OverSEAS Perspective: A Look Back
As I enjoyed the comforts of Singapore Air, rated the best airline in the world — an enjoyment only diminished by the sheer length of the 21-plus-hour plane ride from New York to Singapore — with other Carolina Southeast Asia Summer program students, UNC alumni were gathering in Chapel Hill to reminisce over their own travels aboard the S.S. France, a luxury liner, to Lyon, France 40 years ago. The reunion, which included a number of alumni from 1968-69 and 1970-71, began on Friday night with a wine-and-cheese social at The Carolina Inn and progressed with a Saturday dinner at the French restaurant Provence and a Sunday breakfast back at the inn.
Boasting a silk district and the Presqu’île, home to architecture spanning from the 12th century to the modern era and now deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lyon hosts a booming tourist industry. But for Vivian Lutian ’72, who helped organize the reunion, Lyon was more than a place where she traveled — it was her home for a year. Lutian told me that she still often thinks about her year abroad in Lyon. “I have had many dreams about walking around the old town in Lyon, taking in the historic buildings, being transported back into the Middle Ages, window shopping, looking at all of the passers-by, sitting in a lovely little French cafe enjoying coffee, taking in the atmosphere, listening to everyone speaking French as they walked by.”
I understand where she’s coming from, as I feel similarly about Singapore. This is not my first trip to Southeast Asia. Last summer, I traveled to Singapore, India and Brunei with the SEAS program. Over the course of this past year, I’ve continually thought back to the things that I missed most about Singapore: watching the city wake up during early morning runs; trying new dishes like barbequed stingray, chili crab and jelly made with turtle shells; biking through the tiny island of Pulau Ubin and standing an arm’s length away from monkeys at MacRitchie; celebrating the 4th of July at Marina Bay Sands with fireworks and Milo King Kongs (an ice cream drink complete with mounds of Milo, an Asian version of Nesquik); getting fitted for a white silk suit in Chinatown; and going to the top of the Sands Hotel to watch the sun set over the city and to enjoy a breathtaking view of Singapore, stretching to the foggy edges of Malaysia.
That’s why I decided to return with the SEAS program this year — and probably why Vivian and her classmates met twice over the past 40 years for reunions in Lyon — because the country made an imprint on my heart and I didn’t want to simply imagine how it had changed and what it was like. I wanted to return and be a part of it.
As the program’s research fellow, I’ve had the unique opportunity to conduct my own research, studying Singaporean national identity from a female perspective through a series of in-depth interviews with women spanning the ethnic, socio-economic and age spectrum in order to understand how Singaporean women define themselves and to determine common threads between the ethnic groups. But I’ve also had the chance to show a new group of students some of my favorite places in Singapore: like the shops in Chinatown, the fruit market in Little India, and the perfume shop on Arab Street. When I told my friends from SEAS 2011 that I was returning with the program, several of them asked me how I’d adjust to seeing some of the same places with different people. I’d anticipated that a different group dynamic would prove challenging, but it has actually helped open my eyes to different aspects of Singapore.
Before leaving for our trip this year, we’d been reminded that places will change in our absence even as we tend to keep them stationary in our minds. This truth has never been more evident than in my return to Singapore.
So much has changed in a year! The dormitory where I have stayed both years — Prince George’s Park — has undergone considerable renovations, adding a new courtyard that has completely transformed the landscape. And a new Mass Rapid Transit stop right by campus, under construction last year, is complete, transforming a 20-minute delay at the bus stop into a 10-minute walk to a closer station.
Not only has Singapore changed in a year, but I’ve changed as well; I’m looking forward to doing some of the things that I didn’t get around to before: taking a ride on the Singapore Flyer, the tallest Ferris wheel in the world; going to the Shay movie theater in the downtown Orchard area; exploring nightlife at Clark Quae; trying out the National University of Singapore’s Olympic-sized swimming pool; having tea with a local Singaporean woman at her home. The list goes on.
In some ways, my return to Singapore is a lot like a reunion. I’m getting together with friends that I made last summer and going back to some of my favorite places. But in other ways it’s quite different because I’m having the chance to see the country in a new way — from the perspective of 25 people who are seeing it for the first time.
Emily Palmer, a rising junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.