Post Exchange: Views from an American and Singaporean perspective

An American Perspective

Where do you come from? Your English slang is pretty unique. Oh Singapore. I heard that Singapore is a very clean and beautiful. It is somewhere near Malaysia/China/Indonesia but I do not know exactly where it is. No chewing gum? (laughs) How do you survive without gum? Summer all year round at 80-90 degrees (Fahrenheit)? Are you sure? That’s bloody hot. It  is very humid also right. So you do not get to experience snow. It must be very fun for you to see snow for the first time. What language do Singaporeans speak? English? Wow that’s really amazing. Don’t you guys have a language of your own? Oh, you speak English and Mandarin. Wow, I’m a Chinese (American) and I can’t even speak much Mandarin. So you mean I can navigate in Singapore easily with all the signs in English, that’s really wonderful. One day I should come to Singapore. You can buy great food at only 2 bucks? That’s sweet. Singapore is so small that you can travel around in an hour? You can’t be kidding! Do Singaporeans listen to music? What kind? Oh, so you guys like Lady Gaga and watch Lost too. That’s great.

A Singaporean Perspective

America, a land of freedom, where freedom of speech and expression is cherished and celebrated. California, the West Coast state with two great cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Hollywood and Silicon Valley are, where the great entertainment and technology industries thrive. A place where many different cultures meet – much like Singapore – with a large populations of Caucasians, Mexicans/Hispanic/Latino, Koreans, Chinese, Indians and others, intermixing the main languages of English and Spanish into roads and landmarks, just like how Malay names are common in Singaporean Landmarks. There are many towns and cities with the titles “San” or “Santa”, which is Spanish for “Saint”, as many of the places were founded by Spanish Missionaries.

Santa Cruz, translated as Saint of the Holy Cross, is an interesting little town off the Pacific Coast. Most of the town amenities exist for the sake of the university – UCSC – although there are also many people living in this ‘rural’ area. It was refreshing to live in a place in the middle of a redwood forest, and also encountering many wild animals, such as deers, banana slugs and raccoons, on a daily basis. There is free aircon everyday, all the buses do not need aircon. Indoors, there are heaters instead of aircon. My dorm room has a heater to bring the temperature up to a comfortable 24-26 deg C for sleeping, while my room in my flat in Singapore has an aircon to bring the temperature down to the same temperature. NUS students wear jackets inside LTs as if it is winter, and wear flip flops especially when it pours; UCSC students wear jackets outdoors because it is winter, and wear rain boots when it drizzles. Singaporeans hate the Sun, Californians love the sunshine. Who doesn’t, especially when the sun shines at you at 20 deg C with low humidity and does not cause you to perspire? Most UCSC students love to drink, party and have fun. Some Singaporean students party, while others prefer watching movies, playing pool, board games, LAN, CS, DOTA…

Asking for a glass of wa-ter will leave the waiter puzzled, the correct pronunciation is wo-rer.  Busing the table at the fast food joint is a normal ethic, while clearing the table in Singapore means you are putting the cleaning aunty/uncle out of job. (And only Singaporeans chope seats at food courts, not that there are that many food courts in USA anyway.) Americans greet one another with how’s it going (and you wonder what’s the it) and a big hug, Singaporeans greet one another with have you eaten, and a slight nod or wave (although often the latter). Although the phrase “how are you” can be overly abused to such an extent that it becomes a casual reply of “good” or “awesome”, while a long rant of how your day was would properly make other person think you are weird. However, I think Singaporeans certainly need more of the affectionate hug, as physical expressions of love are often lacking in Asian families.

California is a car country, endless miles of roads for one to drive, as long as you do not get stuck on 101 in the Bay area or on i5 in LA. 65 miles/hour is the norm on most freeways, and that is about 110 km/h, which is 20 km/h above Singapore’s speed limit on expressways. Snow gives bad condition for driving, as chains are an irritating chore, although it is quite surreal to drive through snow. It is also very surreal to drive through a road through mountains, valleys, farmlands, lakes, cliffs and sea. There is free parking at most places, every restaurant or Safeway or Walmart has a huge parking lot that spans acres of land. Only in crowded city areas where kerbside parking is metered. In contrast, we have ERP-ed car parks almost everywhere and free parking is scarce except on Sundays.

The cheapest food is fast food, in which you can get a burrito from Taco Bell or cheeseburger from McDonalds/BK for US$1.  The average food price is US$8 and above, which is also the minimum wage in the USA. In contrast, the cheapest food in Singapore is hawker food, and the average food price is S$3 = US$2.14. The most favourite fast food in Singapore is undeniably McDonalds (although personally I prefer Carl’s Jr), while Californians prefer their one and only In-n-Out burgers with animal fries! Good chinese food is available readily in the more cosmopolitan cities, otherwise one should be happy with Panda Express with their (in?)famous (sweet) beef broccoli and mandarin chicken. Speaking about Panda Express, 2 entrees (like the earlier mentioned) and 1 side dish (rice or noodles) costs about US$8. A similar combination at an economic rice aka chap chai stall (rice + 2 side dishes) probably cost you less than S$2.50. Mexican burritos and wraps are some of their favorite quick-bites, while Malay/Indian curry puffs and roti pratas are our equivalent.

Homeless people and hippies lining up the streets are a common sight in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, with many asking for spare change at traffic junctions, and/or busking (you don’t need a permit to busk) with their creative musical instruments such as pails, pans, guitars, accordions and ukuleles. And then there are the hippies with long hair gathering at some corners. Sometimes, it is quite a sad sight to see the homeless sleeping on the streets in their giant blankets at 10 deg C, often making you wondering what you can do to change the world.

Post Exchange Syndrome

During the last 2 months adapting back to the Singapore lifestyle, everything I do or attend, comparisons will arise in my head. The surreal feeling is fading away sadly, and back to the reality of the hustle and competition of the NUS life. Everything that happened seemed like a dream. Singapore has changed quite a bit in the last 6 months, with new landmarks such as Marina Bay Sands and the circle line. Being overseas for a while also makes one appreciate how good Singapore is, such as the clean MRT trains, the efficient and elegant Changi Airport, the convenience of centralised sub-urban shopping malls and the convenience of most amenities within walking distance of your home or school. However, it also makes one realise how Singapore can improve in other areas, such as road and pedestrian courtesy, service standards, amongst other things. And then, one realises how boring NUS is: the un-inspiring architecture, the lack of good lecturers (not all professors are good teachers, and not all good teachers are professors), and the ever-encompassing competition with other students and over-emphasis on examination results. No such thing as 24-hour library in the USA – they have to protest for it. And McDonald’s 24-hour drive-thru in the USA does not serve walk-in customers for security reasons – you have to hail a cab and drive through it. Yes, I’m not kidding.

The 6 months away was certainly eye-opening and allowed me to see the other side of the world, where the grass is certainly greener both literally and figuratively. The grass may be forever greener, but we must learn how to be contented with what we have currently.

(P.S. I was reading some random person’s blog about post-exchange and I realise that I agree with most of what the person feels)

The Rag Dance Experience

Joining rag dance is a unique and memorable experience, something which I do not regret joining, as it adds vibrancy to my university life. I always wanted to be part of such a group of people, practising together for a common goal, although it also means sacrificing lots of personal time and social life.

This year’s SoC rag dance is considered quite slack as compared to last year, for the practices started later in the holidays. From 3 times of 4 hours a week (2-6pm), it gradually evolved to everyday 8 hours per day as the days to the actual rag day were numbered. The dance choreographers, Alicia and Jazreel, worked very hard to train us, most of us first-time noob dancers. For myself, it was also good way to continue my dance classes from UCSC.

At first, it was quite fun to learn the new dance steps, although some of them, especially the “Do you remember” song, were quite difficult and fast. Audacity helped in slowing down the tempo of the song, and we learnt from slower tempo to faster tempo. After a while, it got a little repetitive as we kept practising the same dance steps, waiting eagerly for the newer steps to be taught. Somehow, I could not get some of the steps initially, and was accused of skipping steps and doing shortcuts. Haha.

Then, the people who did the cheerleading stunts last year started practising for them. At one of the sessions, I was asked to try to be a backspot base for one of the flyers as the original person was not around. After 3 or 4 tries, I successfully lifted up the girl from in front of me to sit on my shoulder. However, it activated my old injury in my bicep/tricep, which is probably a muscle tear from army (and is also the reason I could not surf). Hence I was not able to continue anymore. For some reason, the muscle pain reoccurred quite a few times over the next few weeks, even during some seemingly minimal action like doing a star jump or swinging my arm upwards. However it was a good experience to be able to try the cheerleading stunts.

As the day drew closer, we stayed over in school for practices with the float at night, once during the fow camp, once on Monday, and the last two nights before the actual day. The nights were filled with waiting for midnight, which is when the shuttle buses stop operating, and practiced till like 3am or so. Not forgetting playing lame games like mi-mi-mi-re-mi-fa-so-mi and the nightly supper from the now popular Al-Meem Northern Indian restaurant, with Naans, roti-johns and Teh. It was also always a hassle to find a place to bathe, whether is it ICube or SRC, and we always end up sleeping close to 5am.

Very soon the actual day arrived. Before that, it was filled with pep talks from Peide, Ziqing and lots of scolding from our choreographer. Our energy level was not enough, we were not up to performance standard. We always also screw up our blocking and centre marking. There was also a lot of time spent on decorating and painting our weapons, as well as buying materials and sewing our custom made costumes. We wore a vest made from old CGF shirts, and lion-dance-like pants wirg blink blink shiny stuff. The actual day arrived, we woke up at 5.30am to start doing our make-up, hairdo, and everyone was transformed into “pretty boys” in 4 hours. Super gay.

We had free McDonalds for breakfast and was transported to CP10 for the pre-judging posing and static displays. Looking at the other floats and costume-clad people, the mood was exciting and colourful. Our float is the biggest and best one so far as compared to the previous years, yet it was still smaller compared to other faculties’. But it is still beautifully done.

After lunch and a few practices, we were ferried to a holding area in a tent near SRC. The mood was anticipating yet tiring, due to the hot sun and warm weather. Peide say we must not go into shag mood, but we must hype and warm ourselves up and prepare for our performance as we were the first group. After some warm-up excercises, we did the dancers-woosh, and we were ushered to the SRC tracked.

Soon our moment arrived, the float was pushed in, and the initial twinkling of the tea party song was played. We jumped unto the stage enthusiastically, and I was clapping my hands up in the air. Then, OUCH my old injury was activated again >.< by the clapping, of all timings! I was struggling to dance tea party, but fortunately managed to twist my arm back before the fighting part with Julian and Brandon. The diagonal lines were good, and the second fighting seen was done well. Everything else was good, except the end when some of them were not able to finish their stunts successfully, and they were quite sad after that.

After our dance, it was a fun time to watch and admire other faculties’ dances, as well as taking photos and videos. The highlight of the night was the SYOG flame arrival ceremony, complete with fireworks and fanfare. It arrived on a modified open-top coach bus (similar to NUS Shuttle Bus), in a safety lantern, before being transferred to the torch, and then it lighted up a cauldron by President and 2 athletes. It was the first time rag ended with such a big bang, and I guess it was a good addition and also interesting to see the halls dancing in different countries’ culture. I must say the Mexican dance is a pretty good rendition, as I have watched some of it in California.

There was a post event party in which they played some cool songs and the SoC people got very high and we started forming a human train along the field and running all around. We then proceeded to the float for a massive photo taking session and multiple camera horing, cheering, some tau poks and crowd surfing and what not. It was a tremendous wonderful cheerful ending for the whole orientation week.

Joining rag dance allowed me to make some new friends, as well as bond better with existing ones. It also gave me a chance to experience the discipline and effort needed in a dance performance, as well as learning how to respect the choreographers and fellow dancers by dancing with all our might, putting in 100-150% of effort (often any figure >100% is an overly exaggerated figure), and putting on a great big smile unto the audience. =D

And as they say, for us, it’s about the process, not the final result. Although many other groups will beg to differ.