Day 10: From One to Another

Just as I was starting to grow accustomed to Hong Kong, the time came for me to transition to my next location. Heading from one Asian metropolis to another, I scurried to the airport to catch my morning flight to Singapore.

Given its population, there were a surprising number of students at my university from Singapore, but other than my conversations with them, I have had virtually no interaction with this city-state. My impression is that Singapore is often depicted as the Southeast Asia wunderkind, complete with a bustling economy and immaculately clean city streets.* Thus, I pictured a utopia of sparkling pavement and shining skyscrapers. And solely based on my arrival at Changi Airport, the stereotypes were already holding true. It is the only airport I have seen that places bowls of candy on its immigration desks and features touch-screen tables scattered throughout asking for quick consumer satisfaction surveys on anything from the efficiency of the customs line to the cleanliness of the bathrooms. Fascinating.

However, I had chosen a hostel near Boon Keng, located on the outskirts of Little India and “far away” from the normal tourist hangouts. (Far away in Singapore meaning maybe 20 minutes by subway.) The area was decidedly residential; buildings consisted largely of tidy, yet reasonably worn-out townhouses, certainly not the towering concrete capital I had expected. I liked it already.

After checking into my hostel, I tried to find the nearest hawker center. Whenever I asked around about things to do in Singapore, the ubiquitous answer was always to eat lots of local food.** Well, the Singaporean response to street food normally comes in the form of a hawker center, sort of like open-air foodcourts where various stalls congregate and offer a smorgasbord of options.1 Luckily for me, there was a hawker center within walking distance on Bendemeer Road.

Although not nearly the biggest or most famous, due to its location, this hawker center gave off a distinctly local feel, and I had the pleasure of being the only confused foreigner in sight. I opted to go for Hainanese Chicken Rice, essentially Singapore’s national dish. While normally boiled, the chicken can also be roasted which I choose for my first meal, not feeling too certain just yet about boiled chicken. (This hesitancy will disappear soon enough.) I was handed a heaping plate of rice cooked in chicken broth with a generous portion of crisp, roast chicken on top. I was initially surprised by the combination of warm rice with cool chicken (especially when topped with a bit of chili sauce.) However, every subsequent bite was honestly even better than the last, and I ended up devouring the plate in seconds. Alright, point taken. Singapore is definitely a place to feast.

Not wanting to leave just yet, I sought out a drink stand for a massive glass of watermelon juice and settled onto a table in the middle of the hawker center. I had just downloaded an electronic copy of China Rich Girlfriend, the sequel to the bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians. I rarely read fiction, but as these books were conveniently set in Singapore and Hong Kong, I decided to make an exception.*** I quickly became engrossed in the plot, alternating between smiling with recognition whenever familiar Hong Kong locales would pop up and eagerly jotting down notes on Singaporean ones.

Every once in a while, I would look up at my surroundings as the evening progressed and more locals filled the scene. Following the end of a workday, crowds of smartly dressed people streamed in, indicating that despite its strikingly humble atmosphere, the hawker center apparently appealed to all types. My ears also filled with a melee of voices, as all four of Singapore’s official languages made themselves heard.**** I sat there for hours, casually alternating between the fictitious storyline in front of me and pinching myself upon realizing I was its real-life location.

The first evening in a complete new place is by far my favorite moment while traveling As INSERT QUOTE ABOUT BEING ALONE OR BEING IN A NEW PLACE HERE

I finished my novel and strode back to my hostel, my mind still teetering on the blurred line between fact and fiction. Singapore, I am still not quite sure what to expect of you, but I do look forward to making my own stories in the coming week.

18 June 2015

*If there is anything us Americans know about Singapore is that it is supposedly a crime to chew gum in public. Although several Googled articles tells me this is an exaggeration. Apparently physically chewing gum is not a problem, improperly disposal and unauthorized distribution of it is. Best just to remember to avoid littering! (As we all probably should anyway.)
**Funnily enough, this has also been a consistent answer whenever I have asked people for recommendations in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand. Forget museums, temples, or natural parks: if you do not eat the local food, you were never really there.
***Ever since university, I have unfortunately resorted too reading primarily nonfiction. When I do start a novel, I become entirely too engrossed in the plot and do nothing else until finishing it. Although I read a lot of travel memoirs, this was the first time I chose a fictional book set in my destination location. It is really interesting having a plot shape your impressions of the place around you. For the record, I really enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians and recommend it as a fun beach read. (Even if it came with the side effect of my roaming Singapore, constantly looking for tiny traces of the elite families described in the story.)
***English, Malaya, Mandarin, and Tamil (from Southern India/Sri Lanka.)

Travel Tips
1: Not only are hawker centers excellent venues to try the local food, they are incredibly affordable. In infamously pricey Singapore, most stalls offer entrees for around $3-5 USD, with an extra $1-2 for a drink. (I highly recommend getting a fresh-pressed juice to go with your meal.)