My high school years were spent in a small monarchy in Southern Africa. Nestled between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland had a population of 1 million and could be driven from end to end in less than a day. Its King had fourteen wives and its landscape had innumerable mountains and hills. A three hour drive from the bustling Johannesburg metropolis, Swaziland was a quiet and lush oasis, in which there was not much to do other than climb mountains and go to school.
My high school, Waterford Kamhlaba United World College, was created in response to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was the first multi-racial school in South Africa, with patrons the likes of Nelson Mandela and Richard Attenborough, and alumni with far more accomplishments than I have time to name.
Being a United World College, it had students from around the world who eventually graduated and also went to universities around the world. However, most people chose to complete their education in either the UK, Canada or the USA. Before the application period, we were expected to submit a list of the universities we were applying to, and after the acceptance period we all received a list of the schools everyone had been accepted into (a practice that has since stopped, I believe). Whilst there was the odd school in South America, and later a peppering of NYUs in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, most of the schools were in Europe or North America. It was the status quo.
Out of the however-many schools I applied to, two were in Asian countries, which came as a sort of I'm-not-surprised-surprise for most of the people who knew me. I think I had always held a sort of backseat fascination for the Asian continent, though it wasn't immediately noticeable. In the 10th grade, I remember being teased incessantly for having a crush on a senior who originally came from India. "Look, Iwani, we're driving past a curry store, why don't you go in there and look for your next husband!" they said. Then came the crush on a Chinese senior, but at that point I knew better than to tell my friends about it.
My closest friend Katie, was Taiwanese, and her parents owned the only Chinese restaurant in the area. Although I mostly listened to The Temper Trap and other such bands with her (I was emo-adjacent, let's not get into it), towards the end of my high school years my music and movie tastes broadened to include Eastern works, from AR Rahman to Xian's Yellow River Conerto (in my wide-eyed obsession, I swore if I ever married someone of Chinese descent, I would walk down the aisle to Movement Three).
In my last year of high school, I had the chance to attend a tech conference in Hong Kong, in which I had the first authentic Chinese food ever, I discovered that not only did McDonald's deliver but it could still do so during a typhoon, and I found that I could connect with Asian peers in a way that I never entirely could with Western ones. When we shared about our impending university plans and applications and expectations, there was an unspoken but shared understanding that stemmed from a modern-traditional upbringing by African and Asian parents (the stereotypes are quite similar after all, and not too far from the truth).
When the time finally came to apply to university, I had two schools from East Asia on my list: Hong Kong University (obviously) and Yale-NUS in Singapore. My parents were surprised but not worried, as I had more than enough universities in North America and Europe. When the acceptance letters came back, they were ecstatic - there was no question about it, their daughter would be going to Princeton University on a scholarship. My parents had unfortunately forgotten who their daughter was for a second.
I won't get into details, but there were several trans-ocean flights (mine) and several tears (my mums) and several argument-conversations (ours) and level-headed interjections (my dads), but in the end I made my decision. On the last possible decision day, with 12 hours to go, I chose Princeton.
Then I cried miserably for an hour whilst walking around the cold and rainy Princeton campus. After a while of damp and teary wandering, I found myself in front of the computer science building (because at that time I was still deluding myself into thinking I wanted to be a programmer). It was a squat, uninspiring grey-brown building that paled in comparison to the shiny architecture of Singapore. I cried some more.
Later, with only 2 hours to go until the final decision, I called my mum and bravely told her that I wanted - more than anything - to go to school in Singapore. "The eyes of the world are turning to Asia, and I want to be there. I want to be at the forefront of something, be part of the history of a great institution, rather than walk in the footsteps of someone else's forefathers," I said, although much less coherently.
I knew I wanted a completely new and different narrative from my university experience, one in which I had no idea what to expect. How many movies have you seen about college in Asia? Aside from Three Idiots (set in India), I had seen none. I knew very little and that excited me. I wanted to spend my spring break in Thailand, and learn how to read a language with characters (I would have learnt Chinese but Korea stole my heart). I wanted to go to parties on top of skyscrapers and try sake and soju instead of cheap beer in a dorm party with a jock called Travis or something equally WASP-y.
Moreover, I had grown fatigued of western narratives. In school, our history books were written by Europeans, who would often given a cursory glance over significant time periods, leaving me hungry for knowledge but disappointed with the offerings. I was almost nauseated by Hollywood and all of its overdone tropes and I was sure I would hurl if I had to read another piece of literature written by an old white guy, or about an old white guy, or for an old white guy (which is why I'm surprisingly well read but I don't particularly care for or remember much of it). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the value of old white men and their contribution to modern thought and world knowledge and all, and all, and all, however I am thoroughly saturated with the West and its old white guys. There. I said it, and I refuse to take it back. I have grown up with Western media, Western beauty standards, Western food and Western pop culture and I had grown tired of it all.
Although my curriculum in Singapore still included enough old white guys to make me gag (Aristotle, Plato, Hume, Marx, Mills, Hobbes, bloody Tocqueville, Durkheim, Foucault and then some, no offence to them though), there was also a wealth of different works that I was eager to learn about (The Analects, The Ramayana, The Bhagavad Gita, Plum in the Golden Vase, Kongzi, Mengzi, Ibn Khaldun, The Dalai Lama, Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, Lee Quan Yew, Ho Chi Minh, and so many more).
In my two years here, I've learned the joys of xiao long bao and salted egg yolk custard steamed buns (from Swee Choon, obviously). I've eaten oyster omelettes and carrot cake that was neither carroty nor a cake but made my tastebuds sing. I've been to the top of so many buildings that I could probably paint the Singapore skyline with my eyes closed, except for the small problem that I can't paint at all. I've been bike riding in Laos amidst the most breath-taking mountains that shoot right up into the sky, and I've ridden a motorcycle through the rice fields in Bali. I've casually flown to Bangkok and Jakarta for two days each and I've learned how much patience it requires to date a Singaporean guy.
I've connected with people whose past was also colonised, and whose voices have gone unrecognised unless it was to serve a stereotype. I've been to slam poetry nights, my favourite of which was with Khosal Kiev, a Cambodian man born in a Thai refugee camp who spent 14 years in a Californian prison before being deported to Cambodia without a penny to his name. I've spent whole days at the Asian Civilisations Museum, and Sundays at The Projector watching Japanese films in an old movie theatre. I can actually tell apart people from similar countries and pronounce almost every name I came across (except for perhaps Thai names, I'm still working on that), and I revel in rolling my eyes along with my friends when yet another white person is cast as an Asian in a Hollywood flick. I feel like I belong, in a weird way - as though there are little parts of my heart that I've given to Singapore and Japan and Korea and India and everywhere else because even though I know I'm not a local and I'll never ever understand what that truly means, I'm not an outsider either, and that's something to be reckoned with.
That's perhaps the most incredible part about choosing to live anywhere in Asia - moving to Singapore exposed me to so many other parts of Asia as well. With Chinese, Indian and Malay being the three largest demographics and all of their cultures weaving into the city, plus the ubiquitousness of Japanese and Korean culture, one cannot help but feel part of a larger Asian community than only the country one lives in.
I have lived my first two years of college so far removed from any narrative I had ever come across, and although it hasn't been easy, it was the best decision I've ever made. I had reached a point where I believed there was nothing new under the sun. And then I moved to South East Asia.
The sunshine looks fantastic from here.
Unless they're burning forests in Indonesia again. Stop it, Indonesia.
Pepper & Söl