I think I mentioned this back when I was doing the Proust Questionnaire, but I’ll bring it up again. The best part of any trip, to my mind, is when I come home again. There’s just something about the closure of unpacking everything and resetting it to where you were before you left that is calming. It says, “Okay – that’s done now. Back to what we were doing.”And I know that any trip to somewhere new should be transformative in nature. If you go somewhere and don’t learn anything, then there really wasn’t any good reason to go there. But not every trip is going to be a Baggins-level Learning Experience, and you won’t always come home to find that the world looks smaller or that they aren’t the person they thought they were. Nine times out ten, you’ll just be happy to be home again, and it is that feeling that I enjoy most when I travel.
That being said, I’m certainly glad I went to Singapore, both for professional and personal reasons. I was sent there to attend a workshop for the International Baccalaureate program (henceforth known as IB), which I will start teaching in April. Specifically, I’ll be teaching English Literature, and it seemed kind of important that I have a vague idea of what I’m supposed to be doing. The teacher I’m replacing gave be a general overview, but it was nice to have a more specific, detailed look at it from people who’ve been doing this for a very long time.
While I still have questions about what it is I’ll be doing, at least I’m sure that they’re the right questions to ask. In some cases, they are important questions that I couldn’t have known to ask had I not gone to this workshop.In a nutshell, it’s this – I get to teach up to thirteen texts to my students over the course of a year and a half, and my goal is to make sure the kids can pass the very rigorous and specific assessment tasks that the IB has set. I’m not sure how well I’ll do by them in my first go at the course, but I do know there’s a wealth of resources and expertise I can go to if I get stuck. The main take-away was something that I learned pretty early on in my teaching career: Assume nothing and cover your ass. As long as I can do that, I should be able to get through with minimal catastrophic damage to either myself or my students.
Singapore itself is a strange, complex, interesting city-state that needs far more time than I was able to give to it. Since I was busy during the day and tired when I got done, I didn’t have quite the energy or time to do a lot of exploring, but even so, I was able to get a taste of the variety of life that makes Singapore such a fascinating place.
The most overwhelming feeling I had was that I didn’t know nearly enough about Singapore when I went there. By that I mean its history, its current politics, its culture – you know, the important things. I knew that spitting on the sidewalk and chewing gum were both forbidden, and that drug smuggling could get you hanged, but there was a constant undercurrent to the place that I just couldn’t put my finger on.My hotel was near Chinatown, so that’s where I spent a lot of my time, and if you stay there then your take-away image of Singapore is that it’s overwhelmingly Chinese. It didn’t help that the celebrations for the Lunar New Year were getting under way, so there were Chinese decorations up everywhere you look. The shop owners and the restaurateurs enjoy having the slightly bewildered and out-of-place tourists in their hands…
But then you look more closely – a lot of those restaurants and food stalls are Thai or Indian or Indonesian or Malaysian or Japanese. You look more closely at the people, and they clearly come from all over Southeast Asia. I found myself wondering what a “Native Singaporean” person looks like or sounds like, and then wondered if there even was such a thing – and if it would matter if there were.
The other part of the city that I spent some time in was the Singapore River park near Marina Bay. Aside from reminding me a lot of the Riverwalk in Providence, RI, it was an interesting contrast to Chinatown. The riverside park was just as noisy, just as crowded after dark, but in a different way. Here, the tourists were in charge, occupying the open-air bistros and bars, moseying along the sidewalks and taking photos of the skyscrapers, the Merlion, and each other.The place where I spent the most time, oddly enough, was a gay bar. I say “oddly enough” because in the regular course of life, I don’t go to bars in general, and I’ve have mixed experiences with gay bars specifically. The Backstage Bar is in Chinatown, and is a nice, comfortable place to go have a drink. The staff are friendly and quite adept at getting conversation going. It’s not loud or clubby, and while they do charge a bit more for their drinks than you might like, it’s still easy to spend a couple of hours there. I met a British man who works in Saudi Arabia and was in the city on holiday. I talked with the young guy behind the bar, who was saving up to go on a ski vacation in Japan, and I was educated about the current events in Chinatown by a man who could best be thought of as the social coordinator of the bar – he wandered from person to person, making sure everyone was welcome and trying to get conversations going whenever possible.
As someone who doesn’t usually do well in social situations with strangers, I felt oddly comfortable. That’s something I’d definitely like to keep with me from this trip.Singapore all seems like a work in progress, despite it being a city with a history going back nearly 2,000 years. It’s a different sort of mystery than Japan, which is where everyone seems to know all the rules but they just aren’t telling you. In this place, it’s like the city is an emergent process, built by the individual actions of millions of people trying to find a life that makes them happy. Whatever comes out of that process is what Singapore is.
Or I could be wrong. A weekend in the country doesn’t exactly make one an expert. But it’s the image of Singapore that I came away with, and not a bad one to have.
Tomorrow I go back to work. Let Real Life resume once more…