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I sidestepped the bald man next to me who was ordering what looked like duck feet, in rapid Malaysian. Looking down at my green plastic tray, like those often found in high school lunch rooms, I saw the square banana leaf piled high with plain white rice looking back. The thought of “foods” like fish eyes, stuffed animal intestine, or any kind of pickled hoof on my rice made my gag reflexes kick into high gear. I paid for my abysmal lunch, a measly dollar fifty US, smiled at the man at the register, and walked to a nearby table.
It had been three days and I had eaten little more than white rice and clear broth for most of that time. I knew later I’d be doubled over, in agonizing pain over my empty stomach but I still couldn’t bring myself to eat the meals in the food court.
“Not feeling adventurous today?” My dad’s girlfriend plopped down in the seat next to me and began munching with gusto. She had been brave at this meal; her plate was covered in some brown thing, it might have been a vegetable and I sincerely hoped it was, though chose not to ask. Instead I smiled weakly and began to eat my rice with a severely bent metal fork. Metal forks in an Asian country? You’re probably wondering where all the chopsticks went. In fact, I was probably one of the few people in the vicinity who actually could use a chopstick. There’s a good reason behind this madness and it all starts with the British.
Until about forty years ago, Singapore was colonized by the British. It seems strange but then again the British would have colonized a tea bag, given the chance. England also had colonized Hong Kong but was afraid of losing this major business and financial center to communism, a legitimate fear because that’s eventually what happened. Fortunately they had already created a clone Hong Kong on a tiny island off the tip of Malaysia. That island was called Singapore. In an effort to keep the business integrity that had been in Hong Kong, Chinese business men were brought in. The British eventually began to relinquish many of their colonies and when they finally left Singapore in the mid 1960s, the Chinese business men, who were the superpower that made Singapore the world trading center it was, took control of power.
All of which explains why a Malaysian country is under the rule of English speaking Chinese men.
I admit that this control confusion seems completely absurd. And on top of all the mixing of control I asked myself why all the Chinese business men spoke English? It would make sense that after the English influence was gone they would go back to speaking their native language. It’s because of Singapore’s status as a financial and business center; since English is the primary language of business, every Chinese person living in the Chinese Republic of Singapore (better know simply as “Singapore”) must, by government decree, learn to speak English fluently.
It would seem logical that because Singapore had once been Malaysian land, the primary language and the majority of the population would be Malaysian. Oddly enough, hardly any of the Malaysians that you might meet in Singapore during the business day actually live on the island. Almost all of the merchants and taxi drivers (in other words, the working middle class) come over the bridge from Malaysia every day to work in Singapore. The main reason for this, yet something the government will not willingly admit is that Malaysians aren’t given a chance to live on the island. Because the government only provides subsidized housing for the working Chinese, who drive the world wide trade and economy in Singapore many Malaysians cannot afford the high cost of living in the city. Despite the fact that the Malaysians contribute greatly to the economy, they are still forced to commute.
At the time it seemed amazing to me that so many different cultures were represented on such a tiny island. Singapore is really a diverse smorgasbord; something that I’m sure added to my feeling of unfamiliarity. I was not simply preparing to enter one new country, but really experiencing about four simultaneously. The English speaking Chinese are the base and account for most of the population, at least of those who are citizens of Singapore. Their bland, businesslike ways were nothing compared to the Malaysians who add the flavor to the Singaporean culture. While many of the Chinese have lost their traditions, like the use of chopsticks, to western influence, the Malaysians have kept many of theirs. This remarkable country is also host to a number of Indians who ended up in Singapore due to the British; they add their extravagant religions to the downtown section of Little India.
Despite its mass westernization, Singapore, I soon learned, was full of seemingly impossible tasks, foreign ways, and cultural surprises. I mean, it’s not exactly in the top ten on the Travel channel and there aren’t many travel magazines raving about the sites. It is not a country flooded with American tourists and therefore doesn’t cater well to that group. I had ended up in this incredibly strict country because of my dad’s work. He traded in his company-paid first class ticket so that he could bring his girlfriend Betsy and me on this four day business stint. Because he was working all the time, Betsy and I spent our days exploring the foreign culture. From the moment we stepped off the plane, everywhere I turned was a complete shock.
Day one of this incredible whirlwind found me looking at shoes littering the ground before a grand twenty foot engraved door leading into a Hindu Temple. Betsy sprang forward and began to slide her Birkenstocks from her feet, gesturing madly for me to do the same. I couldn’t exactly wait on the sidewalk; being ten years old in a country where you don’t speak the language really makes you consider your priorities. All I knew was that I would rather be barefoot and inside a dark temple with someone I knew, than outside in the sun, with my shoes, and alone. I obediently walked forward and unlaced my sneakers.
“Won’t someone steal our shoes?” I whispered as we walked into the gloom. Betsy waved a hand, “Of course not; everyone else left theirs.”
It was like a chanting circus. For a girl who’s been to church maybe a total of ten times, most of those times on Christmas, all I had ever seen were people singing and standing in pews; not anything terribly exciting. And while in the church I was familiar with one God was prayed to, these Hindu worshipers were praying to over 100 different gods. Rows of men and women shrouded in clothing, making me feel practically naked in my t-shirt and shorts, were standing, kneeling, laying on the floor and then standing up again; some were chanting, while others prayed in complete silence. In yet another corner there were men jogging slowly around what looked like a well in the middle of the floor. They were also chanting and holding flaming coconuts? It was madness and took every ounce of strength I possessed to suppress my laughter. It all seemed so weird. Betsy would later correct me that nothing was “weird” and that “weird” was a bad word to use. She preferred “different” and told me for all I knew the men with coconuts likely wondered why I was wearing shorts. They probably thought I was the weird – I mean, “different” one.
Yet another adventure found Betsy and me inside the public toilet where, after too much water at lunch to help wash down dry rice, I was horrified to learn that while in most places I had vacationed to, toilet means a nice porcelain (though not always clean) bowl, in Singapore it means something entirely different: a hole in the ground. Five holes in the ground in fact, each separated by a low three foot wall, a waste of concrete if you ask me. Probably an unnecessary detail but there was no toilet paper either. The dingy light that filtered through a translucent window high on the wall barely illuminated the room and as far as a sink, I was so horrified I don’t know if I would remember seeing one. I made a mental note never to drink too much water while out on our daily excursions. I would simply hold it until we got back to the hotel every night, where there was a Western toilet and a sink. Needless to day I spent much of the next three days dangerously dehydrated.
My nights in Singapore were hardly less stressful and full of as many surprises as my adventure-filled days. Jet lag and a fourteen hour time difference had rendered my brain useless after seven PM and I therefore missed dinner on the first night. Once asleep, my dad found the prospect of waking me pitiful, not to mention impossible. Since my last meal of the day had been lunch, I awoke in the night ravenous with hunger, and craving bagels. After the first night of this, and our discovery that room service ended at midnight, my dad, who knew I wasn’t eating much, learned to order a breadbasket early in the evening as soon as I had fallen asleep.
On our second day Betsy and I decided, on the suggestion of the front desk, to explore the Chinese tea houses. With a city and a subway map in hand, we made our way to the nearest subway stop to take the train into the downtown area where most of the teahouses were located. Any subway system is complicated enough, yet when you’re in a foreign country the task seems infinitely more challenging. After asking several commuters how to get to our destination, we made it to our train and all the while I silently thanked the Chinese government for making people learn English, how ever broken. Once in our subway car it was almost like being back in New York or Boston until I looked around and noticed that we were surrounded by signs declaring that “durians” were forbidden on the subway. Before I had time to even imagine what a “durian” might be we had arrived at our destination and Betsy grabbed my hand, bounded from the car, and up the terminal stairs.
Up on the street, we were immediately greeted with a torrential downpour that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Drenched, we ran as fast as we could toward the nearest newspaper stand, our feet splashing in the gathering puddles. As we shook ourselves dry, the Malaysian man and woman behind the counter began to chuckle.
“Nobody told you about rain. It rain every day here,” the man said in a somewhat heavy accent but English nonetheless. He pointed to the back of the store where we found a cheap, rainbow-striped golf umbrella. Almost as soon as we were back outside the rain subsided and after a short walk, had reached our destination.
Standing outside of the entrance to the Chinese tea house, whose name I can’t remember and probably couldn’t pronounce even if I did, all I could think was that if this was better than the food courts it was a step up in my book. Betsy slid our cheap umbrella into the umbrella stand near the door and mounted the worn wooden stairs. With the thought that leaving the umbrella was at least better than leaving my shoes outside, I followed suit.
At the top of the stairs, after passing through another wooden doorway, I was greeted with the sights and smells of traditional Chinese culture, something I had yet to experience even though I was in a Chinese-run country. The brief moment of relief that I had felt at the bottom of the stairs was soon dashed when another pile of shoes near the door indicated that my feet would be naked once again; at least this time, I thought, the shoes were inside and not out on the street for anyone to take. “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service”. The sign on the front entrance of every store in America was flashing through my brain as I followed Betsy, who was following the hostess, to our table. I felt the change between the cold wooden floor and the rugs warm beneath my feet walking to the next room and finally settled before a low square table. Sitting cross-legged on a pillow, I noticed many of the people around me looked like businessmen, all on the floor in suits and sipping tea out of tiny tea sets. Strongly reminded of all the times I had forced my dad to play tea party with me the minute he walked in the door from work, I laughed, and then realized this wasn’t pretend, it was culture.
“Overwhelmingly complicated” is the phrase I would use to describe the traditional way to drink Chinese tea and I can’t honestly say that I understood the entire process then and probably couldn’t describe it well now. Nonetheless, the whole process was a far cry from the food courts and therefore highly enjoyable. Leaving our ordering entirely up to the woman waiting on us made me a little nervous, owing to the fact that every other experience involving food that I had had in Singapore was a near disaster, but I figured tea was not something that could possibly involve feet or intestines of any sort and luckily, I turned out to be right. We were brought a small tray with loose tea, a small tea pot, a pot of hot water, four small cups, and a tray of small biscuits and cookies to go with our tea. After listening carefully to the instructions on how to properly drink tea, we made what I consider a very noble attempt at doing the whole thing properly. First, we filled the teapot with loose tea and then hot water. After replacing the cover we poured more hot water over the tea pot; we were told that when all the water on the outside had dried, the tea on the inside was ready. They had not made a mistake bringing us four cups; as it turned out, each person needed two: one for smelling and one for sipping. The shorter and fatter of the small cups was for smelling while the taller and thinner was for sipping.
Betsy and I spent several enjoyable hours sniffing and sipping tea, munching on cookies, and reliving our adventures thus far. We thanked the waitresses and hostess and talked with them for a few minutes on our way out and after purchasing a tea set headed down the narrow staircase, where we discovered that someone had taken our umbrella. In its place was a much nicer and sturdier rainbow umbrella with a bamboo handle. Smiling at our good fortune we wended our way through the streets that were now flooded with afternoon sunshine. Still hungry, since tea and cookies is hardly lunch, Betsy and I stopped at a fruit stand where the mystery of the “durians” was solved. It turned out that durians were a type of fruit. We ordered two fruit shakes and they were served to us in carved out durians. We sipped our drinks happily as we walked toward the subway, taking care to finish them before we descended the stairs to catch the train. I suppose the reason for the “No Durians on the Subway” sign was to prevent a sticky mess and in a country where you can’t even chew gum, this came as no surprise.
On our last day in Singapore, after facing another breakfast of cream of wheat…and fish (or bread, fruit, and tea, for the unadventurous) we headed to the Piccadilly Circus, an outdoor market located in downtown Singapore. A remnant of British control, much like the breakfast I had chosen, the market was modeled after the original Piccadilly Circus in London. It was full of Malaysian vendors selling food, clothes, fabrics, kitchenware, and other enticing items intended to lure customers.
Looking back on this experience I realize, even more now, how amazing it was to have encountered a culture so different from my own at such a young age. At the time, blinded by fish eye soup and the fact that I was never allowed to wear my shoes, I couldn’t appreciate many of the traditions that Singapore had to offer and just wrote them off as weird and even slightly uncouth. The trip helped me to appreciate other cultures and today it is the reason I love to travel. I had traveled, mostly to Western European countries, but Singapore was my first real dose of cultural submersion and now I’m addicted. I crave other cultures and experiencing their unfamiliar ways. There is no doubt in my mind that I owe my love of foreign cultures and my desire to travel to this one incredibly eye-opening journey.