a secret until the next time I can visit. Consider this our little secret, guys, because look at it.
We got two new interns in the office, Jackson and Steph. Jackson just finished his service in the Singaporean army and Steph is an incoming senior on summer vacation (she goes to school in Australia, so the seasons are all weird). We all bonded pretty quickly over our shared love of Japanese food.
As a kind of induction ritual, we made them plan an activity for the team, so we did Escape the Room together, which was surprisingly more difficult than we had anticipated. We're not allowed to disclose any specific details, but we were impressed with how high-tech the room was; we expected mechanical puzzles, and were clearly out of our league.
I experienced my first authentic Chinese New Year and had lo hei for the first time. Even though I was in Cambodia for the weekend, in Asian countries, Lunar New Year celebrations last for 15 days, so people were still celebrating when I got back. And it's not just a simple dinner, either. It's a whole two weeks of culturally-specific traditions. To prepare, families buy new clothes, clean their houses, and cook a lot of food, and the weekends are spent visiting relatives and friends. But there are also smaller traditions, too, like when you receive red envelopes or cash, you're supposed to go to the ATM at a specific time, depending on your zodiac sign. One thing I love about Chinese culture is that everything is very intentional. Everything has meaning.
We had a lion dance performed in our office (dragon costumes, red banners, drums and cymbals—the whole deal), because apparently that's just something that's a completely normal thing in Asia. We put oranges and red envelopes on our desks and hung lettuce from the ceiling, and the lions came around and ate them, which I found highly amusing. I remember my mom taking us to Chinese New Year street festivals downtown when we were little, and being terrified of the lions, with their giant furry heads and long-lashed, blinking eyes. The kids here aren't even fazed by them.
We had our Grand Planning Reunion, a team dinner with David and Dixi, who came all the way back from Shanghai to eat with us. We went to this awesome Japanese place called Kazu Sumiyaki, where everything was served tasting-style, tiny little plates of food (which I think is cute but inefficient—why would you have less pasta when you could have more pasta?). We ate everything so quickly I forgot to take pictures, except of the dessert.
I've made an effort to actually go to hawker centers and coffeeshops more (the Singaporean kind of coffeeshop), which I like a lot. We work at HarbourFront Centre, which is connected to VivoCity, the largest shopping mall in Singapore, so we have way too many food options and often end up eating at one of the places in either building for lunch. But hawker centers are so cool. You can find people there at any hour of the day, hunched over on little plastic stools, chatting and smoking cigarettes, or sipping kopi from glass mugs. Not to mention they're ridiculously affordable. You can get an entire meal for $2.50 SGD, or $1.75 USD.
I have an endless fascination with hawker stalls. To operate one is truly a labor of love—you have to wake up really early to buy the ingredients and start cooking, to be ready for the breakfast rush. And then you rinse and repeat for the lunch and dinner rushes. But they don't make a lot of money; just enough to pay the rent. So as much as I'd like to see them in the U.S., I don't think the business model would appeal to our capitalist instincts.
My friend Diana and I went to a Harry Potter-inspired café, called Platform 1904 (thanks for the recommendation, Preeti)(of course you would be the one to find this before I did), and it was excellent. It did have an exceptionally long wait, but by some stroke of Felix Felicis (ha) we were able to get a table pretty quickly.
We were actually very impressed by it; the decor was tasteful and the food was surprisingly delicious and not outrageously expensive. Diana got the "Goblet of Fire" cocktail, which we spent half the meal trying to reverse-engineer, but couldn't figure it out. It was this blue liquid, with a spoonful of gold-colored alcohol poured into the middle and lit on fire. When you sprinkled cinnamon into it, the gold liquid emitted sparks. Very magical.
And for my farewell dinner, the team and I went to STRAY by Fatcat, a "brand-new concept restaurant serving progressive Chinese cuisine." We found it on Instagram and were intrigued by its offerings. "Progressive?" Eileen said indignantly. "What does that mean, 'progressive,'? Are they saying Chinese food isn't sophisticated enough?!"
As it turned out, "progressive Chinese food" was really hipster food with Chinese flavorings, like a black pepper Wagyu beef bowl with ginger foam and an onsen egg, and fried chicken with charcoal waffles and salted egg yolk sauce.
It was all pretty good, actually, but the star was definitely the charcoal waffles. Charcoal is pretty popular in Asia; you can find it in everything from ice cream to toothpaste.
In case you didn't know, I am serious AF about truffle fries (seriously, try me; I've legitimately made a comparative study of them), and Singapore for some reason has no shortage of them. They're everywhere, in every restaurant and café and snack bar. I have no idea why, because they're a rarity in America, only found in hipster burger joints. But they're kind of a staple here.
I'll miss a lot of things about Singapore: how clean it is, being able to walk around at night by myself, the food. But one of the things I really love about it is the multiculturalism. It's a shining example of diversity, in my opinion. All of the MRT signs are in their four national languages—English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Hawker centers have tray deposits for both halal and non-halal food. Army recruitment posters feature three women and two men, and only some of them are Asian. They really make an effort to be inclusive here. My coworker pointed out that in other countries, minorities often suffer from systematic disadvantages, but here, they get special benefits. A lot of Malays go to school for free here, because they are a minority group in Singapore. They do a lot of things very well here, and diversity is one of them (they didn't always, though; in the '70s there were some riots, and there is still some racism against certain ethnic groups). And I think this election has really highlighted the problems with our country, as well as what other countries do that we could learn from.
Singapore, for example, doesn't do emotional intelligence well, and their work culture is pretty damaging, which I think has a lot to do with Asian mindsets toward success. Eileen mentioned that in Denmark, long workdays are seen as a reflection of poor management skills. Whereas in countries like Japan and Korea, it is seen as admirable to be tired and stay at the office late, because it means you're working hard. But especially in careers like planning, you can't necessarily get good results just by working harder. You have to be in the right state, mentally, and be focused, something I'm still learning.
And just like that, my time in Singapore has come to an end. Wow. It's been an amazing six months. Singapore is very small; it's not really a place that a lot of Americans come to vacation, because it's such a tiny city. But it really is a great place to live—America could definitely learn from its efficiency and its food. I'm so glad I chose to come here, almost on a whim, because it's become a place where I truly feel at home.
I have learned so much from being here for the past half-year of my life. I feel like being exposed to so many different cultures has been so beneficial to me, and it's just been a great life experience overall. Living in Asia is very different, even in a country like Singapore: learning how to acquire a sense of empathy while working with Asian consumers, adjusting to the language gap (not exactly a barrier, but I still have to pay attention in order to understand Singlish), observing all of the customs.
Thanks so much to all of the friends I've made here, for showing me around and doing things with me (thank goodness for cool coworkers and housewarming parties). You are all the perfect manifestation of what I've always known—that it doesn't matter where you are, as long as you're spending quality time with quality people. I will stay in touch, and if you're ever in the States, please visit me! Thanks to POSSIBLE Singapore for this wonderful opportunity and for making work not feel like work. I have seen such a remarkable amount of growth in myself, both personal and professional, and much of it I owe to the people at POSSIBLE, who never fail to indulge all of my social theories or discuss at length cultural idiosyncrasies. I should be so lucky to come all the way across the ocean for such a great company. Thanks for adopting me and always feeding me.
Goodbye Singapore, you little gem of an island; you will always be so very special to me. This has been my greatest adventure thus far, and a wonderful chapter in my life, and I've had honestly so much fun. I promise I'll visit again someday. But I am also so excited to finally be coming home. America, I'll see you very soon!