An account by a 23-year-old American woman.
Minorities in Singapore
‘Ang moh’—a term I’d never heard of before moving to Singapore.
At first, I thought it was the name of a popular bar or one of those fluffy buns you get from neighbourhood bakeries. But as time passed, I caught on when the term suspiciously followed me everywhere I went.
With Singapore being the first country I’ve lived in as a minority, establishing a sense of belonging alongside premeditated assumptions can be challenging.
Nevertheless, diving head first into the local culture is how I’ve chosen to make the most of my time so I can get the full Singaporean experience. After all, this red dot is now my home too.
Venturing out to the hawker centre with my colleagues during the lunchtime rush has given me aspects of the cultural experience that I crave. If I’ve learned anything thus far, it’s that Singaporeans love food.
At Boon Keng market, braving the queues with sweaty salarymen can be intimidating. Standing at 175cm tall with blonde locks and blue eyes, it’s crystal clear that I’m a foreigner. The stares are enough to remind me that I stick out like a sore thumb.
Mustering the courage to squeak “kopi o kosong peng”—yes, I am #basic enough to go to the hawker centre just to order a black iced coffee—is scary enough. But when the Auntie peers from her register while holding back a laugh, it’s hard not to feel self-conscious.
I must admit, I prefer my $2 kopi from the hawker centre. But due to stage fright, I often find myself coughing up $7 one too many times at Starbucks instead.
It’s easy to think “just don’t give a f*ck” but balancing my life as a broke, post-grad, single, 23-year-old girl who just moved across the world to a foreign country—talk about an emotional rollercoaster.
Feeling out of place and dealing with the constant “are you lost?” looks will take some getting used to, but I guess it comes with the territory. I can’t really say I blame them though because I am a long way from my original roots—9,649 miles to be exact.
But the culture I find in hawker centres never ceases to amaze me; how every Singaporean can unite through their common love for food.
Who knows, maybe in a few months, I’ll be ordering char kway teow without batting an eyelash.
Ah, and of course, Mr. President Donald Trump. Not a week goes by where his name doesn’t pop up ~casually~ into a conversation. After all, he’s one of the world’s most infamous men alive.
As an American, it’s no surprise how the past US Presidential elections have made me a moving target. Almost as if a large neon sign reading: “ASK ME ABOUT TRUMP, PLEASE!!!” starts hovering over my head as soon as my accent is recognised.
One week after I moved to Singapore, a lady stopped me in the elevator and asked, “American? So Trump then?”. Biting my tongue, I politely replied, “Yup, seems to be a popular topic here.”
I thought the judgemental eyes for the next 18 floors up were the extent of my political interactions, but taxi rides and bar conversations proved me wrong.
While I won’t weigh in on my political view, I find it unfortunate to be judged right off the bat based on my nationality. Being one out of over 320 million US Citizens, it’s presumptuous to assume I’m a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt-wearing Republican just by a two-second interaction.
Yes, I do agree Mr. Trump needs to stop ‘fake baking’ and that he should invest in a new toupee, but that’s where I draw the line on political exchanges with a complete stranger.
For every negative connotation surrounding Trump, there’s a handful of others who just want to share their two cents’ worth. This election has the whole world shook, so while I get that the curiosity is genuine, I’d much rather talk about the unique obsession with durians and why they’re banned on public transport. Or just anything else.
Weekend nights in the Quays or on Club Street can feel like an alternate universe where the United States, Europe, and Australia joined forces and met in Singapore.
Singapore is one of the largest working capitals in the world, with expats in PMET jobs making up around 24% of the population.
But despite the large number, expats in Singapore seem to have created a sheltered culture of their own, which is comforting for homesickness, albeit questionable. You’ll even find “expat neighbourhoods” in Singapore.
So how did we create this barrier between us? A drunken 2am heart-to-heart with my Uber driver revealed:
- A fun, exciting weekend activity for an expat may be journeying to Sentosa whereas locals would probably choose something less overdone. With different places of interests, there’s bound to be a disconnect.
- Expats usually stay in Singapore temporarily, so if they won’t be here for long, it could be seen as a waste of time to become friends.
While my opinionated Uber driver can’t speak for the whole country, it made me think about the reasons behind the divide.
Being a natural-born social butterfly, finding an approach to break into the local community has been at the top of my list. Through weekend workouts with my colleagues and pop-up events with friends I’ve made at the local gym, I’ve been trying to explore this city through the eyes of the locals.
Ang Mohs in Singapore
The truth of the matter is, assumptions will be made anywhere you go. Living in Hawaii, I was referred to as a ‘haole’ (Hawaiian slang for white people) while in Washington DC, Australia, and London, I was labelled a ‘spoiled white girl’ without basis.
It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that a term like ‘Ang Moh’ in Singapore would follow. I’ll admit that the term didn’t initially bother me, and to my understanding, it’s not derogatory…provided people don’t lump people in the same box just by their skin colour.
Frankly, breaking into the local community hasn’t been all that easy. There are still barriers I need to overcome and people I need to prove myself to, but choosing not to back down has also been a rewarding and fulfilling experience.