How is life different in Singapore?

One of the questions I always get asked when I talk to friends and family back home is:  “How are things different over there?”

And I understand that it’s a question that people are going to ask—in fact, when I meet exchange students from other countries, I almost always ask them the same thing—but the problem is that it’s actually a really difficult question to answer.

See when I first got here, I was dealing with things like course registration, student visas, jet lag, and finding out how to get around.  So my answer usually touched on the things that I couldn’t help but notice:  the oppressive heat, the distinctive Singaporean accent, and…did I mention the heat?

Now that I’ve been here for a few months, I guess I’ve gotten so used to being here that I don’t really notice how certain things operate differently in Singapore compared to back in Canada.  My instinctive answer is that things are pretty much the same.  Big picture philosophical realization:  no matter where you are, people are still people and school is still school.  Actually, now that we’re well into school (finals are only three weeks away—what?!), my life here is almost identical to my life at home:  I go to class, I eat, I sleep, and I study (yeah I know, I’m living life on the edge).

But because I know it’s something that people are curious about, I figured I’d try to come up with a better answer than “It’s hotter.”

They use different words.

When you want to order a meal “to go”, if you word it like that, you’ll be welcomed by a blank stare.  “Take away”.  That’s what we call it.

The word “alight” is used here on a daily basis.  As in “all passengers please alight at the next stop.”  My understanding?  It’s a polite way of saying “get off the moving vehicle”.

A lecture hall is a “lecture theatre”, pharmacology is shortened to “pharmaco”, a midterm is a “CA (continuous assessment) test”, washrooms and bathrooms are always referred to as “the toilet”, and cellphones are “hand phones”.

They drive on the other side of the road.

Clearly, I’ve never been to the UK.  Or Australia.  Or anywhere else where they drive on the left.  And it’s honestly not something you’d think would cause that much trouble.  But it did (still does, if I’m being honest)!

See, not only did I have to get used to instinctively looking to the right for oncoming traffic (trust me, you all look left first without realizing it), but I also can’t for the life of me figure out what lane a car is turning into when it signals.  There have been many, many close encounters when I’ve had to cross the street.

In addition, you know how we were always told to “stay to the right” when walking down the hallway or on the sidewalk?  Yeah, well it’s “stay to the left” over here.  And this means when you’re walking and see someone walking towards you, you’re both supposed to step to the left and continue walking, no harm done.  The problem?  I always step to the right, which results in that really awkward moment when both people step to the left, then right, then left at the same time before eventually moving out of each other’s way.  Super embarrassing.

They don’t worry about theft.

Unattended bags: ubiquitous and perfectly safe.

You know how Western has signs everywhere warning us not to leave our belongings unattended?  Well apparently Singaporeans never got the memo.  Students here set down their belongings and leave; the thought that their laptops and backpacks might not be there when they get back doesn’t seem to cross their minds at all.

If you walk into any food court on campus, all you’ll see is backpacks and purses saving seats while their owners line up to buy their meals.  I’ve even seen students pull out their laptops to save tables, then turn around and leave to get food.  It’s the same story in libraries and study rooms all over campus.  Students leave their laptops, wallets, backpacks, and purses unattended while they go to the bathroom, or even to go eat dinner for a good half hour.

The craziest part?  No one ever steals anything.  I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.

They take notes the old-fashioned way

In any one of my classes, I can count on my hands the number of students who are using their laptops to take notes.  In most cases, it’s just me and two or three other students.

Everyone else prints out slides and takes notes using pen and paper.  And I’m taking courses like physiology, pharmacology and immunology—courses where the professor’s talking a mile a minute and everyone around me is frantically scribbling it all down.  I’m still a little confused by this.  Especially if I think back to sitting in NCB-101 surrounded by hundreds of other students on their laptops, and hearing the constant clacking of tapping keys throughout the lecture.

As a side note, it’s also unheard of for a professor to not post his or her slides online before lecture.

They don’t celebrate Halloween.

My most recently-acquired bit of knowledge about Singaporeans.  They don’t celebrate Halloween:  no crazy costumes, no trick-or-treating.  Actually, when I asked one of my local friends about it, her response was:  “Oh, you mean that holiday where you guys all dress up and look stupid, then go around scaring people and asking for candy?  No.  We don’t do that.”  I think that about sums it up, eh?

Until next week!



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