Singapore: First 10 Culture Shocks

As an American coming to Singapore for the first time, I was really in for a semi-culture shock. Having lived in both China and America, I truly feel that Singapore exemplifies the perfect balance of both Western and Eastern cultures. Literally walk down to Tanjong Pagar and you will come across towering office buildings on your right and Amoy Food Centre on your left. Despite having done extensive research prior to my arrival, I was not prepared for the culture shock and embarrassment I experienced the very first week I arrived in Singapore. Here were my top 10:

1. Left-side Standing, Right-side Walking

Before I had even left the airport, I already had my first embarrassing moment. Here I was all excited and confident that I knew all about Singapore, only to realize that I was holding up a whole line of agitated locals by standing on the right side of the escalator. That’s RIGHT, it is moreso common in Singapore to stand on left side of the escalator and to walk on the right ride. The fact that I looked local totally didn’t help me in this situation. Lesson learned.

2. Right-side Driver, Left-side Road

Exiting the airport and waiting in line for a taxi, I didn’t really think much of my surroundings, partially because I was also exhausted. It wasn’t until like 5 minutes into the ride that it suddenly hit me – my driver was driving on the right side! Although I have heard of countries that abide to this rule, it was a first time experience for an American like me..eye-opening I would say.

3. You want a slice of PIE?

Heading to my dorm at NTU from Changi, I was given instructions to take the taxi via PIE. So that’s exactly what I told the taxi uncle. “Please take the pie.” He gave me a glance that I could have sworn meant I didn’t hear you. So I repeated, “Please take the pie.” Already he probably was thinking what in the world was this foreigner talking about. Later did I find out, you don’t pronounce PIE as ‘pie,’ but rather as P.I.E. (Pan Island Expressway). Hello Singapore, some period marks would have been helpful.

4. It’s called IKEA, not IKEA

Apparently Americans have been calling IKEA wrong this whole time! Originating from Sweden, the company is pronounced as “ee-kay-uh” and not “eye-kee-ah.” When it comes to grammar and spelling in Singapore, businesses and schools use the British English system. So if you are an American like myself, don’t try to become a grammar nazi and start correcting all your fellow locals’ writing because of their extra u’s.

5. So Damn Shiok!

Yes, Singlish is an actual thing, and one that requires some adjusting to. Not only do many Singaporeans speak quite fast, but their use of Singlish in conversations will also make any foreigner think twice before asking ‘can you repeat that again.’ The best way to learn Singlish is to get the exposure and engage in conversation with the locals. From the typical endings of la, leh, lor, to common slangs like shiok, pai seh, wah lau, even I am still learning after nine months. But don’t worry, your fellow local friends will be kind enough to speak to you in proper English 🙂

6. Where is my Serviette?

One – it’s called a serviette in Singapore, not a tissue. Two – always carry a pack with you. Unlike food centres in other countries, food centres in Singapore don’t offer free tissue paper for you to wipe up after your meal. So don’t be surprised when you ask for tissue paper from the staff and they reply with ‘that will be 30 cents.

7. Food is so CHEAP!

With a plate lunch priced at an average of $5, it is no wonder many Singaporeans would rather eat out than spend the time to cook. Head to the nearest food centre for many local delights! My all time favorites are Bak Kuh Teh, Laksa, Chilli Crab, and Satay not from Newton Food Centre. Also grab some local desserts like Ice Kachang or Muah Chee while you’re at it!!

8. Alcohol is EXPENSIVE!

For all the fellow alcohol lovers out there, I warn you, stock up on your hard liquor before leaving the airport! Purchasing a bottle of alcohol in Singapore is crazy-rich-expensive, going at 2-3 times the actual price. Even drinking a cocktail at a bar can cost you an average of $15! If you are not crazy rich, I would say, buy a cheap bottle before 10:30 PM (cut-off time of liquor sales at stores) and drink in the comfort of your own room.

9. How old are you? Oh, just 26.

As an exchange student at NTU, I was surprised to find out that many of my fellow male classmates would be 2-3 years older than me. While a 22-years-old male student may be graduating from university in the U.S., a 22-years-old male Singaporean is just starting off his first year in university. Why? Because National Service is compulsory in Singapore. Couldn’t have been more grateful to my parents for giving birth to me in the U.S. *kisses*

10. A Truly Multicultural Community

Likewise to what is read in a Singapore guide, Singapore really is a multicultural community. Although largely ethnically Chinese, you will find many Malaysians, Indians, and even Australians. Now that’s a lot of holidays to be grateful for even if you aren’t of such ethnic descent. However, this does not mean racism does not exist! Racist remarks aren’t always spoken out loud, but can be commonly seen through the gestures and actions of some locals. Aside from moving forward as a smart nation, let’s move forward as one nation.

. . .

I am truly grateful for these past nine months in Singapore. From the local friends I had met to the cultural opportunities I had experienced, these nine months really taught me more than any travelogue could have. Which is why I highly recommend every one of my readers to just find the time to travel! Not only will you learn more about the world and its many cultures, but also more about yourself.  

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