Culture Shock 101 from Singapore


Singapore is a beautiful, vibrant, and happening city. But beyond its tourist-friendly veneer lies a distinct culture that is difficult for foreigners to penetrate

One of the reasons I decided to study abroad was because I hated missing out on the dorm experience by living at home. Since my McGill tuition is so cheap ($1,500 a semester), figured it made sense to take advantage of the world-class education it could provide me in my hometown for such a low cost. However, despite the excellent education I was getting, I deeply regretted my decision, as I knew I was missing out on a fundamental part of the college experience.

I always envied my boyfriend for having such a tight-knit group of friends he made and cultivated throughout his nearly three years living on campus at Brown University. I wanted that same kind of tight knit bond myself, that feeling of belonging. I live in Hampstead, a secluded, snobbish, and unfriendly suburb in Montreal that is 45 minutes away from my college and an hour away from my nearest friend’s house (I’ve lived in the same house 16 years and still don’t know any of my neighbors except my parents best friends who live across the street – if that’s not proof of my neighborhood being miserably unfriendly, I don’t know what is). So yes, at least one and a half hours of my day are spent commuting. I yearned to be able to hang out with friends down the hall, instead of at the opposite end of town.

Unfortunately, these dreams were shattered when I got to NUS, for one reason and one reason only: culture shock. The Singaporean students, comprising an overwhelming percentage of the population of NUS, were extremely kind, helpful and welcoming. They were curious about me, and asked interesting questions. However, it was obvious from the very beginning that none of them were interested in genuine friendship, or including me in their exclusively Singaporean cliques.

See, there’s a huge difference between being civil acquaintances, people you can have lovely conversations with at dinner, and people who genuinely make an effort to take your relationship to the next level – meaning, by inviting you to things, asking to hang out again, etc. One thing I notice is that Singaporeans have a distinct culture that seems to automatically exclude foreigners (an expat who would kill me if I named them says that their very proud, nationalistic attitudes does not help their propensity to befriend foreigners). They even have their very own creole dialect, Singlish, a rather complex mix of English, several dialects of Chinese such as Mandarin and Hokkien, Tamil and Malay that foreigners are famous for fumbling with (and yes, Singaporeans love making fun of poor innocent foreigners who attempt Singlish in an effort to fit in). I think this is a shame because I have a great deal of respect and appreciation of Singaporean culture and think Singaporeans seem like so much fun to be around. There’s a difference between “friendly” and “friends.” Singaporeans are quite kind and friendly, but so far none of them have really made it a point to be friends.

Me (right) with my wonderful friends (from left), Shirley and Hanna, on the rooftop infinity pool at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel

Even my boyfriend, who lived in Singapore his entire life but was raised by foreigners and went to the American school, has the “I’m not even gonna bother” feeling when he is in a room full of native Singaporeans, despite the fact that he “looks” the part (he’s ethnically half-Chinese and aesthetically blends very well into Singaporean crowds). When dealing with Singaporeans, he says, they automatically tend to congregate while he is automatically left out. It’s a huge cultural divide. Had I known this, I probably wouldn’t have come here. I came here to make friends and be part of a tight-knit residential college community. Instead, I feel left out, and that little effort is made to make me feel included.

My boyfriend says that I shouldn’t blame myself – Singaporeans hate making the first move, especially with foreigners – but I can’t help but wonder what I could be doing differently to integrate myself better into the Cinnamon Residential College community. I’ve tried inviting people to places but my invitations are always declined and never reciprocated. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a couple of great friends while I’m here, none of which are Singaporean (one of which is my boyfriend’s dad’s Chinese teacher who doesn’t even go to NUS…go figure), but that tight-knit belonging feeling that I so desired for from living in a dorm I never wound up getting. I’m quite disappointed.

I’m not going to lie. Part of this is my fault. During the first two weeks of school, I lived with my boyfriend during his winter break before he went back to the US on January 23rd. I can imagine that a lot of the crucial “meet and greet” events took place during that two-week period I missed. I feel like I came too late to a game of musical chairs, and now am without a place to sit.

A word of advice to all you study abroaders: try the best you can to attend as many of those events as possible!! They mostly happen at the beginning of the semester, so if you miss them you’ll only regret it when it’s too late.

A nighttime shot of the pool at Marina Bay Sands, the hotel where my parents stayed at when they came to visit during my Recess Week

There’s a reason why international students always hang with international students from their own countries… because cultures are so distinct and sometimes hard to penetrate, but it doesn’t have to be this way! I wish to be able to integrate myself into a group of Singaporeans, live the Singaporean lifestyle for a bit, go to their parties, eat their food, go shopping with them at their malls…I wish to be able to see the world through Singaporean eyes, as this is the reason why I came here, to experience another culture, to have new cultural experiences, to open my mind and perception to a different worldview. I hope with time my efforts will bear fruit.

Culture shock is not something that can cure itself with time. In youth, maybe – I know a girl who moved here from Australia when she was a kid who fits in very well with her Singaporean friends (she even has the accent down perfectly) – but not as an adult. Even my boyfriend’s dad, who has lived in Singapore for thirty years, didn’t seem to integrate himself into a Singaporean “clique,” and instead spends his days at the American Club interacting mostly with expats just like him. (Disclaimer: I don’t know whether or not this is by choice).

Anyone have any advice on how to transcend culture shock and become good friends with the locals?


Submitted by Alexandra, Abroad101 Global Ambassador in Singapore