A Brief Exchange is a column where we invite one exchange student to share about her experience in Singapore, from her initially unfamiliar perspective. This semester, we welcome Camille Morgan, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA.
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit a good friend in Denmark. We had become friends when she spent a year at my high school in the States, and this was my chance to return the favour of spending time in her culture.
As an easy-going person, I get along well in most circumstances. I like change, so being in a new environment is something I thrive on. And furthermore, who doesn’t want to go to Europe? Despite all this, I had one hesitation: not speaking Danish.
Now don’t get me mistaken; it wasn’t that I was concerned about getting by in a culture where English is not the official language. That was far from the concern I had. Rather, I felt guilty for travelling to a place and not speaking the language—guilt from coming across as having a sense of entitlement, a sense that, as a native English speaker, and furthermore, as an American, that I could go anywhere I wanted and have everyone adjust to me. I didn’t want that, and felt that speaking English was somehow imposing my culture when I was supposed to be away from it.
Of course my friend, her family and her friends felt none of that. There were no expectations otherwise, but I still feel that pang of guilt in bringing a trace of my own culture along when travelling.
Regarding this semester exchange, a word from a friend made me reconsider this type of thinking: “What is familiar isn’t necessarily wrong.” In feeling guilt, I’m adding right and wrong to mere differences in culture. The same applies to the corollary, “what is not familiar to me, isn’t necessarily wrong or backwards.” Saving seats at a hawker centre does feel backward, especially after being trained not to sit without having purchased a meal. Taking the shuttle bus for a five-minute walk is not a sign of weakness, but of respect for those around you; sweat and exhaustion apart from exercise are rather a universal “no-no.”
In the past two weeks since my arrival, I’ve been working on what I would consider “cultural adaptation” rather than “cultural correction.” Taking off my shoes before entering my room is, well, a work in progress. I’ve also been adjusting, or accelerating rather, to the usage of technology. In the States, I thought young ten-year-olds with smartphones was unsettling, but here young children with fancy devices seems to fit right in with futuristic and non-linear designs of the Esplanade, Gardens by the Bay, or even the ERC. I’m glad I made the last-minute investment in an e-reader, though the next step to fitting in is remembering to carry it on the MRT.
And the MRT—a life-size children’s train set—clean, complete, and fun to ride. Maybe my feeling originates from a subway-less hometown, but the efficient network is nonetheless impressive.
Oh, and maybe one other item to adjust to through a summary of my day: after completing my application for a SOLAR pass to study here at NUS for Sem 2, I rode the IBS to MPSH 4 in the SRC to retrieve it today. I then went to the USP office to complete a CAP form since my IVLE and CORS weren’t working. Later, I had to contact the ISS of OSA about something they directed me to HAS about, which I found through URC.
When I prepared to depart for Singapore, someone told me that Singapore would be an “easy entry” into Asia. After arriving here, I realised this was really an entry into the future. If making acronyms is any indication of the ability to think into the future, I’d say the USA isn’t too far behind.