National Day, Classes, and Texas

A few weeks ago was Singapore National Day. National Day, a celebration of Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, is one of Singapore’s biggest holidays. The entire city comes together at Marina Bay to watch an enormous parade, dances, and one of the most magnificent fireworks displays in the world. In addition to the National Day festivities, it was also Rag & Flag day, the day when all of the faculties from the university come together to promote charity by performing dances and constructing floats.

The actual event consists of two parts: Rag, which is a day when club members fill the streets of Singapore asking for donations for various charities, and Flag, a series of performances and dances. The event is also a competition, with the best performing group receiving first place. Over the course of the past several weeks, I have been seeing many of the practice performances and groups working late into the night to prepare their floats, but I still didn’t expect to see the amount of preparation and dedication that was shown during the real performances.

On Tuesday morning we met up near our residences to catch a shuttle bus down to Marina Bay (the waterfront near downtown where all of the festivities were occurring). As soon as we got off the bus we were ushered into a small field where temporary grandstands and a large stage had been erected. Directly in front of us was the bay, and across the bay was The Float. The Float is a very interesting structure to me. Because good real estate around the bay is scarce, the city planners decided to construct something similar to a stadium floating in the bay. The grandstands are built on dry land, facing the water, while an enormous floating platform sits in the water only meters away. The Float is where all of the main National Day events were happening. The seating area gave us a beautiful view of the bay, the central business district, the Marina Bay Sands, the Flyer, and the waterfront.

We managed to grab some fantastic seats because we were a little early, but being early also meant we had to sit and wait awhile for the performances to start. The sun was brutal, but we all brought umbrellas and huddled inside our own bubble of shade. While we were waiting, a random group of students came on stage and started singing some slow rock songs. I don’t think they were part of the planned performances, and they weren’t that great, but at least they were a little distracting from the heat and humidity.

The performances were amazing. There were at least 20 different groups that performed, and each one was so different from the other that it is difficult to describe what they were like. I managed to grab a few pictures, but they don’t really capture how great the dances all were. Most of them incorporated storylines about the battle between good and evil or a love story. The performance from the School of Design and Environment, for example, was about the industrialization of Singapore and environmental pollution. Each performance included a dance that ranged from five to fifteen minutes long, and a parade float that was wheeled onto the stage and used as a prop for each dance. Some of the dance crews were as large as 50+ people, making the performances that much more impressive. It was clear that not only did these students care a lot about making Flag a roaring success, but they also spent a large part of the past month preparing.

The floats were just as impressive as the dances. Each float was built on top of a pickup truck and had to be driven into the event one at a time. They all were elaborately decorated and some of them even included machines that moved individual parts of the float. One float in particular had a giant mechanical spider that began moving in the middle of a performance, causing uproar in the crowd.

After Flag, we stayed seated in the grandstands so that we could watch the National Day events. The stage at Flag also had a giant television screen that was showing the telecast of the National Day Parade. Situated right on the edge of the bay, our seats also gave us some of the best seats possible to see the fireworks.

The parade was fantastic, although it was a little strange to me because of the emphasis put on military power. Even in America, where we have one of the strongest military forces in the world, we don’t celebrate July 4th by rolling tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue. They’re very proud of their military in Singapore, though. They’re proud about everything, actually, and they should be. The island of Singapore was little more than a third-world country only 60 years ago. Singapore has turned into one of the world’s largest financial and industrial centers in less than one generation. Many people here personally witnessed the transition from rags to riches, making the atmosphere of the event that much more electrifying.

The parade began with a showcase of military technology. We were sitting in a prime position to watch Seahawk, Chinook, and Apache helicopters fly overheard, and several Singaporean Navy vessels zipped past us in the bay. On The Float, tanks and armed troops were marching for the crowd. During the entire showcase, a video performance was playing on the television screens. It was a bizarre video of a young buy dreaming of being a military commander during a series of threats to Singaporean shores. But being a complete nerd about helicopters and airplanes, I was totally digging it.

The showcase ended with a Chinook pulling an enormous Singaporean flag through the sky while the national anthem played in the background. The anthem, titled “Majulah Singapura!” (Malay for “Onward, Singapore!”) was beautiful. Fun fact about it, though: it is illegal to sing the anthem in any language other than Malay.

After the anthem there was a live performance celebrating Singapore’s lightning-fast rise to power. It included a lot of narratives about Singapore’s history and was incredibly interesting to watch. Some of the performances were a little strange, though, with things like people dressed up as milk cartons dancing on the stage. Again, however, it was clear that a lot of preparation and dedication went into these performances. It reminded me a lot of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

After the performances ended it was finally dark enough for the fireworks. Holy crap the fireworks. I am an absolute sucker for a good firework show, and this was by far the best I have ever seen in my entire life. The fireworks were launched from a barge floating in the middle of the bay, putting us extremely close and giving us a view that just couldn’t be beat. I wish I could have gotten some better pictures, but taking pictures of fireworks is difficult and I was a little too busy gawking at the pretty colors to waste time taking pictures. Some of the fireworks were even launched from the top of the skyscrapers nearby. The show was just incredible.

Back to Reality

The first day of class was really uneventful, but I feel like I need to blog about it anyway. Due to schedule weirdness, I only had two classes during my first week, Finance and Chinese.

Finance is good, but nothing special. It is a typical lecture hall of around 400 students. I was slightly surprised because I expected all of the local students to be very focused and taking a lot of notes. I’ve heard plenty about how students here are much more studious than in America and that I would have to spend most of my time in a library to keep up with them. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however, as most of the students in this class were not paying attention. Many were even sleeping.

My Chinese course is completely different. The professor literally jumps up and down around the room while instructing us to repeat Chinese phrases. At some points it sounds like we are in choir class rather than learning another language. If it continues this way, Chinese should actually be a lot of fun to learn. We’re moving extremely fast, which I really like. One of the main reasons I wanted to study abroad is because it would be a great way to learn a new language (which makes it a little strange that I picked an English speaking country to study in). Hopefully by the end of this semester I’ll be able to hold a conversation in Chinese. And who knows, maybe I’ll pick up some other languages from the other exchange students here as well. I’ve already gotten some Russian girls to teach me some Russian phrases!

It’s hard to explain how many times my class schedule has actually changed. I spent several weeks meeting with several departments and professors trying to get approval to take classes I needed/wanted. It was a headache that I’m not going to go into detail about. As of now, I’m taking Chinese, Finance, and a class about the business environment in Southeast Asia.

Last weekend I met a Singaporean who, a few years ago, decided that he wanted to move to America to pursue his studies. He moved to Austin, Texas to attend UT. When he heard that several of us from UT were kicking it in Singapore, he decided to take all of us Longhorns out for a night on the town.

When I came to Singapore, I only knew of 5 Longhorns that would be here at the same time I was: three on exchange from the business school and two locals that I met while they were on exchange at UT last semester. It turns out there are more than 15 of us, six of which are UT students currently on exchange in Singapore, the rest of which are locals that have studied at UT in the past. It was so cool to meet all of them. It’s cool to talk to anyone about UT, actually. I’ve had many people light up and tell me how smart I must be because I go to The University of Texas. It’s awesome. Who doesn’t like to hear it when their school (and their self) is praised?

Anyway, meeting up with all of those Longhorns was a blast. Here I am, thousands and thousands of miles from home, and I run into a huge group of people that just last semester were probably eating at tables only feet away from me in Austin. I’ve always heard about the “McCombs Network” (or whatever we call it) that spans the globe, but I’ve never experienced it firsthand. It’s a real thing though, and it’s awesome. Today I actually saw another person wearing a UT shirt and it made me all giddy. Back home, even when not in Austin, seeing a UT shirt is fairly common. But seeing that distinct burnt orange hue here is like some instant bond. It’s weird, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s cool. It’s really, really cool.

The next day, we went out for lunch at dim sum restaurant at the top of one of the tallest buildings in Singapore. That was amazing. The food was great, the view was stunning, and again, it was awesome to meet more fellow Longhorns. After lunch we toured downtown a little bit. We saw the Marina Bay Sands Casino and even went up to the skypark at the top (it’s a huge park and swimming pool on a platform held up by three skyscrapers). Unfortunately we couldn’t really get any good pictures of the view because of a private event being held.

Dim sum lunch
The view during lunch

We also went to 1-Altitude, a lounge on the roof of the tallest (or second tallest, Wikipedia isn’t sure) skyscraper in Singapore. Now that was a view. We hung out on the roof for awhile and watched the sun set before grabbing dinner.

Watching the sunset from one of the tallest buildings in Singapore

I had to say my goodbyes to several of the Longhorns after dinner because they were heading on a backpacking trip through Indonesia before flying back to Texas for school. It was a weird goodbye, knowing that they were going back to my home while I was staying here in theirs, but it was nice to know that when I return home, we’ll have the chance to meet back up.

I can’t really stress enough how amazing it is to meet people here, halfway across the world, and know that we will remain friends even when I’m back home.

I had the strangest experience with some local students this past week. It was the first (and so far, the only) time I have felt unwelcome as an exchange student in Singapore. I walked into one of my classes to find that the only other people that had arrived yet were another exchange student, and one local student. The local student questioned why and how we exchange students were in this particular class, saying there was no way we had the prerequisite to take the class and that it was a “locals-only course.” Strange, but easy to ignore for now.

The class turned out to only have 23 students in it, of which 9 were on exchange. As far as I know, it’s really unusual for the classes here to have such a high proportion of exchange students, so it was understandable that the local students were a little on edge. I didn’t expect what came next, though. The professor asked the class what we thought were the strengths, weaknesses, etc of the university. One of the locals raised his hand and said “I think there are far too many exchange students here.”

Whoa. Immediate tension.

The professor’s attempt to quell the tension did pretty much the opposite. “Well, uh, I guess I can understand that. Many Singaporeans feel that there are too many foreigners here.” Uhhh, okay.

It didn’t end there. This was a course that required us to form groups for a big group presentation (honestly, what business class these days doesn’t require a group presentation?) and when the professor asked us to form groups, the local students would not come anywhere near the exchange students. Even when asked to diversify the groups to make sure that some groups were not 100% exchange or local students, the groups didn’t mix.

The entire experience was absolutely bizarre for me. Every other interaction I have had with locals has been amazing, and they are always ecstatic to get to know me and I am always eager to get to know them. There was just something about this particular class that made everyone hostile. I don’t know what it was.

I went on a night safari a few nights ago. I saw lions, tigers, leopards, bats, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, monkeys, boars… lots of stuff. There was no fence between me and them (!!!). It was hard to get pictures because it was at night, though. There was also a performance by fire-breathers/eaters. That was really cool.

A lion hangin out
A hyena

My cell phone is all kinds of messed up. I don’t know if the humidity fried some circuits or if an accidental fall down a staircase did it (don’t ask), but my touchscreen sometimes decides to just not work. The left click button on my laptop also broke this week. I’ve needed a new laptop anyway, so I began looking for a new one. I’ve always heard that electronics are cheaper in Asia, so I was eager to find out what kind of deals I could get here.

Deals? Yeah right. The same laptop that would cost me $700 to buy in the U.S. and have shipped to me costs almost $1600 in Singapore. And that’s an “on sale” price. Hopefully when I go to Taiwan or Bangkok I can find some better deals.

I got a haircut today. Terrible, terrible idea. The guy (barber? Hair stylist? I don’t know what to call him) had absolutely no idea what he was doing. I think it was a combination of him just being a terrible barber and the fact that he had probably never touched hair as coarse as mine before. My hair was uneven all over the place and just looked terrible. I ended up borrowing my friend’s hair trimmer and buzzed my head. I hate buzzing my head, but it looks better now than it did a few hours ago… sort of.

Last night I went to a party on the helipad of a skyscraper. Yes, a helipad, 230 meters high, with nothing between me and the sky. It was awesome.

View from the helipad

On another note, do you think I can get the Longhorn Network in Singapore? Serious question. I need my football.

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