Adventures in Singapore

Today’s guest blogger is Hannah Hendrix.

Hello, world! My name is Hannah. Last spring break I went to Singapore for the second time (the first being the summer before), and I absolutely loved it both times. My father frequents Singapore on business trips and I, wanting adventure, decided to tag along the two times I could. The first time I went, I did numerous activities, like going to the Singapore Zoo (so cool!), an island called Sentosa, the aquarium, as well as doing random site-seeing, like the Merlion and the light show down near the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (done every night for free). The coolest thing about Singapore to me was that you could get anywhere (walking or taking the MRT) underground. And it wasn’t just a tunnel underground; it was a tunnel that led to the lower level of a mall and a food court. Singapore doesn’t have much land mass, and so they’ve built everything up and down. There are malls everywhere! Literally. They also have a variety of price ranges, so if you want to spend the big bucks, you can, or if you’re feeling more on the frugal side, there are things for that as well.

Both times I went to Chinatown. Chinatown, no matter where in the world it is, is always my favorite. It’s one of my favorite places anywhere because I’ve always had a love for Asian culture, and there’s always so much packed into a few streets of town! It’s exciting and wonderful to visit all the booths with their different products to offer (especially food!). It’s just all around a fun time.

One of the weirdest but easiest (as a traveler) parts of Singapore was that while the majority of the people living there are Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese, everyone speaks English. Not when they’re on the streets talking to each other, but if you need directions or are wanting to shop anywhere, there is no language barrier. The signs are also all in English and Chinese, so no need to be confused when someone tells you what street something is on.

Singapore is kind of like a hub of different ethnicities and cultures colliding but all working and meshing well together all at once. The British had taken over Singapore for a while before it became its own nation, and so there are many places (old hotels, site specific monuments, and more) that are British in nature. The plugs in the wall are even European!

The temperature there, since it’s near the equator, is basically the same year round. It’s humid, but not horribly humid. And it’s a delightful kind of warm. All of the buildings are air conditioned and even the tunnels underground are, so there’s no need to be in the heat if you don’t want to. But if you feel like walking around, then it’s bearable. Just bring water!

The last thing I’ll mention is their rules. They have very strict laws about jaywalking, chewing gum (You absolutely can’t do it. They don’t even sell gum there. If you chew it, you can be arrested.) and vandalism. But because of their strictness, it’s a very clean and well organized city. You probably won’t feel like the minority if you go there, because even though the majority of people you see are Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian, there are so many white business men and women walking around that you somehow blend in with the crowd even though you should stick out.

I would recommend going if you can.

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On The Truman Show and Exiting to Enter

If you’ve seen The Truman Show, you know the final scene where Truman (Jim Carrey) at last escapes the place he’s called home his entire life. When the tip of his boat crashes through the wall of the dome encircling the small city which, until now, had been his whole world, he gets this look of realization in his eyes: his life-long hope arrives with the crunch of a boat through plaster and a door that opens onto darkness.

Leaving for Korea feels like facing that exit door. It would be dramatic to compare my life exactly to Truman’s (e.g. I know I’m not in a reality show, and I’m at least pretty sure my family and friends are not hired actors). However, it’s easy for me to identify with that sense of resolution and tension as I prepare to leave my home country for the first time.

Truman’s dream was to go to Fiji: “You can’t go any further without coming right back.” I chose Korea not because it was the farthest from home, but because I fell in love with the language watching K-Dramas, I wanted to continue to work with ELL students, and I wanted to live somewhere no one else I knew had been. (Retrospective reality check: everyone and their mothers have been to South Korea. Oops.) Two years ago, when I started the search for international work opportunities, I was impatient to just GO. As a Christian, I’ve discovered how hard it is to trust God to deliver my greatest wishes when I want them so immediately. By the time I started college, I wanted to travel so badly, I felt like I could pack up and leave at any time.

I had also not yet seen the ocean until recently. I wanted to travel, even just a few states away, but circumstances, like the lack of financial and practical opportunity to take off, have always kept me from going. The first failed California road trip I planned was the mechanical issues as Truman sat on the bus, ready to leave, the driver shrugging and apologizing that the engine wouldn’t start. My second failed road trip was the people in Hazmat suits, knocking Truman to the ground and forcing him home. No matter how I tried to plan a trip to the ocean, I felt like it would never happen.

When I decided to pursue teaching abroad, I prepared my parents for my imminent departure by telling them of my plans to apply to programs halfway across the world. They were both sad to think that I’d be gone from their lives, even if just for a year, but my dad was additionally confused as to why I felt this need to travel. Truman tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer, and she replies, “Oh, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.” This was not too far off from my dad’s response. He questioned my reasons for wanting to travel. I had trouble expressing it then. He wondered if I felt discontent, if I was seeking fulfillment in the wrong places.

The reality show director, Christof (Ed Harris), speaks to Truman, disembodied, like the voice of God, and tries to persuade him to stay: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies. The same deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear.” It’s true that if I were to stay, if I were to give up on my dreams of traveling, I could learn to be content. God can use us wherever we are, and if He’s who I’m truly seeking, then I’ll find Him anywhere, even in the same city I’ve lived in for 12 years. I can still eat, pray, love in my backyard, right?

It strikes me that Truman doesn’t know that what’s through that exit door is any better than the suffocating reality he’s lived in; he only has the hope that whatever is but a few steps away will bring change. But we can discover ourselves when we step out of our familiar element. We grow the more our comfort zones are prodded. Truman and I are okay with uncertainty. We’re both willing to take one step forward, to ignore every whisper of “You can’t leave. You belong here.” That’s the trouble of being an especially curious person; I want to learn about whatever is outside my current realm of experience. I want to see what the unknown can tell me about myself and the world around me. It’s the same reason I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle, see the ocean, play a violin, jump the fences in my backyard.

My parents, though they tease me sometimes about them forcing me to stay, are accepting of my choice to leave home. I have the benefit of supportive friends and family, something that Truman didn’t have. And as much as I love my family and friends, and will miss them terribly while I’m having my long-awaited adventures, I know when I board the plane to Korea, my head will be swimming with “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”

Five Things That Scare Me

One of the questions we get asked when leaving for a big adventure is “Are you nervous?” or “Are you scared?” No matter how excited I am, my answer to this so far has been undoubtedly, “Yes.”

As one who tends to overthink things and get especially anxious about the unknown, I reflected on what exactly scares me about leaving the U.S. to live in Korea. Here are the top five things that scare me:

1. Being 6,249 miles away from my loved ones
I’m trying to entrust God with my family and friends while I’m gone. This is the ultimate letting-go for me. I keep reminding myself that it’s only a year. Only a year. But it’s especially hard, because I’ve never been away from them for so long. I’ve never been out of the country. Even when I moved out for my last year of college, I was still only a fifteen minute drive away from my parents’ house. So, I’m looking to God to allow peace and wellness over all my loved ones while I’m gone, and that if anything were to happen, he will hold everything together, as he always does.

But I also worry about what life will be like without them. I don’t know what it’s like to not have them near me for support and encouragement. As close as technology can bring us to each other these days, it won’t be the same as having my family and friends physically present in my life. I’m a little afraid that I’m going to get to Korea and think What have I done??? Who are all of these strangers?

2. My dog dying
My favorite animal in the world, Cody, is getting old. He’s about 11, and he’s in that stage where he has suspicious lumps on his body, he can barely get his Sheltie rump off the ground to stand up, and he mostly sleeps when he’s not eating. I’m gonna miss his presence as he lays by my bed, as he bites my pant legs because he thinks he’s supposed to herd me like a sheep. It’s going to be hard to pet his head in goodbye, because I know it might be the last time I do so.

I made my family promise that they wouldn’t just take tons of pictures of him as soon as I left (in case, he dies they said they would just send me a picture from their “archive” every once in awhile, making me think he’s still alive) or get him taxidermied (so they could just use him as a puppet when we Skype). My family is hilarious, as you can probably tell. But in all seriousness, I really would like to come back to my dog, alive and well, even if he’s a little more fragile.

3. Teaching Korean school children
On a lighter note, I’m afraid I’m going to struggle to communicate with the children I’ll be teaching. For the past three years, I’ve worked as a Writing Center consultant at my university, solely tutoring adults and sometimes high schoolers. You hardly ever see kids on a college campus, so when you do, it’s like, “Look! A tiny person! Is that a baby genius or are they with their parents because the babysitter is out sick?” Basically, I’ve got to get used to teaching an entirely different audience, with the addition of a language barrier.

And besides that, I’ve always been a tiny bit awkward with kids. I mean, I’m awkward with any person of any age, but I still have this weird fear of going for a Ms. Frizzle kind of coolness, and ending up more like Mr. Kimble from Kindergarten Cop. Both characters make inspirational teachers, but I don’t want to end up shouting “THERE EEZ NO BAWTHROOM!” to a bunch of children. We’ll see how it goes. I just bought a cardigan with pineapples all over it, so that should give me some confidence to start out with.

4. Losing important documents (like my passport)
The only stress dream I’ve had throughout this Korea-preparing process was one where I wandered through a dimly-lit airport checking and re-checking that I had everything with me. I just really, really, hope I don’t lose anything important, and that the trip there goes smoothly. Again, I’m going to have to trust my Father in heaven that I will be able to handle everything like the competent adult I pretend to be.

5. Liking Korea so much that I don’t want to come back
I don’t have a plan after year one of Korea. I’m not sure if I’ll return home, stay on for another year, go to grad school, do some more traveling, find a tech writing job, fly to the moon, join a circus. What if home is not Colorado Springs? Will my family be crushed if I don’t come back for longer than a year? Will I even be able to leave them for longer than that?

Giving my fears over to God is like peeling off a band-aid with an extra-strong adhesive, but I believe, one way or another, everything is going to be okay. (I think).

Being a Foreigner Abroad

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Smith. Check out his travel blog here.

“If you’re a giant freak monster here in the U.S., then it HAS to be even harder for you there in Albania!”

Truer words never spoken, friend.

Sometimes it is tough to be me in general. I have, unfortunately, never been able to fit in or go unnoticed anywhere in my life just because of my physical appearance alone. When traveling abroad, that feeling is amplified exponentially. Sometimes it is hard dealing with all of the attention I get, positive or negative, and it can be a bit tiring when everyone stares at/wants to take pictures with you when all you want to do is go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. To add to the whole sideshow attraction feeling, I make up about 25% of Albania’s current black population (maybe a little more since I’m bigger than the rest of them) so you can get an idea of how life is for me at present. If you’re just going on vacation somewhere, then it’s not that big a deal, but if you plan on living somewhere for an extended period of time, it can eventually become overwhelming and incredibly stressful.

That’s why I wanted to share with you Big Mike’s Top 5 Ways to Not Feel Like the Unwanted Foreigner in a Different Country (or “Coping Mechanisms” for short).

1. Walk with confidence! – Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. If you walk with confidence you will FEEL confident, and that feeling will carry you through a lot. It seems like a small tip or common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many times I see other visitors/my fellow volunteers hunched over slinking through their towns staring at the ground because they are afraid to make eye contact with the locals. That demeanor can actually ADD to your fears or unhappiness and give you that nagging, “I can’t wait to go home” thought in the back of your head. Get yourself together, fix that posture, and strut!

2. Learn the language! – Again, one would think that this is common sense if you are living in a country that doesn’t speak your L1 for an extended period of time, but I wouldn’t be bringing it up if I didn’t see people ignoring it everyday. You need to know at least enough for things like everyday conversations, work, travel, buying things, etc. When I see people just slamming English into everything and refusing to learn the language of the place that they live in it irks me. You don’t have to be perfect, but showing the locals that you’re trying does wonders for your approval rating and they will really appreciate the effort.

3. Make local friends – You need friends no matter where you go. Either someone that you can visit or can visit you. These friends can help you get adjusted or introduce you to other people or things that you may have never known about otherwise, and they are invaluable when settling in at a new place. And that doesn’t mean you have to make friends with EVERYONE. One or two really good friends will do just fine. It’s always better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.

4. Make American friends – We are quite literally everywhere…like a virus or a plague. Americans are absolutely all over the world, and chances are high that you will run into a few wherever it is that you are traveling to. You may even know some before you go. Some people will tell you that if you want to really be successful, you have to spend as little time with people that are like you as possible. I call b.s. You need as many connections as you can get in your strange new land, so don’t shun anyone! Odds are that they have gone through the things that you will go through as well and can help you to adjust more quickly. ‘MURICA /salute

E. Accept invitations – Inevitably you will be invited out to do things with local people, whether it be to get coffee or lunch or what have you. Make some time to go and hang out with your new peers and neighbors. Everyone will want to know about you, why you are there, for how long, what toothpaste you use, etc. Go out and get to know about them, too! Being open to little social meetings will do wonders for your integration and you could even find some new friends from there as well. Of course, use your judgement when accepting invites to things. Don’t go to someone’s house for “Netflix and chill” if you just met them, obviously…

If you find things getting a bit rough for you, these things will definitely help you get through most of it. You will find that most things that you are stressing about are all in your head and the more you integrate the faster they will go away. It will not be instantaneous, and it will feel like ice skating uphill for a little while, but eventually you will find your groove and start to love your new place.

A Swollen Suitcase

The first time I traveled by plane, I was 20 years-old and couldn’t take my eyes from the window. The earth passed underneath, a landscape of black ink blots and dark-brown, dotted lines, like a scarred face or a child’s scribbles.

From my seat, I saw the shadows of clouds. You sit outside and the passing of clouds subtly turns the sky dark, veiling the brightness of the sun like a fraction of night is returning. But from a plane, you can see the full shadow of a cloud stretching out; the darkness is happening to someone else now, and you watch. I realized that I could, for the first time, see from a different point of view. I was above the clouds, instead of the clouds above me. The strikes of lightning that came later when the sky grew dark on that plane ride looked like cloud-islands bursting from the inside.

I couldn’t wait to be in Memphis. Crossing the United States, I thought I might find rest for my wanderlust, which I carted around like a swollen suitcase.

*

I grew up locked in land. Nebraska is bordered on all sides by cornfields shooting deep in the soil, prairies bending in the wind, and big cities that outsiders fail to acknowledge: “You’re from Nebraska? So what was it like growing up on a farm?”

My home was in the suburbs. The creek that ran at the edge of our dead-end street and a long field that stretched from our house to a neighborhood adjacent are misrepresentative. Our neighborhood was also bordered by car dealerships, endless rows of houses, and city parks. The creek itself was strewn with gardens of misplaced clothes, vines of graffiti on the concrete tunnel that ran beneath our street, and a harvest of twisted pop cans.

My adventures didn’t often go beyond Pinkney Street, my homeschool friends’ houses, and the public library. We came up with our own ways of traveling, using the imagination that our parents and PBS Kids fostered in us.

My oldest brother, Aaron, wrote an elaborate story on a yellow legal pad—a sort of Chronicles of Narnia meets Lord of the Rings that described children entering into a new world through a gate and meeting strange creatures from bordering lands who battled each other for some underdeveloped plot reasons. Aaron made my other two brothers and I act these adventures out, our own personal book-to-movie adaptation.

We unlatched the metal gate that led from our backyard to the fenced-out wilderness of the tangled trees that led to the creek. I remember there were Ghost People and there were Fire People. And, most of all, I remember wandering away from the game (probably bored with my character’s lack of development and dialogue) to seek out my own story, talking to the trees like friends and unburying secrets from the trash-strewn dirt.

Though much of the storyline evades me now, entering through the portal-gate is what intrigued my childhood self, equipped in a purple and turquoise windbreaker and shoes caked in mud. It was from there that I could enter the brush on the other side of the fence and create my own space around what already existed there. Because I could enter through the gate, duck under a branch bent in an arc and twisted into another tree, and open onto a space that was continually changing and adapting in my mind, that space was all I needed.

In the realer world, I usually only traveled two places: my grandparents’ house in Wheatland, Wyoming and some close family friends in Florissant, Colorado (okay, there were a few other places we visited, sprinkled throughout my life—Mount Rushmore, the very edge of Iowa, the farther reaches of Wyoming, a road trip through Missouri). It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized a road trip to visit relatives didn’t “qualify” as a “vacation.”

As a middle-schooler, I saw a picture of my friend stretched out on a boat deck, her hair blowing in the breeze. I saw my aunt’s two sons smiling at Disneyland. I saw my best friend posing with her grandma at the Grand Canyon. My brother’s digital footage of museums in Germany. The missions trip photos of so many people I graduated with, holding African children in their arms.

Suddenly my grandma’s tiny town in Wheatland seemed so much smaller. Suddenly the minivan we drove from state to state seemed suffocating.

*

My childhood best friend flew nearly every summer to the Grand Canyon with her dad. I was continually impressed that she had this opportunity—how can her parents afford that? She just goes and sits and reads a book while flying millions of miles in the air?

I became used to people finding out I’d never ridden a plane and exclaiming, “What?! You’ve never been on a plane?! Okay. We’re going this summer. My parents will pay for it.”

As a kid, I never realized how much money we didn’t have. We were wealthy enough—I had food and clothes and an education. But, the times we ate out were often because we earned free coupons from the library reading program, much of my clothes were handed down from me by family friends who had daughters, and I was blessed to be homeschooled by my mother who was a teacher before she started to have kids. We were definitely not poor. But a plane ride for a family of six was beyond my imagination.

Before my first plane ride, one of my biggest claims to adventure was moving from Omaha to Colorado Springs when I was eleven. I wandered the house aimlessly, trying to process having to leave everything I’d ever known—the one house I’d ever lived in. The one town I knew well enough to get to the necessities—the library, the swimming pool, school. I wouldn’t get to see my best friend anymore. Tears flamed behind my eyes. I sobbed at my mother.

“You can call her whenever you want,” she tried to reassure me. I was terrified of having to make new friends—of knowing I wouldn’t continue to grow up with them. It was like losing siblings.

The rope tying me to the doorstep of my home frayed and snapped with every mile our car drove away, and the city passed by in a blur through my tears.

Our first summer in Colorado, my brothers and I explored the mountains in Florissant, shimmying up boulders and peering over steep ledges onto the tops of pine trees. The air was thin and the everyday weather contained all four seasons. There were no fireflies. But the moments I experienced on the edges of rocky cliffs, in caves, underneath towering trees that smelled like Christmas made me fall in love with a changing environment. Sun, rain, snow. Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado.

*

About nine years later, my uncle invited us to visit him in Tennessee. We would fly on a plane. We didn’t have that kind of money. Dad said no. Uncle Steve offered to pay for our tickets; he was a surgeon and a saint. My parents discussed it. My father hesitantly, but appreciatively, said, “Yes.”

I tried not to get too excited (but I was electric with excitement). Soon we were mentally preparing:

“Sarah, research how much shampoo we’re allowed to take on the plane.”

What time do we have to get up in the morning?”

“How loud do I have to say ‘bomb’ before they do a strip search?”

No one is going to say the word ‘bomb’ while we’re at the airport. Just don’t.”

My family’s excitement about getting on a plane might have been adorable. To other passengers, it was probably like we were telling them, “I’m so excited to ride in an automobile! I’ve never ridden in one before. Only biked. In fact, I usually just roller skate everywhere.”

In Tennessee, I didn’t want to leave. It was hot and muggy and there were fireflies. I loved that there was more ethnic diversity. I loved that we could set off fireworks and not get fined. This all felt like Nebraska, like home. Beautiful and comforting. But it was also like being in a wilderness so unfamiliar I wanted to reach out and tangle myself in the impenetrable forests draped in the thick nettings of vines we drove by on the highway. I wanted to bring the color green back with me to Colorado Springs.

*

As the plane picked up speed and I braced myself against its accelerating kick and rush, it felt like an elevator lifting to the next floor. We were quiet, listening to the hum and creaks of the plane. Outside the fields rushed past.

Right when I thought it couldn’t possibly lift off the ground, the plane rose into the air.