Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Singapore, until we meet again

I am done. Finito. Completamente. Lately, I have been a little M.I.A. because I was cramming for finals - succesfully, I think. But the semester at Nanyang Technological University has come to an end, I have said my goodbyes and I fly out of Singapore tomorrow morning. A 'veni vidi vici' feels quite appropriate right now. As my departure is dawning on me, all I can think about is how time has flown by.

It feels like only yesterday that I arrived on campus and watched the lady at the canteen pour my coffee into a plastic bag. It clearly upset me greatly at the time since it is the one memory that stands out the most of how I had to adjust to Singaporean life. Funny enough, I leave with a similar coffee-related memory: it was literally yesterday that the word 'coffee' caused great confusion for the 'subway' employee. She had to be rescued from her misery (I screamed COFFEE at her at least five times will stirring in an imaginary cup) by the guy behind me in line: "she wants kopi".

Despite that I can nowhere near call myself a Singaporean, it takes nothing away from the fact that I fell in love with all that this city has to offer. I can say with certainty that Singapore has not seen the last of me. I leave with new experiences, new friends (if you read this, and I expect nothing less, Oktoberfest 2011- we are making this happen), dreams for the future and a long list of foods that I will simply have to learn how to cook.

So what is next? I am not yet going home but am ready for phase 2 of my exhange: a two-month backpacking trip to Vietnam, Laos, Camboadia and Thailand. A dream trip that I suspect will cause Asia to keep stealing my heart, over and over again. I have never done anything like this before and seriously, it takes the principle of light packing to a whole new level (not my forte). But as I have given up make-up a while back, I figure showering and clean clothes are only one step away?

I will try and keep this blog running while I'm traveling, so keep an eye out :)

Sending you love - once more - from Singapore (rhyming was unintentional.)


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cool kids sit in the back

With the final week of class, a deadline craze has hit Singapore. So instead of the usual running around the city, I took it down a notch and find myself ‘mit die nase in den buchen’ as I described to my German friend Alex. Still, there are worse things than sipping on the latest Starbucks chocolate-cappuccino blend (yum) and munching on their granola for breakfast, while researching and writing passionately on the presence of gender inequality in Western society. If I do need a study-break, the shops are next door; a perfect study setting for me.

Truth be told, I did have the option to write about Asian society and as learning about Asia was (and still is) one of my exchange goals, I was greatly tempted. However, the prof advised us to choose a subject we were most familiar with. This advice in combination with the crazy competitiveness of my classmates, I decided to stick with what I knew best.

To illustrate how on top of their work they truly are: a week before the deadline I was asked whether I had finished the final term paper. Blurting out a “pff no”, I quickly made a mental note that I should be deciding on a topic soon. My reply was met with giggles and the confession that she had been working on it for two weeks already. Trying to beat them on their own turf was pointless, clearly.

A different approach to academics and the exam period as compared to what I’m used to became clear early on. The university’s sports committee that I joined for a yoga class, already finished mid-March because exams were approaching. With my first exam on May 11th, this left me very confused. A few weeks ago posters were hung up around campus wishing us luck with the upcoming exams and goodie bags were given out to comfort us during these stressful times. Apparently, I am right in the midst of the official exam period. Yet, I still have a full week of no class and no exams, as far as I know this is commonly referred to as vacation.

With no means am I trying to downplay my own nerdyness – I cram, study, plan and highlight my notes like the best of them (and enjoy it at the same time). When Rory Gilmore describes her passion for making to-do list, I whole-heartedly agree with everything she says. Frankly, I even write lists of things I have already done – just so that I can cross them off. How’s that for geeky? But with exams weeks away and a trip to Bali planned in between, I honestly don’t see the need to lock myself up in a library just yet.

And so I spend more time preparing my trips and meeting all the final deadlines than cramming for exams that are so far away. Comparing myself to local students I can’t help but feel like a bit of a slacker. I run off to Bali while others are facing the pressure of the upcoming exams. Perhaps now I finally know how the cool kids feel back home.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Family, Love, Food and other wonderful things

No matter how strong and independent I would like to believe to be, the first sight of my parents in Singapore had me jumping up and down, literally. Visiting Singapore for three nights only, I had to carefully plan my weekend with them. After all, there was too much to eat and too little time. Plotting the perfect plan to align the best food places with the best sights, I created the ideal itinerary.

It all started with sushi for Friday night dinner, then Singaporean kopi, kaya toast and mee siam for Saturday breakfast, to be followed by a Taiwanese lunch and Thai dinner. Sunday was scheduled to include Chinese pastries, an elaborate Indian meal and Hong Kong dim sum dinner. Monday consisted mostly of Malay snacks and a Thai lunch. In between meals, the occasional Tiger beer intermezzos took place. Welcome to Singapore!

I chose food places spread out all across Singapore so according to our city conquering routine, we strapped on our walking shoes and set out to take on Singapore by foot. The botanical gardens in the morning, Little India and Arab Quarter by day and a walk along the Singapore river at night. In line with our philosophy of ‘you don’t experience the culture from the inside of a cab’ we hope to have taken in as much as we could in the time that we had. It left me inspired, exhausted and with muscle-aches.

To relax, I took my parents for a drink where I enjoyed a lychee martini with Tim and Kira only a few weeks ago – an adorable bar on Emerald Hill. While at home I usually go to different places with my parents than with my friends, apparently this doesn’t hold true in Singapore. Either this is because Singapore is the place for mixed crowds (the locals and the expats, the young and the less young) or it is a sign of me becoming more mature and sophisticated (fingers crossed everyone!).

Regardless, I enjoyed taking full advantage of any opportunities to be taken care of by the parents. A good and slightly embarrassing example is the backpack my dad carried with him. The content? He brings his wallet and, more importantly, reading material for when my mom and I get distracted on Orchard Rd. In addition to this, he carried my camera, my sunglasses, my wallet (it is the thought that counts), my sweater, and that what initially distracted me on Orchard. I am still in doubt whether I should confess this, but he may or may not have carried a second pair of shoes.

On Monday afternoon, mom and dad headed to Bali as I made my way back to campus. Our much-needed family time was definitely a relaxing break from exchange life, where I honestly do carry my own backpack. But as I listened to a lecture on globalization only a few hours later it seemed slightly surreal. A weekend that revolved around family, sharing stories and excessive hugs settled back to normal exchange life in an instant. Luckily, I have the feeling that the happiness that their visit brought me will last me quite a while.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Counting my lucky stars

My first memory of my own room was the one I shared with my sister. It was spacious, the walls were pink and being close to my sister was something I loved. The day she said she wanted to have her own room, I cried uncontrollably. But because it was her idea, my parents decided it was her who had to move to the room next door. It was smaller and the walls were yellow – clearly I had the better end of the deal. Ever since, I have had my own rooms and with the exception of a short blue-phase, the walls were pink.

In Singapore, I share my room once again. This time, my roommate is not family, the room is everything but spacious and the walls are definitely not pink. The only color that can be found is on the curtains. Leave it up to a lovely shade of brown to truly light up the room. I can also jump from one bed onto the other, even though both are pushed back completely against the walls. Anyone who is familiar with my athletic abilities can now guess how narrow the rooms must be.

So now I find myself on the other side of the deal, it is me who wants to leave this room. Luckily, I play my cards a little better than my sister at the time and trade this room for stays in Indonesia, Malaysia and so on. It was not until this weekend, though, that I got to spend the night at a luxury hotel: The Marina Bay Sands.

How does one end up in the most well known hotel in Singapore, you may wonder? Well, spending a night – or at least a dip in the infinity pool – at the Marina Bay Sands is on the things-to-do list of many exchange students. This was no different for Carmen and Cass, my partners in crime, who have some impulse buying tendencies. So before I knew it, they booked a stay. A plan that started with sneaking me up for a swim ended with them shoving the beds together and inviting me to sleep over. Who am I to refuse a slumber party at the Marina Bay Sands hotel?

We slowly but surely gathered all ingredients for a girls’ night: chocolate, Jennifer Anniston, cheese & bruschetta, fluffy pillows, gossip sesh.. Topped by the complimentary macarons that we devoured within minutes. Of course, the highlight of the evening was swimming in the infinity pool overlooking the Singapore Skyline by night. A magical moment.

There’s no question about the Marina Bay being a luxurious and fancy hotel, so we tried our best to blend in with the crowd. I wore my silk maxi dress, Carmen brought along her sunhat and Cass brought her million bikinis to choose from. However, keeping our cool was a little too much to ask for and it only took a matter of seconds before we were running in the hotel corridors and taking pictures on every possible corner of the pool. When bedtime came, we were still too happy and excited to actually fall asleep.

Thank you Carmen and Cass for a lovely girls night,


Monday, April 4, 2011

If I'm a Tourist? No, I live here

April came around a lot faster than expected this year. Its arrival means I only have four more weeks of regular class left and about a two-week exam period. As soon as May 16th hits, I will be closing the NTU door behind me; and jet off to discover Asia all summer long. So having passed the halfway mark a while ago, I wonder how well I have managed to integrate into Singaporean society.

One of the biggest barriers I encounter here in Singapore is language. Before I came here, I was told that English is the most commonly used language and communication should not be a problem. Yet, too many blank stares on either my end or the person I’m talking to have led me to conclude that there is something a little different about my English and Singaporean English. After a while I came to learn that ‘Singlish’ (Singaporean English) is actually a mixture of English, Malay, Tamil, Cantonese and other Asian languages.

Because I’m pretty sure my Chinese will never go much beyond ‘Ni Hao’ (Hello), which I can only remember because it is the name of most Dutch Chinese restaurants, I have not set myself the goal of mastering the Singlish language. What I have been able to conquer, and yes I am quite proud of that fact, is a spontaneous ‘can?’ ‘can’ exchange. Let me show you by the message I received from my roommate:

‘Can help me sth? I msg u in fb can?’ She basically asked me if she could contact me on facebook to ask me for help. The correct Singaporean reply would not be something along the lines of yes or no problem, it would be: ‘can’. Her next question was: ‘Can check ur fb msg inbox?’. After I would say: ‘also can.’ Talking to Singaporeans in quick exchanges such as restaurants, shops and taxis, I have caught myself replacing ‘yes’ by ‘can’ and ‘can not’.

So does this step in the direction of integration make me blend in a little more? Sadly, no. It certainly fills me with a sense of satisfaction but make no mistake that I am often still the odd one out. I couldn’t help but notice that in buses and lecture halls, seats often fill up everywhere else first, before people take a seat beside me. While I know I can give a pretty good mean girl stare, I promise my inner Regina has not come out yet so that can not be the reason. Luckily, it often stays at this initial stand-offish vibe and once I interact with the locals they are very friendly.

Other things that I have slowly gotten used to is the ‘driving on the left side’-debacle, which seeps down way further into everyday life than you’d initially think. For example, when you walk on the street you step to the left to avoid each other instead of the right. Needless to say, I have bumped into countless of people. On the escalator, you stand to the left so that people that are in a hurry can pass you on the right. I am proud to announce I automatically wait on the left side of the escalator now.

When I go to the movies, I come fully prepared for the out of control air-conditioning: leggings, sweater, scarf and hot chocolate. Two months ago, this newbie nearly froze to death while watching Love and other drugs. Thank god there was Jake Gyllenhaal to warm me up. (Excuse the cheesy joke, it had to be made.)

Also, I can distinguish between all sorts of different noodles and can explain to you the difference between prata, thosai, chapatti etc. And while I used to call the beans often served with sushi ‘green beans’, I know casually call them ‘edamame’. Cool, no?

Reflecting upon Singaporean life, I guess I can say that I have certainly learnt a few things and picked up on some local customs. But maybe the most valuable thing of all is to experience how it is to live in a society where you are simply different. I, for one, have a new understanding as to why a “little India” or a “Chinatown” or Utrecht’s “Lombok” come into existence.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

When the sun came out

Remembering: sailing off into the sunset, feet touching the water. Pancakes topped with mangoes, local beers and dinners on the beach. Live music. Beautiful company and heart-warming resort staff. Dancing on the beach with a bunch of Filipino kids, posing for a million cameras. Snorkeling, riding ATVs up to the highest point of the island, laying out on the beach. Laughs in paradise.