Along Geylang Road

Sometimes Singapore feels like the rest of Southeast Asia. I live in Geylang, a neighborhood heavily steeped in Malay culture and historically also Singapore’s red light district. When I tell Singaporeans where I live, they’re often initially skeptical and it usually takes a second before people remind themselves that “it’s a lot better now.” And when that takes too long, people are usually satisfied once I qualify “I live in Geylang” with the specific intersection and local landmark across the street. It’s kind of like talking to people who have only experienced the New York City of the 1980s or who once visited a cousin on Staten Island (sorry, Staten Island).

Due to its Malay history and heritage, Geylang Road is also home to the Hari Raya night market that lasts through the month of Ramadan, similar to the Deepavali market that I always like visiting in Little India. I watched lights appearing for a week before the market started and wandered down the street last Sunday night to see what there was to see.

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(Spoiler alert: There was a lot to see!)

The night market sells everything, as night markets do. Most of it was inside tents and pavilions under absolutely garish floodlights. There were stalls selling clothing and shoes . . .

. . . home goods . . .

. . . henna and other accessories . . .

. . . and fun decorations. . . .

And then there was the carnival for kids with a range of prototypical carnival rides like a carousel, little roller coaster, flying animal rides, and bumper cars. The whole thing reminded me of the summer fairs at home, though without the prizewinning animals on display.

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And, of course, there were lights everywhere, including the interior of Geylang Serai Market to match the exterior festivities:

My favorite part, though, which is true of every market, carnival, fair, or general mass gathering of humanity, was the food. I was too busy with my camera to buy anything but I loved the sheer variety of offerings. One learns a lot about a people and culture from food choices, and I loved the diversity of offerings at the Hari Raya night market. Globalization at its finest.

Shout out to these two guys who saw me taking a picture of their sign and couldn’t help but wave hello:

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One can say a lot about Singapore – that it’s sterile, repressive, oppressive, and dictatorial are common criticisms. But Singapore is also a place where different groups are allowed to celebrate who they are and invite everyone else along with them. In my experience here, though taxi drivers and older Singaporeans often tell a different story, there’s a real love of multiculturalism here. Perhaps manufactured, perhaps gilded rather than golden, but it’s there. And I’m glad.

Ramadan Mubarak, from Geylang Road.

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On Happiness

I’m teaching the culture part of a unit on sociocultural psychology. We talk about values and norms and the ways that people in different cultures remember, learn, and express what they know. We talk about learning how to behave in our own cultures and becoming part of new cultures. We talk about expectations. We talk about what it means to be happy.

Most of the time, happiness for me actually means contentment. It means feeling okay with and good about what’s happening immediately around me. Less “Wow, how awesome!” and more “This is really nice.” In the book How Emotions Are Made Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that there’s a difference between North American “happy happy joy joy” and East Asian tranquility and equanimity. We don’t all conceive of happiness in the same way and those differences are very important for the way we view the world. I was in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown back in high school and the closing number, “Happiness,” got me every time.

Though we sometimes forget it in the age of Instagram, Buzzfeed Top Ten lists, and selfie sticks, happiness is in simplicity.


I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Several times over the last few weeks, a conversation from half a year ago has returned to mind. I was with a friend who I’ve only seen once or twice since, neither of us speaking much that day. We were both concerned with and unsettled by the future. We were uncertain. Jobs, choices, change, moving, moving on. After some moments of silence, my friend asked, “What makes you happy?”

I remember it took me several seconds to respond. I remember the knot in my stomach and how I had to acknowledge it, experience it, and admit to it before I could let it go. I was not feeling happy in that moment and answering the question took time.

“Lots of things,” I replied, intellectually knowing this was the right answer even if I couldn’t quite feel it.

“Like what?”

“Oh, you know, things.” It took a moment, but there’s a lot to be said for state-dependent memory (and learning). Once the ideas came, they came quickly. “The smell of coffee. Sunny mornings with a breeze. Being outside. Books. Writing. Taking pictures. Being with friends and family. Intimate moments. Traveling. Learning new things. Delicious vegetables. Making food for people.”


That conversation has come back to me strangely often in the last few weeks. I’ve been experiencing a sort of mental shift, I think, one that started when I was in Europe at the beginning of April. Over the last month, I’ve grown more accustomed to the calm and quiet that my mind has found. Sometimes I find myself feeling okay in a situation or with thoughts that would have bothered me just weeks ago. This is good.

Maybe this is what it means to grow up. Maybe there’s wisdom in letting go, in observing, and in accepting today without judgment. There certainly seems to be freedom there. The only thing I know for sure is that a better version of myself is one who sees happiness in all the small moments that occur every day, and I’m glad to be there right now.

 

Singapore Things

(Not to be confused with the famed Singapore Sling, which I have yet to try, mostly because I don’t like pineapple juice; some fruits should just stay solids.)

One of my favorite neighborhoods in Singapore is Kampong Glam, the center of Malay history and culture here and, historically, home to much of the Muslim community. Today, it’s a mix of Malay culture, upscale Middle Eastern restaurants, vintage clothing boutiques, and every variety of café with every possible gimmick (cats included). There are also vibrant murals adorning the walls of the heritage shophouses, which are a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. I took the photo below of one of my favorite murals while sitting at Juice Clinic, a very affordable café/bar with all sorts of food and drinks. The hands on the left are part of a different piece of street art, one that creeps me out a little every time. And yes, the sky opened up and a typical tropic rain ensued.

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Just on the outskirts of Kampong Glam is Parkview Square, an Art Deco building designed in the style of 1920s New York City that looks unlike anything else in Singapore. Singapore is fairly well split between preserving heritage and embracing modernity, but Parkview Square doesn’t fit into either category.

In addition to embassies, offices, and a contemporary art museum with free entry!, Parkview Square also contains Atlas Bar in its elegant main lobby. They serve lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea and are known for their collection of 1,000 types of gin and 250 types of champagne. I have yet to be there when Atlas is open, but rest assured that I am looking forward to that moment.

Looking for something to do this weekend? Wander through Kampong Glam. Chances are, I’ll be there, too!

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place