Singapore: Could I live there?

Over the summer, I visited Singapore with my girlfriend Grace. It was my first time in the country, second time in Asia, and third time crossing the Pacific: I’d also been to Taiwan on a mission trip in 2010 and Australia for a summer science school in 2007.

Since writing about my impressions of the country as a whole, the #1 question I’ve been asked is, could I live there? It’s been on my mind since before Grace and I started dating, as she’s on a scholarship bond that requires her to return to Singapore and work there for 6 years after she finishes her PhD. So I’ve been saving my answer to that question for this post, where I’ll discuss more of the personal side of our trip, the aspects that I think about when considering if I’d want to live there.

Let me start by talking about myself a little bit, and my natural inclinations. Personally, I’m not a really adventurous guy. Grace has a bit of wanderlust, and she’s visited every continent except Antarctica. Meanwhile, I’ve been inclined to stay wherever I’m at. I love the city of Boston, my church and friends here, and don’t have any desire to get out of here. This is home for me now.

And yet, I often find myself going abroad. When I was little, my parents decided to take up an offer from HP, where my dad worked, to go live in Europe for a couple years, as they wanted to increase collaboration across their offices. Even my previous trips to Australia and Taiwan weren’t self-initiated, either: In high school, my Science Bowl team won the trip to Australia in 2007 for winning the US national competition. Then in college, my small group leader invited me, with only two days to respond, to go on the missions trip to Taiwan. Something about the way that it went against my stick-in-the-mud nature drove me to say yes, and it was a life-changing experience.

And now in grad school, my girlfriend is from Singapore and needs to return. Temperamentally, I’m the last person I would have expected to want to move to the opposite side of the world. I never had any inclination to study abroad in undergrad — that would mean spending time away from my good friends at Caltech. I’ve spent almost all of the last two summers here at MIT without doing internships for similar reasons. And yet, here I was in Singapore. It’s an oddly familiar unfamiliarity.

Given that I love the US, and Boston in particular, as a starting point, I can talk about the biggest differences between Boston and Singapore that impact everyday life. Let me comment first on the surface-level differences: language, race and weather.

Unlike other countries in Asia, the lingua franca of Singapore is English. Singapore does have three other officially-recognized languages, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, but English is the language of instruction and commerce and is steadily drowning out other languages. Singapore actually used to be even more linguistically diverse, but starting in 1979, the government started promoting Mandarin over other Chinese varieties like Hokkien, and the variants have slowly died out in later generations, even as certain words and expressions live on in the mashup of languages known as Singlish.

I personally saw this generational transformation in Grace’s family: Grace speaks both English and Mandarin fluently; her parents speak Mandarin well and some English, and her grandmother speaks Teochow, a Chinese variety, and some Mandarin. Grace’s father was also a victim of the changing times: He studied in Mandarin through secondary school, but when he finished, they switched the language of instruction to English, which made it nearly impossible for him to go to college.

During the 2+ weeks, I was able to communicate with Grace’s parents in English here and there, holding conversations about concrete topics like the view from their apartment, the buses, and of course, the food. But at the same time, the vast majority of the conversations took place between Grace and her parents in Mandarin, possibly with Grace translating here and there for me, and I wish I could have joined them. This gave me the motivation to learn Chinese, and I’ve started this fall taking Chinese I at MIT.

Is race an issue? In Taiwan, I already had the experience of being “the white guy.” Actually, this was also kind of true in Avery, my undergrad dorm, especially in various excursions to Chinese supermarkets in the heavily Asian American San Gabriel Valley. Grace had told me that there were a nontrivial number of white people in Singapore, but it was fewer than I had expected. As I liked to joke, there seemed to be more whites in the mall clothing advertisements than among the patrons. (Seriously, the majority of the clothing advertisements featured white people!) Naturally, there were more whites in the most tourist-heavy locations (like the Botanical Gardens) and at the National University of Singapore, which has several exchange programs with European universities.

At first, I felt like I was representing my race with anything I did publicly, which made me more self-conscious. I’m glad I got to experience that, since I haven’t had much opportunity to sympathize with how minorities feel in the United States. But that realization also faded pretty quickly as I grew more comfortable. I’ve loved living in Asian-majority places like Avery, so it wasn’t too surprising that I stopped feeling out of place by the time I’d spent a few days there.

Finally, the weather is another big difference. Again, I’d been to Taiwan in the summer before and had learned to cope with similar weather there, so I didn’t think it would be that bad. Well, it was indeed quite hot and humid, and we weren’t even there in the hottest part of the year. Fortunately, this only affected our lives in a few ways:

  1. We only had air-conditioning (or as they call it, “air-con”) in the bedrooms, so even on our relaxing days, we left the apartment, often to go work at a coffee shop in a mall. This was probably better than lounging at home all day, as I’m often tempted to do at home in Colorado, but it did take time out of our day.
  2. Just walking around outside made us sweaty, so we often showered at night before going to sleep. I prefer showering in the morning because I often feel dirty then and it helps wake me up, so I ended up showering more than once a day a couple times. There was one 24-hour period where I showered three times that I like to exaggerate by mentioning, but it didn’t affect us too much.
  3. It rained pretty frequently. The weather forecast frequently just said “Thunderstorms” for every day that week. Fortunately, Singapore has invested in a lot of covered walkways for pedestrians to stay dry:

    Covered Walkways

    If you didn’t want to look up to know where to walk, you could always look on the ground for the water.

In balance, the weather wasn’t that bad. I like that it pushed me out of the apartment — it was somewhat impressive to me that we spent $60 on their relatively cheap subway in 2+ weeks. Besides, with malls attached to most subway stops, once we walked 5 minutes to the Buangkok station, we often didn’t have to go outside in the rain and heat until we got back.

I wrote about how much I enjoyed Singaporean food in my last post, how we managed to eat 4-5 meals a day, meeting up with different friends or her parents. But eating so much comes with natural downsides, especially for someone like me…

Fortunately, I have some data, since I’d started weighing myself in June and have nearly daily data before and after. I didn’t have a scale with me in Singapore, but I’ve weighed myself before and after, and now that I have enough data to have good estimates, I can say that I gained 0 lbs during my time in Singapore.

To be fair, I’d been losing weight at a rate of around 2 lbs per month over the summer in Boston before and after, so relative to that rate, I gained a pound during that time. But I think I can chalk that up to not playing any ultimate frisbee while I was there, my main source of exercise. And frisbee does exist there — one of Grace’s church friends plays it a lot, so

That experimental result is certainly surprising, so how do I explain it? How was I able to eat so much every day without gaining weight? Well, I think the weather difference is significant: Sweating so much and walking everywhere, I probably burned more calories than I do in a similar time period in Boston without exercise. That would be encouraging, but at the same time, our trip was both unusual in the amount of food eaten and steps taken, so I can’t exactly say it would be representative for me.

This actually wasn’t the most concerning thing about the food. From n = 2 instances, I think there was something in the hot pot that I had with Grace’s parents that didn’t agree with my stomach. The first time, this resulted in a rather unfortunate turn of events that you probably don’t want to hear about — skip ahead to the next paragraph unless you’re curious. After dinner, Grace’s parents suggested we go to the playground near their cluster of high-rise apartments and do some mild exercise there. As we were exercising, I realized that my stomach wasn’t happy and asked where the nearest restroom was. We were already more than halfway to the closest subway stop, so Grace decided to take me that way. We saw a men’s bathroom near the entrance on the side I was on, but it was closed for cleaning. Because of a fence on the median of the road, we had to go down into the subway and come out the other side (without paying, just walking farther) to find the next nearest men’s restroom on the other side of the street, which was rather dinky and didn’t have any toilet paper. I’ll let you fill in the rest of the details.

“Did you try durian?” is the next question everyone asks. Durian is a pungent Southeast Asian fruit that I like to describe as being shaped like a grenade:


Image source: Wikipedia.

Its odor is rather commonly described as disgusting, a characterization I would agree with. Walking outside, we could smell durians for sale from a block away. And yet, it’s widely popular, regarded as the “king of fruits” in Southeast Asia in general.

Throughout my stay, Grace talked about trying to gradually ease me into eating durian: starting with various durian products containing more and more durian before , so I would get used to it. I played along with that, promising to take each next step when she got around to introducing it to me. But by the end of the stay, the most I tried were durian puffs:

Guess I’ll have to try the real fruit next time!

Going a bit deeper, this was also my first time meeting Grace’s family. I had said hello on Skype once, but hadn’t gotten a chance to talk more than that before the trip. As time went on, Grace shared with me their steadily progressing attitudes towards me, especially as they started to make preparations for both of us to stay with them, buying a mattress for me to sleep on. When Grace had first gone to college in the UK, Grace’s mom had told her that she was okay with Grace finding a Western husband, but it’s another level to be faced with an actual prospect of that.

By the time we visited, Grace’s parents were very accepting of me and enjoyed getting to know me and my habits and preferences during our stay. Her mom would bring Ribena blackcurrant juice drinks home from McDonald’s, where she works, and she was happy to discover that I really liked them, introducing me excitedly to the strawberry-blackcurrant flavor, which I liked even more. We also bonded over the Facebook games that she plays, making sure Grace didn’t scratch her scalp too much, and making fun of Malaysia.

With her grandmother, we were a little bit more worried ahead of time, but she just apologized to Grace’s parents that she didn’t speak any English and we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Fortunately, after they had caught up, we found a common language we could speak:

Chinese Checkers

Games! And in particular, Chinese checkers! She won by one turn, so it was an exciting game.

At the same time, the conversations I did have with Grace’s family were mostly surface-level, and probably the deepest we could go with their broken English and my lack of Chinese. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to learn before visiting again, but I hope I’ll be able to at least understand part of their conversations with Grace in Mandarin, and perhaps even contribute myself.

What would it be like to live in Singapore as a Christian? It’s hard to say from such a short visit, but Christians are definitely an appreciable minority. Singapore is quite diverse in many ways, but particularly religiously: At least 10% of the population each subscribe to four different religions and “none,” led by the 33% plurality Buddhists. Like the United States, there is a freedom of religion and seemingly little conflict as far as I can tell.

We were there three Sundays, so we got to visit the church that Grace attended most recently, Adam Road Presbyterian Church (ARPC), three times, and also got to visit her old small group once as well. The church was fairly big, around 100-300 at each service, and otherwise was fairly typical for evangelical churches. I wasn’t blown away by the sermons, but they also weren’t particularly bad, either. Besides the mention of chicken rice, I was also most surprised by their very efficient communion distribution method:

It was efficient, but that

It was efficient, but that “bread” tasted like cardboard.

At some point, I looked to see if there were any Acts 29 churches in Singapore yet. Acts 29 is a church planting movement that I’ve found that I fit well with; it’s how I found my current church, City on a Hill. When I was in Duluth, MN, for a summer, I looked up the Acts 29 church there and found a community that also fit perfectly. Unfortunately, Acts 29 has not planted in Singapore yet; the only Southeast Asian Acts 29 church so far is in Thailand. Then again, we aren’t moving there now, and Acts 29 is expanding, especially in the English-speaking world…

I definitely prefer Christianity as one among many options that we have to actively choose rather than an inherited cultural heritage like in some parts of the US. The Christians I met there, mainly Grace’s friends, were very genuine, whether they were raised in the church or became Christians later on (like Grace).

More than just living as a Christian, though, I strive to do my part to transform the culture around me, like I hope to do through this blog. This is part of why I’ve tried to carefully learn all about Singaporean culture through this post and the last. To clarify, this isn’t like reading the Death Star plans to try to find an exhaust port we can shoot with a torpedo. I’m not looking for catchy ways to relate Singaporean food to Jesus. No, I want to get to know the culture broadly in order to love the people in it, and to speak in ways that can lift them from their current state of affairs.

By contrast, while I was there, I also happened to be reading Bad Religion by Ross Douthat, a clarifying yet depressing look at the state of Christianity in the US. I have much more to say about that book in future blog posts, but suffice it to say that it reminded me of all of the cul-de-sacs that various branches of Christianity have driven into in the past fifty years, and striving to change the culture somewhere new with a different set of problems seems suddenly more tractable.

At the same time, while Singapore has made great strides to catch up with the first world, they aren’t ready to lead. While the progress of the last 50 years has certainly been amazing, it will be much harder to continue without a blueprint for growth downloaded from the West. From popular music to gay rights, the culture there is very much still following the West, and the US and UK in particular. Part of my hope for influencing US culture is to be a small part of change that the rest of the world will imitate and influence, and Singapore is a bit downstream from there. These are the considerations that most make me want to move back to the US eventually.

I’ve saved the most important question for last: What do I want to do with my career? Could I see myself taking a job in Singapore, academic or otherwise? Does that fit into my life plan?

When I decided in my first year of grad school that I didn’t want to do pure math, I also relinquished my script of striving exclusively to become a professor one day. At some moments in grad school, I’ve even begun to see that option tumbling out of grasp, and at others, I’ve been frustrated with the lack of good communication between academics and industry. When I visited Singapore, I had been flailing with mild success against the same problem for almost six months.

And then I came back and had the most productive month of research I’ve seen so far in grad school. Both of my breakthroughs that month were minor on the grand scale of things, but certainly very encouraging. During the same period of time, I also attended a conference at Harvard where one of the talks mentioned some work on the same problem I’m working on. At lunch, one of the professors I ate with commented that solving that particular problem is the next big thing. I’m sure I’ll write about this more in the future, especially if I continue to make progress, but it started to excite me about the prospect of redesigning some of the underpinnings of modern data science.

That newfound enthusiasm and opportunity doesn’t necessarily translate into a clear career path, but I’m becoming comfortable with that uncertainty. I’ve begun to lean into some of the realizations that I’ve gleaned from others over time. In high school, I remember hearing Richard Rusczyk, the founder of The Art of Problem Solving, say that every job he had after college didn’t exist when he was in high school, so it’s not worth planning ahead for a specific job. A couple years ago, I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, mostly to educate myself about the realities that women face in the workplace, but I also found that her messages were rather broadly applicable. In particular, she compared the traditional pattern of promotions as a “career ladder” and advised women to think of it more as a career jungle gym, with multiple reasonable methods of ascent.

In that light, I don’t think the optimal career for me is nearly as pre-determined as the standard academic track makes it sound. It’s even common in computer science to spend some time in industry before returning to become a professor. And that makes sense: We want to be useful, and taking a peek one stage down the line is probably an effective way to find the important problems that need to be solved. Only in pure math are people who leave effectively “dead,” as Paul Erdos famously lamented.

But it’s also not all about me — it’s about the work that needs doing. One opportunity that intrigues me is a volunteer organization known as DataKind. They strive to connect professional data scientists with nonprofits and governments that have important problems to solve in hackathon-style weekend “data dives.” While the hackathon mentality doesn’t especially appeal to me (I prefer to do things well than fast), they do have a Singapore chapter that advertises, “While Singapore is a wealthy nation, many countries in the region are still developing, which means there is a robust nonprofit sector working to provide support.” Maybe this is the Norman Borlaug-inspired option.

If I find that I want to stay in academia after all, the universities in Singapore are also not too shabby. The newest one, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, actively collaborates with MIT, bringing professors and students to teach there to help them get off the ground. I don’t have any reason to take those particular teaching opportunities up, but in the case I have research that I want to continue to pursue after grad school (and probably a postdoc), SUTD or NUS (National University of Singapore) would be pretty good fits.

All of that said, it’s still intimidating for a lifetime student like me to step out into the wild unknown of some kind of job search, and narrowing my location preferences to the other side of the world just makes it that much harder. (Of course, I will be graduating before Grace, so I still have a job search in Boston first.) I may have vague ideas at this point of what I could do, but it’s telling that I still noticed that the online Art of Problem Solving courses are taught at 7:30am in Singapore, leading me to suggest that at worst I could just teach online regularly.

Which brings me back to my original observation. I’m still temperamentally a stick-in-the-mud, even if I’m now muddy on both ends for having been picked up and thrown down somewhere else a couple times. This time, there’s still the same reluctance and more uncertainty, but swallowing those worries and stepping out in faith, I would say that yes, I can indeed imagine myself living in Singapore.

4 responses to “Singapore: Could I live there?

  1. John Elder October 8, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Ha! Great image about a stick with muddy ends 🙂
    Data Science is fun.
    Look up Doug Jones in Singapore!
    -John Elder


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