Today I am sitting on the 11th floor of the National Library of Singapore. For the next few weeks, this perch of verticality will most likely become a welcome workspace. On one side, there is a view towards tall buildings, hazy in the distance from the afternoon humidity. On the other side, a wall of apartment buildings with balconies painted turquoise blue, laundry hanging out to dry, gently swaying in the breeze. A week ago, I flew twelve hours across the world, traded in winter for endless summer, cheese sandwiches for endless options of rice/noodles/veggies, and morning runs through gray mist for morning swims in the blazing sun. Instead of being the only Asian woman at the library’s communal working table, I am one of five. Instead of being bundled in a sweater and corduroys, I am wearing a linen tee and cut-off shorts. The view is different, the weather is different, and most of all, the cultural context is different.
This is the first time in my adult life that I am living in a setting where my skin color, my eyes, and my hair are similar to the people around me. A sea of Asians, speaking Chinglish, eating food that is so familiar, chopsticks the only utensil option. One would think that I’d find cultural collectivity here in Singapore, that I’d be able to finally relish in the Chinese-ness that I had been missing, blend in, and rejuvenate in the sun. Although partially true, I still found myself, on one of my first days here, standing in the “western” grocery store’s cheese section lamenting the audacious prices. Leave it to me to crave cheese when in Asia. (I settled for some not as expensive, but still over-priced hummus from Australia. All the “western” products here are from Australia, milk, yogurt, honey, cheese, etc. To put things into perspective, a block of cheese can get you about 3 meals and a snack at a hawker center.)
Asia and Europe, and me, as the American, forever in-between. The mindset, the values, what is in the news, how things are worded, how the people go about their everyday and carry themselves, the advertisements, the structure and order of it all. Nothing is American, but intrinsically, and with dismay, I notice that there is a heightened look towards the West. Materialism is abound and the propulsion towards an entirely capitalistic existence is not only welcomed, it is celebrated, as exemplified by countless newspaper articles profiling successes with no shame in publishing exact salaries and worth of condos. Even a random conversation on the street, where a business man from Beijing began by asking me where I was from because he thought I looked “out of place” (not quite Chinese and not quite Singaporean), ended with him telling me exactly how much he makes per month and how it was not enough to be rich. This openness about facts and figures, salaries, educational degrees, car costs and condo fees, it is different from the veiled, abstracted approach in the West. I knew that it existed, especially in Asia, but I didn’t expect it to be so pervasive.
The first feeling I get is that I have moved from one snow globe to another one. I get a rather sterile feeling here. It is clean, precise, and efficient. Right down to the weather, which is the same every day of the year: humid, hovering somewhere around 30-35 degrees Celsius, prone to sporadic thunderstorms. Specific signs are abound: Do not shake your hands after washing them, you might get water on the bathroom floor and someone might slip. There are little patches of green throughout the city, the streets are wide and orderly but crowded, one set of high-rise apartment complexes probably can house all of de pijp. Remnants of British colonialism equal driving on the left side, three-pronged electrical outlets, and trendy necklaces with union jack charms in the shape of mustaches. Is there something below the surface? Beyond the shopping ladies strolling along Orchard Road with their designer handbags, the groups of retired men sitting ‘round tables at hawker stands drinking Tiger beer all day, the futuristic architecture of high-rise office buildings?
I suppose the one reigning force is the food culture. The formulaic complicity is countered by the variety and diversity of food available. Where Amsterdam lacked in cultural variety and food culture, it made up for with historical clout and picturesque canals. Comparatively, Singapore lacks the history, its rise to contemporary prominence in business being within the past 20 years, but it makes up for it all through its food. Neighborhoods come together at food centers, usually found at the base of most apartment high-rise complexes. These food centers are eclectic and every person that works behind one of these stalls make the food with passion, commitment and love. After all, it takes a certain amount of endurance and pride to spend every day contained in a metal cubicle cooking in the sweltering heat. One favorite type of hawker food stall is a make-your-own-soup station. Lines and lines of fresh seafood, tofu, veggies, and herbs for you to choose from with a set of tongs. Pick what you want, throw it all in a bowl and tell the cook how you want it prepared. My favorite is rice noodles with laksa soup (a spicy, coconut broth). I load it with greens, tofu, mushrooms, okra, seaweed, and bitter melon. This is one of the most enjoyable meals, but other enjoyable meals have been abundant, such as make-your-own hot pot, a box of spicy and sour salads, kaya bread with peanut butter, fish congee, peanut pancake made out of sourdough glutinous rice flour, and on and on.
My initial impression is that this is what they want you to do while in Singapore. To get lost in the food culture, succumb to happy food comas and forget about the rest. Forget that there is a distinct separation in class when you actually look closer. Forget that the old ladies on the street selling packets of tissues, the old men and women cleaning up dishes at hawker stands and in malls, that these people are becoming increasingly marginalized, pushed out further into the outskirts of the island to live in lesser conditions, while luxury condos loom everywhere else. These men and women are practically invisible, hunched-over, shrunken with age. But they are the backbone to this little island-city-country.
There are counterparts to these men and women everywhere in the world, and as I travel more, especially through SouthEast Asia, I become reminded of what is happening behind-the-scenes in these rapidly developing parts. I become reminded of my place, my privileges, and my priorities. I am reminded that there is a reality outside of snowglobes and that this reality is messy and feverish, unable to be contained within the cool façade of a fake winter-scaped utopia.