What I Will Really Miss About Singapore

Fifteen days and counting. Right now is always about the point in an international move where my brain flips into hyper-list-making mode, its primitive way of revving up my otherwise sluggish neurotransmitters. My iPad, lap top, Excel, iPhone and Post It lists are supposed to save me from missing vital cues during this stretch between point of departure and port of entry. They remind me to sell this. Clean that. Huck this. Turn off this. Turn on that. Find this. Lose that. Cancel that. Warn them. Beg her. Petition him. Close these. Open those. Wrap these. And stack everything (and everyone) else right over there, thank you.

One such list awoke me in the middle of the night and I’ll tell you, it was a rowdy roll call. It never let me go back to sleep again. After a typical tropical storm blasted open my eyelids at 3:00 a.m., and before I could close them again, I was busily scrolling down this list: What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.

For the next several days, I’ll post my list for you, (gathered from 3:00 to 5:45 a.m. and noted point-by-point on green Post Its) here. It’s by no means exhaustive and with the exception of #1, (which is the thing I’ll miss most, I think), these things aren’t necessarily listed in any specific order. But it gives you an idea. . .

#1. Diversity. The first night our family arrived in Singapore we spent wandering through the muggy, teeming streets of Chinatown. It was there where Dalton predicted in one simple phrase what we would gradually discover over our two years living here. On his left was a Buddhist temple. A few steps farther, a Hindu temple. Even farther, a mosque. Finally, a Christian church. From each of these doorways poured people dressed like extras from either the Chinese, Bollywood, Middle Eastern or the Midwestern movie, and a cascade of inscrutable languages poured out with them. My teenager turned to me and said, “This place is like living every day in Universal Studios.”

Raising the Red Lantern in Singapore’s Chinatown

And he wasn’t so far off. Singapore is craaazily diverse. Its population of about 5 million packed into no more than 224 square miles is composed of multiple cultures. The official languages are English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, its dominant religions Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism. But there are dialects and splinter groups of all that, too. Walk any given road and you will see turbans next to Red Sox baseball caps, head scarves next to Hermès scarves, Punjabi suits next to Chanel suits, ninja abayas along side Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirts. In my neighborhood alone, there are Chinese-speaking Malaysians, Malay-speaking Indians, Tamil-speaking Indonesians, Filipinos, Germans, Canadians, Koreans, Japanese, Mainland Chinese, Irish, Australians and Kiwis, a Texan or two, and some pretty serious looking guys who look like native Singaporeans (whatever that looks like) but who don’t speak at all. Instead, they carry machine guns. They are the guards outside the home of Goh Chok Tong, former prime minister of Singapore, who is reported to have said that with all these cultures converging in one tiny place, Singapore is not a nation, but a “society in transition.” I’ll go for that.

Sultan Mosque in Singapore’s Arab Street

As I wrote, there is a Chinatown, Arab Street, Little India, and Peranakan corners. (Peranakans are, as I understand it, Malaysians with deep Chinese roots.) There is a Goethe Institute as well as an Alliance Française. There are German, Canadian, French, Swiss, and Dutch schools, not to mention the several international schools offering instruction in Chinese and English. Nearly 40% of the population is made up of “foreigners” like us, or like the truckloads of workers who are, my friend from Mumbai told me, mostly Indian themselves, here to work the heavy construction jobs that drive this city-state into the stratosphere. Or at least into the clouds.

I love that I can assume that just about everyone I meet on the street speaks at least two, if not three or four or more languages. (Now, if only those languages were on my own list. . .) I love that we get to celebrate all these flamboyant Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian festivals, that Hari Raya and Puasa and Chinese New Year and Deepevali now mean something to my children. I love that my own religion is set in a global context, and that my children see themselves—white, English-speaking and Christian—as a minority, that we absorb the truth that being any of those things is not the only valid mode of existing is this world. Living in the mix of such diversity reflects the true proportions of this planet we live on. There is immeasurable worth in that, I think, and should train us, I hope, to respect cultural codes and celebrate (and not denigrate) such differences.

Here’s where such cultural exposure gets real:  When Luc recently celebrated his 12th birthday, his 12 friends were like a mini United Nations with Luc as the only fair-haired kid in the bunch. What struck me also, is that as we made the guest list and I quizzed him about these friends, Luc never once mentioned that one was African or Thai or Indian, that they looked brown, yellow or any color at all. (He did, however, casually mention dietary restrictions: “You’ll know who Ali is, Mom. He’s got the biggest eyes and is Muslim, so, you know, he doesn’t do pork.”) And when I asked Luc after the party to help me write thank you notes to each gift-giver, Luc didn’t describe them racially. Instead, this gift here? It was from the kid who is the fastest in the class, and that one was from the funniest, the other one was from the smartest. And this last gift? It was from the one who could do the loudest arm fart.

So maybe not exactly like the U.N.


© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

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