The time has passed so quickly yet not at all. That’s how semesters go, as birds soaring past the sun, as feathers dragging in the wind. You have flinched during thunderstorms, studied for essays, sweated gallons from your upper lip alone. Intimidated, you still haven’t tried to use any clause-final discourse particles— you’d feel silly, like a poser. The farthest you’ll get in using anything vaguely Singlish is replying to yes/no questions with “can.” You’ve discovered that the best way to deal with a non-air conditioned bedroom is to minimize any and all movement, to lie on the floor (hot air rises) a defeated corpse-like perspiration ghoul. Soft groaning can help alleviate the agony of melting, as it allows you to sound how you feel.
Moving into a twentieth-story single room with large, unscreened windows, you – being the morbid lunatic you are – immediately wonder how long it will take before you jump. You wonder for the thousandth time if maybe you should get help. You decide you’ll live. The study abroad experience has been so hyped by school and peers and media that you cannot help but almost believe in the magic of it. You joke to your friends back home that you will stumble into achieving zen and falling in love. As you begin to adjust in the following weeks, you wonder if you’re even capable of either, much less both.
After watching people carve out their time abroad, infinity pool pictures and bro-ing galore, you begin to wonder if the problem is you, if the only reason you’re not having the experience you’re supposed to have is because you haven’t tried hard enough, because you haven’t been enough. Impulsive historical tributes and late night rooftop shenanigans are just a few stories. You slip yourself into spontaneous decisions, after each of which you wait for something mind-blowing, life-changing to happen. You are disenchanted every time. You feel for weeks – months, even – that you just haven’t seen or done or Eat-Pray-Love’d enough. You are looking for things filtered past a camera lens.
The sheer privileged ridiculousness of viewing the chance to have fun as a burden gnaws at you. Yet you continue, dissatisfied, dragging yourself through simulations of closeness and adventure, of discovery and intimacy. Someone tells you that if you smile long enough, you’ll begin to feel happy more often. An intentional self-deception, he advocates. All of your teeth are on display, but your jaw has started to ache.
Surrounded by slender, social smiles, you fall back into habits you had never imagined would return. You fill your days with lemon cough drops and waves of mania. Zen has never seemed farther, and love is adulterated by reality. You leave the spurt on your wall and the crust on your phone as reminders, warnings. You are a shroud, and Penelope is unraveling her weaving.
You shake yourself from the boozy stupor of regret, exploring bookstores and cafes, fully indulging in how entirely millennial it all is. Roaming through fresh shops with succulent-lined walls proclaiming quirky mantras gives a strange sense of familiarity, lacks the embarrassment that comes with gawking at new places and people. Gentrification is attractive, and you are a customer. The quiet attached to being alone is rejuvenating, inspiring. You sit on your wide windowsill in the navy night and start writing poems again. You begin a true crime podcast and do sit-ups for the entire episode. You rediscover artists you loved and dance feverishly on your own.
Notorious for its intense academic culture, Singapore is a land of all-nighters and fourth meals. You come in thinking you’ll learn how to study, that there’s some trick to unbridled success. In lecture, you sit between two studious looking characters, one furiously typing at her computer. You look closer at her screen; you listen to the professor; you look closer at her screen; you listen to the professor. She is writing down every single word the professor says. Baffled, you look to your right. This comrade is diligently copying and pasting the contents of every lecture slide into a word document, as if mindless redundancy will lead to enlightenment. You decide these tactics are beyond you.
After your first ever (and hopefully only) all-nighter, you drag yourself out of Starbucks, your body tingling, the birds singing their morning song. You are so disoriented, it takes three tries for you to get the lift to take you where you want to go. In an effort to build teamwork skills, Singapore assigns you three consecutive group papers, confirming that they are indeed the worst assignment possible. You are shocked that you have any hair left on your head after submissions are complete.
As time trucks on, you begin to notice and learn the difference between feeling familiar and no longer feeling foreign. In fact, you have never felt more American than now, where you are forced to admit your country’s actions and decisions and observe them with others in mind, but while you are mentally pulled into your identity, you have physically adapted to the landscape. People have begun to ask you for directions on the MRT, and you develop a strange ability to sense storms. Becoming comfortable in a space as an outsider proves to be its own sort of enlightenment. Singapore is not your home – you are under no delusions – but you have learned to walk in flip flops in the rain.
It is a difficult movement to take, a determined lifting of each foot, a tentative lowering of slippery soles. Any break in concentration may prove the end of you. Every unexpected slide of your foot reminds you that no, you have not mastered this. You may never master it, but you press on. You have places to go, and – as both your twin flame and your mother informed you – Asians don’t wear rain boots.
The last time you were in this country, you were not yet two years old. You are now nearly twenty, and Singapore has given you stories and memories beyond cloth diapers. Four months has simultaneously been just enough and not at all, and you imagine where things could have gone if you were here for more while you begin planning your summer at home. Singapore has taught you that things are worth trying for, regardless of outcome, that stories often happen on their own, that lessons manifest themselves gently.
You do not know if you have achieved zen. Perhaps you have fallen in love. You have hung every limb outside of your windows simultaneously, but you have not jumped. You have lain on your floor too many times; you have hopped around your room like a frog; you probably should have lowered your blinds more often. Singapore is magnificent, a flower from a long-dead crown, with resilience and ambition unexpected from an island cut off. It bids farewell just as it said hello— with a few more mosquito bites, which will swell and fade into spots that will last well into the next year.
This is part of a collection of writing about my time in Singapore (and surrounding countries). For visual documentation of my adventures there, follow me on Instagram @mayisrad.
Some of my favorite spots:
Group Therapy Coffee
The Book Cafe
The Reading Room
Littered with Books
Jing Hua Xiao Chi
Tong Heng Pastries
Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe