I spent the latter half of my privileged childhood in Singapore, my home country. If you have visited or even heard of the 'Little Red Dot' you know that the city lives for appearances. Its facade, very much like its people, glistens with glamour. Singapore is what you would call a textbook city. It accounts for all things Utopia must have and brings it alive.
Unique architecture? Check.
A robust public transportation system? Check.
Trees are ubiquitous and interspersed between gleaming skyscrapers. Stringent regulations mean that taxis, buses and trains are meticulously maintained. And regardless of race or gender everyone is safe at any time of the day or night. When most crime is petty theft, even CNN Travel vouches for your safe streets. In their expatriate feature, CNN highlighted how many parents were comfortable with their teenagers returning home in the small hours of the morning after a night out -- or so the kids told them.
In practice, I was one of these kids. Singapore’s safe streets, the convenient public transport and the urgency to ‘grow up’ shaped a multitude of my experiences during my childhood. We weren’t being chauffeured by limousines as seen on CWs hit show Gossip Girl. But American pop culture influenced the expatriate children in Singapore far more than I hear it influenced my peers in America. In true Singaporean fashion, we brought alive what we saw.
You see, I had never been surrounded by a particularly homogenous group of people. By the time I graduated high school, I had been taught by a staff of over 30 nationalities and interacted with peers of 76 nationalities. This did not make me unique. In fact, there were many who were biracial and lived in far more countries than I could imagine. However, in the changing environments across the three nations that I was raised in, one thing remained constant - television. While Netflix hadn’t blown up in South East Asia yet, Disney Channel and wide array of streamed shows were readily available. MTV, HBO and the internet kept us up to date. What we saw we recreated - be it fashion, parties or slang.
They became so intertwined in our daily lives that we did not think twice to question it. The beauty of it was that the media consumed by my peers was also varied across nations. When I lived in Thailand I was surrounded by many who were obsessed with Korean dramas, music and culture. Korean reality TV acted as a guide for their vacation and spa trips to Seoul. When I moved back home to Singapore I was surrounded by British, American and Australian influences. The popular culture from these nations became ours. Singapore’s beautiful shopping districts, clubs and beaches merely acted as a backdrop for us in a tropical context. Before the electronic dance and music festival ULTRA came to Singapore, we had ZoukOut - an 8 PM to 8 AM affair. Pop culture had taught us that ULTRA Miami was a huge deal and hence we flooded to purchase tickets for our own version of the beach festival.
It must be noted that I very much grew up thinking that this was the norm. While my own ethnically Indian culture influenced me to a degree, I spent the majority of my week at school. Here, my Swedish, British and Indian friends all ate Singaporean food from across the street which was an amalgamation of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cuisines. We discussed our classes which were set in a global context and ran ‘Global Concerns’ or NGO’s that served to empower partner organizations in surrounding nations such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. It was difficult to ridicule or pass judgement on any particular culture, not only because it was strongly discouraged but also because there was a strong sense of wanting to incorporate aspects of different cultures into one’s life. Since one could easily take on another hobby, trend or language and layer it on to their multidimensional backstories, eccentricities were not seen as odd but rather desirable. In this multicultural space, being one-dimensional was rare. However, this was embraced too.
From my privileged lense I was cognisant of others living with less. Singapore was surrounded by nations that had starkly different levels of wealth and our curriculum encouraged us to immerse ourselves in service. Having been taught the values of service since kindergarten, you would see students from our institute volunteer till 6 pm on a Friday, attend tutoring sessions till 8 pm and then attend an extravagant party all in the same evening. Our quest to incorporate the best of different cultures also pushed us to want the best of what we saw for ourselves. Singapore lived for appearances and my peers looked and dressed well and aspired to attend top-tier universities. Think Gossip Girl in a subtle South East Asian context. Singapore was no Upper East Side but it held its own. Similarly, no teen was capable of looking like the twenty-five year old stars often cast in these shows. Yet perseverance like no other and modelling contracts from childhood taught my peers how to eat, workout and study to fit a certain bill.
In my naïveté, I did not doubt that attending university would be any different. I had envisioned cultural differences and had learnt to thrive off of it. But instead for the first time, I was surrounded by a homogenous group of people, not particularly by ethnicity but by nationality - Americans. The cultural differences weren’t amongst each individual peer but rather a select few foreign students and the majority of local students. Here, even those that looked like me thought differently and those that thought similarly often did not look the same. Navigating this was difficult not only because it was a process in finding like-minded people but also because I had to drop all preconceived notions about American culture that I had largely cultivated from popular culture. In fact, navigating this has led to me to one particularly important takeaway - one I discovered when ordering the Taiwanese tapioca and milk tea drink, bubble tea.
Let me explain.
After years of ordering this beverage, I instinctively ask for a Thai Tea bubble tea, 50 % sugar, no ice - a classic order. This is usually followed by a slew of giggles from friends.
“Its called boba not bubble tea!”
I have heard this phrase now enough times for me to alter what I say at the register.
“Can I have a Thai Tea bubble tea - uh I mean boba.” A simple change of phrase that came with conforming to the local vernacular.
I only recently became aware of this change when ordering at a register back in Singapore.
“Can I have a Thai Tea boba please?” I asked, with a slight American twang.
I was met with a vacant stare.
I slipped back into my Singlish, called it bubble tea, apologised and waited in queue. Once again this was an unanticipated cultural barrier I had overcome. In my wait, I began to question the other things I had potentially changed in order to adapt to the new culture I had been living and learning in on my own now. Devoid of extensive international acquaintances or people that dressed, or thought the same, I had repeatedly considered how to present myself. There was no guide. It was quite open to what I made of it. While my choices became largely based on my comfort and previous experiences, the process required a certain amount of time and effort, as with any self-improvement practice or growth. And yet the response and often teasing I received to being my multidimensional self - a direct product of all my cumulative experiences - was something quick and instinctive. Much like my instinct to call the beloved beverage ‘bubble tea’.
Valuing the things I did often led to endearing nicknames like ‘princess’ and labels like ‘extra’. In my efforts to not take any response personally I have learnt that the willingness to be aware of one’s response based on how much time one allots to being open minded is perhaps the biggest factor in altering instinct and diminishing teasing or ridicule. Taking the time to understand why someone might present themselves in a certain way or have certain likes and dislikes is perhaps common sense. Yet in practice, a positive instinctual response to something or someone different can only come from a place of curiosity. And to be curious and reflective one needs time.
At university, time is perhaps the most valuable commodity. It would make sense why someone would not think twice about allotting it to cultural curiosity or introspection when homework problems, job interviews and exams are more pressing. Yet developing these as strengths are key factors in contributing to the ever changing global environment. Quite simply, empathy is important. For you and for those immediately around you.
In my simple task of being cognisant of every time I called boba ‘bubble tea’ I became aware of the people around me. Was I being understood? Similarly, switching back to calling it bubble tea in Singapore and speaking with the right intonations was intended to help the cashier.
This is pertinent even amongst those of the same culture - it forces us to be kinder, see things from their perspective, act accordingly and prevent us from making instinctive comments. Small talk? Never heard of her.
Now the next time you order bubble tea and are waiting in queue ask yourself - is it called boba or bubble tea?