Stepping into Singapore: Blogging about one of the world’s most diverse cultural melting pots

Amanda Etchison (left) and Pallavi Keole at the botanical gardens in Singapore.

Amanda Etchison (left) and Pallavi Keole at the botanical gardens in Singapore. (Credit: Courtesy of Pallavi Keole)

The humid heat seeping through the retractable walls of the jet bridge was the first change we observed as we exited the plane in Singapore. Despite it being a little past 2 a.m. local time, the darkened air was heavy with moisture. Steam hovered above the pavement beneath the aircraft’s wings, a ghostly gray mass illuminated by the bright runway lights.

The tropical atmosphere of our southeast Asian destination was a far cry from the chilling winds we left behind in Cincinnati, but the climatic variations were just the first of many differences we discovered during our 10-day adventure.

About our trip

A view of the Singapore skyline. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

A view of the Singapore skyline. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

Singapore is an island city-state located in Southeast Asia at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. The country is situated one degree above the equator. Establishing itself as an independent nation in 1965, Singapore is now considered a hub of modernity and a multicultural melting pot. With a population of 5.54 million people (as of June 2015), Singapore is home to a variety of cultures that coexist within a city approximately 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.

My roommate-turned-travel-partner and I initially proposed this trip as an artistic and creative experience. As a student majoring in journalism, I intended to try my hand at travel writing and photography.

During our 10-day trip, we hoped to explore the diverse streets that make up a cosmopolitan nation that is both rich in history and alive with new ideas and innovations.

Travel transformations

Mint tea from Arab Street in Singapore. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

Mint tea from Arab Street in Singapore. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

After several days spent roaming around Singapore with a DSLR camera around my neck, snapping photos of street vendors, architectural details and anything else that passed in front of my lens, I became fascinated with the cultural eccentricities that surrounded me.

This trip to Singapore marked the first time I had ever traveled abroad to an overseas destination, and, although English is one of the main languages spoken in the country, the

Mee siam in Singapore. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

Mee siam in Singapore. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

unfamiliarity of a foreign city still required a great deal of pre-planning each day.

As my roommate and I researched destinations, requested directions and attempted to master the Mass Rapid Transit system, we celebrated small victories every day. We rewarded ourselves with ice cream if we managed to make it to a park without getting lost. We budgeted our money to ensure we weren’t overspending, and looked for authentic, local eateries that provided good, filling food for a fraction of the cost of international chains.

The White Rainbow bridge in Singapore's Chinese Gardens. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

The White Rainbow bridge in Singapore’s Chinese Gardens. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

By the end of our 10-day journey, we felt comfortable navigating the streets at any time of day or night. We memorized the important transfer stops on the subway and laughed as we attempted to pronounce their names in Mandarin and Malay.

Now that I have experienced traveling around a foreign city on my own without a local guide or instructor to follow, I feel that I have gained problem-solving skills that are applicable to everday situations back home. I have learned to plan ahead, make necessary arrangements and do my research and be open to flexible solutions to unanticipated problems.

Had I not had the opportunity to practice these skills during our Singapore trip, I might not have been able to truly make the most of other transformative experiences I have had this year, such as traveling to Japan on a scholarship for 10 days or living on my own and working in Phoenix, Arizona, for three months this past summer.

Not only did this trip help me gain the confidence I needed to face challenges and work through problems on my own, it introduced me to a fascinating island country that prides itself on its intercultural identity.

I was adopted from China when I was five months old, and I have often struggled with defining and accepting my distinct cultural identity. I feel very connected to my adoptive family, yet I have tried to make an effort to understand elements of my native culture as well. This desire led me to choose the major of Chinese as a secondary area of study while at Ohio State, and it also influenced my decision to travel to an East Asian country as a student in STEP.

My time in Singapore granted me the opportunity to truly see how different cultures can coexist and enhance the rich diversity of a nation. Seeing the easy flow of languages, the cuisine that mixed elements of a variety of traditional cooking styles and the widespread acceptance and celebration of others’ unique traits inspired me to wholeheartedly embrace my background.

Indeed, Singapore takes national pride in being a country of many voices, faces and beliefs. While in America it seems that these differences often divide the population and cause stress, anxiety and anger, in Singapore, it is almost the exact opposite. Our visit to Singapore showed me that acceptance of things that might be foreign or strange at first isn’t something we should fear. I fully intend to continue to explore my personal cultural history with this mindset moving forward.

Reporting back upon return

Amanda Etchison on the White Rainbow Bridge in Singapore's Chinese Gardens. (Credit: Pallavi Keole)

Amanda Etchison on the White Rainbow Bridge in Singapore’s Chinese Gardens. (Credit: Pallavi Keole)

With suitcases packed full of souvenir chopsticks, fabrics and porcelain cat figures, we disembarked from a 13-hour flight across miles of ocean and land. With smiles and hugs, we were welcomed back to Ohio by our families, who were patiently waiting for us by the rotating baggage claim in Cincinnati’s airport.

As we prepared to bundle up for the cold — something we hadn’t needed to think about for more than week in Singapore’s balmy 90-degree climate — we reflected on our experiences between jet-lagged yawns.

We came back from halfway around the world with more than just an album of photos. Our trip taught us that it is okay to go off the beaten path every once in a while; that eating where locals eat, even if it means trying dishes that you’ve never heard of before, is usually the best way to learn about local culture; and that asking for help is perfectly okay.

We learned that planning ahead is a necessity, yet spontaneous discoveries are what you will ultimately remember. We discovered the value of having a curious spirit, of diving head first into new experiences and of analyzing situations with an open mind.

A view of Singapore's skyline at night. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

A view of Singapore’s skyline at night. (Credit: Amanda Etchison)

Our trip to Singapore introduced us to new foods, new languages and new people. We gained skills that will help us through life’s unexpected twists and turns, as well as some that are of a more technical nature (i.e., how to take a well-composed photo and write compelling blog posts).

But most of all, we learned that this trip is just the beginning. We can’t wait to explore more of the world and do it all over again.

READ MORE: Stepping into Singapore Blog