Last weekend, I went to watch Crazy Rich Asians with Sai and my family. The movie is set in Singapore and shows the lavish lifestyles of some of Singapore’s richest families. Half way through the film, Sai turned to me and asked in a whisper, “Is this what it was like when you were in Singapore?”
I gave him a slight chuckle and shook my head, saying I knew of only one family who may have fit the same socioeconomic demographic as the one portrayed in the film. But for the most part, the 8 months I lived in Singapore from January till September, 2011 were far from glamorous.
I moved to Singapore as part of an 8-month co-op term and found the internship through my university’s co-op program. I applied in fall 2010, interviewed and was offered the job of a research assistant working with a professor of entrepreneurship at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The job paid around SGD1,300 per month (roughly CAD1,200), but the money didn’t matter. I wanted to go for the experience of it all – to move to and live in a new country all on my own, to engage in new experiences, learn more about myself and the world, and to get away from my life and university in Canada after a breakup from a two-year long relationship.
And so on January 6th, 2011, I boarded my flight from Toronto to Singapore via Incheon (South Korea) with two suitcases, my passport, and my job offer documentation, hugged my family goodbye at the airport, and went off on a journey that would profoundly change the way I viewed life, money, love, travel, work, and who I was.
Singapore is a small island nation in South-East Asia and is one of the main economic hubs in that part of the world. It’s a developed, first world nation (a feat it accomplished in a single generation), and has a very high quality of life. Upon first moving there, I found it to have some similarities with Jakarta, Indonesia (where I lived for two years as a teen with my family); the tropical climate and spending time walking around in huge, luxury malls were two aspects of life I was distinctly familiar with.
Because I was working at a university, and my co-workers were also interns from the same university in Canada, we all became friends and started hanging out regularly with the exchange students at NUS who came from all over the world. It quickly became clear that many of those students (who were there for a single, 4-month semester) came to Singapore with the intention of partying it up to the max, and taking the easiest courses they could to qualify for a credit in their programs back home. They weren’t here to study; they were here to party, and every one of them was on the same page about that.
We were all in our early-20s, and how much each person was able to travel around the region in the time we were there was our form of social currency. There was a silent race among most of the students as to who could hit up the most destinations around – Bangkok, Phuket, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, China, and for some, even India and Sri Lanka. The harder it was to reach a destination, the more “street cred” that person would earn and be talked about at various dorm gatherings. Some people climbed mountains in Malaysia, while others stayed in treetop hotels in Laos.
To say I didn’t engage in this behaviour initially would be a lie. By late February, I had only taken a week-long trip to the Philippines with my friend, whereas most other students we knew had already been to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, and even Hong Kong. There was definitely a sense of FOMO that came with knowing my friends at work and I weren’t racking up the travel points as fast as everyone else. We didn’t really stop to think that we were there for work, and were expected to be in the office Monday-Friday, from 9am-6pm. Many of the exchange students had classes only two days of the week and were free to travel around the rest of the five.
My trips to Vietnam and Phuket in Thailand were made completely out of a sense of needing to go because it was what we were expected to do in our “year abroad”. After those trips, I quickly realized that it was impossible to take in the culture of these extremely diverse countries and people in just two days. Many of the people who were travelling around were doing it just for the stamps in their passports so they could say that they were there. Of the three days I spent in Hanoi, I really don’t feel like I got to see or understand anything about Vietnam’s history, its people, or its way of life. Everyone I knew who had been there stayed in Old Backpacker’s Quarter where everything was meant to make tourists feel as though they were back home. What’s the point of taking a trip like that?
After that, I decided I was going to go to places that I wanted to see because I wanted to see them, and not because I had to go there because that’s where everyone else was going. One such trip I took was to Macau, and another to Australia. Over the course of eight months, I also travelled to Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Hong Kong. I learned how to travel. I learned it wasn’t enough to just go to the tourist landmarks in a city and feel like you understood what that place was about. The best trips I took were ones with friends and locals (especially to Bangkok) where we were given a “behind the scenes” look at life, beyond what most tourists experience. I realized it was better to go to fewer destinations and really get a feel for their vibe and understand their culture, than go to many places and not truly jive with any of them.
Beyond travelling, I was faced with situations that revealed some of the uglier aspects of life in Singapore (and more broadly in Asia, I would soon come to realize), particularly in terms of race. My Filipino friend (who I went to the Philippines with, and who was also an intern from my university) and I had the hardest time finding a place to live in Singapore because no one wanted to rent to a Muslim and a Filipino (even though we were both Canadians).
I remember talking to one landlord on the phone for a room we were interested in and he asked me, “Are you really Canadian or is that just your citizenship? Hina isn’t a Canadian name.”
This was one of the biggest things I came to understand – why white people love backpacking through South-East Asia and only have positive things to say about their time there. They’re adored by the locals. White people are seen as the most desirable tenants, the least likely to commit crimes, and just superior to all other people. They don’t really see what travelling around in that part of the world as a non-white person can be like.
My friend and I couldn’t find a place to live for 6 weeks after we moved. We ended up changing our ethnicities to get accommodation. I started telling landlords I was from El Salvador, and that my friend was half-Filipino and half-black. Where we eventually ended up living, the landlord there made us promise my friend wouldn’t talk to the landlord’s Filipino maid at all, especially in Tagalog. My friend agreed to this absurd clause because she couldn’t afford to continue staying in a hotel any longer and we had to move in together soon.
Learning to deal with such blatant racism and being there for one another, away from the comfort of our families and home was another life skill I developed. Edel, the Filipino friend I lived with, truly became like a sister to me. We travelled to Malaysia together, partied on weekends and got drunk together, stumbled home with our heels in our hands, held each other’s hair back while throwing up in our toilet, grabbed lunch together at the cafeteria, and were there for each other when we felt homesick or had to deal with racist comments and behaviour. Prior to that, I had never had the opportunity to bond so intimately with a friend, and when she left at the end of April (her internship was only 4 months), I went to drop her off at the airport and we both cried as we hugged each other before she boarded her flight. We had shared so much in our time together, had grown together as women and people, and weren’t able to put into words how much we each had affected the other’s life.
Learning to juggle travel, work, friendships, different social norms, sky-high prices and rent was one thing, but the area of my life that was truly tested and pushed out of its comfort zone was related to love, sex, and relationships, which is what I’ll be writing about in part two next week!