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.
Months ago I received an email by my university with an unexpected opportunity: applying to participate in a summer school in South East Asia and receiving a full scholarship to cover all the costs (tuition, accommodation, living expenses, flights…). Obviously, I couldn’t refuse the offer: it wouldn’t cost me a penny/much money, I would experience living abroad and I would get additional academic qualifications.
After choosing a university and a course, I applied to be nominated by my university. Days later, I received the confirmation that my application had been successful, but I had to choose another university and course because the one I applied for wasn’t running anymore. That’s when I was directed to the GEM Trailblazer Summer Program by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, applying in the end to their ‘Cultural Intelligence: How to be an Explorer of the World’ course. Weeks later, my admission into the program was confirmed, and it started to sink in I was going to South East Asia for a month to study!
Before going abroad, I had to attend various group meetings to learn more about Singapore and to be aware of health and safety issues. During those meetings, I met other students who were travelling to the same university and for the same/similar period. This was incredible useful since I realised I would not be totally alone and I knew the names/faces of some people with whom I could be. Other preparation for the trip included getting vaccinations, renewing my passport and booking flights. Although at times it was stressful, I was ready and set to fly on the 29th of June with no major worries or concerns.
The day of my departure I woke up early on the morning and took various trains to Gatwick airport. During the journey, I felt calm and motivated, my only regret was packing too much stuff in my suitcases (they were very heavy!). Since this was not the first time I travelled alone, I had no problem reaching the airport, checking in, going through security and getting to my gate on time. The only new thing about this journey was that instead of flying 1-2 hours to a country in the same continent, I would travel 15-17 hours to reach Asia, leaving Europe for the first time in my 20 years of life! I was very excited about this, yet I was a bit concerned about how comfortable the plane would be and about how the connection stop in Dubai would work.
Fortunately, my concerns never materialised: Emirates was a lovely company to flight with and the connection stop in Dubai was hassle-free. The only issue that arose was my phone dying at some point and I couldn’t find my charger, so I couldn’t use it at all (I thought I had left it at home, but later I found it in my checked in luggage!). Nevertheless, the planes had Wi-Fi, and my laptop entertained me.
My arrival to Changi Airport in Singapore was accompanied by a mixture of emotions: uncertainty, fear, excitement and relief. Uncertainty because I didn’t know what to expect of Singaporean culture. Fear because I was scared I would have problems to get a tourist pass. Excitement because a new chapter in my life was about to open. And relief because nothing happened during my flights to get there. However, uncertainty ended up paving the way for a desire to explore the unknown, rather than feel nervous about it. And I had no problems to get a tourist pass, probably because I have a Spanish passport.
Changi Airport was an easy place to move around. After buying a mobile SIM and cash card for transport, I left the airport and took the train (known as MRT in Singapore) to reach Boon Lay station, where I then took a bus to get to my assigned hall in NTU. The journey took nearly 2 hours. I must admit I struggled with my luggage, yet the worst part came when I got off the bus near my hall in NTU and I couldn’t find the office to check in. The hot and humid weather made me sweat a lot: at some point I even felt like if I couldn’t breathe properly, as if there weren’t oxygen in the air. This was my first shock in Singapore: I wasn’t ready for the climate. I was lucky to be caught struggling by one of the workers in the complex. She directed me to the hall office to check in and then helped me to get to my room.
After settling in my chamber, I had a much needed shower and then I went out to top-up the card to use the air conditioner (the heat inside my room was unbearable and I didn’t realise till later that I could use the fan without the air conditioner, I’m a dummy!). While walking, I explored the area surrounding my hall. My first thought about NTU was how green the campus is, full of tropical flora. I was also captivated by some of the buildings I saw, in particular the School of Arts, Design and Media, which is just besides my hall. It is modern and covered by nature. I really like it. My second impression of NTU was how cheap and nice lunch is in its canteens. I paid $2.5 (less than £1.50) for a full plate of chicken fried rice, which was delicious.
Once I topped up my air conditioner card, I went directly to my room and slept. Although it was just 5pm local time when I went to bed, I felt extremely tired, almost certainly because of jetlag and the time difference between Singapore and UK (Singapore is 7 hours ahead). I ended up waking up in the middle of the night hungry and with headache: my body thought I had a nap and I never have naps because I always feel very ill afterwards. After taking some medication and eating some leftovers I had in my bag, I managed to sleep again for a few hours.
The next day I woke up around 12pm. It was Friday the 1st, I had to register for my course and attend a campus tour. After getting dressed, I walked down to Student Services Centre, where the registration took place and I received my welcome pack: a t-shirt, a backpack, a water bottle and an NTU information pack. Then, I went to find somewhere to eat before joining the last group campus tour of the day at 5pm. While we didn’t walk around the whole campus, since it is too big, we visited some of the key spaces where we would study, meet for cultural activities/organised days out and attend the Welcome Party on Monday. Whilst on the tour, I spoke with other summer school students for the first time since I had arrived. This is an aspect of my trip which I was a bit worried about: I’m not great at socialising, I have always struggled to make friends, particularly since I moved to England in 2012. However, the conversation went quite well, we talked about where we came from (they were Korean) and I even exchanged my Facebook details with one of them.
Following the end the campus tour, I went to the canteen in my hall to have dinner alone and was unexpectedly joined by a girl who decided to sit down with me. As the students I met earlier, she was from Korea as well. We had a nice chat while we ate together and we ended up adding each other on Facebook before leaving for our respective rooms. I was quite surprised by how another person decided to approach me out of the blue and talk with me. That rarely happens in my life, I’m not an approachable person at all, I look very serious all the time and my reflective face is perceived as angry often.
Nevertheless, the feeling of surprise developed into joy, which increased minutes later when I went to my chamber and met my roommate for the whole summer program. She greeted me enthusiastically and introduced herself as Jessica from Hong Kong. We were both born in the same year and we are doing the same course here. After a few minutes of talking with her, I knew we would get along very well and I felt extremely pleased about sharing the room during the whole month, something I was wary about because I’m a person who likes intimacy (though I’m used to sharing room and sleeping spaces with others).
The following day the first activity prepared by NTU for summer school students took place: tour around Singapore. I was very excited about this, I couldn’t wait to meet new people and learn about this country. Fortunately, both hopes materialised. I didn’t spend any minute of the tour alone. I was always chatting and laughing with someone, from the people I met the day before to new people I met during tour. I had a great time, it felt so good! I hadn’t had so much fun in ages and I felt like I used to feel in Spain back in 2011 when I hanged out with my friends: confident, careless and happy. For a few hours, my old-self surged from the shadows of my asocial behaviour, talking and socialising without worrying excessively about being embarrassing or judged. I must admit that I was also asocial and reserved in Spain, I’m an introverted person. But it worsened a lot after moving to England: the levels of isolation I reached there were unbearable.
When comes to learning, I got a basic level of knowledge of the country from the tour. Singapore is an island city-state close to Malaysia and Indonesia, with a rich and interesting history which I had never been very aware of. Our tour guide took us to some of the key places in the small country and shared with us history and cultural details, but we didn’t have time to explore any place in depth and I missed some of his explanations. In the following weeks, I will try to visit as many historical and cultural places as possible to learn better, and I will share what I learn here.
From the tour that NTU organised, I learnt that Singapore is a country of migrants, mainly from Chinese, Indian and Malaysian background. Various languages are spoken, and various cultures and religions coexist with each other, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianism. Apart from cultural and ethnic diversity, Singapore also has a mixture of landscapes and architecture styles: here, modernity meets nature and traditionalism in a beautiful way. There are lots of green spaces everywhere, while the heart of the city is full of skyscrapers and modern buildings, and neighbouring areas contain many heritage sites with old-fashioned structures.
The day afterwards I was invited to go out for lunch by one of the summer students I met during the tour: her name is Natasha and she is from Australia. I joined her, another summer student and one of her friends from her university in Australia that lives in Singapore. We went to the Raffles Quay area and ate in a food court. In Singapore, food courts are places in which you can buy cheap meals and drinks from a group of small stands, which serve food from a variety of places, such as China, Japan, Malaysia and India, as well as the signature dishes of the country (which I haven’t tried yet!). I ate Costa Rican, food and I enjoyed it. Food in Singapore is delicious, diverse and cheap, my favourite combination!
On the evening of the same day, I joined other summer students to go to the Night Safari. It was a relaxing and pleasurable outing, yet my feet were hurting a lot from walking so much in the last few days and I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
Hope you enjoyed my first post for the blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”. It will have 4-5 parts, since the summer program here lasts 4 weeks and I might want to add reflections on the end. I’m sorry if this post was boring and too introductory: I have been very busy and I was running out of time to write it. The next ones will be more interesting and detailed. I promise!
I’m not patriotic. I have never been and I will never be. I usually try to be open-minded about most stuff, but when comes to some topics I’m very strong opined and nothing can change my opinion. Nothing. And patriotism is one of those topics.
I’m not loyal or devoted to any country. I was born in Spain. My parents were born in Africa, each of them in different countries. And here comes the war: “you are from where you are born” vs “you are from where you feel” vs “you are from where your father is”. In theory, you are from where you are born. You are born in Spain, you get Spanish nationality and Spanish citizenship. However, some people are not raised in their house according to the culture and values of the country in which they live; this is common for people whose family are immigrants. Just because you are born in a country it doesn’t mean you are going to like it, or feel like if you are from it. You may not like that country’s values, and prefer other ones. And lastly, I’m not going to talk about the “you are from where your father is” because it is sexist and it is just giving more importance to a father because he is a man, than to the mother because she is a woman.
When comes to my own being, I was raised into Spanish culture more than anything, but I’m not in any single way patriotic towards Spain, because I have never felt I belonged to that country. Nevertheless, I have never been to my parent’s countries, nor I was educated following their cultures. It is impossible for me to feel much attached to my African roots (though this doesn’t mean that I ignore them).
On conclusion: I’m Spanish, but Spain is not my favourite place in the world. I know where I come from, yet I’m not devoted to my African roots because I don’t know much about them and/or I don’t like their values. In a future, I will travel and learn more about my roots. But by the moment, I don’t think much about it and anyway, I love anthropology: I’m interested in learning about a lot of cultures from ALL the continents, not only from Africa. I rather learn a few things from a wide range of countries, than a lot from just a few number of countries. I see good values, nice ethics, and fascinating culture from various countries I’m not in any way linked to. I would love to embrace a bit from every part of the world, not just a lot from three countries simply because I was born there or because my parents are from there.
After explaining my thoughts using my personal life, I will go back to talking about my views on patriotism in general.
One thing that often comes linked to patriotism is the idea of your country being superior/better to other ones (more known as “nationalism). I understand the friendly competition between countries during events such as football World Cups, The Olympics etc. It is fun and relaxing. I also have my favourite countries during those sorts of events. Who doesn’t? However, when comes to politics, wars, and violent conflicts between countries, I don’t take a side. I CAN’T take a side. Why? Four reasons:
Firstly, I hate politics. Politicians give me headache.
Secondly, I don’t believe in wars; they are unnecessary and they could be avoided. Bertrand Russell said it better: “Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons”.
Thirdly, I don’t think violence solves anything. And being violent for revenge is the most stupid thing ever. If we keep doing “eye for eye”, as Ghandi said, we will all end up blind.
And fourthly, all humans are the same to my eyes, independently of their race, religion or nationality. Therefore I can admire a soldier for killing another soldier, just because he is from my country. Nor I can admire my country’s president for sending bombs to another country, just because he is my country’s presidents. As Voltaire said, “It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.”
After all this has been said, I would like to clarify I know that patriotism isn’t necessarily linked to nationalism/imperialism/racism/wars. Everyone can be devoted to a country without hating on others, and that is fine! I don’t have anything against patriots. But the truth is a huge number of people use patriotism as an excuse to hate on others and/or to attack others; that is unnecessary and stupid. I mainly blame media for this, but I also blame governments and their politicians. Everyone tends to believe everything they see on TV news, everything they read on newspapers, or everything they are said by their governments. And people don’t realise that media/politicians are biased, and sometimes they even lie. Media shows what they are interested to show. Politicians say what they are interested to say. I’m a person who never forms an opinion about an issue without considering all the possibilities, or without knowing both sides of the stories. I don’t believe straight away everything I read or everything I’m told; I first analyse and weight all the evidence.
Moreover, I hate the phrases “let’s fight for our country!” or “let’s admire our brave soldiers that fight of our freedom!”, because if you look carefully at all the evidence, you will realise that 75% of times, governments don’t fight for a country’s freedom. They fight for their own selfish interests (oil, money, weapons, raw materials etc), and they make everyone feel proud of that using patriotism as an excuse.
Because of all this I have said, I firmly believe in this quote from George Bernard Shaw: “You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race”. Humans we turn everything into a violent competition, which is why we can’t have nice things.
To sum up: I can’t be patriotic. I’m too impartial, I see everyone the same, I don’t feel devoted to any country, I hate politics, and I’m a peaceful person. I understand that patriotism should be harmless, but humans we have that special ability of turning even the tiniest innocent thing into something harmful. Furthermore, there is no country in this world I’m 100% proud. Not Spain, not my parent’s countries. So basically, this is why I can’t be and I’m not patriotic. I will finish off this post quoting Albert Einstein: “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them!”
Giving my opinion and sharing my thoughts,
Emilie H. Featherington Xxx
A creative and introspective blog by Emilie F. Yaakaar