I hope this email finds you enjoying a wonderful start to second semester – this spring is shaping up to be super duper exciting! I hope all of you have an amazing second semester filled with lots of surprises and blessings 🙂
Salutations from Singapore! (English)
來自新加坡的問候 ! (Chinese)
सिंगापुर से बधाई ! (Hindi)
salam dari Singapura ! (Malay)
The return from winter break has been a whirlwind of crazy travels, jet lag, and acclimating to a completely new place. This semester I decided to study abroad in Singapore at the National University of Singapore. There is much to tell, so buckle in for the long haul and make sure to watch for future posts about the Viterbi International Exchange program in Singapore!
Here’s a breakdown of the experience so far:
We left San Diego at the bright, early hour of 7 am to fly to San Francisco on January 7th (the first leg of our long travel was on Virgin America, which has the best airplane safety video ever – I highly recommend everyone watch and enjoy so here it is for your viewing pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtyfiPIHsIg ), where we enjoyed our last Western style breakfast of pancakes and potatoes. We then boarded a very long flight to South Korea that lasted a grand total of 13 hours across the Pacific Ocean crossing via Alaska and Russia before arcing down into Asia. It was my first flight on a double-decker plane, which I was very excited about until I was told to stop disrupting the first class passengers upstairs and return to my coach seat on level 1. We watched way too many movies, read far too many books, and slept but the flight still felt really long. We arrived in Seoul to a very rushed connection for our next flight, having lost an entire day with the time change. We barely made it through the security before our flight to Singapore departed – we were the last passengers seated on the plane before the doors closed a minute later! After that exhilarating run through the airport we buckled in for another 7 hour flight to Singapore, where we enjoyed the strangest airplane food consisting of traditional Korean Bimbimbab that came with a page of instructions for the foreigners on how to eat it.
We arrived in Singapore bedraggled, confused, cramped, and exhausted at about 1:30 am Singapore time. Our baggage, unfortunately, was not as lucky as we were to have boarded our connection flight. As it happens, our baggage had been delayed and would not arrive until the next morning. Without a clue as to where we were headed, we chartered a taxi to take us to NUS. We arrived at the school at about 3 am to check into our new dorm rooms, only to be greeted by a very grumpy check-in officer who proceeded to take a ridiculously long amount of time to find our booking. We ended up being delivered our keys finally at 5:00 am with no wifi, no baggage, no food, and no idea where we were. We fell asleep on the empty mattress (our sheets were with our luggage) for a couple hours, then awoke before sunrise at 6:30 am, which for us felt like 2:30 pm the previous day (there is a crazy time difference of 16 hours, which makes it very strange to phone home). In the morning light, we realized our rooms were not quite as nice as the pictures we had seen online – there was no air conditioning (only a ceiling fan), the walls were dirty, and much of the furniture was very old and worn. We woke drenched in sweat wearing the same wrinkled clothes we had been wearing for the past three days and proceeded to wait for our baggage outside the apartment complex until the airport called and reported that it would be a few hours more until the baggage was delivered. We therefore decided to take matters into our own hands. We boarded the nearby school shuttle and took a bus tour of the campus, which is extraordinarily beautiful.
One of the things I love about this campus is the way the city has been literally built into a forest. There are enormous green trees and patches of jungle woven throughout the skyscrapers. On campus we ended up finding a program called SG Kaki (the word Kaki in Malay means “buddy”), which we stayed for to meet several exchange students from all over the world and other local students in our program. It was amazing that in a group of 20, everyone had a different major, spoke several different languages, and was coming from a different country. By the time the program had concluded, we received notice our baggage had arrived to our jubilant elation.
After dropping the baggage off at our room, we then got directions and took the metro down to a local mall called Grandstation where we bought pillows, mattress pads, shampoo, and other small essentials.
*** A neat note about the Singapore transportation system – there is an entire government program dedicated to what they refer to as the “Thoughtfulness Movement” in which people are encouraged to be mindful of one another. There are five different caricatures that promote five different mindful values, including “Move-In Martin” (move in to make room for boarding passengers), “Stand-Up Stacey” (stand up to let other people who need the seats sit down), “Hush Hush Hannah” (be quiet to respect other people’s space), “Bag-Down Benny” (put your bag on the ground instead of on a seat to save room for others, and “Give Way Glenda” (let others board and unboard before you go yourself). I thought this was a really cool idea, as it encourages people to be courteous. I love how the government is promoting good character – the US definitely has something to learn from this! There is even a video, which I also highly recommend you check out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TlbHPJ1lkA
I have noticed this mindfulness campaign has even affected people in more subtle ways. When I ask someone for directions, for example, most people will not only answer my question but also offer to walk me there themselves even if it is well out of their way.
Upon returning to campus that afternoon we proceeded to organize our bags and shower for the first time in four days. I cannot fully relay how great it felt to finally take a cold shower after the blazing heat, sweltering humidity, and over 80 hours of dirty travel. It was an early night sleeping from 8 pm until 9 am the next morning – a well needed rest!
On Sunday we woke up and went to an amazing church nearby called The Church of the Holy Cross. It was so neat to see such a large congregation coming together, with so many languages and cultures mixing together to form one voice of hundreds singing the hymns. The priest spoke beautifully and we were able to enroll for a weekly bible study on Monday nights with members from the community, which we are so excited to begin next Monday! You can check out our new Singapore home church here if you would like: http://www.holycross.org.sg/
After church, we took the bus down to Harbor front, which we had heard was a good place to explore the city. After buying a prepaid SIM card for my phone so it could be used in Singapore, we got lunch (we caved and got burgers after seriously craving food from home) and took a long walk down a boardwalk on the pier, which it turns out leads to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s private island. This mini island city is a paradise metropolis, home to a Gondola across the bay, Universal Studios Singapore, an Aquarium, multiple hotels, and beach playgrounds for children as well as multiple beautiful sculptures. The entire island is so clean and pristine – if Disneyland were a city, this would be it, minus Mickey Mouse. Wanting to see the ocean, we crossed the entire island to make it to the edge where we spent the afternoon watching the waves. We then returned via a Skylink train to the mainland of Singapore, after which we hopped on the metro for a free concert at the Singapore Botanic Gardens by the Israeli National Philharmonic Orchestra. We then returned to campus, finished unpacking, and slept early to prepare for starting classes on Monday.
Monday morning we made our way to University Hall for class registration, which was a crazy hodgepodge of confused international exchange students trying to complete registration. After finishing and getting our student visa appointment, we headed to our first classes and got lunch on campus. My first class of the day was for Solidworks Visualization, and contains more than 800 students. The engineering faculty is enormous here – even the buildings are huge, making it feel like a daunting concrete city. Finding one’s way is a serious challenge, and we had to ask for directions multiple times. It felt like we were always one step behind – all of our fellow national students had been given access to the online class portal weeks before so they all showed up having done the reading with notes already printed. I finally showed up to my first class this week with all my notes printed, feeling like a pro!
Overall it looks like my course schedule will be as follows:
ME2103 – Solidworks Engineering Visualization and Design
ME4253 – Biomaterials Engineering
BN3401 – Medical Instrumentation and Electronics
BN5201 – Clinical Instrumentation and Biomedical Imaging
LSM2102 – Molecular Biology
It will definitely be a tough course load, especially since all five of my classes are science and math heavy, but I am excited for the technical skills I will be gaining. In one of my classes, I will even get to build an electronic device! One of the things I have observed here on campus is the completely different method of studying. None of my classes here have regular homework assignments or weekly work – instead there are huge term long projects and exams that are weighted up to 70% of the final grade. Apparently the concept is that everyone should be self-studying all the time because there are no assignments, which is much different than the teach-learn-practice-apply model I am accustomed to at USC. I sense this will be a huge learning curve, but am excited for the challenge. When I ask my classmates they all say they are super busy because they are studying all the time even though nothing is assigned – it’s a little daunting but I have confidence I can figure it out!
We survived the first week, which consisted mostly of filling out forms, getting caught in surprise afternoon rain showers, registration meetings to get our classes figured out, and trying to find our classrooms in this maze of a goliath campus. We walk several miles any given day just trying to get from one place to another since the campus is so large.
On Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to try some traditional Singaporean food with a colleague who lives in the city, who told me much about the amazing country of Singapore, which is truly like a small paradise. The level of organization is almost a little creepy. The city functions almost without flaw – the government is so financially organized that there is actually a surplus (which compared to our trillions of dollars debt is quite impressive). The city is spotless, there is an almost universally high standard of living, everyone lives by the rules, and there is high tolerance for people of every nationality. The city is home to Indians, Malays, Chinese, and other assorted nationalities from Southeast Asia to create an amazing mix of cultures.
To celebrate our first week, we headed out to eat in the city at a place called Nam Nam, which we believe has the best Vietnamese pho chicken noodle soup. It was a pleasantly glorious change from all the fried food we had been previously eating. We also got amazing red velvet cake from a neat desert hub next door. We then walked the city a little and got to see some famous sights near City Hall by night lights, including the St. Andrews Cathedral, the Marina Bay boat restaurant (there is literally a building consisting of three huge towers with an actual giant boat lofted on top), and the city skyline. On Saturday, we ventured into the city to have lunch with a fellow USC Trojan now working for Bain Consulting here in Singapore. We had lunch at a neat spot called the Food Republic, which is one of the many cheap Hawker center food courts around the city. The Thai curry was delicious, as was the kaya toast for desert! We then proceeded to a nearby bookstore, which was huge and spanned across the entire top floor of a mall. We spent the afternoon sprawled out in a corner reading all the Southeast Asia Travel books to start planning some weekend adventures. We ended up deciding that we want to trek Southeast Asia – stay tuned for upcoming blogs about these exciting treks! We then travelled to Little India for dinner, which was such a bustling mix of colors, flavors, people, and buildings.
We ended up accidentally walking too far, however, and ended up in the Malay district for dinner.
On Sunday, we attended mass again at The Church of the Holy Cross, then made our way to the Gardens by the Bay, a famous Singapore site on the bay filled with enormous super-trees, which are incredible feats of engineering that mimic the natural canopy of jungle trees and are covered in flowers. We also explored the two indoor Conservatories, one for the Cloud Forest one for the Flower Fields, which are essentially giant greenhouses (the botanist’s dream) with beautiful plant architecture, bridges, and jungle creations. Check out the pictures below!
The second week of classes was somewhat less confusing, but still as overwhelming as the last. We are still trying to get our grip on how everything works – it seems we will learn something new every day we are here!
The second weekend of being in Singapore we travelled to Phuket, Thailand, which is an amazing tropical paradise with beautiful sandy shores, sunshine, and culture. We ended up getting to see the Phi Phi islands on a daylong boat ride, where we snorkeled and got to see some of the best views of the coral reefs.
Thailand was amazing! Though very sad – here was what I posted on instagram about the trip:
“This weekend we had the amazing opportunity to visit Phuket and the Phi Phi islands in the top picture you can see a great shot of the typical longboats on Maya Bay – lovely water, beautiful mountains, colorful fish… But behind that photo there is a whole lot of ugly. There are literally thousands of tourists, piles of trash, exploitation of the land at a radically unsustainable rate, way way way too many boats, cattle-herding-like activities of huge crowds through sunfaded umbrella beaches that are slowly becoming wastelands of dead coral from bad sailing practices, deceitful and false advertising, backhanded dealing to bilk tourists out of money, and just downright depressing abuse of everything about a vacation that should be should be wonderful. There are so many people dependent on this industry that is destroying the land and encouraging depreciation of Thailand’s natural beauty, as seen by the filthy water of the boat pier only a few dozen miles away from these famed dying islands. The city of Patong is a another horror story altogether – it is dirty, crowded, falling apart, and truthfully a city of Hedonist indulgance. There is risqué trash all over the streets, gaudy lights, scantily clad women forced into an objectifying market of cheap pleasure, and abhorrent abuse of human life – the overall feel of the city demonstrated the kind of human exploitation that illustrates the ugliest of rampant human evils in devaluing human beings. The way the islands are being trashed is reflective of of the moral trash that is distinctly palpable in the greater area – heartbreaking and devasting, as this diminishes the beauty of the amazing Thai people and culture. To say it was a great getaway vacation would only be partly true – we loved the sunshine, the curry, watching monkeys climb cliffs, and the sweet Patong Backpackers hostel – but we were deeply moved and disturbed by the pain and destruction permeating the city. This was a powerful reminder that this world is so beautiful yet gut wrenchingly broken – definitely important to know the reality of the region we are living in considering the illusion of comfort and success Singapore offers…”
Check out the pictures below!
Note the dirty water at the pier in Phuket… Crazy how different this was from the crystal blue Phi Phi island water only a 40 min boat ride away!
This past week I was also invited to attend a really neat entrepreneurship conference called EmTech Asia hosted by the Alliance between MIT and Singapore. It was a fabulous opportunity to meet lots of amazing people with some incredible inventions, such as a project called the “Drinkable Book” which is a book composed of specially designed paper with nanoparticles that also filter water – WOWWW!!! 🙂 Read more about their insanely cool project here – https://drinkablebook.tilt.com/the-drinkable-book
The Conference was hosted at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center, which is housed within an enormous skyscraper consisting of three towers with a humongous boat shaped formation lofted over the three. On top of this boat, there is an insanely beautiful infinity pool looking out over a picturesque skyline – the views are amazing!
This Marina Bay Sands Convention Center is also home to luxury mall… which has a moat and recreational boat tour inside of it!
This weekend we are exploring more the city of Singapore! On Friday night we went to Chinatown, which was painted in gold and red to celebrate the Chinese New Year – there are also monkeys just about everywhere, since this is the year of the Monkey. There is a huge, beautiful Buddhist temple in the middle of the city as well, housed in this building. The whole place smells very strongly of incense, and there are countless gold statues inside.
For dinner we had a famous Singaporean dish called Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is by far one of the best meals we have had here thus far. The meal is incredibly simple – just chicken, rice, cucumber, and a ginger sauce – and yet it is mouthwateringly delicious! We ate three plates in a row, to the owner of this food stall’s delight 🙂
On Sunday we will be going hiking along the Southern Ridges with our “host” family – a group of international students under the adoptive care of the awesome Xingwen, a young guy from China who has lived in Singapore as a student for several years.
Overall this has been the adventure of a lifetime! I miss home a lot, and it is hard to keep in touch with friends and family that are 14-16 hours behind – my morning is their afternoon! But we are learning how to balance everything. I miss my Trojan family, my roommates, my acapella group, and my family a whole lot, but I am also excited for each new day of this adventure.
Stay tuned for the next few chapters of my study abroad experience – there is certainly never a dull moment in Singapore 🙂
Fun fact of the week: I met someone from Christmas Island here at NUS – there are only 300 people on that island, so the odds of that are 300/8,000,000… How’s that for beating the odds? 🙂
Some things learned here in Singapore:
- Eating outside of restaurants is almost always forbidden – the fine for eating on a bus or metro is about $500
- Everything tastes different here… and if it looks like Pasta Bolognses don’t get too excited, its actually noodles with mystery meat…
- Everything here is cooked in a bucket of oil… Except Hainanese Chicken Rice and Nam Nam Pho Chicken Soup and Indian Curried Chicken…
- It is not allowed to lay down on public benches
- It is possible to buy orange juice in most fruit stands, but not the actual orange even though they are sitting in a basket on the counter
- Apparently eating uncooked eggs for breakfast isn’t weird here
- There are malls everywhere… All big, all impressive, all expensive, all luxury… The most popular sport in Singapore it would seem is shopping
- It is essential to try Kaya toast at least once while being here – be warned, it is 200% butter, but so good!
- It rains almost every day… prepare to enjoy a thunderstorm and super heavy rain every afternoon, every day of the week… and sometimes the storm lasts all day!
- Public bathrooms are very difficult to locate… they are generally hidden in the most inconvenient of places
- Starbucks is ridiculously overpriced here in Singapore – the alternative is Singaporean coffee, called Kopi which is super cheap and super sweet. Coffee comes with these weird little plastic handles haha 🙂
- Owning a car is ridiculously expensive since one has to buy a liscense to even own a vehicle (upwards of $50,000) so the total cost ends up being somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000… How so many people own cars here beats me
- Don’t eat the gummy candies at the Candy Stores – they look really cool but are all made with pork and beef gelatin… WHAT?!?!?!?!
- Fuzzy little creatures are everywhere… Creepy, but kinda cool for all you bug lovers out there! This little guy startled me when I went to fill up my water bottle one day!
Wishing you all a great January!Meet Madelina