Monday, May 2, 2016

Bubble gum and joss paper: living in Singapore

If people in the United States know anything about Singapore, it's that gum is illegal here. In fact, it's so illegal that you will get caned for having it. At my going away party in Austin, I was given a farewell gift--an assortment of gum. Wrigley's, Trident, that pink foot-long bubble gum tape. Now, as it turns out, like a lot of things in Singapore, the actual bureaucracy involved is a bit different.

You can bring gum into the country for your own use--just don't try to sell it. You can (now) buy it here--but, like Sudafed and spray paint in the US, be prepared to give the store your name. And no, you won't get caned if you chew gum here, but don't stick it on the ground or you risk a $700 fine.

Now, I'm not arguing for or against the chewing gum "ban" but it's one of those things that's salient to my friends in the States and which is now nearly invisible to me. Of the things I've gotten used to here, one of them is seeing Mentos and other assorted chewy mints on sale where the gum would be at the  convenience store cash register.

I've had a few people wonder about what it's been like for me getting used to life in Singapore during my first year as an assistant professor. I've resisted writing about it not because I'm fearful that the authoritarian government here might read my blog and decide I shouldn't be teaching at Yale-NUS any longer--though, reading what higher education folks have been saying about our young college, you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. No, it's because I feel a pressure to have Learned Something in my move to Asia.

Watching Unbreakable this afternoon, I found myself laughing at a line that brought this home. Admitting that there's a lot wrong with that show, especially in its treatment of Asian characters, I had to chuckle at this line from a Vietnamese character who wants to live permanently in the US: "I don't want to go back to Vietnam, Kimmy. It's full of baby-boomer tourists trying to feel something!"

I'm not a baby-boomer, not a tourist...and I'm also not in Vietnam, but I've got a vague sense that by "moving abroad" and, perhaps, by moving to "the East", I should learn valuable lessons and become more connected with myself. It's true, if I walk early enough in the mornings in the park, I'll see elderly people doing Tai Chi. There are quite a few shops that sell traditional Chinese medicine, and the smell of incense and burning joss paper is another thing I'm used to now. But Singapore is also a society obsessed with technology (we have the highest penetration of smartphones here) and even if it doesn't have the population density of New York, people here speed-walk to the MRT with a similar intensity of purpose. It's just that here there are red and green lines on the ground showing you where you should stand to let people out before you get in...and by and large, people obey.

Lines, or, as I now call them, queues, are a big thing here. Queues are my guide to which stall I should try at the local hawker centre  (I have adopted British spellings in a path of least resistance). People queue at taxi-stands for taxis--no longer fare-regulated, exactly, but still subject to restrictions on fare structure. Taking taxis was never a matter of routine for me until moving here, when my income bracket combined with the low fares has made it possible, and often a necessity, given that travel by bus or MRT is about 45 minutes to anywhere on the island from my condo on the far West Coast.

Introvert that I am, I don't talk a lot while I'm in taxis, but when I do, I learn a lot not just about Singapore but how Singapore sees me. A few weeks ago, for instance, a taxi uncle ("auntie" and "uncle" are terms of respect here for senior people) wanted to know how long it would be until black people in the US were treated fairly. He saw from the news that we have a lot of problems there. With that and the guns. The violence of the US is one of the main topics of conversation that comes up, again and again. Uber drivers, too--usually younger--will say they want to visit the States but worry about the violence.

I've talked to women here who don't fear walking alone at night. Violent crime is rare here, though not entirely unheard of. This is in large part due to how the government routed the Ah Kong, a Chinese gang, through temporary ("temporary") allowances for suspected criminals to be arrested and detained, without trial. One taxi uncle talked positively about how other elements of gang life were pushed into prostitution that is now heavily scrutinized and regulated. Prostitution is legal here, but just about everything else surrounding it is illegal, and prostitutes are required to have screenings and to not stay too long.*

The thing the taxi uncles complain most about (almost always uncles, though I've had two aunties drive me since my arrival here) is money. Cheap taxi fares may help me get around, but the drivers have a tough time of it, especially with competition from Uber. I hear some of them work parcel delivery during their shifts, too. Singapore has very rich people living here. I frequently see Lamborghinis and Porches zipping down the street, and a stroll along Orchard Road will give you a sense of the role that commercialism plays in society. It's not only that alcohol is expensive (I got a good deal on some Kirin the other day--SG$22.50 for a six pack) but everything is. Singapore is a country whose primary natural resource is location. As a shipping port, it's a great place to get imports--but there aren't acres of verdant farmland here to speak of. I've seen cherries priced at $50 for a carton.

Given the price of food and my schedule, I've almost entirely stopped cooking. It's not cheaper by that much to buy produce, and if it goes bad, it hits my pocketbook as well as my guilty conscience. Hawker centre food is cheaper, much cheaper (spending SG$5 for a meal is a lot) but it's also packed with grease. One of my more favorite foods here is prata, but a diet of fried dough flavored with ghee isn't the best thing for a moderately (let's be real--"mildly") active guy in his late thirties.

When I lived in Austin, I had gotten fairly disciplined about exercise. I'd run three to four times a week and do weight training at the gym. Here, though my FitBit watch reassures me that I usually get 5 miles a day, or about 10,000 steps, the humidity and heat has significantly impacted my exercise patterns. After 8 am, it's too hot to exercise outdoors for me. Not until after sunset does it feel tolerable. Most of my exercise comes from walking the 700 meters from my condo to Kent Vale to campus and then back again, or running on a treadmill watching the Singaporean humidity and haze adhere itself to the gym windows.

And it's times like this that it strikes me just how tucked away my life here in Singapore is. Hackneyed rodent metaphors though they may be, I do my gerbil-treadmilling and rat-race/rat-maze commuting, and don't have that good a sense of what it's like living in Singapore. I'm an ex-pat, a white American guy ex-pat, working a good job and ordering delivery dinners and groceries. I do my best to read things like The Air-Conditioned Nation, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, If I Could Tell You, and so on. But any NPR listener living in Nebraska (I picked it for the alliteration--I'm casting no aspersions on Nebraska!) could do that.

I've gone to a handful of events here, I follow some local artists on Instagram (I own a screen print by a one of them that features the black-and-white visage of Lee Kwan Yew), I like to photograph and read about local architecture, and I do my best to get out on the weekends to some new part of town. But I'm still not sure I know what it's like to live in Singapore. My students are international (60% Singaporean, 40% everywhere else), my colleagues are international (this includes Singaporeans, but smaller ratio than the students), and I live in an air-conditioned flat filled with other expatriates.

I don't want to write about driving on the "wrong" side of the road or how the paper sizes here are "weird" (that's a quote from a prospective US student who tried to enlist me in agreement after I distributed handouts on A4 paper--"You get it, you're American! Isn't this weird paper?" I said "no.") And there are plenty of people better-situated than me reflecting on race relations among Malay, Chinese, and Indians, on homophobia and government censorship, and the like. So I'm not sure what this leaves me to say to my friends back in the US about my time here. I've figured out how to feed myself and get around. There are things I like here and things I don't. I'm still trying to understand where I fit in, both in my campus and in the wider culture.

(And how these two fit together--I remember a doctor's appointment early on here where, when I didn't know what a particular chemical compound was that the doctor mentioned, he laughed and said, "Oh, right! Liberal arts." This is a sentiment I've encountered a lot here. Though I'm not sure it's worse than the doctor in Austin who, on hearing about my move, asked whether I'd be able to get adequate medical care here, as if I were moving to a third-world country.)

*I originally had this reversed, but a student of mine (thanks Patrick!) pointed out the error. The funny thing is that the taxi uncle I talked to described it in that way: that prostitution itself is illegal, but that the government managed the gangs here by legalizing pimping and pushing them into Geylang and other places. Or, at least that's how I heard him. It's quite possible that I misunderstood.