Travelling is part and parcel of many Singaporeans' lives. However, most of the time many of us would travel with someone we know. For me, I usually travel with my wife and friends. However, in my latest travel adventure, I travelled with someone who I did not know before the trip. It was a three-week-long exchange program in the United States. A total of 15 participants from 13 countries were represented. For a small city-state, Singapore was represented by two of us.
I met this friend of my mine (which I can now call a friend - after three-week in the US together) on the flight from Singapore to Seoul (for transit). We had e-met each other through email and What’s App before the trip, however, we didn’t even bother to meet at the boarding gate, as after all, we didn’t know each other although we were aware we were taking the same flight. While looking for my seats, I had passed through his seats and we recognized each other through the display photo of our WhatsApp profile.
In Seoul, upon arriving at the airport, we then decided to just walk together to our departure gate for our next flight. That is where we started to form a bond as Singaporeans, going to a foreign land, for a program organized by a foreign government. Representing Singapore, we need to be professional in making an impression of our country. We realized it would be good to stick together.
However, beyond the professionalism of representing Singapore, we also bonded over many things while in the US. It was indeed my first time travelling with someone I didn’t know before a trip and travelling someone who was not of my faith and ethnic community for three weeks. He’s Chinese, and I’m Malay. While the program exposed us to people of other nationalities and the American way of life, what I learned the most was what it means to be Singaporean abroad.
Here are 5 key things I learned from this trip:
1. Singaporean Identity is The Strongest
During the trip, there were many moments where we're required to introduce ourselves. I realized when I introduced myself, what matters the most was the fact that I was there as a Singaporean. Even when we were outside of the official program hour, when we met with other participants, I felt it was my Singaporean identity that was the strongest.
While identity is fluid and situational, and we all have multiple identities in our lives. I am also a Muslim, and of Malay ethnicity, with a mix of Chinese and Pakistani heritage. However, when I was in the US, it was not my Muslim identity that was the strongest, even when I was surrounded by several other Muslims from other countries. Similarly, when trying to make conversation with participants from China and Pakistan, I would highlight my ancestral heritage from these two regions - however, what I was more keen to highlight the fact that I am Singaporean. I found more affinity with my fellow Singaporean travel companion than others - even though I could have related to them using my religious and ethnic identities.
Our American host can only identify us as Singaporeans. There were several instances where they called him Ridhwan (my name) and called me by his name. For them, we are just Singaporeans. That’s the identity they recognized us with, and over there we also recognized ourselves as just Singaporeans.
This is something I learned on this trip. In Singapore, we tend to see each other as either Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others. However, when we attend programs such as this overseas, we can just see each other as Singaporeans regardless of what our ethnic or religious groups are. Foreigners also see as Singaporean. They do not see us as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others Singapore. Just Singaporeans! Indeed, there is something unique about the identity that made us Singaporeans and therefore people identify us as such and that brought me to my next point.
2. Singlish Is Our ‘Language’
Officially, we know that Bahasa Melayu (Malay Language) is the official language of Singapore. That explains our National Anthem and the official salutes in our uniformed groups. However, what exactly is the common language spoken by Singaporeans? In the past, Malay used to be the lingua franca, but today it is no longer the common language where everybody can understand.
While having a deep conversation in English, we were struck by one question by a fellow participant from Pakistan. She asked, “Why do you both speak in English, and not in your local language?”. We looked at each other and looking for how to answer that. I then said, “if we were to speak in our local language, we may not be able to understand each other.” He understands a bit of Malay and I understand a little Mandarin. However, we are so used to speaking in English and that is somehow the common language we both can understand. He added to her “we have our version of English, which we called ‘Singlish’ but if we speak in the US, people will not be able to understand us”. The Pakistanis, of course, were shocked that indeed it was common for Singaporeans to communicate in English. It also demonstrates that for them, Singapore is one. They did not see us as two people coming from different ethnicities, having different mother tongues.
We realized though, how much we have been relying on the English language in our day-to-day conversation. We then tried to speak a mix of Malay, Mandarin, and English, and that made both of us felt a bit at home. Thanks to the nudge from the Pakistani!
3. Food Is In Our DNA
It is said that food is the ingredient that binds people together. People who do not know each other can easily bond over common food interest. What’s more for two people who have so much in common! I realized that our common need for good food is probably one of the strongest reasons why we stick together for most parts of our three-week exchange program.
Whenever it’s mealtime, we tend to look for each other and will do research online on where’s the best place to eat and enjoy good meals. While we also tried to have meals with other participants, we realized they are not as foodies as us Singaporeans. We have tried asking everybody if they were keen to join, apparently most of the time, we ended up just having meals just two of us. Though subsequently, others decided to join us - and they agreed we Singaporeans have a good taste for good food!
In choosing the right place for our meals, there is a dietary requirement that I observe as a Muslim. However, my dietary needs are no way an impediment for me to have a good meal with my non-Muslim friend. At the same time, I also do not want to impose to always go for places with a halal sign. They were not that many in the cities and areas we stayed, therefore the next best option was to dine at places that serve vegetarian and/or seafood meals. It was not hard to find it, and most of the time we managed to eat at places where we both can enjoy. My non-Muslim friend can eat whatever he wishes, and I can order what suits my dietary. Once, we went to a burger joint called Wahlburger, co-owned by Mark Wahlburg which offers impossible burger. I don’t take red meat, not due to religious reasons. But having the option to eat Impossible meat burger was indeed one of the best! In many other places, I could find seafood/vegetarian pasta and pizzas.
Being real foodies from Singapore, we did our research on the best places to eat. We relied on TripAdvisor and a few other food review apps. One of the best eating places we went to was the Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips in Las Vegas. It was so good, the best fish and chips that I’ve tried. They mentioned that there is no alcohol used in the preparation of the meal and my opinion it is Muslim-friendly enough for my dietary.
However, the best place that we went for food was in Boston. When it comes to Boston, of course, it is about the Lobster! Yes, we had the Boston Lobster, in Boston! We went there with our Egyptian, the Canadian and French friend. Three of us were Muslims and two were not. So, when we decided to share a platter, we found out it contains bacon. Our two non-Muslim friends gladly mentioned that they can do without the bacon for the platter. However, we enquired if the bacon can be provided separately from the shared platter. Of course, the restaurant offered that. Bingo! All is good with everyone! And yes the Lobster was so good that I still feel its tastiness till this very day! Yet, that was not the best part of the meal. The best part of the meal was the fact that people of various nationalities, cultures, and religion can eat with one another, without having to compromise on our dietary and food choices was the highlight of such experience!
Indeed, when we gather to have a meal with one another, there will be so many things that we can talk about and get to know each other closely. Personally, for me, almost the daily meals I had with my non-Muslim friend provided interesting insights for me to know him, my fellow Singaporean better. And of course, we have so much in common than our differences. Having a makan-kaki like him was indeed a pure bliss, especially in a foreign land. Now that we are both back in Singapore, I will try to have the meal sessions occasionally when we both are free from the hectic work life in Singapore. Food indeed brings people together!
4. 'FOMO' is what we are
Singaporeans are generally known as 'kiasu'. I was called a 'kiasi' back in secondary school and of course, was not proud of it. Today, we have this term of ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO. While FOMO is often seen negatively, in this trip FOMO led to productivity as I managed to maximize my time in the States to visit places that matter.
With my Singaporean friend, we planned our itinerary so it suits the official program schedule. Most of the days, our programs ended around 5 pm. Therefore, we would plan such that we get to go to as many important places before sunset at 9 pm. For example, when we were in DC, we checked on museums’ closing time and planned the route to get to the museums daily after the program ended. In Las Vegas where we were quite bored as don’t gamble, we managed to google and find interesting museums around. We also planned carefully on the places of interest we can go when we were in Vegas, and as typical Singaporeans, it must need to be shopping. We found a premium outlet near our hotel and went there early on Sunday morning to get the best deals. That is indeed being Singaporeans!
In Boston, where we spent only four days, we even went out early at 6 am every day. We took the opportunities to go to important landmarks in the morning before the program starts at 10 am. In that way, we managed to cover the places we wanted to visit and optimizing our time for this trip.
I was so lucky that indeed another fellow Singaporean is also just like me in FOMO-ing while overseas! As usual, we invited others to join, but probably only us - two Singaporeans who care to check-in to places we want to visit as tourists! This is where I realized, we do have a uniquely Singaporean identity and the other countries participants even called us that - “you two Singaporeans”. I admit probably not many Singaporeans share this FOMO habit as we did, but I was glad we both had the same interest.
5. Out of Many, One Singapore
This travel experience made me realize that as a nation we have come so far in building a nation where many of us can call home. While we may not appreciate the bond we have with fellow Singaporeans daily, it is when we are out of Singapore that we realized how close we are as Singaporeans. There is a distinct Singaporean identity that we all have that define us as Singaporeans.
While we may still be categorized according to our racial categories in Singapore, there is something larger that binds us all together. Being Singaporean is what I gained most from this trip. There is no other stronger identity that I would want to define me when I’m overseas, except to proudly identify myself as Singaporean.
Started as traveling with a stranger, someone I did not know, who was different from me, yet in reality, he was not exactly a stranger or different in the ways I would have thought. We returned home to Singapore, together, not as strangers, but as friends with a deep respect for one another. We also learned a lot about our respective cultures and traditions. We helped one another in our travel, and took care of our respective belongings in the airport, including once where I was looking for a place to do my prayer.
Indeed, we have so much in common and that is where I realized how out of many, we are one Singapore. They said that, if you want to know someone, you should travel with them. Indeed, I had that opportunity. Through traveling with a fellow Singaporean of different ethnicity and faith, I rekindled my identity and found the larger meaning of being a Singaporean.
Ustaz Ridhwan Mohd Basor is a member of the Asatizah Youth Network in Singapore. You can follow him on his Facebook and Instagram profiles for more interesting stories about travel, as well as his work with the AYN.