10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Singapore

Before I took my recent trip to Singapore, the only things I knew about it were:

  1. It is a modernized, international city-state (as in, both a city and a country), and
  2. Chewing gum there is illegal.

I wasn’t sure what there was to see and do there, but it is close to Hong Kong and cheap to fly to so I decided to give it a shot. Turns out Singapore is awesome! Here are ten things I learned about the country during my trip.

Country Background

  1. Singapore is a true mix of Asian cultures

According to demographic statistics, Singapore is about 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian. The city’s museums do an excellent job of portraying the histories of these different groups, and visiting the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India is another great chance for tourists to witness Singapore’s diversity.

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  1. It has four official languages

Because of its ethnic diversity, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil (which is spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka). The language of instruction in schools is English, but children are required to study another official language as a second language. English is therefore the lingua franca, though I found people’s accents tricky to understand at first!

Sultan Mosque

Sultan Mosque, located in Arab Street

3. Religious diversity is high

Singapore is about 33% Buddhist, 20% Christian, 14% Muslim, 11% Taoist, and 5% Hindu. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, that makes Singapore the world’s most religiously diverse nation. One cool experience I had was that my hostel was located in a very Muslim neighborhood where most women wore headscarves and long skirts, and I was able to visit a massive Ramadan night market along with a varied crowd of people (the one at Gerang Serai for those who know the city!) There are beautiful mosques, temples, and churches scattered throughout the city, and according to Singaporeans everyone celebrates everyone else’s holidays.

Statistics from: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/

  1. Before becoming independent, Singapore was occupied by Japan…

Singapore was a British colony from the 1800s up until World War 2, when Japan was able to take Singapore from the British. At the end of the war the territory was given back Britain, but soon Singaporeans began requesting independence.

  1. … And then it was part of Malaysia for two years

Ever wondered why Singapore exists as a tiny little dot at the end of Malaysia’s long tail? Well, after Singapore first gained its independence, it did try and join Malaysia, but the union didn’t work out. Malaysia overall hoped to form a society based on Malaysian culture, while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

To clarify that vision, when the government of Singapore decided to become independent, Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew told the new nation, “We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not as Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.” And that is the model which has ushered in modern Singapore.

Fun Facts!

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  1. Ice kasang is pretty cool

The coolest food (literally) I tried in Singapore is called ice kasang, and it is popular in both Malaysia and Singapore. I was wandering around a mall food court one day hoping to grab a snack (sometimes I’m so excited when I travel that I forget to eat proper meals) and I looked over at someone else’s table and spied a rainbow mountain of goodness. Immediately I rushed to the closest food stall, scanning menus until I figured out where I could have what she was having!

I got a mango ice kasang (pronounced ka-chang), and it is made through the following steps: 1) Dump some weird tasteless jelly things into a bowl 2) Dump in corn (yes, corn) and red beans 3) Shave a massive heap of ice over the top 4) Pour various sweet syrups and some condensed milk onto the ice, and 5) Crown the top with some tasty mangoes. Honestly I thought this thing was so good, though like I said the jellies at the bottom were a disappointing finish and my mouth was entirely numb after eating approximately three pounds of snow. It was really the perfect treat after wandering around in Singapore’s sweltering heat!

  1. More Food Facts: Kopi, Teh, or Milo?

Ordering a drink in Singapore was probably the most difficult experience of my trip. I know that the city has four official languages, but I think ordering coffee should be an official fifth!

Menus start with both regular coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), which is pretty easy to figure out, but there is also an entire shorthand language which can be added onto the ends of kopi and teh. Adding “Si” means you want both milk and sugar, “O” means sugar but no milk, and then you can even mix all of the flavors together if you want… I think what I ended up getting was the “Kopi C Halia Iced,” which was iced coffee with milk and sugar and also some ginger flavor (that was the “halia”). I felt very proud when I sort of knew what I was saying as I ordered.

On top of kopi and teh there is also Milo which is like a powdered hot chocolate type of thing that lots of people, especially kids, love to drink. One Milo drink is the Milo Dinosaur, which is iced Milo with condensed milk and sugar, and undissolved Milo powder piled on top in a little mound.

  1. Singapore has nature!

Despite Singapore being a modern city some of its major tourist attractions are all about nature. Like Gardens by the Bay, which you’ve probably seen tons of really cool photos of on Instagram. Apart from the classic Supertree Grove there are some lovely fields and flowers there too.

But the biggest and best Singaporean nature attraction is definitely the Botanical Gardens, and particularly the Orchid Garden section. While a large part of the Botanical Gardens is free, not much of it is very photo-worthy apart from the palm tree section. But the Orchid Garden had plenty of stunning plants, archways, gazebos, trees, and so on. It made me feel like I was in The Secret Garden, and is a lovely way to spend a morning.

  1. Singapore has beaches!

Again, since I always just perceived Singapore to be a big city it kind of slipped my mind that it is actually an island (confession: I actually didn’t even know that until after my trip…) and therefore there is lots of nice coastline. While most tourists head to a tiny island in the south of Singapore called Sentosa to get their beach fix, I decided to try one closer to my hostel, East Coast Park.

I would very highly recommend this beach. It was near-empty, the water was super warm, and almost everyone else there was a local. The beach also had a really excellent selection of oceanfront places to eat and drink, so after burning my skin in the sun for a few hours I was able to get a bacon burger and beer, and a Starbucks frappuchino for dessert. And before you lambast me for being a basic white girl tourist, don’t worry, I also crossed the street afterwards and tried some Indonesian ‘pulut hitam’ flavored ice cream. Pulut hitam is made from black glutinous rice porridge with coconut milk and palm or cane sugar, but all I knew at the time was that it was purple and delicious, and definitely worth eating two desserts in one day. (Second confession: I may have had even more desserts that evening…)

Merlion Singapore.jpg

The Merlion is Singapore’s mascot!

10. Singaporeans love their countrySingaporeans definitely really want travelers to see their country, probably because it is not exactly a #1 world tourism destination. I met some extremely helpful people who talked to me all about their country’s history, culture, and most interesting spots. For example, as I ate lunch in little India, a woman at the next table over randomly struck up a conversation with me, gave me several restaurant recommendations, and then pulled out a paper and pen and made a full list of other things I could go see during my trip!

I noticed a theme of the recommendations I got was that people really wanted you to see stuff other than the tourist locations. I feel like in some countries, when you get off the beaten path people look at you funny, like, “Why on Earth would a tourist be out here?” But in Singapore it seemed they were really appreciative of people who like to dig a little deeper. Since that is exactly how I like to travel, and since I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s perspectives on random things like the chewing gum policy, this made Singapore a great fit for me! (Did you know spitting is illegal too? Wow!)

After visiting, I can see why people are so proud—Singapore is diverse, safe, peaceful, and accomplished, which makes it a lovely place to spend some time. 

Victoria Peak

It would be difficult to overstate the beauty of the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Of course I haven’t been everywhere in the world (not even close) and I’m still young, but I like to think I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China and seen the Eiffel Tower at dusk… but the reaction I had looking out at the city of Hong Kong from the top of the Peak was borderline spiritual, and probably the best place I’ve seen yet.

Travel is always made more meaningful based on the lens we are looking through. Even with no lens the Peak is phenomenal; one of the world’s most dazzling cities, surrounded by incredible mountains and a clear blue ocean… I truly believe that nowhere in the world is going to get much better than that. But I saw it all at a time when, after having moving to China just a few months before, I wasn’t totally positive that I had made the right choice. I was doubting myself, wondering if just staying in America like the rest of my friends would have provided me with better life opportunities. I never questioned that thought again after this day. No way would missing out on this have been the better choice!

It’s probably best to just show some pictures, and put down what I wrote about it in my journal that day…

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“I identify as being an idealist. This means I have an imagination from my childhood that never quite went away, and it also means that my standards tend to be very high. I can daydream up the perfect vacation spot in an instant. I can make up friends and boyfriends and travel buddies galore without ever having to meet real people or do anything genuine. It’s no wonder I spend so many hours in my room thinking—there’s a huge world going on inside my head, and it’s a shame no one else gets to live in it too.

My expectations for Hong Kong were quite high. Obviously it is a well-known and well-loved city, a place I’ve fantasized about visiting for years now. Everyone just kept telling me about how cool it was, how unique, how energetic. So I went into this place expecting to find an awesome city.

And that is what I found, for the most part. On the ground Hong Kong is pretty great, full of interesting people and places and things to see. I took to it instantly, and vowed, just like last time, to start spending a lot more time there.

And then I went up to the top of the highest hill in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak. And for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind.

Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all.

Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life. I feel as though nothing much can really impress me because aren’t my dreams always going to be better than reality?

But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams.”

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? (in China)

Disclaimer: They definitely know it’s Christmas in Africa, and you should all see this article for more info on why that song is so terrible. But anyways…

Some of you may be wondering whether there’s Christmas in China. The short answer of course is no, but Chinese culture almost always merits a long answer too.

From a basic religious standpoint, while Christians do exist in China they are far from the majority. Most people are secular, and the most-celebrated holidays are Chinese only, things like National Holiday in October, and of course Chinese New Year, a three-week long celebration at the end of the Chinese lunar calendar (this year it’ll be early February). There are Buddhists here, and some Taoists, sure, but all in all the Chinese religion is essentially nationalism. People believe in the merits of China above all else.

But China also doesn’t tend to take no for an answer. So yes, there is a form of Christmas here—a wildly secular, fully commercialized version of the holiday exists, in sporadic bursts that have little rhyme or reason.

Christmas Spirit (2)Holiday decorations are up at all the malls. Sometimes these are just Christmas lights, other times trees, and yet other times strange, conical Santas. I frequently hear Christmas music at coffee shops and department stores, mixed in with the usual rotation of classical music and K-pop. The stores sell ugly Christmas sweaters and sometimes miniature trees, and on the popular online shopping website Taobao you can buy cheap Christmas decorations to your heart’s content.

And yet if you ask a Chinese person when Christmas is, exactly, or what its meaning is, almost none of them know. The religious meaning for sure is lost, and even beyond that, the sort of secular Americanized version of “good feelings and good deeds” seems to have escaped the vision of Chinese corporations as well. Only the most shallow, most plastic little bits of Christmas have washed up on shore here, and because of it, the whole thing probably makes little sense to the average Chinese consumer.

But I can’t exactly say China doesn’t have a right to celebrate Christmas in its own way. After all, Americans have turned the materialism of Christmas up to even further extremes than the Chinese could ever dream of. People being trampled to death on Black Friday shopping for bargains, mothers stressing out for weeks over making sure their kids have enough presents, commercials each minute of the day emphasizing the sheer amount of junk we have the money to buy. None of that really represents Christmas to me, either. Whether it’s the cheap plastic trees littering the aisles of the grocery stores in Shenzhen, or the crowds fighting over the bargain bin at Wal-Mart, I think it is fair to say that Christmas is turned into a hollow word everywhere.

And anyways, since Chinese factories are the ones supplying most of our decorations and ornaments and toys, I think they have a right to enjoy them too.

So does it bother me? Not really. In fact I smile when I hear Christmas music in the stores here. As possibly the only one around here who knows the words, it’s like the music is for me alone.

lamb

This year I got “Christmas” dinner at a Xinjiang (Western region of China) restaurant, including an entire roast lamb. It was great!

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 6

This next leg of the trip might be my favorite part, mostly because I met French hippie Jesus.

I am a staunch believer in the notion that God is always with me when I travel, but sometimes it’s difficult to see it. Sometimes, however, God just likes to smack you in the face with obviousness, just to make sure you’re paying attention.

After seeing 人山人海 waiting for the Buddha, I simply quit. I was totally over Leshan. The Giant Buddha will likely forever remain unseen on my list of places to go, and I’ve made my peace with that.

I managed to squeeze my way onto a jam-packed public bus at the top of the mountain, but from there I had to find the bus stop in Leshan to get back to Chengdu. Very quickly I realized I’d run out of that attraction so quickly that I hadn’t even bothered to look at, like, a map of where I was headed, or what stop I needed to get off at. So I had a moment of moderate panic where I pondered what to do next.

Not ten minutes later, the bus stopped, the doors opened, and Jesus got on. This guy had the hair, the beard, and the sandals game going strong. He came and stood next to me for the next few stops. “So,” he finally said to me in a thick French accent, breath heavy with the stench of cigarettes, “do you know what bus stop you’re getting off at?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted.

“It’s four from the end to get back to Chengdu,” he said.

“Cool, thanks!”

I got off the bus with him and used the bus stop’s super ratched bathroom, the most ratched I’ve seen in China yet except for the literal holes I used outside the Great Wall. These bathrooms were indoor, but were also just a pit in the ground with nothing but waist-high walls separating each pit and a short door that didn’t fully close. Basically you could still see the person next to you and across from you as you peed. Yeah, it was time to go back to the overpriced hotel, that was for sure.

After I bought my ticket, French hippie Jesus continued to help me out by showing me where to board the bus and getting in line with me. Some little children stopped to play with him and he gladly took a photograph. And when we finally arrived in Chengdu and the bus dumped us off at some random gas station that was absolutely not where I’d gotten on, he suggested I get a taxi back home. We each grabbed one and went our separate ways.

In short, I’ll remember this day as the one where at totally random stranger who was seriously rocking the Jesus look helped me to find my way home without me ever asking for it. Somehow, without me ever voicing my thoughts, he knew exactly what I needed, and guided me all the way home. Coincidence? I think not. But that’s up for you to decide.