Major: Business Administration
Hometown: Winston-Salem, NC
Study Abroad Program: National University of Singapore Business School
Throughout my journey to Singapore and travels around Southeast Asia, I encountered levels of diversity that I could not have been exposed to in the United States. My first night in Singapore a friend and I got picked up from the airport by a student who studied at UNC last semester, which was such a convenient set-up considering other students with us had no idea where they were going or how they were getting there. We ended up spending the night at her flat which is apparently a very nice one but still seemed small to me, but with so many people on such a small island it’s the only way to manage everyone.
The family was very hospitable and actually brought us to school for check in the next morning. This is where I first noticed what initially surprised me most. English is the primary language in Singapore, everyone speaks it but it is surprisingly difficult for them to understand me and vise versa. Not even just due to thick accents and varied inflections, but also vocabulary. I guess I just expected communication to not be so much of an issue, which was ignorant considering there are of course cultural differences alone that impede perfect communication. On this same note, I was interested to see signs throughout the city for a national "Speak Good English" campaign.
From my initial impressions alone I could already tell the academic culture would be very different. Singaporean students are already in the libraries and coffee shops studying before classes even begin for the semester. It was actually really intimidating to many of the international students who don't even know where to buy books yet. In discussing this with professors one of them told me that Singaporeans will actually use multiple tactics to intimidate their peers such as requesting obscene amounts of supplemental essay booklets during exams- to make the other students wonder what it is that they themselves are neglecting to include in their own essays.
I had the pleasure of experiencing National Day in Singapore which was really quite interesting. The celebration took place at The Espalanade on the river and was a huge production- I'd compare it to the opening ceremony for the Olympics. The things that impressed me the most about the show were the elaborate choreography, costumes, and the fact that so many different organizations from all over the country participated and clearly put in many hours for preparation. Even in the days leading up to the actual celebration flags were absolutely EVERYWHERE. In one apartment complex for instance 75% of the balconies would have huge flags hanging on them. Tons of pride here.
As the songs were performed throughout the show they actually projected the lyrics onto a screen. In comparing the message of this independence day celebration to any sort of American independence message, Singapore puts a lot more responsibility on their citizens. This actually arose in a class discussion last week as being part of Singapore's mission. Instead of looking back on all they have accomplished (granted they've only been around a little over 40 years) they spent these hours attempting to motivate Singaporeans of all ages to make a difference in the success of their country, to out-do other countries and to bring glory home to Singapore. Of course this relates to a message that the United States has attempted to implement perhaps with little success, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
The greatest thing I experienced about Singapore is the convenience it offers for traveling to neighboring countries. I was able to visit Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia. I learned even more about cultural differences than I had originally expected. Bangkok for instance, was an interesting experience in itself and I learned that most everyone there who approached me was probably trying to scam me for money. However they're all SO friendly, even friendlier than the Singaporeans. Also, while exploring the temples, my friends and I came across a few that were under construction for the king's birthday. Two things about this surprised me- one being the fact that they were intricately painting the outside wall design with tiny paintbrushes, which must take a painstakingly long time; the other being that they would put so much time and effort into the making the king happy. This allegiance to the king was apparent everywhere in Bangkok- in the town center there were snapshots of the king from family vacations and political events blown up to poster size. As drivers go through this center many of the bow their heads to the photos.
I am very grateful for the time I spent in Southeast Asia and have returned with a profoundly broader understanding and appreciation of their culture. As with any other culture however, there is more to be learned than one can in a single semester. Therefore, I count down the days until I can return to Southeast Asia.