1 June 2018, by Nicholas Quek
I am glad that we have many racial groups in Singapore that have given rise to the beautiful ‘rojak’ of cultures and cuisines that we see today.
For me, interacting with people of different cultures has never really been a part of my life. In Primary School I did have a few friends of different races, but most of my friends were racially homogeneous.
I don’t think that’s wrong, I mean we do that all the time; we all have our separate groups of friends and for many race is an important group that shapes their identity.
What my time in Yale-NUS has challenged me to do however, is to rethink my definition of cultural exchange, and what intercultural relationships can be.
A little anecdote to bring my point across.
Singlish is by far one of the most difficult ‘languages’ to learn. Lah, lor, leh all have different meanings and mean different things depending on not just the context of the word in a sentence, but the tone of it as well.
If I say ‘no lah’, I imply my own surprise and disbelief at something.
If I say ‘no leh’, I hint at perhaps my own curiosity at the subject, and entertain the possibility that I am wrong.
If I say ‘no lor’, people look at me weird because nobody says ‘no lor’.
See what I mean?
Now enter Bob. Bob is a real person, but I’ve changed his name to ensure privacy.
Bob hails from North India. Most of the time around international friends I take great pains to speak in proper English, not that I am ashamed of Singlish (I think it’s a hallmark of Singapore’s young, developing culture), but because people simply don’t understand Singlish.
So imagine my surprise when Bob sat me down one day and asked, ‘Bro, could you teach me Singlish?’
And I kid you not for the next few weeks we had somewhat regular tuition sessions where we would go over Singlish grammar structure and vocabulary. By the following month he was swearing in Hokkien.
Why do I tell you this story?
Bob has no reason to really learn Singlish. Most Singaporeans speak to him with proper English out of consideration for the fact that Singlish is incredibly hard to catch. But he wanted to, because he wanted to get to know the culture of Singapore and have more in common with us Singaporeans.
It was incredibly humbling to meet someone who was actually interested in getting to know my culture and connecting with people of that culture.
I’ve got a lot to learn from Bob.
I meet people of other cultures daily; Singapore is a rojak, and pieces of rojak come together regularly. But I don’t think I’ve ever exhibited the kind of intense interest and curiosity that Bob did, and still does today.
So really the lesson for me was this – cultural exchange can be so much more than just begrudging silence, it can be a wonderful picture of two people learning about each other’s, truly giving to one another knowledge and experience.
So be a Bob and take the time to go find out something about another culture! There is much we can learn from one another.
I did an impromptu interview with Bob to find out how different (or similar) Singapore’s and Northern India’s cultures really are, and here is what I found out:
When do people usually start dating in North India?
Bob: The age is fairly fluid, and changes from family to family.
We don’t have a lot of coed schools, so university is for many young people the first time they have an extended encounter with people of the opposite gender.
One thing to note is that dating is still a ‘taboo’ thing in most places. While arranged marriages have dropped in frequency, public displays of affection are still viewed with suspicion, and in some cases with aggression.
What’s a common age people get married?
Bob: Typically, people who live in big cities marry later, while people who live in smaller villages marry earlier.
It also depends on whether it’s an arranged marriage.
For those living in a big city, people typically get married around 24-25 years. I have friends in a small village on the other hand, who are 19 years old and already in the process of making their marriage official.
How many children do families typically have?
Bob: Families in North Indian don’t really have intentional family planning cultures, just that 2 happens to be the usual number I see.
Do married couples typically have a house before having children, or is it the other way around?
Bob: It’s not common for couples to move out and find their own place after marriage.
In fact, it’s normal that multiple nuclear families and multiple generations stay in one house, only moving out when space becomes an issue.
So there’s almost no pressure, if at all, to find your own place, even after having children.