This was an naive thought that popped into my head once I finally researched Singapore and realized that it was a huge city-state, with a similar feel to NYC at certain places in the city. They have modern conveniences and technology, it can’t possibly be that different than what I’m used to, I thought hopefully to myself. Even when I landed in the airport, besides seeing mandarin characters repeating the English messages posted everywhere, Singapore was going to be just like living in a big city in the US.
The city structure itself isn’t that different, I suppose. The social norms, demographics, language, foods and religious expressions are…and that’s a lot. It’d be literally impossible for me to fully describe everything, but here’s some of the major things I’ve been noticing.
The Social Norms
- Basically no one drives. A small percentage do, but it’s so expensive to own a car on the island that pretty much everyone takes the bus or MRT (train station).
- All the driving lanes are opposite to what they are in the US, along with steering wheels (located right and not left)
- Children elementary age travel the city alone to and from their schools, and actually safe to do so.
- Pretty much all housing is small apartment high-rises, with only a few houses.
- It’s impossible for a single person to buy a government high-rise apartment, unless they’re 35 or older. I’m guessing this is to maximize space efficiency on a island who’s space is shrinking?
- Young adults live with their parents until they’re married, pretty much with no exception.
- A large chunk of apartments don’t use aircon, even though they could afford it. It’s in an effort to be more environmentally friendly and conserve energy.
- There doesn’t seem to be any dryers in the city, at least in the suburbs. Every hangs their laundry out the windows on big bamboo poles when it comes out of the washing machine.
- There is a mandatory draft for all Singaporean boys (despite the fact that there’s no visible war on the horizon) and they’ll enter bootcamp for the army, staying for two years, between 18 and 20 years old.
- Most Singaporeans don’t get married until their careers take off and they’re financially established, because apartments are quite expensive
This is pretty confusing to me, but Singaporean citizens can be Chinese but not from China, Malaysian but not from Malay, Indians but not from India, etc. Basically citizens are anyone born here, but there are also Chinese, Malaysian, Indians, Singalese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Europeans, and Americans that have made this place their home. Of about 5 million, half are born here on the island. Regardless of all this, I’m basically looking at everyone seeing either Asians or Indians and that’s about as far as my distinction ability goes. I don’t feel too bad though because I was asking some of the Singaporean kids from youth group how to tell the difference between Malaysian and Singaporeans and they said you just need to ask, because they can’t tell either.
Side note: THE BABIES. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love kids and it’s not an exaggeration when I say I’m using all my self control not to steal every child I see. Indian babies with dark skin and huge brown eyes sleepily watching me from their mothers laps on the bus, Singaporean toddlers play hide-n-seek with me at the bus stop while their parents are preoccupied on their iPhones, speaking hurriedly in Mandarin, the elementary age kids in their uniforms that glance at me and whisper to their friends, presumably about the foreigner with crazy, blondish hair that’s a stark contrast against smooth, dark asian hair everywhere I go. They’re absolutely beautiful and precious; I’m in heaven.
English is the first of four official languages of Singapore, and is what all the official documents (including their constitution) are drawn up in. The other three being Mandarin, Malay and Tamil (which is the language of southern India). Good luck with that though when there are different dialects of Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese, and they’ve stolen some words from Malay because that used to be official language of Singapore at one time. Tamil is present, but there’s also Singalese, which is spoken by the Sri Lanka population and Bahasa which is what the Indonesian population speaks. Then you go to the grocery store and there’s Japanese and Korean on items…forget it.
I’m trying to focus on a basic Singaporean Chinese phrases, but I’m pretty intimidated to try to use them because I sound completely ridiculous. I did order Teh Tarik the other day by myself from a coffee shop (which here means it’s an open air restaurant. Food courts have aircon, and coffee shops don’t) and thanked them in Mandarin. They all laughed good naturally as I struggled to form Xie Xie and awkwardly repeated myself.
If the demographics are any hint, the food is quite diversified as well. This has been one of my biggest struggles since I’ve been here. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself picky…but I sort of am. It’s not that the things they eat are so crazy, although there are definitely exceptions, even familiar foods are prepared differently. Rice can be prepared in oyster juice, chicken in curry, etc. So far the most Americanized native food that I’ve eaten and loved is Chicken Rice. One guess what’s in that. Everyone teases me because I’ve gotten it three times since we’ve gone out to eat, because I’ve been so hungry I just want things that I’m familiar with to shovel down as fast as I can.
The first day I got here and woke up from a short nap (still severely jet lagged) I was given tofu, chicken curry and rice. Good, but pretty unfamiliar. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve gotten so hungry I throw back pretty much whatever is put in front of me, even if I don’t like it. I’ve also tried Indian food, Murtabak, which is sort of a flakey Stromboli-looking thing full of chicken curry, peppers, onions, etc. I actually really like it, even though it’s much spicier than I’m used to. I want to try everything. Last night I ate an entire bowl of oyster porridge and chicken parts, and only flinched a little bit when I found a tallon in the dish. (I ate around it, I’m not that brave yet.)
I still hate durian, which is the favorite fruit of almost all Singaporeans, and “tastes like heaven, smells like hell” as their saying goes. Imagine someone spilling gasoline on a soggy marshmallow that’s yellowed coming out of a pineapple gone wrong, and you’ve got durian. I’ve tried it twice and I can’t handle it, but the second time I didn’t gag at the smell.
As with everything else, there’s tons of diversity. I don’t know as much as I want to, but I understand the basics of who’s who and what they believe. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoists, Muslims, and Christians are all present here in Singapore and everyone freely expresses themselves religiously with a lot of tolerance.
There are a huge number of Buddhists; I don’t really know much about Taoism, but I think it’s a more abstract concentration of Buddhism. I’ve encountered the burn barrels all around town. The barrels burn the offerings of paper money, paper clothes, paper bags, everything the dead need to survive in hell. It’s ‘Hungry Ghost’ Month right now, the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, when hell is opened and the dead roam the earth. There are also food offerings, surrounded by candles at the most seemingly random places around the city. I’m not sure what happens to the food in actuality, but it’s supposed to be for the spirits. There are amazingly ornate Buddhist temples everywhere reminiscent of ancient China (think Mulan for those of you as immature as me), right in the middle of the busy city.
Hindu temples are just as ornate and beautiful; I have no real way of knowing the difference unless I look to the English on the sign. I do know that most of the Indian population is Hindu and you can tell by the bindi on their foreheads. There are a few with turbans though, and those are the Sihks.
A great amount of Hindus and Buddhists are really open to the idea of Jesus, because they have thousands of impersonal gods that they keep with them and worship, so one more isn’t intimidating to them. A lot of times they will accept Jesus, but continue to worship their other gods and ancestors, simply because they are used to their traditions that have been kept for many generations.
Muslims are very easy to spot, at least with the women. They have head coverings (I’ve only seen one women with a burka though) and are very conservative in their dress, but often they’ll liberally apply makeup. The mosques look different than the temples, mostly because of the Islamic moon and star at the peak of the building. It’s a curious thing to see women in traditional muslim garb, riding the train, listening to an iPod; my mind feels like eras are colliding in front of me and like I’m watching time travel in action.
VFC here looks exactly like it does in America, which their main service being conducted in English, with English worship songs. They do however have services that cater to other demographics, with services for Chinese, Indian, Filippino, Singalese, etc. They are far most disciplined and orderly than any church I’ve ever seen in America, though, mostly in regards to their dedication to their discipleship program for new believers, maintaining cell groups (separated bible studies for men and women) and sending out missions teams to the nations that not only win souls, but create disciples that create disciples. Like I think I mentioned last post, 30 to 40% of their congregation (which I’m guessing to be about 1 to 2 thousand between all the services) have been on a missions trip for a year or longer. That’s almost completely unheard of in the States; it’s the norm here. I’m both inspired and extremely intimidated by their disciple and commitment.
While there’s so much more that I can’t hope to fit in for times sakes, I wanted to create a frame of reference to the place I’m living in so the stories to come have some sort of a context for you all. I was extremely culture shocked when I arrive despite the modernity of everything, but God is so good to give me opportunities to slowly acclimate to somewhere that looks similar to home, before I got to the villages in Africa where nothing looks like home. It’s been difficult, I won’t lie, but it’s also been really exciting to see what I’m capable of doing (or more like God equips me to do) when I’m stranded away from all my comforts and familiarity.
One week down, fifty four left to go, right?
One day at a time 🙂