“Next time, use a blue pen or a black pen.”
We’ve already been through five of these checkpoints in as many months and by far the stentorian greeting that awaits me at immigration in Singapore is the least welcoming of any place we’ve been. Far from a warm welcome, I think I’ve just been issued a warning, and a frigid one at that.
I can’t honestly say I’m surprised; the solemn reprimand I have received only reinforces many of the stereotypes of Singapore that I’ve brought with me. We’ve all heard the rumors that this place is uptight, prizing a strict adherence to its infamously numerous rules, punishing harshly those that deviate from them. In a place where it’s illegal to purchase chewing gum without a prescription and heterosexual oral sex was only legalized 6 years ago, I was clearly dancing with the devil when I filled out my arrival card in green ink. I should just be relieved that the stony immigration agent has decided to overlook my flagrant flouting of the rules and allowed a risky ne’er-do-well who writes in whatever color ink she cares to into this hallowed nation.
If you want to know the truth, I am perhaps less than enthused to be in Singapore. Having just finished up three weeks in Taiwan, I’m more than a little worried that—adherence to fussy rules aside—Singapore won’t really have much new to offer us as a destination. I have nothing factual to base my fears on, but I have gotten it into my head that Singapore is just going to be treading now familiar ground, that it will essentially be a sterile Hong Kong run with all the inflexibility that was igniting my contrarian streak and turning me pugnacious by the end of our time in Japan. While full-blown chaos is not exactly what I crave, I don’t relish the thought of spending more time in a country where hotels make you sit in the lobby for five minutes because check in is at noon and you have had the gall to arrive at 11:55 am or when you go to send a package home the person manning the desk at the post office refuses to process it until you have enumerated on the customs form exactly how many pieces of candy you are sending to your loved ones.
[Those are real examples of things that actually happened to us while we were in Japan, by the way. I’m not nearly so creative or perverse as to make that kind of stuff up…]
Don’t get me wrong, there are things that I am genuinely excited about for our time in Singapore and we have the best possible reason to be here: Chris, one of my good friends and former lab-mates from graduate school now lives and works here and we’ll be staying with him. Because of Chris, I have always known that we would spend some time in Singapore, but ever since our itinerary broke down two months into this odyssey, I had no idea when exactly that would be. When Singapore proved to be the cheapest destination from Taiwan and with the Christmas holidays on the horizon, which Chris happily informed us he would be celebrating on this side of the globe rather than back home in the States, it was clear where we would be heading next.
So here we are in Singapore, and without having even officially been in the country I’ve already been chastised and I am worried.
As we walk through the airport, I am on high-alert, trying to detect any other stereotypes that will prove true. In particular, I want to see whether all the effusive praise we’ve heard from fellow travelers about the technological wonderland that is the airport is justified. Certainly the building is modern and clean, but I can’t honestly say that it seems any more impressive than the one we have flown out of in Taipei where Tony whiled away our time waiting at the gate by playing a violent first-person shooter game on the complimentary Playstation 3s and I dozed in a reclining lounge chair. Whither art thou free hot showers? And you, massage chairs and personal media devices? Perhaps just the subject of hyperbolic myth? Alas, the water fountains bedecked with signs proudly declaring the water here is potable is as fancy as things get, though after months without being able to drink safely from the tap, that’s probably a more useful perk than a robot butler, but I am still mildly disappointed to not have my mind blown.
My brain gets enough of a work out, however, when it comes time to navigate the labyrinthine terminals (that are largely devoted to shops and restaurants—apparently the airport kind of doubles as a mall and Singaporeans will actually come here even when they aren’t traveling anywhere just to grab a meal and buy some stuff) in search of the mass rapid transit system that will get us into the city proper. In a glaring error, all signs direct us to Terminal 3 in order to catch the train, but naturally one cannot purchase the easylink cards that make riding the trains cheaper at this location. So we retrace our steps and schlep ourselves back over to Terminal 2 before we are finally on our way. I am surprised that a place like Singapore that seems to revel in the details would make it such an ordeal to simply get on the subway, but then I remember: this may be Singapore, but it’s also still Asia.
Having spent this much time in Asia, my hygiene standards have relaxed considerably—generally if I’m not seeing kids squatting in the streets or being held above a garbage can as they void their bowels then I say we’re doing ok. Plus, this is Singapore where the sidewalks are meant to sparkle and just the thought of littering likely comes with a fine, so surely there is nothing to fear. Yet as I take my seat on the MRT and take in the signs emphatically forbidding a variety of activities (eating, smoking, drinking, transporting durian…), I can’t help but notice that this train is far from gleaming. It’s not dirty in any obvious ways—there’s no trash strewn about, nothing is broken—but it definitely feels careworn and rides the edge between unremarkable and disreputable shabbiness. The seat next to me actually has some kind of stain of unidentified origins streaked across it suggesting that a previous passenger has either had an unfortunate accident or has engaged in one of the activities expressly prohibited by the signs posted by every door. In Japan, everything was so perfectly pristine that if someone were to serve you a sushi set off of the floor, you wouldn’t even hesitate before digging in. They never would, of course, since one does not eat on the street or on the go in Japan, but I suppose I was impressed to know that in some hypothetical universe, it was possible. I can’t decide whether I am scandalized, disappointed that Singapore is kind of scuzzy, or slightly relieved that I am not the only one contravening the rules here, but either way, even without the hefty fines, there is no way I’ll be eating anything off of the floor here. What crazy universe have we entered? Nothing in Singapore is going according to plan at all!
A war of ambivalence continues to rage through me as we are shuttled towards our destination. But then the doors slide open, we are standing on the subway station platform, and I spot Chris waiting for us as promised. He turns as we lumber towards him, our bags and “plane brain” imbuing us with all the grace of two elephants doped up on Percocet, but it doesn’t matter. With each step, my grousing fades into white noise and my smile threatens to consume my entire face. As the three of us collapse into the most ungainly group hug, everything clicks into place. Sometimes all it takes is seeing a friend you haven’t seen in far too long to know: I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and for however long I’m here, it’s going to be fun.