While I was walking to work one morning, an elderly man approached me and asked me for directions to a building. To my surprise, I instantly knew what building he was talking about and was able to navigate him around the area. This experience may not seem to be much, but to me, it meant I was fully integrated into the Singaporean way of life. In that moment, I no longer felt like I was a “foreigner” studying and working in Singapore, but I truly felt like I was a local Singaporean and that I had fully adapted to the country I am studying in. However, this was not always the case as I did experience a huge culture shock when I first arrived in Singapore.
When I first arrived in Singapore, I was so excited to start my journey because it was my first time traveling outside of North America. I tried to visit and eat as many things as possible during my first few days here with my fellow university students. However, once a week or two passed by and I had started my internship every weekday from 9 to 5, and I started to feel a little bit lonely.
I lived in a single room, and that was honestly one of the reasons why I often felt alone during my time here. Unlike the dorms in the United States where the halls are alive and students would hang out with each other in the lounge, the dorms here are the exact opposite. First of all, it was during the summer, so there was barely anyone on campus. Everyone from my university was spread out and lived in different buildings, so it was really hard to find someone to talk to especially during week nights. Because everyone had a full time internship that usually didn’t end until 6 PM, it was really hard to balance working and socializing during the first few weeks. Furthermore, there was no lounge area in the dorm for people to sit in and socialize which made it harder for me to stumble into new people and talk to them. As a result, during the first few weeks of my time in Singapore, I often felt like I had no one to turn to. I often felt homesick and missed my family and friends at home. Thankfully, we tried to keep in touch as often as possible even with the huge time difference, which definitely helped me deal with the new environment.
I lived in a single room at one of the residences at the National University of Singapore.
Work was also a huge difficulty, as the work culture is so different from the United States. Singaporean work culture is definitely very different from the United States’ work culture. One of the biggest shocks that I have experienced is how employees really value teamwork and collectivism. What I mean by this is unlike the United States where individual achievement is highly valued, Singaporeans focus more on working together to achieve success. In a collectivist culture, Singaporeans strive to work together, share responsibilities, and achieve rewards together rather than strive for individual recognition. I learned this when I was working with my supervisor who was nominated for a Media of the Year award. When working on a video to highlight her achievements, she told me to focus on her whole team as they are the ones who helped her get where she is today.
Another thing I have noticed is how hard Singaporeans work and how punctual they are. Working hours are usually from 9 AM to 6 PM but almost everyone stays past 6 PM. I asked several people on my team why they always stay later than their work hours, and they said they usually stay until 8 or 9 PM in order to finish everything and prepare for tomorrow. I never thought I would have to work overtime as an intern, but I actually had to work overtime on many occasions. There was one time where I had to stay past 11 PM in order to meet deadlines as everyone was piling workloads on me. However, this was a time when the Singaporean “collectivist” value came into play as a lot of my coworkers offered to pick up my work and help me out. In fact, during the night where I had to work overtime, one coworker stayed with me to make sure I finished everything by the deadline. Although work was very difficult and I had a lot more responsibilities than I had anticipated, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by people who cared which helped me adapt to the culture.
Lastly, although many people criticize Singapore’s work culture to be very hierarchical, my company is quite different. In fact, everyone is very chill and friendly towards one another and often makes jokes too. Even an intern like me who is here for just two months can make fun of my bosses. I had to direct a video for my supervisors to use for a sales pitch and during the filming process, we did a lot of silly things in front of each other. I had full creative license during the process and could do anything I wanted. As a result, I felt like my company had more of a laid-back and Western cultural approach.
Now being back in the United States, I realize how diverse Singapore is. At my workplace, there were people from all parts of the world: China, India, Russia, Australia, and so many more. This is my favorite part about Singapore and the thing that I will take with me the most. I believe that each person can and must learn from other cultures in order to grow and create a more harmonious society.
I was a little hesitant to study abroad at first not only due to my financial situation but also because it would be my first time traveling outside of North America. However, this experience in Singapore has exceeded all my expectations. I have never seen a place so diverse, clean, regulated, and architecturally stunning as The Lion City. Throughout my time here, I have learned so much about not only Singaporean culture, but also my role as a global citizen in this globalized world. Using my internship and courses, I have noticed how Singapore and my workplace can be described as a unique mix of Asian and Western cultural influences due to the increasing amount of globalization. Furthermore, I definitely feel like I have grown and become more independent. I have never felt more “adult” as I did when I commuted to work using the public transportation, bought my own meals, and planned out my schedule every day. I will continue to use what I learned during my time here in Singapore to become a better global citizen. To anyone who is thinking about studying or interning abroad in Singapore, please do it! Everyone here is so friendly and willing to share their experiences and if you’re a foodie and photography junkie like me, this will be absolute heaven!