Stephanie Liu

Major: Economics

Hometown: Chattanooga, TN

Study Abroad Program: National University of Singapore Business School

First Impressions

When I first stepped off the plane into the arrival lobby of Singapore’s sleek and modern Changi International Airport, I felt like I’d never left home.  To my left was a Burger King; to my right, a family of Americans and before me, a line of Singaporeans who were all chattering in English.  To be honest, it felt more like LAX than anything else.

That all ended when I met Mr. Yap.

He was a family friend who’d been helping me find housing and was kind enough to pick me up from the airport.  As he spoke to me in quick Singlish, an idiosyncratic mix of English, Malay, Chinese dialects, and Tamil, my first impressions of Singapore as a carbon copy of the States came crashing down.  As the lingua franca of the country, Singlish is what binds Singapore’s multi-ethnic citizen body together.  This (and thousands of other cultural quirks) really resonated with me as someone who was constantly mistaken for a native.  I looked the part but could never play the part.  And in the same way Singapore often looks the part of the developed nation and the economic powerhouse, it plays its own unique role on the world stage. 

National University of Singapore

One of the reasons I decided on Singapore was because of NUS, the country’s flagship university that has received accolade for its amazing professors and global outlook.   Where else could I study Singaporean politics under former Ministers or Southeast Asian history under the people who’d lived it?

While I came for the economics courses (I ended up taking 2: one on the economy of modern China and another on Economic Geography), I inadvertently left with a deep appreciation for Thai classical music.  This was due in part to my Southeast Asian music class, hands down my favorite of the semester.  I signed up on a whim and came out knowing how to sing a Thai folk song by heart and how to play the glongkhaek, a pair of drums used in classical ensembles.  Our class even got to perform twice as a part of Southeast Asian music showcases, an experience that was at times excruciatingly embarrassing (considering our novice status) and amazingly enriching.  Video of one performance here!

Best Experience

Chinese New Year is kind of a big deal in Singapore.  With a population that’s 75% ethnically Chinese, there are more than enough people to make it a national celebration.  The holiday is a month long state of revelry filled with big sales at malls, traditional Chinese and Hokkien eats, and a parade with fireworks in Chinatown.  I caught the parade one day and fireworks at the Esplanade (Singapore’s gorgeous landmark concert hall) another, but it was the night my friends and went to a Chinese New Year house party that was most memorable.  We’d kindly been invited by a recent UNC grad who was traveling throughout the region.  The gracious hosts were a Singaporean contractor and his family at their flat in one of Singapore’s HDBs, high-rises owned by the government that house the majority of the population. 

The food and decorations were classic Chinese New Year but everything else was uniquely Singaporean.  Guests of every age ranged from students to businesspeople to locals and foreigners.  We were able to meet and engage with ex-pats living and working in the country, locals who were extremely curious about our lives in America, and NUS students who we bonded with over complaints of library hours and canteen food.  


Last Thoughts

Looking back on this past semester abroad, I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to experience not only Singapore but also several surrounding countries in the Southeast Asian region.  Traveling has taught me more than I could ever fit in these two pages.   Having been able to compare Singapore with its Southeast Asian neighbors, one thing that truly stood out wasthe legacy of colonialism. 

At the end of my stay, the one question left lingering in my mind was this: Is Singapore still being colonized? 

It seems that in today’s highly globalized world, economic and intellectual colonization by foreign investors has replaced land colonization by force.  Even when it comes to consumer culture and lifestyle, Singapore is seeped in Western ideals and sensibilities.  But in this day and age when foreign direct investment is welcomed with open arms and technology allows information to flow through open doors, can one still call it a form of colonialism?

There’s still so much to think about!  The true mark of an enriching experience for me is whether I walk away with more questions and curiosities than I started with, and enriching is undoubtedly what defines my semester abroad.