Welcome to the second part of my blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”! If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/07/09/gem-trailblazer-summer-in-singapores-ntu-part-1-preparation-flight-orientation-and-city-tour/.
In this post I will talk about the start of my short academic course, the Summer Bonanza organised by the university as a welcome party, a group trip to Kampong Glam/Arab Street, Little India and Bugis, and my visits to the Malay Heritage Centre and the Indian Heritage Centre in Singapore. This post will be a mixture of educational, celebratory, social and cultural occurrences. Hope you enjoy it!
First week of lessons: An Introduction to Cultural Intelligence
On Monday the 4th I woke up ready to begin my short academic course in NTU. As shared in the previous post, I chose to study a module titled “Cultural Intelligence: How to be an Explorer for the World”. To be honest, I had never heard about the concept of cultural intelligence before. That’s why the first session I had on the subject was quite eye-opening. The lesson began with our teacher introducing herself and asking what were we curious about, followed by an interesting cards game: each table of the room got a pack of cards and a set of rules to play two against two. We played in our individual tables for a few minutes to practice, and then a competition between the whole class began. If your pair lost, you had to move to another table and compete against another pair.
During the competition we couldn’t speak at all (not with our competitors, not with our partners) and things got confusing in my table when a new pair came to compete with us and played differently to how my partner and I played. When the competition was over, we shared our confusion with the teacher and that’s when we realised all the tables were given different rules to follow! The purpose of the activity was showing how difficult is to interact and work with others when they have different rules and can’t communicate verbally due to language barriers. That’s how we learnt the first important thing about our course: culture is hidden.
Cultural intelligence is defined as the “capability to function effectively across national, ethnic and organizational cultures”. The purpose of the module is to “generate awareness of challenges inherent in cross-cultural interactions”, “create awareness of personal cultural values and beliefs, attitudes toward, as well as strengths and weaknesses in managing cross-cultural interactions”, and “enhance self-efficacy in interacting with people from different cultures”. I believe I made the right choice when choosing this course, it goes well with my International Development degree and my aspirations to travel and work abroad. In addition, NTU hosts the World’s First Cultural Intelligence Center: I’m gaining a skill in an institution with strong reputation and research on it.
Although I was scared about the module being hard and requiring a lot of learning, lessons turned out to be very interactive and out-of-class work was limited to optional readings, curiosity conversations, an e-learning module and a class group experience. Curiosity conversations are one of the main approaches and ways to improve cultural intelligence: it is about asking people from different backgrounds about their countries and cultures, learning new things, challenging assumptions, trying new behaviour, and analysing situations and thoughts. The teacher created the course in a way in which learning is an active experience, and not just memorising information. I really like her approach and I enjoyed greatly the first week of lessons we had.
Welcome Party: Summer Bonanza in the Auditorium
NTU organised a Welcome Party as part of the introductory activities for the summer programme students, which was a Summer Bonanza. It took place on the afternoon/evening of the 4th of July in the auditorium on campus and I went with the pals I met over the weekend. The first part of the afternoon was dedicated to listening to a speech on NTU, its achievements and its global outlook. NTU is ranked 13th globally, 4th of Asia, and 1st amongst universities below the age of 50! And more than 20% of its students are from abroad, from countries like China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. I wasn’t aware of this when I applied to the summer school and it felt good to know I was studying in an international and highly ranked university.
Following the introductory speech, there was a brief performance by Malaysian dancers, and then the Bonanza began. Buffet dinner was served and recreational activities across the room were set. The only activities I took part in were getting a temporary tattoo and completing a bingo board to get a gift. Nevertheless, it was a delightful and entertaining afternoon, I had a lot of fun with my mates. Although we natively speak different languages and have different accents, we can communicate with each other easily and we get along very well. For some strange reason, I find easy talking to people here, even for small conversations. Maybe it is because I’m aware that I’m not the only person whose first language isn’t English and I’m not the only one who is coming from abroad. I don’t know, I feel more confident than usual. But I don’t complain because I’m being able to enjoy nice moments and make friends.
Group trip: Out in Kampong Glam/Arab Street, Little India and Bugis
Wednesday the 6th was a public holiday in Singapore, Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Eid al-Fitr, a festivity celebrated by Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan. Together with my pals and others, I went out to spend the day exploring. On the morning we took the bus from campus and then the MRT from Boon Lay to get to Bugis, and from there we walked to Kampong Glam. Kampong Glam is known as the Malay neighbourhood in Singapore, the Malay Heritage Centre is located there, together with various mosques, such as Sultan Mosque (one of the most important in Singapore) and Hajjah Fatimah Mosque. Arab Street is also located in this area: Kampong Glam is a significant place for Muslim communities in general.
Our plan was to visit Sultan Mosque, but it was closed to the public (probably because of Eid!). Instead, we did some gift shopping and then had lunch. We ate in a Turkish-Lebanese restaurant close to the mosque. When I entered the place I was impressed by the detailed architecture and decoration the building had inside, it was a beautiful and relaxing environment. For lunch, I ordered a shared platter with the rest of people in my table and a doner sandwich kebab just for me. I tried the famous dip hummus for the first time, though I didn’t like it much since I don’t like chickpeas. On the other hand, I loved the kebab, it was the nicest I had ever eaten. During the meal, I spoke with people I had never met before hence kept up socialising and making new acquaintances!
Following the meal, we headed back to Bugis and went shopping to Bugis Village and Bugis+ Mall. Bugis Village is an indoors flea market where you can buy many products, from clothes to souvenirs, at a low price. It is composed of many stalls, you can walk around and look at what you like. Sometimes you can find good bargains, I bought a nice dress there. Meanwhile, I didn’t buy anything in Bugis+ Mall, I didn’t even look around. I just sat down with one of my friends and had a drink. I was too tired and my feet hurt terribly. I think that because in England I always take the bus everywhere and barely go out, it is hard for me to adapt to walking around cities again.
After the rest of my group finished shopping, we headed to Little India, the Indian zone of Singapore. There you can find traditional Indian food, clothes, jewellery… It is also the neighbourhood where the Indian Heritage Centre and various Hindu temples are located. By the time we got there it was 7pm, and the area was quite crowded: it was dinner time and many of the restaurants were full. Some of my friends went inside the Little India Arcade, a small shopping mall, because they wanted to get henna tattoos. Although I wasn’t very interested in getting one, I went with them and I ended up getting a simple $5 one (the lady who did them insisted). It was the first time I got a henna tattoo and didn’t know very well how they worked: I was scared I would spoil it. However, with time, it ended up drying up and peeling itself off.
Before heading back to NTU, we went to a vegetarian Indian restaurant for dinner. I had never eaten proper Indian meals before so I didn’t know what to order. I just looked at the pictures and chose what looked the most appetising: a tomato uthappam, a thick pancake made from lentil, rice flour and served with sambar and chutney. I also got a snack known as vadai, a doughnut made from lentil and onion, served with chutney, which I had tried before when doing the City Tour days earlier. One of the best things of Singapore is how you can find food from many places across Asia, hence your palate will never be unsatisfied. The food here is very nice, although I have yet to make riskier choices, I always go for the safest dishes (I’m scared the food will be too spicy for me to eat!).
Cultural learning: Visiting the Indian Heritage Centre and the Malay Heritage Centre
On Sunday the 10th I went out to visit the Indian Heritage Centre and the Malay Heritage Centre, two of the five heritage centres in Singapore (there is also the Chinese Heritage Centre, the Chinatown Heritage Centre and the Eurasian Heritage Centre). The heritage centres are sources of historical and cultural knowledge about the different migrant communities that formed Singapore, an ex-British colony built by immigrants. 76.2% of the citizen population in Singapore is from Chinese descendent, 15% from Malay descendent, 7.4% from Indian descendent and 1.4% from Other (source: http://population.sg/population-in-brief/files/population-in-brief-2015.pdf). Due to this, Singapore recognises four official languages: Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. Another effect of migration on the island-state is the prevalent meritocracy, a system that rewards people depending on their individual talents and abilities.
In my visit to the Indian Heritage Centre I learnt about the history of Indians in South East Asia, mainly Singapore. India has had links with this region of Asia since the Common Era (B.C.). An important religion in South East Asia, Buddhism, has Indian origins. India had trade links with the Middle East and Africa, which helped to introduce religions like Islam to its people. Meanwhile, Christianity was later introduced by missionaries, although it wasn’t as prevalent. Indians migrated to Singapore before, during and after British colonial times, as jobseekers, traders, troops, political prisoners, milkmen, laundrymen…. The Indian community had a significant impact in the making of Singapore and in the spread of anti-colonial ideas that surged in India. In particular, the Tamil community (an ethnic group originally from India and Sri Lanka) carried out various reformist movements, trying to preserve Tamil language and culture.
In my visit to the Malay Heritage Centre I learnt about the presence of Malays in Singapore. The Malays are an ethnic group from Asia who can be found at present in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore. Their history in Singapore is complex to explain and understand, since Malays originate from different nations and have different cultures (I wasn’t aware of this, I used to think Malay was just a shortcut for Malaysians). What unites Malay is their similar language, Malay, which has different dialects, and their predominant religion, Islam, introduced to them by Arab traders. In fact, Malay culture has heavy Islamic and Arabic influence. One of the most fascinating things I learnt about while visiting the centre was the old preparations for Malay pilgrims heading to the Mecca, which was a harsh but important journey for them. After coming back, they received the title of “hajji”, symbolising the completion of the Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage). It was also interesting to learn about Malay media and press, from literature and film to newspapers, as well as important figures such as Zahara binte Noor Mohammed, an activist who fought for the rights of Malay women in Singapore and established the first Muslim women’s welfare organisation in Singapore, Malay Women’s Welfare Association.
Getting to know more about Indian and Malay communities in Singapore was an enriching experience, it helped me to understand how the country works. In addition, it made me think about my migrant family’s status in Europe and about how our cultures aren’t as accepted, integrated or even acknowledged in countries like Spain (despite decades of connection). I don’t know if I will ever live to see acceptance or acknowledgement, but given the current growing far-right climate, my hopes for true multiculturalism there are low (I don’t even know if I still have hopes). The visits and my reflections as a migrant also made me wonder if Singapore has as many tensions and religious/racial divisions as Europe, something I have to research. Nevertheless, Singapore seems to be a country proud of its migratory origins and cultural diversity, and in a world in which “the other” still scares people, it gives me faith.
(For more pictures of my time in Singapore, click here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskDGR9BV)