My last day in Asia started with a whimper. See, when I looked up “how to submit my Fulbright final project”- which is rather close to completion but still begs a few hours- I discovered that I need to add a 10-15 page summative paper to it. In my most baritone thought voice, I gave a big “whooooooooooooooooooops.”
It was not the right time to continue my “would I get healthier if I gave up caffeine?” investigation. I set out to find a coffee shop.
Armed with a credit card, seven dollars, and a withdrawal headache, I ventured forth to discover that none of these things were sufficient to garner a breakfast in this upscale, expat, discerning hipster neighborhood at which I booked a well-intentioned night.
I walked and walked and whined and whimpered, eventually depositing my depleted self at a place that served me this:
A shrimp paste fried chicken waffle with chili maple syrup! I don’t eat any of these things much but the shrimp and chili, but it made a heck of a shiok last Asian breakfast experience. Coupled with a “long black” (coffee terms are weird) and the ensuing c-buzz, I’ve settled back to bust into my work day.
And into my last blog post from the East: a Q&A.
Question: What will you miss most about Singapore?
A: I will miss going to schools without worrying I’ll be shot.
Haha! A politics joke! No, I’m actually really serious about that. Singapore is well-known as a conservative country, and when I told people in 2017 that I’d be living here, many thought it would be clever and helpful to point out that any transgression could warrant a legal and literal spanking via cane (a misconception I address here).
Cane schmane; I’ll take that over an AK any day. I don’t think a week went by here without someone carefully asking how I felt that my government allows little children to be fired upon in schools without question. They know citizens question it, mind you- they just wonder why the government doesn’t.
I get all adrenalined up and angry just thinking about it, but here? In a country that a few of my fellow citizens hypocritically find old-fashioned because of their capital caning? People here are just rightfully incredulous that US folks charged with protecting its citizens continually find the bullet sprays okay.
On a less somber note, however, I will miss all the grinning with the teachers and students, I will miss the breakfast uncle who flexed at me every day because I wore athletic clothes to eat nasi lemak, and I will miss the idea that any old day might come with an exciting sighting of a monitor lizard. Singapore has been pretty flippin’ swell.
Question: Yeah, but what won’t you miss?
A: Honestly? I will not miss the lack of orderly walking. There is no evidence of elevator etiquette here, and there is no particular “stay to the right” rule when striding around or heading for the train. Most of all, there’s no court awareness. Train stations are a mass of people strolling while facetiming, watching movies, or playing whatever stupid game can’t wait until they’re buns-in-seats. They’ll stop in doorways or at the top of escalators to type, blocking anyone trying to move around them. Groups’ll spread out lengthwise and simultaneously slow down to have conversations with people across the airwaves, and I’ve never more wanted to put my shoulder down and blitz. In a place where I was studying social awareness and relationships, I was continually shocked at the ironic and antisocial actions of public self-isolation. Swearword, swearword, swearword… paragraph done.
Question: Okay, rude. Well, what are some of the things people think of us, then? Like, what’s the stereotype of the US?
A: Yeah, I wondered that, too. It takes awhile to get people to be frank, but there’s no question that US politics is heavily covered in Southeast Asia. Honestly, I had no idea of what an influence we’ve really been until a solid six months away from home. That Cold War superpower thing really has legs, though.
Even when people were tiptoeing around modern politics with me, they kindly made sure I heard about some of the things they really respect about the US. Over and over and with groups of people who didn’t know each other, the most repeated terms were creativity and innovation. People referenced Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and how they serve as inspiration for students all over the country. It’s pretty cool, because I forget about stuff like that when I’m worried about POTUS and SCOTUS and what are you wearing, FLOTUS? Creativity and innovation are not terrible things for which to be recognized. I hope we can preserve them and continue to encourage them in schools.
On the other hand, the media we export is far too pervasive. It makes me really sad to travel the world and see how much rich and varied culture is quickly disappearing in favor of Stephen King, 7/11, and the latest, ubiquitous Ed Sheeran.
There’s a place for all of those things, but they should sit beside or behind local culture, not on top of it with suffocating smugness. Worse, kids are growing up with the impression that Americans are all like the characters in the movies- and when you go to theaters here, they’re mostly showing Hollywood movies. I’m afraid the kids are unwittingly emulating falsely glamorous stereotypes, or internalizing devastating stereotypical ones. The Singaporean kids I spoke with have gotten a pretty one-dimensional view through news and Netflix.
That seems true everywhere. I’ve been to six countries this year, and in every single one, I’ve been to bookstores, heard live and recorded music, and eaten in local restaurants. In every single one, the authors were overwhelmingly American, the music was overwhelmingly US or British, and there was always a western page (at least) on the typical menu.
I don’t want globalization to be a melting pot of predominantly American ingredients. Give me diversity, baby! Globalization should mean a thoughtful medley of all that’s good on the planet, not just a “same-same” designed to please the one who brought the weapons. Unfortunately, I think people have thought of us in terms of our material output. As for our political output, the impression I get of the impression of others is like… how do I describe this? It’s like watching your sports hero struggle through one last season when the option clearly should have been retirement. It’s sort of sad, and nostalgic, and hard to look away- and the potential for injury is really just staggering- but frankly there are younger, more talented athletes out there poised to emerge into stardom.
Question: Hey, but- do you have some nice things to say?
A: Yep, always. I learned my face off here, and every thought I outlined above has inspired me to come back and be my big ole best for the people all over the world that I’m lucky to be able to work with. Man, I love Portland. We’re fierce and foolish and friendly and we know how to take care of each other. We can turn on the taps and get a clean drink any time we want to, and then we can flush an easy toilet! Our schools are filled with people who care hard and work accordingly, and our kids are filled with humor and joy. We have our issues, and we name them and fight for them and continue to reinforce each other’s humanity in the process.
Perfect? Nah, never. Is anyone else? Nah, never. The world has a hell of a lot to offer, though, and we do in return. Just… easy on the chili in the waffle sauce, yes?