I had overstayed my maximum allowance of seven days at my first hostel so I moved on to stay in a total of 6 other hostels before settling on one I was happy with. I couldn’t rent a place because there was always a 3 month minimum and I was only staying two months in Singapore. My standards for a hostel were not high but all of the 6 US dollars per night hostels managed to disappoint them. The first hostel had a visible amount of bed bugs crawling on it and the blanket of writhing parasites was visible across the room.
The second hostel had a nauseating b.o. type stench that was so rank it made me woozy. The staff supplied me with a lemon aerosol can which I think just got me high instead of relieving the assault on my olfactory glands. However, I did stop complaining since I passed out. I think that method of dealing with the customer is similar to nurses turning up the morphine drips whenever patients hit the call button too often.
The third place felt incredibly unsafe which is really quite a feat for nearly crime-free Singapore. I ended up taking my backpack and instruments with me whenever I left the room. The rest of the hostels have blended together in my mind but they all suffered from similar symptoms of inadequacy. One night I just took all of my stuff to McDonalds and worked out at a gym in the morning to have a shower. The staff at the gym thought it was a little odd that I arrived carrying two giant instruments and wearing my winter coat (since it wouldn't fit into my already overstuffed backpack and it was 98 degrees that day).
I was homeless as I played Russian roulette with hostelworld.com. But, after 2 weeks of searching and moving all my worldly possessions to new locations nearly every day in the equatorial heat, I finally found Fernloft: Little India. Much like Moses, I was delivered to the Promised Land after suffering and wandering in the heat. Well okay, Moses died before he made it to the land of milk and honey, but, Magellan totally gets credit for circumnavigating the globe even though he died in the Phillipines. Um. . . what was my point again? Um, yeah. So there.
Meet the Cast
I conceded to paying 10 US dollars per night and the quality that those extra $4 per night afforded was sooooo worth it. I could relax. It was clean and the atmosphere was hospitable. The best part of the Fernloft was the staff and the group of other longtime guests. Since I treat my whole life as one big project to collect interesting characters, this was ideal. And also it was just great to have people to talk to that didn't just stare at you like they wanted to wear your skin.
There was Kit, the freelance computer programmer Swede, who can work from anywhere so he does. He was in Singapore chilling and hanging out with his lawyer girlfriend. When he needed cash he could be seen programming for 48 hours on end and then crashing for 24 hours.
(He has told me that he's currently looking for more work so if you want to hire him for your tech-related needs that I don't understand at all, contact him here http://scribblepadofdoom.tumblr.com. He looks reliable, right?)
Then there was Anke, the German fangirl, who spent her days watching youtube videos of male Asian popstars and getting tattoos in Japanese and Chinese of the lyrics she found particularly moving. Her nights were spent going to the popstars' concerts. In her real life she runs a bookstore and writes vampire novels, but as anyone will tell you, Singapore is not real life.
There was also enigmatic Syarief, who was addicted to playing games on his iPhone and adhering stuffed animals to his face. His profile on Facebook revealed only pictures of food that he had taken all over the city-state. Over the course of 6 weeks I finally learned that he was from Bali and supposedly looking for a job as a chef but the only time he could be seen leaving the hostel was to go to dinner or a movie with his girlfriend. He had been at Fernloft since before Christmas. What was he really up to?
Together we decided that the four of us and the staff needed to have a show based on our lives at Fernloft like the Love Boat where fancy guest stars would come in and out while a core cast mocked the newbies behind their backs and produced musical numbers. I haven't actually seen the Love Boat because I'm under 35 but that's what I imagine our new NBC sitcom, cleverly titled Hostel, would be like. Though I guess our sitcom would need to have more of a Seinfeldian feel since we cruelly ridicule others and never learned any lessons. More on that in the next post!
Lost in Translation
Instead of figuring out Singapore for myself, I watched movies about Singapore in Singapore, completely defeating the purpose of going there. When Kit's lawyer girlfriend, exhausted from her heavy schedule of wearing fancy clothes and riding up and down skyscraper elevators (my understanding of what fancy business people do ends once they enter their fancy buildings), baled on Syarief and Kit's double date, I got to take the pre-bought ticket. The movie was 笑着回家，Going Home. It was a Love Actually style movie about the New Year in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and introduced different aspects of Singapore quite well, especially their corny sense of humo[u]r. Another movie that melodramatically gives you a slice of life in Singapore is 小孩不笨, I Not Stupid, about the high pressure of middle school education in Singapore. Subtitles are always necessary for these movies as mastery of 2 or even 3 languages isn't sufficient to cover everything everyone says.
I actually had a big problem understanding people in Singapore. People communicate in different meshes of English, Tamil, Malay, and various Chinese dialects, generally using racial profiling to guess your language of choice. I think it wasn't until after my first month in Singapore that I could confidently go into a restaurant, even a Burger King or Starbucks and order my food. The embarrassing thing about that is that everyone was speaking to me in English. But the common questions like, "Up-size for you?" took me weeks to figure out. At McDonalds I once ordered an orange juice and got a Super-sized Big Mac meal instead. My American accent was difficult for people to deal with and people more often than not couldn't understand me unless I did an impression of Nigel Thornberry. But by the end of it, I managed to just ennunciate clearly which was much less embarrassing for everyone.
I would like to point out in my defense the bizarre implications of the English in this sign. If I'm "Today's Special" then aren't they going to eat me???
Don't Have a Cow: The Beef with Indians
At the Fernloft, it was quite common to hear statements, especially from the staff, that began, "I'm not a racist, BUT all Indians are. . ." Instead of being horrified by this I was generally just amused by the failed attempt at being politically correct. It was totally true that returning to the hostel on Sunday nights was always distinctly creepy because for reasons I didn't understand that was the night when literally 1000s of Indian men would be standing around the park between the MRT and the hostel. You would have to walk by group after group of them and the groups would without fail stop talking and stare unabashedly at passersby.
But here's where I think the real beef with Indians comes from. Because the Fernloft is located in Little India and called Little India on hostelworld, tons of people from India that travel to Singapore stay there. And because the prices are so much more expensive than they would be in India, the Indian guests expect way more bang for their rupee. They expect it to be like a hotel. But that added s added into the word means breakfast is tea and toast, not porridge and eggs, and shared bathrooms and limited security are to be expected. About half of the time, a giant group of traveling Indians would come in, all complain loudly (at a decibel level totally appropriate to their home country, but not to quiet Singapore) and totally overwhelm the staff with complaints about things that were not the staffs' fault. Much like not understanding the Sunday night park etiquette, this was simply a result of cultural differences in expectations and it caused both sides to become bitter.
One time Anke complained loudly because a group of Indian men were being really loud outside her window at 2:30AM. One of the men attempted for an hour to engage her in a conversation to mollify the situation. He realized he'd caused her to have a negative impression toward his countrymen and he made a winning speech which, as any speech would be treated at 3:30AM by an exhausted she-German, was dismissed with a rant that included words like Du arschgefickter Hurenson and Kackbratze. Nevertheless, it was endearing to see things from this man's perspective, no matter how futile his efforts may have been. I was also happy that this bad example wasn't being set by overly loud and rambunctious Americans, as it inevitably would have been if any Americans ever traveled to Singapore.
The Weather's Hot and the Music is. . . NOT!
I hung out at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's headquarters striking up conversations with random musicians and getting as much information as I could from them. I managed to score some invitations to watch some rehearsals but I was strictly warned against recording. Lame. All efforts to ask orchestra members about their passion of music got me referenced to the official SCO mission statement or reiterations thereof.
I went to a Mandarin church service and when I was asked to explain myself, I ended up meeting a liuqin player who promptly invited me to her silk and bamboo ensemble rehearsal later that afternoon. I saw some familiar faces from the orchestra. It turns out that most of the orchestra members also keep busy with teaching lessons and playing in their own less formal/traditional groups. Inquiring about people that might play nonprofessionally sounded grim. Many schools have orchestras but interest is getting lower and many student players stop once they get to high school to focus on their intense studies. According to Huang Laoshi, serious music students tend to become professionals.
A trip to visit a Singaporean ethnomusicologist led to similarly depressing results about the local music scene. There were people who played solos and played in school orchestras, but besides that, the music scene was downright pitiful compared to Taiwan or China.
Looking at Singaporeans this doesn't come as much of a surprise. My general impression is that people are no-nonsense and goal-oriented. Most young people's parents or grandparents immigrated to Singapore to get a better life and therefore the younger generation faces much pressure to make good for their elders' sacrifices. They haven't yet reached the snowboarding generations of America. Kit and I agreed that sometimes walking around Singapore had a little bit of an Orwellian feel, and I think it's more because we are foreigners but it's sometimes hard to get to underneath average people's guard. Definitely not as immediately welcoming as Taiwan, but I think the former British colony has had more than their fair share of Ang Mao, Westerners, (literally red-haired/furred).
On the right you can see the festive beachware of the restroom sign people.
With a relatively light load of concerts and groups to see practice (and none offering me a chance to play with them) I decided to take some time to read at the beach. I'm only human after all. Of course only tourists really went to the beach, but I didn't care. Singaporeans want white skin and I realized that even the hand soap at the hostel had skin whitener in it after my hands became noticeably lighter up to my wrists. While it was a great way to track if I was really cleaning the entire surface of my hand, it looked rather Michael Jacksonish.
But being in direct sunlight came with its price since I have a ginger father (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EY39fkmqKBM). After applying only SPF 35 and being outside for 2 hours, all of my skin came off. It was an incredibly painful process that got consistently worse seven days in a row. When the skin came off it itched and it made sleeping absolutely impossible. I would beat my arms and chest with the back of my hand because the dying, drying skin was so itchy and painful. This gesture was accompanied by involuntarily release zombie-esque moans while doing this. It was, needless to say, extremely attractive. But after the initial burning and shedding of skin (so much so that you could tell where I had been sitting in the hostel) I finally mastered being in sunlight and my usual routine became getting up early to go to the beach to jog, followed by a swim in the ocean, a lie in the sun reading a book, and a delicious lunch before heading back to the hostel in time for the 2:30PM rain. This morning ritual which I kept up for about a month became the most relaxing time of my life. Nothing like doses of vitamin D and radiation to cure the winter blues.
Below you can see examples of the masterpieces you can create after taking sandcastle classes at the beach.
Life was wonderfully free until. . .
Up next, the final part of Singapore and moving on to pre-earthquake/tsunami Japan!