8 August 2017, by Nicholas Quek
I’ve seen nothing but blue, white and orange.
Every speech involves some degree of ‘personal discovery’, or ‘finding your own space’.
My roommates aren’t used to taking their shoes off before entering the dorm.
I have to explain what ‘supper’ means in the Singapore context.
Welcome to Yale-NUS, my residence and centre of education for the next 4 years.
Yale-NUS is unique in not only it’s curriculum, but it’s population demographic as well. With representatives from over 50 countries, the cohort is made up of 40% Singaporeans, and 60% foreigners. Needless to say, my orientation experience over the past 3 days has been an eye-opening one.
One of the strongest memories I’ve formed thus far was a conversation I had with a girl from Russia; during one of our orientation activities, the speaker mentioned something about ‘touch wood’ a common expression among Chinese Singaporeans. The girl turned to me with the most confused expression and asked, ‘What does that even mean?’ It was there that I realised just how different our two cultures were.
Cultural differences have also spilled into my linguistic choices. I caught myself multiple times drifting into a strange American-British accent when speaking to people, and found myself using Singlish slang like ‘lah’, ‘walao’ and even ‘sian’ less often. I would replace them with more colloquial terms like, ‘tired’ or ‘exhausted’.
College is a strange place. People talk about how much you grow as a person, how much you learn as an individual – yet I don’t think I’ve heard anyone tell me how my own culture and national identity might be challenged or even broken through.
The past 3 days have really forced me to come to terms with my own identity – Am I a Singaporean? Am I Chinese? Which identity takes precedence over the other? How should I speak to foreign students? Do they understand my Singlish accent?
I still don’t have answers to all these questions.
One thing I have discovered though, is that how much of my own cultural identity I retain is entirely up to me. No one has judged me for speaking in a Singapore accent, or using Hokkien/Malay slang, and every foreign student I’ve come across have been more than accepting of my cultural and national background.
Every foreign student I’ve met has also been more than willing to talk about their own experiences back home – snowy winters, Sunday barbeques with their entire extended family, their own favourite local dishes, sweltering summers; everyone has a story to tell, and really no one’s stopping you from doing it, except yourself.
It’s been a little intimidating being surrounded by people who come from countries that have a far more established culture and identity as compared to Singapore; we’re a young nation of 52 years – we have a long way to go. Yet, there’s a certain camaraderie I feel with my fellow Singaporeans, a particular comfort hearing us order drinks/meals in our typical brash Singapore style. We’re a young nation no doubt, but we have a soul of our own.
We’ll be celebrating National Day as a college in a couple of days; the college has a sleu of activities for us. The thing I’m looking forward to is the National Day song karaoke session! Jamming along to old favourite like Home and Stand Up for Singapore is basically a national pasttime, and I can’t wait to share that joy with my international friends. There are a couple of dance moves I remember from Primary School that I can’t wait to try out too 😉
We’re gonna be watching the National Day Parade live on television as well. To be honest, that’s probably gonna be a bit emotional for me. Watching the National Day Parade live on television has always been a family affair for me – homecooked meal, warm blankets, boisterous laughter; this year will be the first year I’m celebrating National Day without my family.
I’m sad for sure, but perhaps it’ll be good to approach National Day with a different slant. The years before have always been focused on celebrating my family and home, and remembering what an amazing country I live in. This year however, it’ll be about showing that home to those who are new to it, and hopefully they’ll find a home here as well.