It strikes me as striking that I have been living in Asia for the last two and a half years. That constitutes half the time I spent in college. Now I am gearing myself up for another higher education experience come August: law school. Perhaps if I brace myself now, I’ll suffer no more than a bruised brain when I crash land on my first legal casebook. Prior to impact, I still have about 6 months to navigate in Sri Lanka. At this halfway point in my year-long internship, I have long since achieved a sense of adjustment; now, I suppose, preliminary reflection is the logical next step. I am often asked which country I prefer: Sri Lanka or Singapore. This is a complex question that deserves thoughtful consideration. So, here’s a look back on my life in two Asian home countries over the last two and a half years. Most notable, of course, are the differences (but keep an eye out for the more subtly embedded similarities).
- City Transportation
Transportation in Singapore is exhausting.
Still, not so bad when you have Sharon “Share-bear” Ong as a pillow.
In Singapore, all three transport options carried their own unique frustrations. Buses, while clean and comfortable, often take convoluted routes and stop in the most inconvenient places assumedly for the sake of safety(?) – certainly not for customer satisfaction. (Singaporean policy makers function under the assumption that annoyance and security are directly correlated.) Taxicabs are fast if you luck out in getting one to stop for you (beware dead locations, i.e. everywhere but Orchard Road). The MRT (mass rapid transit – Singapore’s subway) would have been the convenient option if it didn’t take half an hour to get to the nearest station from my apartment.
Tuk tuks are like three-wheeled motorcycle carriages. (photo courtesy of pixabella.com)
Colombo’s transportation woes are wholly different. Buses travel more efficient routes but may stop inexplicably for 10 minutes so that the bus driver can take some time to contemplate his day. Tuk-tuks/three wheelers are convenient and abundant, but don’t believe your driver when he says he knows where Barefoot Café is. He is just trying to be agreeable and will stop three times on the way there – once for cigarettes, once for gas, every time for directions. Yet Colombo, wins this round hands down due to my third transportation method: bicycle. Although caution is a must amid such liberally interpreted traffic laws, nothing beats the freedom to so completely control the whens and wheres of my “getting there”s. Plus, you can’t beat the economies of scale on each subsequent bike ride after the initial fixed investment.
Round 1: Colombo
- Free time
Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands Hotel houses a skating rink, a mall, a casino, a rooftop bar, and an auditorium.
Singapore is certainly on the urban side of the spectrum – my first big city living experience. I set out goals for myself on the weekends and some work nights (try a new café, go to a new park, explore an undiscovered neighborhood) crossing off bucket list items as I went. There was always so much (sometimes too much) to do. In addition, I was living in an apartment block with 7 of my closest friends in the country, so nights in playing Settlers of Catan were often just as enticing as excursions into the city.
Colombo is markedly less large and less vibrant. Aside from a healthy selection of restaurants and bars, there is a severe lack of entertainment options. Even Western movies are lacking in abundance. Apparently Christopher Nolan can transport Anne Hathaway across the galaxy, but the footage can’t even make it across Africa to the Indian Ocean. Interstellar? Yes. Transcontinental? Houston we have a problem.
Gangaramaya Temple is one of the few worthwhile tourist sites in Colombo.
To caveat my whining: boredom is not a thing I do. (Because it’s a noun, not a verb? Perhaps.) I have a lot more
Movie rentals in the staff lounge!
personal time in Colombo to read, write, etc. The media library at my workplace has an impressive selection of movies available for free rental. I have even been taking some online courses on Coursera.org. Yet my craving for hot buttered popcorn persists.
Round 2: Singapore
To be honest, traveling has been remarkably similar in both places. I try to get out of the city an average of every other weekend in Colombo just as I did in Singapore. (Yes, I do realize how lucky I am.) The major distinction lies primarily in distance to destination. In Singapore, I was able to afford flights to nearby countries in the surrounding region (I really am lucky) whereas my salary in Sri Lanka restricts me to travelling domestic via train, bus, and car (save my recent trip to Bangladesh). This is by no means a
Although rather slow, Sri Lankan trains often offer scenic views and comfortable seats (but only when you can find them or book them in advance both of which present a whole new category of hassle). Nonetheless, the smiling faces of Keshriya, Rachel, and Christina attest to train enjoyability.
downside. Sri Lanka is, arguably, a much more exciting country to explore than Singapore due to its diversity of culture, ecosystems, and landforms. Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian culture can be found in beaches, mountains, plains, and forests. Singapore has a merlion. (And, in all fairness, ~$100 round trip tickets to Thailand and Malaysia.) To be honest, this contest is close to a draw. The scales are tipped by a comparison of travel convenience. Because of infrastructure challenges, hilly terrain, and traffic/scheduling delays, train, car, and bus trips around Sri Lanka can be exhausting and lengthy. Flights from Singapore to Thailand take less times than many land-based trips I’ve taken into Sri Lanka’s hill country (and the flights were much more comfortable.) In the end, the edge goes to the place that offers more convenient and comfortable access to greater Asia.
Round 3: Singapore
Hokkien mee (noodle) (photo compliments of chiamhuiy.com)
Singaporean laksa (photo compliments of rasamalaysia.com)
Nasi (rice) padang (mixed) (photo compliments of forums.hardwarezone. com.sg)
Xiaolongbao (soupy dumpling) (photo compliments of Junhiao! on commons. wikimedia.org)
Laksa v. string hoppers? Hokkien mee v. kothu roti? Xiao long bao v. pol sambol? Nasi padang v. malu curry? What Singapore achieves in variety, Colombo matches with spice and sheer consistency. To dispute their merits is borderline blasphemous.
Malu (fish) curry (photo compliments of inside.lk)
Pol (coconut) sambol (photo compliments of thehindu.com)
String hoppers (photo compliments of urbanspoon.com)
Kothu roti (photo compliments of uthmag.com)
Round 4: Draw
- Work place
The Greenhub in Clementi Woods Park
At Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore, I was given a lot of responsibility to plan and conduct my own modules with minimal supervision. On Fridays, I even got to leave campus and teach at a special classroom in Clementi Woods Park. These duties were both exciting and daunting; I enjoyed rising to the challenge and learning by doing. The headache-inducing work of planning
Now picture each of these lecturers pacing up and down the rows of desks for two hours to prevent cheating and to provide an escort in case someone needs to use the bathroom. The atmosphere was more intense than when I took the LSAT, and these are just end of semester exams.
Invigilation: Imagine a student assigned to each desk with nothing but pens, a calculator, and an ID card for company.
open house events, attending marginally pertinent meetings, and pacing through invigilation season was not quite as exhilarating . The work load, though fascinating and mostly enjoyable, could sometimes be overwhelming (especially when marking at the end of the semester).
The IWMI foyer is particularly serene.
The laid-back, 8:30ish-4:30 atmosphere of the International Water Management Institute in Colombo provides a stark contrast to Ngee Ann’s you’re-leaving-right-at-6pm-today? aesthetic. While I am kept busy with various projects, I never feel overworked
Complete with koi pond.
and rarely work beyond 5:30pm. Sometimes, when there is a lull in the work for my main projects (on Jaffna groundwater remediation and research uptake toolkit development), I ask my supervisor if she has any additional work she wants me to do. She usually sends me a template to modify or a document to summarize/analyze. First, she tells me about the chain-mail shirt that her daughter found at a street market in Ghana and wore to a recent Renaissance festival.
Round 5: Colombo
After 5 rounds, the result? A tie. This brings me to the response I usually provide when asked about my locality preference: I like them both for different reasons. In Singapore, I was challenged and engaged, and I had the opportunity to travel all over Southeast Asia. In Colombo, I am relatively stress-free and still get to travel all over Sri Lanka. There you have it. At the heart of all this analysis is my realization that it really doesn’t matter where I am living – the people make the place. My happiness in Sri Lanka and in Singapore and in general is fundamentally shaped by the people with whom I get to work, travel, talk, dance, paint, swim, hike, lounge, eat. Much as I love Asia, that is the fundamental reason I am excited to go back to the United States: to reconnect with some of those people who have been far-distant for far too long.
friends from Sri Lanka
friends from Singapore
friends from Gaylord, Michigan