Sunday, November 9, 2008

Being an alien in my own country

I grew up in Bishan. Bishan, being a relatively new estate, is populated mainly by the younger, higher-educated people.

Perhaps it was for that reason, that people are polite here. We say hi to our neighbours, we press the lift buttons for our neighbours, and occasionally make small talk along the corridor. People are really polite in Bishan. You're more likely to hear the chirp of birds (yes, there are lots of birds in my estate) than the blaring stereo of your neighbor.

People here move to the back of the bus without prompting - it's often quite amusing how we instinctively move to the back of the bus, only to find that the empty seats are at the front (because everyone else moves to the back of the bus too).

People here speak English, occasionally Mandarin, and hardly dialects. Everyone understands what each other is speaking.

People here hardly litter - everything goes into the rubbish bins. Otherwise, they go into the recently-ubiquitous recycling points. The seats in the bus-stop are all clean and devoid of sticky, dried-up cola.

People here hardly smoke.

People on the streets walk fast. But paradoxically they are unhurried and don't brush rudely past you.

Bishan's an anomaly of Singaporean heartland living.

I grew up in Bishan. I studied in Bishan in my secondary school years. I was Bishan and Bishan was me.


So it was an extreme culture shock for me when I got into university and had various hospital attachments. I had to go to various places in Singapore and interact with the people who come from other parts of Singapore. Sure, I've been to these places, but I have not had to interact with and speak to the people there.

Every time I go to Yishun or Pasir Ris or Geylang or Woodlands or Jurong I feel like a tourist, soaking in all the unfamiliar sights and sounds.

I never saw so much un-obscured sky when i looked up. the buildings are way shorter than where I come from.

I never knew that it was so difficult to get to the city centre by public transport from the ends of Singapore. The roads are really narrow and convoluted, the landscape bereft of high-speed arterial roads.

I never knew that they are people who bought a car despite barely being able to afford it simply because public transport can be impractical at the edges of Singapore.

I never knew that most people communicated in Mandarin and dialects, rather than English. It makes me feel ostracised, since I don't speak much Mandarin and cannot understand the dialects. It makes me feel like they're hiding something from me.

I never got weird stares for trying to order food from the hawker stalls in English.

I never knew that littering is a problem in Singapore. Sure, people do litter, but I never imagined that there would be so many people who would gladly desecrate the clean streets at a whim.

I never knew there were so many smokers in Singapore. Smokers who do not consider it rude to smoke in public parks where health-conscious runners exercise.

I never knew that Singaporeans were this brash and abrasive when speaking to each other.

I never had people brushing rudely past me and scratching them with their bag buckles while rushing to the train station. It really hurts.

I never had to look carefully where ever I sit for the seats at bus stops, in hawker centres and in shopping malls. Every other seat has some gross-looking dirt or sticky dried cola on them.

I never saw so many shops blaring Chinese and Hokkien music rather than English language contemporary hits.

I never considered that most dads don't have the same Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones albums I occasionally blast on the living room hi-fi. What they have is Cantonese operas and Hokkien ballads that sound nothing like the music I like.

I never saw bicycles used for short distance (less than 4 bus-stop) errands so often, and so few bicycles used for long haul rides exercise rides.

I never knew loud karaoke in housing estates was so popular.

I never knew literacy in Singapore could be so bad, that so many queue up at the bus interchange ez-link teller to top their cards, simply because they don't understand how the machine works.

I never knew that as many people read the Zaobao and Wanbao as the Straits Times.

I never saw so many types of Chinese condiments and tonics being sold, and so few types of yoghurt and cheese in the supermarket.

I never saw jamu (Malay traditional medicine) stores before.

I never imagined that a sizeable proportion of the population consider their traditional Chinese medical practitioner as a primary care provider.

I never knew that there are places in Singapore where being alone at night can be dangerous.

I never knew that the Singapore I had grown up in isn't really Singapore.


Anonymous said...

haha... welcome to singapore!

Anonymous said...

With the local government pumping in a lot of money into Singapore's medical industry, I feel that singapore hospitals are very good now. Top notch service with speedy service time.

Anonymous said...

wah lau eh....

Singapore already so small people say stay in Singapore like frog in well.

You machiam frog in a cup with your bishan story....

Anonymous said...

U serious about your post?

What are you? Turtle that lives on the mountain?

How big is Singapore? Your parents has a device on you that detonates once you steps out of Bishan? How did you live your last 20 years?

Even so, your post is so self centered. Speaking in mandarin or dialects is so foreign to you and you call yourself a Chinese?

You are one of those without any roots, and you think you are so great because of it.

Anonymous said...

woah.. you amaze me how stupid and dumb singaporeans can be..

it's sad to see what our education system can produce although saying it like this would be too harsh a generalisation.. thrash like you; narrow minded, lack of exposure..

there's this elitist air about your post.. good gracious.. it's about time to leave ur high perch and start living life in singapore.. if not i would think, you're better off eating foreign soil..

Anonymous said...

You are being foolish and ignorant.

Anonymous said...

i agree with them; ur thinking is so shallow!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm similar to you - I had an English upbringing, but I know how to speak rudimentary hokkien and some mandarian. English is my preferred language for conversation, and I dislike being forced to speak Chinese.

granaldo said...

I was enjoying your posts on the Mc meals and gazing @ your bicycle pics until i see you post of "Being an alien in my own country". Firstly, i don't know how you manage to not know what's happening in places like yishun/geylang etc. Secondly, i think your mentality only belongs to movies/storybooks, where everything is ideal and you are like a hamster in a cage belonging to some scientists IMO. Thirdly, do not forget of Singapore's culture. Never, ever forget what made us what we are today, if everyone perceive life like you, the future mankind will be living a life like robots, void of empathy and ability to judge things on a higher perspective.