All the wrongs that went right in the Lion City

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My name’s Kimiko, I’m going into my fourth year at UTM and I went on exchange to the National University of Singapore (NUS) from January to May of this year (2017)!

Some quick things about Singapore before I write about some of the surprises Singapore had for me:

  • They primarily speak English. The country itself has 4 national languages: English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay.
  • Their currency is the Singapore Dollar (SGD). At the time I went it was basically equivalent to the Canadian Dollar.
  • They do have a dialect of sorts that is a mix of their 4 national languages: Singlish. I personally really didn’t pick up any Singlish, it’s a fairly complicated mix of the 4 languages.
  • When asking for food “to go” they won’t understand that terminology, make sure to say “take away.”
  • Their food is delicious! If you ever go, make sure you eat your weight in food and then some!

All in all, I loved my exchange – both the host country itself and some of the travel I was able to do. Although much of the time since my return home has been spent blabbering on about my exchange, I’m not here to tell you about that. I’m here to tell you about all the things I thought I knew about Singapore, only to have most (if not all) misconceptions debunked upon my arrival.

I was under the impression that Singapore was this super advanced country, and that despite being in South East Asia, wasn’t a cash economy (like I knew at the very least many countries are).

I WAS WRONG.

Singapore as a nation, although has a lot of Western flavour and development, is very much a nation in South East Asia. Normal chain stores will surely accept major credit cards and debit visas, but they have a large population of local food that is CASH ONLY.

Hawker Centres are a massive part of life in Singapore, and as a student, I spent much of my time in them. The food is cheap, delicious, and in some cases Michelin Star worthy (apparently). I remember most food establishments that weren’t major chains being cash only.

On an extension of this impression of Singapore being all fancy and luxurious (which it can be, ex: the Marina Bay Sands Hotel), I thought the locals would be like that too. I thought they would be materialistic, very wealthy, and very fancy people.

Again, I was wrong.

Yes, Singapore is a small island nation, but the fancy infinity pool of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel isn’t the entire country or representative of the entire country. Especially not of the people. Perhaps I would have had a different experience if I was working in Singapore, but as a student it seemed that all students have similar, if not the same, concerns no matter the culture.

NUS students are kind of like U of T students, they spend a lot of time worrying about their studies, a lot of time being too busy, and a lot of time thinking about food. The local students weren’t dressed up every day, they largely wore school or hall (residence) spirit gear, athletic apparel (lots of shorts), and flip flops. University students seem to be students no matter where you go, worried about what they’ll do after they’re done school, if they’ll continue their education, and tuition. But as university students, they know how to relax, and know where to find the best food and the lowest price too. It’s never all about school.

I personally didn’t do as much research as I think was perhaps necessary to learn about Singapore before departure. My main source of information was the travel.gc.ca, which was a great resource in many ways, but was also a little intimidating. The Singapore page on that site made it clear to me that Singapore is a right-leaning nation in their ideologies, having strict laws for what may be considered minor offences in Canada (eg: jaywalking), strict laws (which include the death penalty) for illicit drugs, and strict laws on same sex relationships.

Now for once, a few things that are true:

  • Gum is not sold anywhere. You also aren’t allowed to import massive amounts.
  • You’re not allowed to eat or drink on the Mass Rapid Transit.
  • Singapore is very clean. There always seems to be landscaping maintenance going on anywhere they have some level of greenery (this was the case on campus at NUS as well).
  • Everything is expensive. Well not quite true, but buying groceries and alcohol (due to taxation) could be really pricey. Eating out anywhere besides a Hawker centre was generally also expensive. The MRT is not expensive, and there were plenty of free activities to do in Singapore!

Having been wrong about so many things never turned me away from how much I came to love Singapore in my 4 months there. It was so hard to leave when exams were done, and I had to say bye to the people I’d met, the places I’d come to love, and the place I’d called home for my short stay.

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