Monday, August 17, 2015

Ang moh in Singapore: Observations from a stranger in a not-so-strange land.

It's easy to get lost in Singapore--in every sense of the word: from the beautiful gardens by the bay to the literal streets that criss cross, wind, and uncork between the city life, you find yourself not only lost but also incredibly overwhelmed. But that's Singapore: a saturation of creativity, food, beauty, people, and, of course, durians. You become swallowed in it, immersed, like the island itself around the Indian Ocean.

At least it is to me.

As an American, I didn't know much about Singapore, and I knew even less before I met my wife. She was born and raised there. She's amazing. To be honest, many Americans don't even know that Singapore was a British Colony, and that their national language is English; my wife is often asked if Singapore is located inside China (I suppose China has reached the point where it can absorb other countries, but still). The thing is, this isn't uncommon: Singapore, for its beauty, innovation, ingenuity, and for having one of the greatest leaders in LKY, the majority of America doesn't even know it exists. And that's sad. Moreover, it's incredibly frustrating; the egocentric mentality of America--that is, it should be about us and that's it--is strong: if it doesn't concern us, we aren't interested.

My wife and I flew in to visit her family. We had just gotten married in America, but not everyone from her side could make it (it's not easy flying 28 hours on a plane). Anyways, we wanted to honor the people who were not able to make it to our wedding by having a Chinese tea ceremony and a lunch celebration. So with a month to take in Singapore, I did all I could to learn about its people, the mentality, and the culture.

The first thing that struck me was size. Singapore is a tiny island, a train ride from Malaysia and a boat ride from Indonesia. It's population has exceeded 5 million, adding a million since the year 2000.  Worse, there is not much reclaimed land left. This causes housing prices to skyrocket. Four bedrooms and two baths can easily exceed half a million dollars. This jump in cost of living creates a great disparity, one similar to America's, where the middle class is hit hard: the poor receive government assistance--the homeless aren't allowed to be homeless, as Singapore's government will take care of them--and the rich are, well, rich, but the middle class get stuck: they aren't poor enough to receive benefits but not rich enough to cover all the costs. Where in America it's taxes, liberals versus conservatives, here it is size. Singapore has no room and they know it.

But there's an upside to all this: Singapore's great kryptonite is also its source for its greatest strengths. Because of size, Singaporeans have to find unique ways to do simple acts that I take for granted. For instance, hanging your laundry on the poles out of your apartment window or the ingenious idea of reclaiming land. Designers, like my wife's brother,  are forced to be even more creative than the norm because they have to make something unique while using the least amount of space possible.

Beyond all this, Singapore's size, along with LKY's vision for the country, allows for something much, much greater, something that I find myself longing for, the way my wife has longed for home so long. And it's that strong sense of community bond, a belief that loving your neighbor should be above one's language, religious beliefs, or skin color. I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else, especially in America. And because of size, one must share common space with others, others that have different cultures and beliefs. There are buddhists, taoists, muslims, christians, hindus--all sharing the same communal space for such events as funerals or celebrations. This bond, this sense of pride in unity, stretches beyond all else, beyond differences, beyond division.

You don't get that in America. We are divided by race, divided by political beliefs, divided by gun control, divided by morals, religion, age, and state. And I didn't realize how extreme--how intense--this difference was until I found myself in a place that thought differently.

If Singapore didn't have enough going for it, they also happen to have been blessed with some of the best food in the world (Gordon Ramsey agrees with me so it must be true). Chicken rice, Nasi Lemak, Laksa, Char Kway Teow, and carrot cake to name a few. But if that doesn't fit your fancy, there's always delicious Dim Sum, Char Siew, roasted pork or duck, or the amazing Liu Sha Bao at Victor's kitchen, or the butter coffee...oh the butter coffee. And trust me: you can't be the local coffee, Kopi C Ping Kosong is my got to.

But what many people from other countries don't realize (as I didn't until my wife showed me) was that food has more meaning than that of simple consumption. Food is part of their identity, of their culture. Food is a way one shows they care (e.g., offering another something from your plate). Food--to a great extent in Singapore--is life. The question then becomes why. Why has it become like this? How has food reached a higher plane of existence in Singaporean culture?

I don't have the answer. And to be honest: I don't think I ever could fully understand it even if it was explained to me (as my wife has many times) because I have grown up in a different organic system: Like Singapore, which has developed this communal identity, one where food has become a way to express that identity, a piece of Singaporean soul being given, taken, consumed, and prepared over and over again, America has developed an individualistic identity, one where your own soul becomes consumed with the different values and expectations than the tiny island in Southeast Asia.

My wife and I arrived home in America a few days ago and we already miss Singapore. For her, it's because it's her home, a place of memories, joy, and heartache. But for me, it's wonder: there truly isn't another place like it in the world, and for that, I thank you. See you again soon. Much love.

--Matt


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