Living the high life: Singapore nightlife

Living the high life: Singapore nightlife

Last night, we met one of Jen’s friends who is moving to Austin, Texas after working in Singapore for a year and he said that he’s excited to go back but his time in Singapore felt like a mini vacation (despite having to work throughout) and he’s sorry to see that end.  I’m glad people who are hired here full time feel like way too- I’ve been doing a lot more work during the day but especially this week, the nights have been amazing. On Tuesday, Ken, Kevin and I met up with couchsurfers Kaz and Sam in Chinatown (we wanted to give Sam a honorary name that started with “K” to complete the Ken-Katie-Kevin-Kaz clump of us).  We started with a hearty meal in the Hawker Center for the ravenous boys.  Kevin ordered the Chili Crab, a Singaporean specialty.  They delivered the dish with two mountains of rice, a pile of gloves and Kevin dug right in. Kevin chillin’ with Chili crab in the Hawker Center From there, we wandered around the streets, checking out the cheap souvenirs and colorful lanterns.  Kaz requested we get snow ices at the famous Mei Heong Yuen Dessert place then we headed toward the waterfront to complete Uncle Bob’s “must-do” suggestion of getting a Singapore Sling at the Raffles hotel.  The hotel is a beautiful example of 19th colonial charm and the famous inventors of this drink.  The drink itself was too sweet but the experience was worth it.  Entering the Long Bar ushered in the grandness of British imperialism.  The ceiling fans looked like handheld fans that swayed back and forth to the beat of the live band, a groovin’ Malaysian group that played everything from Adele to Japanese love songs.  There were peanuts on the tables and you could throw the shells all over the floor (which is especially fun in a country with excessive fines for littering).  Once we survived the epically slow mirrored ancient elevator ride down a floor, we all went home with pieces of peanuts in our pockets and purses. Sam, Ken, Kaz, me and Kevin with our Singapore Slings Wednesday evening was even more action-packed.  A bunch of us bought Groupons for the river boat cruise, Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest so we started the night with a sunset cruise down the river.  When I left my residence, a Chinese girl and her mother asked me for directions to the MRT (not sure why they thought I knew where to go haha) and we started chatting and they decided to follow me around for the next five hours.  They came on the river cruise, joined us for free cider at the couchsurfing gathering and invited Deb and I over their house for extreme dumpling making tonight.  They invited me to visit China with them in July too- they were adorable! Back row: Dave, Jen’s friend, me, my new Chinese friends Front row: Jen and Alissa After the river cruise, we met up with Marie and some of the boys at Zsafi for a special edition of the weekly couchsurfing meeting.  The restaurant supposedly was opening its kitchen so they served free food and cider so the place was packed.  We convinced a bunch of people to join us for Hakuna Matata Ladies’ Night at the Marina Bay Sands clubs so after a prata pitstop, we headed out.  Dancing was a blast- there were a surprising number of people out for a wednesday but that’s what happens when ladies get three free drink tickets I guess. PRATA!! When we were in Kuching, there were these two french guys who were literally following us the whole time.  Same incoming flight, they went to Bako National Park on saturday, we saw them at the Orang utan center Sunday morning and they went back on the same flight on Sunday.  But being French and pretentious, they were too cool to talk to us in Malaysia except to tell us that they knew we were American by our ugly accents.  But last night, we found one of them who actually acknowledged us!! At the bottom of Avalon with Singapore skyline After some time at the Avalon, we continued our tour of the best of Singapore nightlife on the 57th floor to the Ku de Ta nightclub 200 meters in the sky with 360 degree panoramic views of the skyline and Straits of Singapore.  The club was supposedly voted one of the top ten global hot spots by the New York Times and I think connects to the famous infinity pool (but you can only go if you reserve a room- you can check out...

What’s weirder? Singaporean culture or its eccentric neighborhoods

What’s weirder?  Singaporean culture or its eccentric neighborhoods

Being in Malaysia further exaggerated the unique and strange aspects of Singaporean culture.  I was talking to Ken this afternoon and he said he saw a pregnant woman today and did a double-take when he realized that’s the only one he’s seen in the past two weeks.  Louis said the birth rate here is less than 1% and the marriage rate is also dramatically low, even though the country subsidizes it considerably.  I guess that’s another reason why they attract foreigners so aggressively (a typical post-doc start up grant is $3 million!!!!  That’s absurd… most of us agree we wouldn’t be able to say no to a package like that, especially considering that post-docs subsist on peanuts for pay in the US).  So no pregnant people.  No fat people, even though Singaporeans are obsessed with food and supposedly start planning their next meal while eating their current dish.  In the words of one of my favorite travel writers, “No one was fat.  No one was poor.  No one was badly dressed.  But many Singaporeans had (so it seemed to me) the half-devil, half-child look have having been infantilized and overprotected by their stoppablyy manipulative government… The city-state showed his tweaked and tinkered-with look, and so did the people” -Paul Theroux, Ghost Train To The Eastern Star Statue at the temple A bunch of interesting things happened last week that I wasn’t able to write about while I was in Malaysia.  On Wednesday, I met up with Sam and found my new favorite part of town.  He took me to Bugis street and the surrounding areas of Kampong Glam.  We found a beautiful Hindu temple and they were in the middle of an interesting ceremony and everyone was walking around with offerings.  Just a few blocks over was a Chinese temple and a Chinese street market where we got an ice cream sandwich with wafer cookies and sweet corn ice cream.  Around the corner from that was Arab street, a colorful haven for hippies and hookah smokers.  We saw the beautiful Sultan mosque (but girls aren’t allowed inside)  and the Malay cultural center.  Middle eastern restaurants, organic cafes for granola-crunchers  and interesting art/craft shops lined the thin streets.  It’s probably the only place in Singapore where you can find graffiti.  After lots of walking, we settled there for a beer and live jazz. It was interesting talking to Sam about the country he was born and raised.  I kept asking him “what is Singapore?  What makes the country distinctive?” because most countries have unique identities and I can’t figure this one out.  Bali has their traditional dances, Cambodia has their cooking and floating villages, Brazil was incredibly diverse but has its samba and caipirinhas.  Singapore’s famous for their food- but what food?  It’s imported food from all over, often with a slightly Singaporean twist but not often all that distinct.  Sam agreed that to him Singapore was just all about shopping and business.  Shopping is practically the national sport in addition to the national hobby especially around this month, “the annual Singaporean sale”.  They literally have malls everywhere and the “small” malls are usually six stories.  It boggles my mind.  He said the country used to have much more of a neighborhood-y experience, which I think is what Owen tried to show me when he took me to the “heartland” with the Hawker Center and mall at the center of a typical neighborhood.  Now with the high rise apartments, he said people have become much more inwardly focused and less friendly.  I’ve certainly noticed it traveling around the city- everyone is constantly on their electronics, it’s really hard to meet locals and even when you say “thank you”, no one replies with “you’re welcome”.  It’s pretty sad! Club on Arab street Thursday nights are the weekly couchsurfing meeting at a bar near Little India and I promised Mikel that I would go and I recruited a bunch of my fellowship friends to join.  Ken and I went early to explore the cool parts of Little India.  We went into a temple, down a lot of crazy shops and had an amazing dinner at a Hawker Center.  I read about a famous prata place so I had that.  Prata is the “Indian” pizza and it was fun to watch the guy make it in front of you and toss the dough in the air.  We found cheap Kingfisher and I think that was my best Hawker Center meal.  As we wound our way closer to the tapas bar where the meeting was held, we found Alissa who was also eating prata but at another restaurant.  Sure enough Marie...

Work hard, play hard at Sentosa, Singapore’s “pleasure island”

Work hard, play hard at Sentosa, Singapore’s “pleasure island”

My grandma’s been reading my blog and supposedly she commented recently “It sounds like Katie’s having a great time but when is she going to get working on her PhD stuff?”.  And the answer is that I have been, kind of… Yesterday, I gave a talk on SCALE-UP at NUS.  It was a pretty good turn-out considering it wasn’t advertised very well- just a couple last minute e-mails from my host.  Probably three dozen students showed up and a handful of faculty members.  One of the professors was incredibly interested in what I had to say since her efforts at incorporate active learning didn’t go as well as she hoped.  One graduate student told me he was interested in getting a degree in physics education, which he knew he couldn’t do here but North Carolina State University was on his list of possible places to apply.  Unfortunately, before I finished talking to him, Reddy’s students surrounded us, swarming for a group picture so I lost him before I got his e-mail but hopefully I’ll be able to figure it out and find him again. After my talk, Reddy gave an overview of his research to give students a sample of the avenues that they can pursue with their individual projects.  He manages 30-40 high school and junior college students with an annual budget of ~S10,000 and manages to get 3-4 papers published per year.  He certainly has a gift for finding projects appropriately matched to his lab facilities, time scales that are realistic for his students while engaging their intrinsic motivation.  It’s especially amazing when you think about how his work compares with “real” labs with graduate students and budgets 10-100 times that.  His work (co-authored by these students) is actually getting published in legitimate places!  And he agreed to take on a random person like me, even though he knows our research isn’t remotely related (but I’m not entirely random- he researched me extensively before accepting me, impressed by my accomplishments). Dr. Reddy and I and the gang… I’ve also been back to SUTD for multiple observations- once for a lecture (incredibly traditional and boring) and back for a cohort session (much more fun).  Monday night, I finally met Lauren who I was supposed to meet up with at Hard Rock Cafe last weekend. As I scanned the furniture store for her light brown hair, Sam, my  co-worker from India, surprised me by finding me first.  I thought Sam had left the country for Malaysia.  Apparently, after a stint in Kuala Lampur (the capital), which she found to be dirty, hard to get around and generally uncomfortable, she decided to return to sophisticated Singapore.  Her favorite part was the luxury bus ride back (for $15) when she had her own cozy lounge and personal TV.  She said crossing back into Singapore from the border was like entering Oz, when the world turned to Technicolor.  Hopefully my Malaysia experience this upcoming weekend will be better (we’ll stay away from Kuala Lampur)!  Lauren is also super-cool.  She’s from Texas originally, spent a couple years living in Tokyo and now she’s doing a mix of things, including writing a column about finding organic foods in Singapore.  We’re going to have a pickling party and she’s going to show me how to cook Japanese food on friday. Sentosa at night The three of us took the tram to Sentosa, Singapore’s pleasure island which houses Universal Studios, a casino, an aquarium, some beaches… a place even more precisely manicured that the rest of the city, which was hard for me to believe.  We ate at a Chili’s restaurant and Western food really hit the spot.  Lauren was going crazy eating black beans, which she hasn’t had in two years because it’s expensive and hard to get here.  I hate how oatmeal, black beans and sweet potato are all nearly impossible to find but those are my main staples back home. Dinner with Lauren (on left) and Samantha at Chili’s!  This afternoon I went swimming and it was hilarous.  The three male lifeguards were listening to Shania Twain “This Kiss”.  Balls were flying through the air as students whacked the water with  an intense game of kayak-water-polo.  Even on the other side of the Olympic-sized pool, I felt like I was swimming in the rocky ocean seas because they were moving the water around so much.  So at least people still exercise outdoors despite the dangerous smog that is shrouding the city in white and the American government keeps e-mail me warnings about.  Everyone’s starting to bust out their face masks. They’ve been burning fires in Indonesia which has raised the...

Strange society, stranger Singapore attractions

Strange society, stranger Singapore attractions

So now I’ve officially spent over a week in the country and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  In some ways, it barely feels like I’m in a foreign country (especially in comparison to the other places I’ve been).  I can drink the water, I encounter white people on a daily basis and they speak English.  But every so often, you’re reminded that although you think you know what’s going on, you really have no idea.  For example, when you’re in the Hawker center and you point to the picture of what you want to order and they give you something else entirely.  Deb ordered eggs and toast.  She got half-hard boiled eggs (hard boiled eggs but when you crack them, it’s a gooey mess inside) and they covered her toast in green stuff.  Ken ordered a ham and cheese sandwich.  They gave him a half of a sandwich with a piece of ham in it.  Another half with cheese in it.   Subtle misunderstandings and incidents like these caused Justin to exclaim “Singapore makes me want to eat cheeseburgers”.  Partially because he misses American food but also because it’s frustrating not being able to order what you want.  Every meal in the Hawker Center feels like the luck of the draw.  Eat cheeseburgers?  Or get eaten by a tiger car? For a city so seemingly organized, I’m slowly starting to realize how weird it is.  First impressions: city planning at its finest with the public transportation, lots of green (and clean!) space and the integration of modern architecture.  It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (but the Singaporean mafia rigs European soccer games), it’s economy is booming (but it’s old people are left without healthcare and not enough money to support themselves) and is considered by many to be a “half-world country”: more advanced than the United States in many ways.  But then you start to learn about how the country is held together.  Justin remarked “Singapore really reminds me of University of Notre Dame: excessive amounts of paperwork and arbitrary security”.  Applying as a non-graduating student at NUS allowed us to dive headfirst into the Singaporean sea of paperwork.  So many forms- hard copy, soft copy, printed passport photos, photocopied passports, scanned passports… some filled in on-line, some hard copies had to be shipped ahead of time, more had to be filled out upon arrival.  As far as security, you’re constantly being videotaped on all the metros and public spaces and security guards are all over the place.  However, these guards are skinny old men with sunken chests (in Luis’ words).  And Singapore’s filled with rules that are often impossible to enforce.  For example, our dorm has a rule that you can’t have a member of the opposite gender in your room unless you keep the door open.  Security guards can go in the elevator but they don’t have access to the hallways.  Refrigerator signs threaten, “Attention food thief!  Stealing food is a crime- prosecution could lead to expulsion”.   Another source of underlying tension seems to be the relation with foreigners.  It’s the one country where the natives seem disadvantaged.  For example, foreigners can enter the casino at Marina Bay Sands free of charge but Singaporeans are charged S80 for entry.  I’ve especially noticed preferential treatment for foreigners in academia.  Singapore has been very proactive in recruiting the top brains from around the world, especially in their universities.  This has successfully skyrocketed Singapore’s positions in global rankings.  NUS is supposed ranked 22nd globally and NTU (Nanyang Technical University) has risen over 40 spots in the last few years and also is in the top fifty.  They offer ridiculously generous start-up laboratory funds… I’ve heard murmurs of post-docs being offered hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding for research.  They recruit undergraduates the same way (between talking to the students in the Reddy lab and at SUTD, Singaporeans tend to be in the minority) and one can see how this could cause resentment especially because it’s hard for them to get a college education- only 20% of Singaporeans complete this degree!  Education here seems to be an especially long road, which may contribute.  After completing high school, students who want to continue on an academic track (as opposed to a more practical degree) typically enroll in two years of junior college then need to qualify via standardized testing for four years of university.  Before entering university, all males are required to complete two years of service for the Army (which I heard about from couchsurfers Sam and Owen- they were sent into the jungles of Taiwan and Malaysia...

Out on the town: Singapore parks and bars

Out on the town: Singapore parks and bars

So I know I’m supposed to be here researching but I haven’t been working too hard yet.  My NUS host researcher says “hang out with my students, have fun, you don’t need to do any work!” which isn’t too motivating.  But I’m definitely having a great time and it’s been action-packed!  Where to begin?? Friday, a bunch of us sat down to plan weekend trips and I booked tickets for Bali, Cambodia and Malyasia for less than $600 USD for all three trips.  Singapore is an expensive city to live (especially compared to India and Thailand) so that makes it especially tempting to travel.   Deb went out with a friend friday night and paid $100 for dinner and two drinks at a moderately priced restaurant.  Buying a beer here can cover hostel housing for a long weekend anywhere else in Southeast Asia.  So it’s almost economical when you think about how much a night out in Singapore costs.  We’re probably going to book a trip to Cebu, Philippines too… I’m just going to hate airplanes and flying by the end of the summer… too bad Tiger Airlines and Malyasia Air won’t help with frequent flier miles back home. So Friday night, a bunch of us headed to Hard Rock Cafe with the intention of meeting up with a couple who are friends of friends (she worked at TIP nerd camp back in the States) and listening to a live band.  We got live music (mostly a 60s/70s cover band) but the couple was at the OTHER Hard Rock Cafe, which was unfortunate.  But good times were had by all and I plan to catch up with Lauren soon. Saturday morning, several of us went on an early morning tree-top trek at MacRitchie Reservoir with Owen, one of my couchsurfing friends.  The hiking group kind of polarized into Deb and I (who moved at a reasonable clip) and the photographers who definitely took their time enjoying and capturing their surroundings.  It was pretty crazy being in a relatively dense jungle in the middle of this busy city, seeing monkeys, lizards and hearing the forest buzz with insects and birds that you can’t see.  This trek involved some bridges amongst the treetops that were pretty cool and had some amazing views of the leafy green fauna below.  Deb and I wasted time exploring Holland Village to wait up for the rest of the group but once we realized they were a couple hours behind on the 11 km hike, we enjoyed some Dim Sum and headed back to the hostel.  I enjoy everyone here on the fellowship but it’s great to have Deb around.  She’s an engineer so both of us aren’t used to hanging out with girls much so we both appreciate how exciting it is to have a fellow female with similar interests.  We’re both vegetarians, love to hike, love to travel, definite go-getters… and now I’ve got a place to stay in Nashville during her last year finishing up a PhD in environmental engineering at Vanderbilt. We were pretty high… Deb and I at the Treetop Trek at MacRitchie When we came back Saturday afternoon, I had every intention of getting work done but ended up playing bananagrams and doing more trip planning.  Saturday night, we went to Clarke Quay for some happy hour specials at a Spanish Tapas bar and walked around to enjoy some live music and the illuminated river scenery. Clarke Quay at night Alissa, Justin and Ken at Clarke Quay Sunday morning, Deb, David and I went on another nice walk to Faber point (the highest point in the city), Henderson Waves bridge, HortPark gardens and another canopy walk on elevated bridges… we definitely covered a lot of ground.  After that, we sat at Labrador Park, absorbing the sea breezes and looked out at the barges floating in and out of the busy seaport.  Time for transcribing… talk soon! Deb and David at the Alexandria...

Singapore University of Technology and Design… Sign me up!

Singapore University of Technology and Design… Sign me up!

Finally I connected with the faculty members at Singapore University of Technology and Design through an ambiguous e-mail “Come visit tomorrow morning!  Call me when you get here”.  I eventually figured out her phone number, and where and when the class was happening.  Next year, the school is moving out of their temporary location here (where the incoming class size is limited to around 300 students) to a more permanent location by the airport where they’ll start a PhD program and start growing their incoming class size to a goal of 2000 students. Vision for 2014 SUTD campus When I was talking to my friend about visiting a class today, he joked, “What kind of class?  Firebreathing?”  Watching physics isn’t quite the same as learning to breathe flames, but all things considered, I had a very good time (and no loin cloth was required!).  Hui Ying is an absolutely adorable, tiny, young Chinese woman and greeted me with a huge hug.  We walked to today’s class, a breakout problem solving session for the cohort of 45 freshmen.  She invited me to speak to the students, who were actually very excited to talk to me.  Like MIT, the students were from all over Asia- probably half of the students I spoke to were from China but I met someone from Myanmar and Malaysia.  They were enthusiastic about the program and told me that physics here was easy compared to China but “Hui Ying is so cute and I like working with my cohort”.  One group asked me, “are you going to teach us?”  I said that I wasn’t planning on it but honestly, I don’t know what my plans are for the next several weeks.  However, all the professors and students I’ve meet here seem very accommodating so hopefully I’ll accomplish something academic this summer. Not much else to report here unless you wanted to hear me raving more about SUTD.  I learned about the “1-D: design project they’ll be doing in physics as well as as the 2-D interdisciplinary project they’ll be doing to apply their math-physics-engineering knowledge.  Between the amount of teamwork, public speaking and problem solving these students complete on a daily basis, plus practicing applying the knowledge in creative ways, these students are going to be incredibly well prepared for future engineering design jobs.  And unlike MIT, where everyone seemed supercompetitive and on the verge of depression, these students were superhappy.  We even had a birthday celebration at the end of class/  It’s only in its baby stages but SUTD may be the most impressive university I have ever visited. After that, I went for a swim then cashed my check at the fanciest, almost sci-fi-esque bank I’ve ever been too- huge touch screens on the walls and individual banking rooms.  I would have taken a picture but then I would have totally looked like a tourist.  And maybe got hauled off to jail for being a security concern.  No thanks! This is what happened when Deb and I picked out our own food- mashed rice, beans and mushrooms.  Dragonfruit juice was good though! I’m about to meet with a “mostly vegetarian”, meditating, yogi couchsurfer for dinner… Singapore’s famous for it’s food but Debra and I haven’t had much luck picking out our stuff.  And besides that, I’m excited tomorrow’s friend!  I’m meeting up for free live music at the Hard Rock Cafe with a couple who knew Samantha (my TIP co-worker) from a previous summer.  TIP employees are sure to bring a good time!  Then I’ll be trekking at a reservoir  Saturday morning, maybe attending Asia’s first beer fest on Sunday and who knows what else?  I got invited to a deluxe screening of Superman, a trip to the beach and an Avicii concert also… plenty of options but not enough time!  More later! Team photo from the other day… Back row: Marie, Dawn, David, Ken, Luis, Kevin, me, Justin, Luke Bottom row: Paul, Stephanie, Alissa, Jen,...