There is a lot to say about my first few weeks in Singapore. There is also a lot to say about my days before flying to Singapore. The experience is something that I will not feel again, probably. It’s a weird mix of being uncomfortable and curious at the same time. Let me walk you through my experience so far!
I want to get this out of the way first: Before coming to Singapore, I knew next to nothing about the city state. I purposely kept myself blind of what made Singapore special so I could discover it while I was wandering around. Of course, I knew the basics. All I knew about Singapore was that it was a city-state and that one of their main languages was, oddly enough, English. So with that out of the way here is my pre-Singapore experience and my first few weeks in Singapore.
Before studying abroad, I took part in a summer internship in Monterey, Calif. The internship taught me a lot about work life and what it meant to be responsible for a job. It was partially stressful because I had to get my paperwork for my study abroad year done while working my job. There was also the issue of only being given a week of rest before heading to Singapore after my internship. It was sort of like a little prologue before the big adventure I was going to partake in.
These days were filled with anxiety and wonder. What was the flight going to be like? How will I arrive? Will I have jet-lag? What was I going to eat over there? Will I be able to take a whole year away from my home and without going back for Christmas? It was a lot to take in and it was sort of overwhelming.
Then the fateful day came: Aug. 11, 2017. My flight was at 11 p.m., so I was at the airport with my family at 8 getting all my paperwork ready and checking in my bags. It was very weird to think that four hours from then I would be flying across the Pacific Ocean in a nonstop flight to Singapore. As I reached the security gate, I hugged my family and said my last goodbye for a year.
It was a very intense moment. I had grown to understand the feeling having come back to San Diego from home after breaks. But this time it was whole new territory. No one in my family tree had ever gone to Singapore much less lived there for longer than a month. So it was daunting, but I have grown to like challenges.
I got on the airplane and began to prepare myself for the flight ahead. The captain announced that the flight would be 16 hours long, which was crazy. That is more than half a day! I have never been on a flight that long. Fortunately, the flight left at nighttime so I was able to sleep through the first eight hours of the flight. That was still eight hours of waiting though. A funny thing that happened on my flight: I never truly got to see the sun inside the plane; since we left at night we just followed the nighttime from halfway around the world!
After 16 grueling hours in the air I finally arrived in Singapore in a misty Monday morning. It was incredible to just be flying over a city that’s a whole ocean away from your home. As I arrived, the flight attendants gave us our embarkation cards, which have a very welcoming message on them. I cannot post these cards here due to them not being PG-13, but if you are curious just google them as “Singapore embarkation card important notice.” I got off the plane and got through customs with my letter from Nanyang Technological University and was off to explore Singapore.
As I got out of the airport, I ordered my Uber to get to the university. As my Uber arrived, it came from the left side of the road. The driver came out and helped me with my bags and I comfortably walked to the right side of the car, in order to get into the passenger seat. Well this is when I got my first surprise. Since Singapore was once an English colony, they decided to adopt their left lane driving system. So in this instance, I was really trying to get on the driver’s seat. After a funny exchange with my Uber driver, I went to the left seat and got ready for the ride.
Something I did not realize about the left lane system was that literally EVERYTHING was mirrored. So on a highway the way you go forward is on the left side of the highway. This also comes with the way people walk as well. I have had a couple of bumps with people because I was walking on the right side of the walkway rather than the left. It is those little moments that capture the magic of being somewhere completely new.
On the ride to NTU I got to appreciate the landscapes of Singapore. It is a city/jungle hybrid which is really interesting. While riding I got to see the huge apartment buildings which house the citizens in Singapore. I am talking about five miles of 20 story apartment buildings — truly mesmerizing.
As a normal Uber user I tried to converse with my driver a little bit to make the drive go by a little faster. To my surprise I could not understand a single sentence my driver was speaking. The weird thing was that I could hear some English, but I could not understand it. This was my first exposure to the famous hybrid language in Singapore: “Singlish”. Remember how I mentioned I did close to no research on Singapore? Well this is where it pays off.
In Singapore there are a total of five official languages: English, Malay, Huayu, Mandarin and Tamil. This gave birth to the language known as “Singlish” which is a mix of Malay, Mandarin and English. In English you would say something like “I am so irritated by you” but in Singlish this would be “I really buay tahan you!” in a very thick Asian accent. Singlish is also very famous for its famous suffixes to English words: “lah” and “nah” (which I have grown to use from time to time). So when saying something like “Good day,” Singaporean would say: “Good day lah!”. This results in Singapore being sort of a bizarre phenomenon.
Everything official — traffic signs, government agencies, street names and anything public — is in normal English. But the common folk in Singapore do not speak Standard English to one other. Some do understand it, but it becomes hard for them to express themselves more clearly in Standard English. This also comes with “Singlish” being deemed a street language — something that should not be used in a classroom or in any professional setting. It is an interesting phenomenon and something I will try to expand upon as I learn more about it during my stay in Singapore.
After the long Uber drive I arrived at NTU. The first thing I noticed when getting out of the car was that Singapore was incredibly humid. We are talking always over 85 percent humidity. To put that into perspective, the average humidity in San Diego is around 69 percent. There are even days where humidity goes up to 94 percent. This can make 86 degrees feel like 98 degrees. As a result, you can’t go for a walk and not be sweating constantly. At first it was a challenge to bear the weather after four years of living in perfect San Diego weather. But alas, here I am and I have to stay here for a year.
I got my room key and was ready to unpack. I was assigned a double room which I am not particularly fond of because I like having my own space, but at least it will probably only be for my first semester. I was the first to arrive, so I unpacked everything and spent about three hours mindlessly playing with my phone. Then roommate arrived. He turned out to be a mechanical engineering major like me from Denmark. He is a fun dude and very respectful.
I guess I got lucky to get a decent roommate!
About four hours had passed since I got off the plane and I had not eaten anything. Fortunately for me there is a food court right next to my residence hall, much like The Garden at Cuicacalli. There are plenty of options to choose from: Korean, Japanese, Chinese and even Western food. Funnily enough the western option was a combination of chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, chili beans and fries. I do not know if Singaporeans think that’s what we all eat in the west, but that is beside the point. I particularly like the Chinese option because it is incredibly cheap and tasty!
This generous fellow serves me a nice meal every day with a mix of these options for a maximum of $3 a plate. What a grab! Unfortunately he does not speak English so we cannot really communicate clearly, but I know he has grown to know me as his most loyal customer. This particular dish costs $1.50. I LOVE SINGAPORE.
The first week can pretty much be summed up with dealing with jet lag, which is especially horrible here because it is over an 11-hour difference from California. To put into perspective, when it’s 8 a.m. in San Diego, it’s 11 p.m. here. The food made it a little better and I also had Netflix and Twitch to get me through the horrible jet-lag.
A big part why I came to Asia was to play table tennis, get better at it and hopefully play for the school team. Luckily for me there is a table tennis course at NTU which I did not think twice about signing up for. So far it has been really inspiring and I have learned a lot about the sport and its cultural significance in Asian countries. I have learned about the wrong things I was doing in my strokes and hopefully will get better so I can join the team next semester. Here is me with my table tennis instructor.
The other classes are normal literature and engineering classes. The courses are pretty much the same as if they would have been at SDSU; if anyone is scared they might slow down their graduation by studying abroad, don’t worry about it. With careful planning it should be the same deal.
The difference comes with the special classes that you can take here. For example, I am taking a South Asian literature course at NTU. This is totally different from taking the same course at SDSU because of the environment and the constant exposure to the culture outside the classroom. There is more of a sense of context which, as someone completely new to the place, is really cool.
Here I am in the Chinese Heritage Centre at NTU.
So far in my tourist adventures I have been to Gardens By the Bay (think the Empire State Building of Singapore) and Singapore’s Chinatown. The place is truly mesmerizing and very well put together. This trip was all made possible by Singapore’s incredible public transportation, which not only is really organized and helpful but is also incredibly clean! This is obviously due to Singapore’s harsh laws on littering, which could lead you to a $1,000 fine. So if you plan on coming here, be careful!
(I am wearing the same shirt as the last photo. Maybe it is my tourist shirt?)
So far my stay in Singapore has been amazing and I discover something new every day. I hope you enjoyed the blog! I will be blogging every three weeks so keep out for some more wacky Southeast Asian adventures! My next blog will probably be about my long weekend at Malaysian Island “Kapas” which I am heading to with more than 30 exchange students!
See you then!
Martin Ahumada Padilla is a mechanical engineering senior. He is studying abroad at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore for an entire academic year.