Go with a smile!

Friday, April 04, 2014

America and Me

It was my sister who strongly encouraged me to go overseas and study, because that was what she had always wanted to do. My life was pretty checkered at the point where I left for Snowy Hill. I was just coming off what was probably a dark five year stretch. I don’t really remember life quite being so bleak for me ever again, but I was glad that I got out of there and started to see things from a different perspective. Later on I would realize that there was a darker motive for her to leave home – little did I know she had this instinct that she was leaving Singapore for good. I wanted to unfuck myself. I was a pretty unhappy person on my 21st birthday, and I needed to learn the meaning of life, to see things from another perspective.

I suppose that as time goes by I’m beginning to see Snowy Hill as a ticket to a vaguely privileged existence. But at that time I saw it as a straw for a drowning man to clutch at. It did save me in some ways and I’ve probably written about that before. Thing is, I was surrounded by people who had fought for all their lives to get into Snowy Hill, and there I was, almost there by accident. It was not an endpoint for me, although I did believe that good things would come to you if you did well in school. I was mainly riding on that bus and staying on that bus.

My first encounters with the angmohs were not really happy ones, although it happened at a time when I would have been ill at ease with the Singaporeans anyway. In my first year at Snowy Hill I lived at the foot of the hill, and I had to climb that hill to get to classes. Whenever I went to classes, that is. There was a lot of downloading coursework from the web and desperately trying to keep up from my dorm room.

There were two clusters of dorms in Snowy Hill. I was in the smaller cluster which was at the foot of the hill. It was a little notorious for being a party place. It was probably the best and the worst place that I could have roomed at. Usually everybody was out there in the lounge. I could have joined the party sometimes and made a little bit of noise, but I stayed in my room all the time while everything went on outside. Maybe I was just trying to keep up with the schoolwork. Maybe I felt ill at ease amongst them. Most likeIy I did not have any clue whatsoever about how to communicate with them. And they also had no clue how to communicate with me either. It’s not like they were mean, and not like they did not reach out, but I wasn’t that interested, and I couldn’t really bring myself to do it. At the time when I was having one epiphany after another in the academic realm, I was totally not involved in the social life aspect.

One of things was, I was never really secure in my own identity. I didn’t really have a story to tell of myself. I even maybe felt ashamed that I knew so much about certain aspects of western culture, but I didn’t really have anything unique to tell about Singapore. And I hadn’t really thought things through. Like most Singaporeans, I just took things the way they were and we almost always stayed on the straight and narrow.

One song that was on the airwaves a lot that year was “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry. Save tonight, and fight the break of dawn. Come tomorrow, it will all be gone. Considering that going to Snowy Hill was the pinnacle of my then short existence, it was strangely miserable.

I did befriend quite a few people from Snowy Hill that I would stay friends with for a long time. I allowed a much less angsty me to emerge from the shadow of NS and JC. But those friends were mostly Singaporeans. And Singaporeans just didn’t mix well with the Americans.

Second year onwards, I moved off campus. My relationships with the Americans did not improve. I should have been more active in my mathematics class, and if I were more conscientious, I would have reached out more to them. I did try hard, and I did find myself pedaling as hard as I could. Classes wise, I put my finger into all the pies I could find. I don’t regret my scatter shot approach, because it taught me a great deal about life in general. But if I put a little more focus on my main subject, mathematics, I would have earned myself a few more American friends.

My housemate in the second and third years was one of my sister’s best friends in secondary school, and she had an ECA where she would dress up in medieval garb. I think in many ways she was more westernized than I was, and she fit in better. Through one of her friends, I found a job tutoring at the a help centre for freshies. I got a few students, and I’m sure they’re used to the sight of smart ass Asians lecturing them about how to resolve forces on an object. But two of my most common students – and I think they liked me because I didn’t beat around the bush, I just worked the problem out in front of them – two of them were African chicks.

I did understand Americans somewhat better than the average Singaporean. I watched their movies, I wasn’t completely blind to pop culture references. I knew my classic rock. No one American knows everything about pop culture either so it’s OK to not get a reference, OK to not understand a certain something. What I do know is that in many ways Singaporeans and Americans are very different. Singaporeans like to be frugal – at least those of a certain age. Americans liked to boast about spending money. Singaporeans liked to boast about studying all the time, and quite a few Americans like to talk about how hard they work. But by and large Americans didn’t like to appear like they were too square. Singaporeans liked to sit back and watch things. In America, if you didn’t get into their faces, and if you weren’t a little brash and loud, they simply assumed that there was something wrong with you. It took quite a while for me to get used to this.

Singaporeans know two worlds. First, the world they live in, and then the Hollywood world that existed on the other side of the cathode ray tube. America was obviously not exactly like that, although watching TV taught you something about America. Also, Singaporeans speak English. It’s more English than Hong Kong, India or the Philippines. We ought to understand the west better than most other Asians. The most cosmopolitan and westernized of the mainlanders aside, the average Singaporean understands the west better than his counterpart from the mainland. But when you see something on TV, you can always discount how “real” it is. Whatever I used to see TV, it was “just TV”. And suddenly I have to take “just TV” more seriously because I’ve gone to live in TVLand.

But America is a very large country. And when I say large, I mean in many different respects. They can be very magnanimous. They have been so adept at absorbing influences from so many different cultures, that it’s not impossible for them to just swallow you up. Certain parts are xenophobic, but in a sense, it is large – there’s that word again – enough that you will always find your own niche.

During my first year in that party-ish dorm, the next block had a special program: that block was music themed. You had a band room there and people could always trash around on musical instruments on there. I put up an advertisement and then somebody responded. There was this really friendly guy from New York, and he had a hot Midwestern girlfriend. He was pretty astounded that I knew how to play all the songs from Exile on Main Street. But we didn’t last, because I felt that nice Asian guys just didn’t go all the way to Snowy Hill to fuck around with a band. During the third year, I bumped into him again, and we were in the same course. I hardly showed up, I think I was, as usual, getting into trouble with classes by biting off more than I can chew. But I had a few good compositions up my sleeve and naturally with all my talent, I got an A. I don’t know if he persuaded people to do this, but after my end of course concert, he got the rest of the class to give me a standing ovation. So you see, Americans can be very nice.

But my relationship with the Americans was not so nice. When you’re a young man in your twenties, it can be very easy to feel like you’re constantly being slighted by other people. And I definitely felt slighted by the Americans. That was always going to happen when you were fresh off the boat and you didn’t fit in. I’ve come to realize that when you’re new in town, and you don’t know how to behave, that’s more likely to get you slighted than because of the colour of your skin. At the same time, I was attending a school where the Political Science and the History departments had more than their fair share of Marxists and left wingers, so they always taught us that the history of the world was the history of oppression of the weak by the strong. (Actually it was more balanced than that because they also took the trouble to explain the conservative point of view – Snowy Hill has academic standards to maintain!) So it gave me quite a bad impression of America but at the same time it was important to know a lot about the ugly truth.

There was also this massive psychological resistance I had inside of me. Maybe I should have worked harder to wear it down during those years, but there were times when I had to get out of my room and meet the westerners. I would just freeze up. I don’t have that anymore, thank goodness!

Then there was the episode with the redhead I called Fire Girl. Summed it all up, really. Still, it started something with me. It was a long process of discovering the world.

After I graduated, I had a dream. I dreamt that I was with a friend I knew from Singapore – he had only studied one year in the US. I dreamt that I was riding a bike next to him, and we were looking forward to school starting again. Of course there was no more school starting – I had already graduated. But I always saw it as a possibility that I would end up in the States again. And that was not something that was obvious to me, not even when I was offered a place in the University of Mexico almost ten years later. Right now, as well as during my first stint in the United States, I never really believed that I would stay long in the United States.

After that I went home, and I found that the process of adjusting to working life in Singapore was yet another big cultural shock for me, although I did do well enough to get by. Maybe not really thrive yet. After around six years, I took a vacation back in the united states. I never went back to the same state that Snowy Hill was from, ever again. But this time I went to another part of the states.

I had stepped out of San Francisco airport five years ago. That was my first time back in the states for six years. It was a little eerie – my bond began after I left the States, and at the time when I landed in San Francisco, it had only one month left. There was an eerie symmetry to all this.

I remember stepping out into the Californian sun soon after that – it was a cheap motel breakfast but I didn’t mind it at first. It was partly out of nostalgia for the better days in Snowy Hill and partly an escape from the blinding hot weather of Singapore – the only places I had visited in those six years were also tropical countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. I marveled at the cool San Franciscan weather.

It seemed that I was stepping into a United States that had already begun decaying. The great disaster that had been the Bush administration had already run its course, and people were looking towards better days when Hillary Clinton took over. (Except that she didn’t get to take over, of course).

Truth be told, I had come to the end of my tether when I left Snowy Hill. Yes, it had been a roller coaster ride, but maybe I was at a low point. The fourth and last year was OK, and relatively smooth sailing. But the problem is that I hadn’t gotten myself accustomed to the social life: you had to do it within the first two years. After that, I was weighing up being a bookish nerd and having a lot of friends: having a lot of friends lost. I didn’t know how to relate to people, especially to Americans. I told myself, well I suppose I’ll have to learn about people. I did that – first from national service, then from films, then from psychology textbooks, and finally from living a normal boring life in Singapore.

When I went to the University of Mexico to study it was a little strange. I found myself in between. I’m not totally Asian, and neither am I totally western. I’m always somewhere in between, although obviously I’m more Asian than western, in case you guys haven’t figured that out by now.

Mexico, however, is not a great cultural center. Come to think of it, neither was Snowy Hill. But they are great places to live. And maybe it’s funny that I’ve left Singapore as it was on the verge of becoming a major cultural centre. This time I was surrounded by a lot of people from China and India, and I had to adjust to that. I was more Americanised than the people from China, and I could possibly teach them more about what America was like. I found myself giving a little bit of advice to them sometimes. But mostly I felt alienated from them this time around, not only because I was a foreigner, but because I was 10 years older than many of them. Also, Mexico was a very different place from Snowy Hill and I could feel that the culture was different.

This time, though it’s different. I’ve realised that for the first time, I found myself not having to keep up with schoolwork and having an excuse to shut myself away from the Americans. I’m in an office with many other white people: there are Asian Americans and white people – I’m almost the only foreigner. But there are opportunities to hang out and have good American friends. And this is only in the seventh year that I’m in the united states. Looks like the beginning of another great adventure, except – how many beginnings of great adventures do you get in your lifetime?

Things are more different than when I was in Snowy Hill. When I was in Snowy Hill, you could see people from China, but the floodgates had yet to open. They didn’t seem like the arrogant colossus that some people think of them today. They still looked like the up and coming underdogs. The US was the biggest and greatest country on earth, and boy did they know it. They were really prosperous.

Today, the status of Asians has raised so much that in some places they’re almost the equal of white people. And in fact I used to bemoan the fact that it was always a white man going around with an Asian girl. Now, I see a lot of Asian guy dating white women. Not that I especially fancy white women, but I would have been surprised that these things were so rapid. Back then, nobody knew what Singapore was. Now, people have some clue, and a lot of people would have flown through that place before. And I get some people asking me about that place sometimes.

Back then I was not an engineering student, and for some reason, that sorda alienated me from the world. It was not year zero of the internet, maybe year three or year four. The dust had hardly settled and we didn’t know what it really meant. Now things are a little more settled but the internet is still hardly a mature technology. Maybe it will never be a mature technology. I was studying arts subjects at Snowy Hill. They were more of a complement to computer science than I could ever have imagined. You don’t say “if you don’t understand science, you don’t understand computers”. This is not true. But if you don’t understand the arts, and if you don’t understand human behavior, you definitely don’t understand computers.

Back then, the book was king. The university was still the central dispenser of information, although I attended Snowy Hill at the point in time when instructors could put a lot of the material on the web. Little did I know that things were undergoing a big revolution, and that massive open online courses would – if not change the world, then at least raise very big and serious questions about the future of the traditional university model.

During my first stint in Snowy Hill, I didn't know about alcohol and caffeine. Now, I drink coffee and beer almost every day.

There were times when I was in Snowy Hill and I would feel extremely lonely. IT didn't take place anymore in Mexico, although there were also times where I had lain in bed and pulled the blanket over my head and ask myself what the fuck I was doing here. Maybe I had adjusted. Maybe I was less like an emo teenager. And maybe I have more worthwhile and meaningful things to do with my life.

All the same - I have reached the dreaded third year of my life in the US. This is when your ties to Singapore start wearing off, and you suddenly feel totally cut adrift. Maybe it’s – when people are made homeless for the first time, it isn’t so bad at first. They will always have with them a few luxuries that aren’t going to run out just yet. The clothes are not tattered and torn yet. Maybe it’s liberating at first. Then after that they start to get worn down, the novelty wears off, and they know for real that they’re in this for good. And then after the memories of the good old times fade away, they’re left with a hollow shell and they get estranged from their former life.

In the same way I have probably lost a connection to Singapore and not really figured out how to find back a connection to a country. My third year in Snowy Hill was also a little like that, it felt very directionless, after I had made a big leap forward in my life during that second year. I don’t think I would have fared well after my fourth year – in spite of everything, at that point I was quite ready to go home at that point. I will now have to go a little further than I have ever been. And while it may never happen, I might even have to think about planting down roots here.


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