2017 was tough. Even setting aside the obvious travesty of Trump’s presidency, the past twelve months have battered me. My closest friend was killed in a freak sledding accident. My family’s cat of nearly twenty years died of renal failure. My parents, married for 30+ years, separated. My health suffered after months of working 100 hours a week; I developed a crippling viral pneumonia that left me wan and exhausted. The sable talons of depression have sunk into my flesh once again. And yet, I’m here. Bruised, thin, quieter. Wiser, kinder, more empathetic, more spontaneous, more appreciative of life’s precious tenuousness. On net, a more complete person, but the transaction has been hell. 2017, I won’t miss you.
“Wait…you want to send me where?” comes my somewhat shrill response after my boss reveals my newest travel destination: Brunei.
Unsure even of where Brunei exists on the globe, I research online about the country, and my findings alarm me. Located on the northwestern edge of the Malaysian island of Borneo roughly two hours by air from Singapore, Brunei is a small Islamic nation that boasts tremendous oil and natural gas wealth. The ruling king, or Sultan, has a net worth exceeding $40 billion US dollars; and with a total population of only 400,000 persons, the country possesses one of the highest per capita GDP figures in the world. These data account for my boss’s interest in the market, but my mind dwells on other aspects of the country: namely, its recent implementation of hardline Sharia Islamic law, its geographic proximity to known jihadist organizations in Indonesia, and its constant 100% humidity level. Nevertheless, because the US State Department lists no specific travel advisories for Brunei, I pluck up the courage–or, more accurately, rely on an abundance of hopeful naivete–and board my plane at Singapore Airport, and prepare to depart.
I say “prepare to depart” because that is all the initial flight achieves. Shortly after the passengers have boarded, the jetway malfunctions and wedges against the side of our plane’s fuselage. The captain immediately cancels the flight and orders the disembarkation of all crew and passengers. We climb down stairs on the undamaged side of the aircraft and return to the airport terminal, where complimentary lunch and gift baskets placate us until Singapore Airlines can scrounge up a spare plane, a 777-300. I try to imagine what it costs the airline to do this, for our entire host of passengers totals scarcely 100, yet we are to make use of a aircraft intended to carry nearly 400. The boarding process this time proceeds uneventfully, and each passenger gets an entire row of seats to himself or herself. Shortly after takeoff, I stretch my frame horizontally across three adjacent berths and promptly fall asleep, thinking to myself, “Well, one could imagine worse beginnings to the trip.”
Evening approaches as we descend towards Brunei International Airport, and I peer out the window to catch my first glimpses of the country. Instead of the urban megalopolis to which I have grown accustomed in my five weeks in Singapore, sparsely settled jungle spreads inland from turquoise waters of the South China Sea. At irregular intervals, golden minarets of mosques rise above the treeline. The few small office buildings of the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB for short, are visible for just a moment before we land. Entering the airport, I receive my first exposure to Brunei’s wealth and to its paradoxical lack of development. The terminal building is luxurious–with marble floors, mahogany walls, chandeliers, brass balustrades, and sharply liveried attendants who greet disembarking passengers–yet lacks a bit of practicality. The arrivals area has a KFC and a Burger King serving halal foods but lacks any service desks for arranging hotels or transportation or local SIM phone cards. The information desk is unattended and, indeed, appears as though it hasn’t been attended in many months. Because of my late arrival, the airport shuttle from my hotel is no longer available, and thus, unable to call the hotel, I find myself standing at the terminal exit and facing the country, without any idea of how to proceed and with a constant expectation of being attacked, abducted, savagely beaten, and held for ransom by some rogue militant group.
That is when I begin to notice the local Bruneians around me. Aside from the Islamic dress worn by both women and men, their most immediately obvious feature is a relaxed and friendly demeanor. No one seems in a particular hurry. They stare at me, as is always the case in my Asia travels, but smile warmly when I meet their eyes. Most speak only limited English, but none are unwilling to try to help me; one man even offers me his cell phone to call the hotel, but the number I have is incorrect. They eventually direct me to the taxi stand, where I meet John.
John and his colleague Brandon will become my personal cabbies for the duration of my week-long stay. Brunei has a grand total of 30 taxi cabs in the entire country, and therefore, visitors grow to know the drivers personally. John is sixty-ish, a native Bruneian, married, with three grown children–two in the workforce, one still in college–and has an unerring knowledge of every street in Brunei. His favorite vacation spot is Singapore, but he says the cabbies there are unhappy because “they’re chasing after money.” Brandon, whom I meet the next day, is in his thirties, less experienced but enthusiastic, newly married, with a three-year-old daughter and a desire to one day visit NYC. As John takes me from the airport to my hotel in BSB and en route points out distinctive buildings and explains local traditions and customs, I consider his frank kindness and that of the strangers at the airport, and I begin to question my fears about Brunei.
I will not bore the reader with details of my business experience in the country. In short, I visit with many local doctors and quickly learn that the native population, though happy and given access to free public healthcare and subsidized housing, does not share directly in the abundant oil money. The private physicians charge only $20-30 Bruneian dollars, or roughly $15 USD, for a typical consultation and cannot possibly afford the exorbitant costs of my company’s services. Curiously, though, they seem more peaceful and contented than the overworked, highly paid, highly stressed doctors back in Singapore or back home in the States.
On Thursday, I have no physician appointments, and I decide to explore. In the morning, I go to the Royal Regalia Museum, which chronicles the history of the Royal Family, uninterrupted rulers of Brunei for more than six centuries. At the museum entrance, visitors must remove shoes and relinquish their phones and cameras, but the marvelous contents of the museum more than justify this slight inconvenience. The museum’s many rooms contain priceless artifacts such as gem-studded ceremonial crowns, a gold-flaked chariot used in the current Sultan’s coronation, and dozens of silver and gold trinkets he received from world leaders for his Jubilee celebration. Countless portraits and photographs praise “His Highness,” and for someone from a country established in large part in protestation against the tyranny of royalty, I find both interesting and slightly nauseating this unreserved adoration of a mortal man.
Later in the afternoon, I call Brandon and ask to go on a city tour. For two hours, he takes me to various notable buildings and sites, and also serves as willing cameraman to take the obligatory cultural immersion photos of me standing in front of famous structures. The first place we visit is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, located in downtown BSB. Constructed by the current Sultan’s late father, the mosque boasts an exterior facade of gleaming, unbroken white stone and minarets topped with domes of, I’m told, actual gold. A moat surrounds the facility, and in the moat floats an enormous ornamental barge-like vessel, the purpose of which I do not know. As a non-Muslim, I initially feel rather nervous about approaching the temple grounds, but the few worshipers I encounter react to my presence by waving cordially and by offering to answer any questions I may have. I find myself once again disarmed by the Bruneian hospitality. Brandon and I proceed next to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, located further from the BSB core and built by the present Sultan. This structure dwarfs its predecessor, and is stunning. Whereas the father’s mosque is notable for its seamless white exterior, the son’s mosque is a splendid panoply of colors and patterns: jade, white marble, ebony, copper, and of course, gold. The building spreads across several acres and boasts a massive dome plated with 24-carat gold; four giant minarets hundreds of feet tall and also gold-topped guard the four corners of the temple. I take photos, knowing well that they will not capture the true presence of such a majestic structure.
After these religious sites, we visit several government buildings, beginning with the Royal Palace: the Istana Nurul Iman. Unbelievable is the only word appropriate for this structure. A sprawling estate located just outside of central BSB, the Palace is closed to the public and lies largely hidden behind hills. From the front gates, where one can stop to take photos, only the–predictably–gold domes are visible, but one can nonetheless appreciate the enormity of the residence. Some stats from Wikipedia will prove helpful. The building, which cost upwards of $1.4 billion USD, has 17 floors, more than 1700 rooms (no, I didn’t insert an extra zero), a banquet hall capable of accommodating 5000 people, and an overall floor plan of more than 2 million square feet. All of this for a single family. Standing at the gate, I simply shake my head in wonder. We then follow the Palace with a few civic buildings, such as Parliament House, but none can compare. The Prime Minister’s office is approximately the size of the U.S. Capitol Building, and occasions an illuminating conversation with Brandon:
I ask Brandon, “Does the Prime Minister live at the office? It’s huge!”
“No, he lives at the Palace.”
“I thought only the Sultan lives at Istana.”
“…I don’t underst–oh, wait. The Sultan is the Prime Minister, isn’t he?”
“Yah, yah,” Brandon responds, chuckling, “He’s the boss.”
The remainder of my time in Brunei passes largely uneventfully. Sure, some hooded men in a water taxi down by the riverfront badger me to go on a sketchy “river cruise”; and, a creepy man in an alleyway near the same waterfront asks me if I “need a girl”; and, the heat and humidity exceed any I have ever faced; and, vegetarian food does not exist in the country except in my hotel cafe where I eat every single meal. But otherwise, I experience no difficulties. Some visitors might object to the countrywide ban on alcohol, but I don’t mind. All that matters is the BSB business district has a Starbucks, though my usual order of a “light roast cafe misto with extra soy” requires several minutes of explanation to the barista. As already noted several times, the people are uniformly amiable and inviting. Not once do I have cause to fear for my safety–until I attempt a jungle hike, that is.
On Saturday, acting on Brandon’s recommendation, I set off on foot from my hotel towards a nearby nature park, Tasek Lama, where one can see a waterfall and, on occasion, the famed proboscis monkey found only on Borneo. What begins as a leisurely stroll becomes, after I take a wrong turn, a harrowing trek across abandoned jungle in sweltering heat. For what seems like days, I clamber along poorly marked footpaths, surrounded by thick vegetation and with nothing but my own footfalls for noise. I find the waterfall, which is lovely but not exceptional, and meet no monkeys (I did encounter monkeys on a shorter trip elsewhere the next day). My imagination, however, provides me with plenty of lurking jungle creatures–mostly large, carnivorous cats–with which to contend. Eventually, after what was in reality probably only 90 minutes of wandering, I happen upon on Australian expat family out for exercise.
In as parched and scratchy a voice as I can manage, as though I just finished traversing the Mojave, I plead, “Waater, do you have water?”
“Sure, mate,” replies the father, “but you can also get some right there.”
He moves aside a palm frond to reveal the park’s main car lot and concession stand located about 50 yards away. His nine-year-old daughter, who just completed the same hike as I did but without so much as even a flushed face, is cheerily bounding up the path while carrying a couple of bottles of water.
“Oh. Yeah, right, of course,” I respond with breezy unconcern.
My sweat-soaked T-shirt belies this nonchalance, and the couple–undoubtedly fearing my immediate collapse from heat stroke–offers to drive me back to my hotel. I shamelessly accept.
Two days later, John takes me back to the airport for my return to Singapore. Along the way, in what was a first and will undoubtedly be a last for a taxi driver of mine, he treats me to a local breakfast: noodles and “kopi O,” a type of sweetened coffee also popular in Singapore. He adamantly refuses to allow me to pay for the meal, though I, even with my meager salary, probably make in a month what he earns in a year. This final stroke of kindness by John convinces me that my negative preconceptions about Brunei were, like many stereotypes and snap judgments, unfair and ungrounded. For the record, though, my fears about finding any veggie food and about facing a humidity level matched only by underwater volcanic vent plumes were entirely valid.
The moment I deplane and enter the Singapore Airport, I realize my experience in this country will differ drastically from that in Hong Kong and Macau–except for the weather, which remains oppressively hot and humid. The primary language on all signage and overhead announcements is English; Western expatriates teem everywhere; salads–yes, actual, green, leafy vegetables–are available in restaurants; and, cold water is the default beverage option. Yet, printed in red ink all CAPS across the top of the immigration form that I complete at customs, the notice “DRUG TRAFFICKING IN SINGAPORE IS PUNISHABLE BY THE DEATH PENALTY” suggests another, darker side to this storied island nation.
Aboard the shuttle bus from the airport to my downtown hotel, I converse with the driver, who speaks in crisp English and whose radio blares contemporary American pop hits, and peer out the windows at the unfolding scenes of my newest country destination. Sculpted tropical shrubberies and palms line flawlessly smooth roadways, and through the trees, I catch glimpses of posh villas with orange- and red-tiled roofs and white stucco walls. We pass expansive and pristine city parks where joggers and cyclists exercise in brightly colored Spandex. On the nearby horizon of the sea, thousands of ocean freighters dot the harbor, one of the world’s busiest ports. As we approach the urban core, skyscrapers–each modern and glassy and of a uniform height–tower over gridded streets, upon which Ferraris and Lambos scurry like very flashy worker ants. In short, the place feels like a slightly cleaner version of Orlando or Miami, with a greater percentage of native English speakers.
In contrast to Florida, however, Singapore is a model of urban planning; it has to be. The country is one of the world’s leading financial and trading centers and is home to nearly 5 million people, but is geographically tiny, only about 3/4 the size of Rhode Island. Space therefore is a premium commodity. Apartments–or “flats” as they’re called, in keeping with the country’s British heritage–routinely top the $1 million mark, and in order to own a personal vehicle, residents must purchase special permits, usually equal in cost to the price of the car. The mass transit system, which, rather confusingly, is abbreviated “MRT” as opposed to the “MTR” in Hong Kong, operates with stunning efficiency. The city is clearly and neatly organized into distinct commercial, residential, industrial, and entertainment zones, each of which connects in a logical, seamless, and readily navigable manner to the others.
As a leading international port, Singapore is a diverse society. The population contains numerous ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Europeans, Americans, Indonesians, etc. Though widely disparate in their religious and cultural practices, the groups interact and cooperate in an encouragingly integrated manner. Young Indian men help an elderly Chinese woman to carry her groceries down the MRT stairwell; a black man in a Catholic priest’s robes converses laughingly in a Starbucks with a chic Malaysian businesswoman. Undoubtedly, dividing lines and divisive issues exist among the various communities and become apparent when one resides in the city for a longer period of time, but my immediate impression is one of a peaceable human civilization in which people treat each other as exactly that: people, without categorical prejudices based on skin color, religion, or other characteristics. Novel.
Singapore is also a highly globalized society, complete with rampant commercialism. The number of shopping malls ranks second only to the number of restaurants and food courts, and Western brand names abound. Starbucks outlets exist at every street corner and, similar to their counterparts back home in the States and in contrast to their sister stores in Hong Kong, offer unlimited free Wifi to customers. On my first day of work, I enter a retail mall food court to find lunch, and as the escalator delivers me to the top floor, I encounter a Quiznos. “Blessed Father in Heaven,” I murmur, as angelic music and glowing white light seem to fill the room and I experience a sudden desire to genuflect and offer hymnal praise. Local residents seem more aware of global issues than were the people in Hong Kong. One day at a coffee shop, which surprisingly was not a Starbucks, the Indonesian proprietor engaged me in some friendly conversation as he prepared my iced soya latte, no sugar.
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
“American, huh? I thought so. Could tell from your accent; less stuffy than the Brits. Whereabouts in the States?” he continues, while staring intently at the espresso machine, which seems to have jammed.
“Are you familiar with the U.S.? The Great Plains,” I respond, somewhat surprised.
“The place with all the tornadoes?” he asks, glancing up from the now whirring espresso grinder.
“…Um, yes,” I respond, amazed.
The multiculturalism and urbanization of Singapore remind me of the U.S., especially of New York, but a quality of Singaporean society that departs greatly from American is also one of its most appealing: safety. I have never felt as secure walking the streets of any city or destination, even my hometown, as I do in Singapore. Young children, we’re talking elementary-school age, walk unescorted alongside major streets and thoroughfares as they trek to/from classes; women walk unaccompanied at the latest hours of the night. People at restaurants and cafes leave their phones lying on table tops and pay them little mind. At first, with classic American cynicism, I figure this appearance of safety must be a charade, the locals incredibly naive. As my stay lengthens and I speak with more doctor clients about their country, I learn that the safety is in fact genuine. Crime occurs rarely; major offenses like assault and homicide even more seldom. However, this security, and indeed the entire utopia of Singaporean society, comes at a price.
Three days into my Singapore stay, on a muggy and overcast Wednesday morning, I awaken to a mild headache, nasal congestion, and GI upset (the details of which need no mention in polite society). This constellation of symptoms besets me whenever I have an incipient enteroviral cold, and sure enough, by mid-afternoon I feel terrible. I take an early leave from the medical clinics where I have spent the day recruiting physician clients, and I return to my hotel for some rest and, as it turns out, for some instruction in the healing arts.
By the time I reach my room on the 25th floor of the hotel, I can barely stand, I have broken into a cold and shivering sweat, and I desperately need a rendezvous with the commode. This juncture, then, is clearly an ideal time for the housekeeping staff to choose to clean my room. When I round the corridor from the elevators, I see the custodial cart stationed outside of my door. “You have got to be kidding me,” I groan. Not wanting to interrupt and thus prolong the cleaning process, I wait outside the room and lean against the railing of the open atrium that forms the central core of the hotel. How fast would the vomit be going by the time it reaches the ground floor, I wonder as I teeter on the verge of retching. I hear my room door open behind me, and I turn to find the housekeeper: a kind-appearing, young Chinese woman, probably early- to mid-thirties, who is staring concernedly at me. She speaks little English, but clearly conveys her worry.
“You sick?” she asks.
“I don’t feel well,” I reply, grimacing as my head now throbs.
“You pale. You have medicine?”
“This infection…” I begin, but am too exhausted and weak to delve into the pathophysiology of enterovirus infection and the lack of efficacy of antibiotics in treating it. “Yes, I have medicine,” I respond instead.
“Good. You go in now,” she commands, gesturing towards the door.
“Are you finished?” I ask, looking past her to see a half-cleaned room.
“No. I finish, you rest,” she responds in the imperious motherly tone–apparently globally universal–that brooks no compromise.
Approaching a state of febrile delirium, I comply with her instructions, enter my room, and promptly collapse onto the freshly made bed. In the feverish fog that follows, I vaguely gather that the woman has called in reinforcements and that a small army of housekeepers is now in my room, either cleaning it with hushed rapidity or robbing me of all my worldly possessions. Frankly, I do not care which, as long as they continue to let me rest. At some point, I fall asleep. Some time later, whether seconds or hours I have no idea, a quiet clinking sound stirs me back to consciousness. Drowsy, I search blearily for the source of the noise, which in its softness reminds me of a wind-chime tinkling in a slow summer evening breeze. The noise stops, and I look towards the doorway just in time to see the housekeeper backing out of my room; she smiles, waves, and points to my desk as she leaves, shutting the door gently behind her. On the desk where she indicated sit a kettle filled with hot water and a steaming mug of herbal tea, already prepared for me.
The tea is wonderful: slightly bitter but fruity, with hints of matcha. It also seems to serve its purpose; with each sip, I feel my head clearing and my fever abating. As would any good scientist, I wonder how much of the amelioration owes to the tea, to placebo, or to the psychosomatic effects of experiencing the cleaning woman’s kindness. I decide that the exact answer doesn’t matter to me, and I instead focus on the larger phenomenon that had occurred. Uneducated, scarcely able to speak English, and in a socially disesteemed position, the housekeeper had nonetheless reached out and improved the life of another, ailing human being. As I fall asleep later that night, I mutter to myself, “Well, great doctor, with all your decades of schooling and your vaunted degrees, who was the true healer tonight?”
My first weekend in Singapore ranks as one of my favorite, from any country and from any time in my travels. Four of my fellow graduate school alumni–and closest friends–and I decided to have a “Southeast Asia plus 1 white guy” reunion. Melissa, a pharmacist from Malaysia; Fauziah, a TB physician from Indonesia; Samuel, an ophthalmology resident and native Singaporean; and Viva, a business major originally from Beijing and now working in Singapore. Our get-together began a few days early, when I fell ill and Sam and Mel brought food to my hotel room. I recovered quickly and by the weekend was ready for two days of reminiscing and revelry.
Saturday morning begins with me making rounds on a few clients, and I cannot join the others until 11 a.m. for brunch in a posh cafe located in the heart of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Dressed in semi-formal business attire and still wielding my valise, I arrive at the cafe to find Fauziah and Mel already into their second or third round of lattes (grad school tends to attract coffee addicts, or perhaps produces them; such a question of causality demands a prospective controlled study). Sam joins us a few minutes later; he is post-call after a 36-hour shift in the pediatric oncology unit at his teaching hospital and is therefore only minimally conscious. Aside from Sam, everyone looks healthy and well and happy. Smiles and laughter abound. After our meal, and after thoroughly disturbing the usually tranquil atmosphere of the upscale cafe, we proceed into the gardens. I discover quickly that business dress is ill-suited apparel for strolling through tropical gardens under a midday sun. “At least I’m with two doctors and a pharmacist when the heat stroke occurs,” I reassure myself. For the next two hours, we walk the trails and admire the impressive array of flora, which my paternal grandmother, an avowed botanophile, would have loved. In keeping with Asian stereotypes, we take an inordinate number of photos, especially group selfies. As we prepare to leave the facility, a pattering of footsteps grows behind us.
“Mister, mister! Wait!” cries a troupe of ten to fifteen pre-adolescent, Asian schoolchildren, “Can we get a picture with you?”
My colleagues begin laughing hysterically. “Me?” I ask, rather flattered but also somewhat suspicious.
“It’s for a scavenger hunt–”
“We’re on a school trip–”
“We have to find a really tall person–” they all reply at once, breathless after chasing us.
“Um, sure. Sam, can you take the pictur–” I begin to ask.
“No, no, no. It has to be a selfie!” their ringleader explains. The rest of them nod eagerly in agreement.
So, surrounded by a baker’s dozen of tiny, impish schoolkids, I take the requested selfie. Sam, meanwhile, grabs my own camera and captures the scene for posterity. There I stand, caught in a sunbeam filtering through the canopy and with arm extended and the ringleader’s cell phone in my hand, a giant ogre surrounded by the smiling students–none of whom reaches even the level of my sternum and several of whom are making the signature Asian photo symbol of a peace sign. After the photo shoot, they thank us and run off, giggling and already posting the image to Instagram.
After a pit stop at my hotel, where I exchange my work clothes for a t-shirt and khaki shorts, we go to Takashimaya Mall. Fauziah needs to purchase for her niece a souvenir: a plush rabbit Disney character named “Clover” who accompanies us for the rest of the day. Leaving the mall, Clover in tow, we encounter an enormous crowd of people gathered in a large outdoor square. Apparently, a “lion dance competition” is in progress. Sam grows excited, though he has now gone without sleep for 40 hours, and he explains that the lion dance is a Chinese tradition wherein teams of two acrobats, accompanied by music from six or seven drummer teammates, perform stunts while dressed in a two-part lion costume in which one acrobat is the “head” portion and the other the “tail” portion of the body. The stunts involve jumping and dancing on tiny platforms set atop poles that range in height from two to ten feet above the ground. The performance is truly astounding. The pounding drums, the practiced choreography, the brilliant costumes, the gasps and applause of the crowd. I can understand why the tradition is so loved, and I am glad to have witnessed it.
In the evening, Viva joins us, and we go to a local food court for dinner. The dining experience there contrasts rather sharply with that at the classy bistro in which we brunched earlier in the day, and it necessitates a brief description. In the traditional Singaporean food court, nine or ten thousand tiny stalls sell a host of different ethnic foods: Chinese mixed rice, Indian platters, Japanese noodles, Malay seafood, coffee and desserts, etc., and in the middle of the stalls is a giant open seating area, whence arises a deafening clamor of talking, scooting chairs, crashing plates, shouting, laughter, and hawkers vending bottled water. Effete niceties such as napkins, clean utensils, air conditioning, and sanitary kitchen conditions are largely frowned upon, and bowel perforation secondary to invasive dysentery is an accepted and indeed highly prized piece de resistance to one’s dinner. The prices, however, are unbelievably cheap; we order dozens of chili crabs, roughly forty-five pounds of Indian masala, rice dishes, and fruit and gelatin desserts, all for about $60 USD. After our collective Campylobacter inoculation, night has fallen, and we walk the waterfront promenade and watch the Marina Bay Sands laser light show, which is spectacular and a definite “must-see” when in Singapore. Later, we find a bar near Clarke Quay, an expatriate-oriented shopping and nightlife district along the Singapore River, and talk into the wee hours of the night. When Sam–now 50 hours sans sleep–dozes off and nearly slides from his bar stool, we decide to turn in for the night, but not before making plans for tomorrow: a picnic breakfast, followed by a day on the playground island of Sentosa.
Not surprisingly, Sam oversleeps a bit on Sunday, but compensates for the delay by bringing Fauziah and me some homemade Singaporean breakfast dishes that his mom prepared freshly that morning. Viva cannot join us, but Melissa meets us at Sentosa, and the four of us spend the entire day hiking, climbing ropes courses, racing along ziplines, walking the beach, visiting the national aquarium (which, for the record, was quite impressive), and participating in the sundry other activities that Sentosa offers. And, of course, we take photos; I begin to wonder how Asians survived before the development of the camera. The island feels somewhat Disney World-esque. Alone, I would probably find the quaintness trite and nauseating, but in the company of great friends, it’s delightful.
In the evening, Melissa must return to Malaysia, Fauziah to Indonesia, Sam to the wards, and I to my hotel to prepare for the upcoming week of sales. We part ways in an MRT station, after scheduling another rendezvous in Tokyo in a few months and, of course, after taking one last group selfie.
Rather serendipitously, my second weekend in Singapore corresponds with the city’s annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, an internationally renowned sporting event and gala party affair that attracts tens of thousands of fans–tourists and locals alike–and millions of dollars of fans’ spending to the downtown district, where the race takes place at night on the city streets. Despite being (a) impoverished and (b) not overly interested in car racing, I purchase a ticket: a walkabout pass to the qualifying heats on Saturday night. My primary goal in attending the event is to incite jealousy in my mechanical engineer and automotive enthusiast younger brother. Thus, $150 poorer, I join the ranks of fans streaming into the racetrack facilities early Saturday afternoon.
Like any good, hyper-commercialized professional sport venue, Formula 1 endeavors to highlight wealth and status differentials among its patrons, and this process begins at the ticket counter. Vivacious and excited, I step up to the “Internet Bookings” desk to retrieve the Zone 4 walking pass that I had reserved online a few days earlier and that, I should note, is the cheapest ticket option possible. A cheerful young receptionist greets me rosily, until I present my printed confirmation page. Grimacing as one does when choking on a fish bone or when confronted with particularly objectionable bilious vomitus, she reluctantly slides my pass across the counter to me and rapidly withdraws her hand to avoid contracting the leprosy that she figures I must surely possess. She then promptly turns to the next customer, whom she greets–loudly enough for me to hear as I walk away–with something like the following: “Hello, sir. Yes, I have your GRANDSTAND tickets right here, sir. A glass of bubbly to start the festivities?” Feeling now even more like a pauper than usual, I proceed to the admission gate.
Further class distinctions occur here. Paddock Club and business lounge members enter a private gate via Bentley automobile, personal helicopter, or sedan chair; grandstand seat holders via plush, red-carpeted tracts lined by kiosks distributing complimentary designer sunglasses and aperitifs; and Zone 1-3 walkabout pass holders via a slightly soiled side-lane where they are screened for TB, scabies, and the other contagions that members of their strata are known to harbor. Zone 4 pass holders are prodded through metal chutes alongside the cattle and larger poultry stock used for the food courts.
Once inside the venue, I utilize my walkabout privileges to do exactly that, and I admit that the event–shameless capitalistic ploys aside–really is quite impressive and enjoyable. A carnival atmosphere pervades the scene, and in the hours leading up to the night’s races, one can partake of games, concerts, and giant inflatable obstacle courses. A vast food plaza spreads across the main lawn around which the track circles. Everything from classic fairground food (e.g., funnel cakes) to fine dining is present; Zone 4 holders are each allowed 1 helping of gruel and mutton. Several “pre-race” races take place, including a Porsche Carrera Cup, a vintage F1 car display, and a Ferrari challenge. Zone 4 holders crowd by the thousands onto tiny, wobbly platforms erected to give them, at best, a marginal view of the actual race track. Thanks to a certain vertical advantage, I am able to see over the track walls and therefore can view the race from any point along the course, no doubt to the chagrin of race organizers.
Finally, at 20:00, the qualifying heat begins. Even through my earplugs, the sound of the engines is deafening, although diehard F1 fans bemoan the current generation of cars as dandified and wimpy. The speed of the cars is, of course, amazing. Numbers and statistics and even video footage on television do not adequately convey the unbelievable velocity; it is cliche to say, but the cars are indeed blurs when they zoom by one’s position. I cannot begin to appreciate all the technological wonders inhered in those incredible racing machines, but I understand that the engineering is truly marvelous and that my brother would suffer cardiac arrest from sheer ecstasy were he present. The heat lasts about 45 minutes. Apparently, some sort of cunning attack by one of the drivers occurs on the race’s concluding lap, and the crowd erupts in cheers. I have no idea of what has happened, but I clap and share in their enthusiasm, nonetheless. Tired, sunburned, and with an achy back from standing all day, I leave the course a few minutes before 22:00, unaware that further race-day excitement awaits me.
As I walk towards the MRT station to return to my hotel, my GI tract begins to lodge objections to the earlier gruel helpings, and I begin to search for a nearby restroom. The Raffles Mall, a high-end retail outlet located downtown and adjacent to an eponymous MRT station, offers the requisite facilities, and although the mall usually closes at 22:00, I enter anyway, figuring the shops will surely have extended their hours to take advantage of the thousands of F1 attendees walking the streets. This assumption, however, proves entirely false. After some few minutes, which I will choose not to describe and will leave to the reader’s imagination, I emerge refreshed from the restroom, only to find the mall dark and deserted and myself locked inside. “Not good,” I mutter. I run to the nearest exit, but the sliding glass doors won’t open. Passers-by outside stare, point, and laugh at the caged ogre. I, on the other hand, am not laughing but, rather, worrying. Singapore law is notoriously strict, and I can only imagine what will happen when a security guard finds me or when I set off a motion sensor alarm. I call out for help. No answer. I attempt the doors at other exits, to no avail. Not helping matters, images from Stephen King’s “The Langoliers” keep flashing across my mind.
Eventually, I descend into the mall’s basement, where the food court is located and where I find a lone woman, a Singaporean in her mid-twenties and dressed in business attire, seated at a table. She has a computer and multiple file folders spread out before her and is clearly one of the restaurant managers, tallying the day’s sales. Before approaching her, I pause to wonder how she will respond to a giant Western male emerging from the shadows in the basement of an empty mall. “This may not go well,” I predict. However, I fail to take into account the enviable naivete of Singaporeans regarding safety issues; their country is so safe, they do not immediately assume the worst about strangers. When I call out to her, she merely looks up from her computer and smiles kindly.
“Are you lost?” she asks.
“Not exactly, but I think I’m locked in the mall,” I explain.
“Ah, yes,” she replies, as though this sort of thing happens routinely, “I can show you the way out.”
I nearly collapse with relief.
The woman directs me to a service elevator, which takes me to a back entrance where a security guard is posted. After enjoying a hearty laugh at my expense, the guard allows me to leave. I reemerge onto the streets, only to be soaked by the torrential rains that have developed during my mall adventure. “Still better than spending the night in the mall, or in jail,” I reason. Through the rain, I jog to the MRT station and board the train. However, one more thrill still remains me.
At Outram Park, the MRT station nearest my hotel, I exit the train, and because the rains have not diminished, I decide to hail a cab rather than make the 15-minute walk to the hotel. It’s now about midnight as a gleaming blue taxi stops for me.
“To where?” asks the friendly Singaporean driver, a young man roughly my age.
“The Holiday Inn Atrium, please,” I respond as I climb into the car, “It’s not far, but I’d rather not walk in the rain.”
“Holiday…Inn…Atrium…hmm…,” he says slowly, “You know how to get there?”
“You mean you don’t?” I reply with some surprise.
“Well, I’m new, you see.”
“That’s unfortunate. I don’t know either; I’m a tourist. Let me look it up on my phone.”
Together, we navigate the dark and rainy roads, except that our location on my phone’s GPS suffers a slight time lag, causing us to miss several turns. After half an hour, twice the time needed to make the same journey by foot, we approach my hotel. At the last moment, I realize we are in the wrong lane for entering the hotel’s drive.
“Wait, wait,” I exclaim, “we need to be in the right-hand lane!”
“What?! Where?!” my driver yells, as he slams on his brakes.
“No! What are you doing?” I cry out, for we have now come to a complete stop on a five-lane roadway that, despite the late hour, is full of traffic from the F1 event. Horns begin blaring as cars swerve to either side of us to avoid a collision. “Go, go, go!” I yell back to him.
We shriek in unison as he pulls an illegal right turn across two of the five lanes and darts into the hotel driveway.
“That’ll be $6.40, sir,” he says cheerily, as he comes to a stop outside the front entrance.
“It ought to be free,” I grumble, as I pull the bills from my pocket. I hand him $7, saying, “Change, please.”
“No tip?” he counters.
Grudgingly, he hands over the 60 cents, and no doubt mutters under his breath, “Typical Zone 4 fan…”
As in week #1 of my Singapore stay, I find myself in week #3 dealing with a head cold and a touch of pharyngitis. This illness, coupled with the large number of clients I must visit on Saturday morning, limits my excursions for the weekend. Even so, on Saturday evening, I manage time for a leisurely stroll along the Singapore River, and on Sunday, I revisit the downtown district to see its attractions when legions of racing fans are not roaming the streets.
The Singapore River is, as most things in Singapore, a synthetic construct engineered by city planners to fill a particular role that they felt Singaporeans needed filled. It starts as a nondescript drainage ditch in the provincial suburbs out west and then, as it enters the urban core, assumes a picturesquely wending course among luxury condo towers and high-rise office buildings to provide an appropriate setting for river boat tours and for riverside taverns where obnoxiously loud Western expats (the loudest, invariably, being Americans) can watch sports games on big screen TVs while inebriating themselves on expensively taxed liquors. Though dusk has long since fallen when I go for my evening constitutional, the night remains warm and the air thickly humid, clinging to me and stifling my breathing as I walk along the water’s artificial edge. The scene is postcard perfect: smooth, banked walls; recently swept sidewalks; carefully trimmed hedges next to the paths; benches and streetlights spaced at precise intervals. “Sheesh, enough already,” I grumble, “Give me something gritty.” Seemingly in answer, the next city block opens onto the local district known as Little India.
Little India, like real India, is crowded with people and with culture to the point of absurdity. The entire district comprises an area of maybe 12 x 6 city blocks, within which no fewer than 3 or 4 billion people live and work. The roads are cluttered, the sidewalks filthy, the atmosphere jovial, and the buildings festooned with a melange of mismatched banners and streamers. I immediately love the place. Some sort of holy festival is happening, is soon to happen, or has recently taken place, for miniature busts of a Hindu religious entity, unknown to me, figure prominently on every street corner and shop window. Indian music fills the air; men sit in groups and smoke while women dressed in bright, beautiful sarees of every color walk about in laughing packs and examine fabrics hanging in the thousands of vendor kiosks that fill open-air bazaars. About this time, interested as my mind is in the scenes around me, my stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten supper, and I begin to search for a restaurant.
Of which there are at least 500. I have no idea which establishments may be more affordable, offer tastier food, or comply more fully with health department regulations. For several minutes, I wander aimlessly along the restaurant row until I encounter a respectable-appearing diner that has over its main entrance a small, English sign reading “vegetarian.” “Well, that’s a start,” I figure, and enter. Inside, the place is loud and filled with local Indians, which I take as another positive indicator. My entrance causes a momentary lull in the noise, as two hundred faces stare for a few seconds at the great white ogre, but then the din of talking and eating resumes. I take my place at an upstairs table for four, which is already occupied by a family of five. As I sit down, the mother and father briefly look at me and smile before returning to their conversation and to feeding their young children. I scan the menu. Although the text appears to be written in English characters, I haven’t a single notion of what the dishes mean: chapathi, pappadam, daal, sambar, channa masala, thayir sadham, poriyal, tomato chutney. When the waiter returns for my order, I panic and point randomly at a menu item that has a star next to it.
“This one!” I declare.
“Ah, yes,” he responds as he scribbles on his notepad, “vetty good.”
The couple next to me nods in agreement, and I take heart.
The waiter and the couple were correct. My dinner arrives, served on a giant leaf mat, and is–without exaggeration–one of the greatest meals I have ever eaten. The only item I recognize on the plate is the roti bread, to which my Indian friends back home have introduced me, but this unfamiliarity does not prevent my taste buds from enjoying the rest of the items. I devour two helpings of everything: a coleslaw equivalent, a chickpea stew, some sort of okra and green bean thing, a whitish paste which is warm and slightly sweet, and the roti bread. At last, filled to the point of bursting, I fall back into my chair and ask for the tab. $8 Singapore dollars, or roughly six US bucks for the entire meal. “If I don’t die tonight from gastric rupture, I must revisit this place before I leave the country,” I vow. And on that note, I return to my hotel, where I promptly collapse onto my bed and succumb to a long and splendid postprandial coma.
On Sunday morning, I awaken still full from the previous night’s meal and ready to visit two well-known tourist sites: the Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands resort. The Gardens is a large botanical park containing several outdoor flora zones based on plants from different regions in SE Asia, two enormous glass bio-domes, and a copse of “SuperTrees.” The lattermost are elaborate, pink-and-purple colored, metal scaffolds that rise 60-80 feet into the air and that serve as huge trellises for various tropical vines and tendrils. A pedestrian platform about 20 meters above the ground connects the SuperTrees to one another, and for $5 SGD, one can walk this path. The price is probably a bit steeper than warranted, but the walkway does allow for some great photos, which if I knew anything about WordPress, I could insert here for a timely visual emphasis. Alas, the reader gets, instead, reams of overly circumlocutory prose. My condolences.
After the Gardens, I walk to the nearby Marina Bay Sands, a 5-star inclusive resort and high-end shopping mall that faces the central harbor and business district and that hosts a nightly laser-light show. The structure is an architectural marvel. The hotel itself consists of three, separate, massive rectangular pillars sprouting out of the ground-level mall, and lying transverse across the tops of the pillars is a horizontal platform several acres in size that houses the resort pool, several fine-dining venues, and an observation deck. The entire structure is supposed to represent a boat riding on waves, and if one squints while drinking and suffering an acute bout of vertigo, there is a slight semblance. The lineup of Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked outside the resort’s main entrance suggests the type of clients who frequent the facility. Plebeians like me can only access the observation deck, and then only after paying $28 SGD, which I do. This deck, located on the 51st of the 52 floors of the resort building, offers striking vistas of the city skyline, and the placement of the open deck on the floor immediately below the posh rooftop restaurants allows the millionaires above to play “Ping the Peasant” by throwing trash, mixed nuts, and unwanted cufflinks at the mendicants below. After taking the obligatory portrait shots with the city in the background, I rapidly leave the deck, only too happy to escape the hailstorm of cashews and class distinctions and to return to Little India for some reality and some roti.
Having visited during the preceding three weekends most of the country’s “must see” tourist attractions, I decide for my fourth and final weekend in Singapore to leave the southern urban core and to venture into the lesser traveled northern, eastern, and western regions of the island–making something of a “circuit tour” of the entire nation. This prospect of covering in the span of a single weekend the full geographic extent of a political state strangely appeals to me, coming as I do from a land of such vast dimensions as the U.S. What’s more, accomplishing this feat requires little more than riding the complete routes of the two main subway lines, the north-south “Red Line” and the east-west “Green Line.” Saturday morning, then, finds me making my way to nearest MRT station to begin my grand tour.
I board a northbound Red Line train, and after a few minutes spent below ground as it traverses the city, the train emerges onto the surface, permitting me my first glimpses of the Singapore beyond the concrete confines in which I have lived for the past month. Though the scenes outside the window would never qualify as bucolic, the number of buildings and the degree of urbanization do diminish, replaced by large swaths of grassland, tracts of jungle, and an occasional military base. Nature seems to reemerge, except around the MRT stations. Indeed, a pattern quickly becomes apparent to me. Each MRT stop serves as a nexus of sorts for a microcosmic urban center. A large shopping mall and food court adjoin the station; schools, small businesses, civic buildings, and city parks lie in the next closest ring; then, radiating outward from this core are scores of small- to medium-sized apartment towers, painted in various tropical pastels but uniformly boxy and unremarkable. At the outskirts of the townships, these towers abruptly end, giving way to long stretches of greenery that continue until we approach the next station, where the pattern repeats. This arrangement, I later learn, is–not surprisingly–an intentional design of the government. To manage the problem of housing the tiny island’s 5 million residents, the Singaporean government created the Housing Development Board, which in turn created a series of self-contained mini-cities, colloquially known as HDBs, in which the local people can live, work, breed, and die without ever needing to journey inward to the capital metropolis. The apartments in HDBs are subsidized, which is why they all tend to have the same, boxy, prefabricated appearance. Through different municipal liveries and petty sporting rivalries, the communities receive superficial identities intended, no doubt, to give the populations impressions of uniqueness, but to an outside observer, the arrangement is strikingly, and disturbingly, uniform.
In all fairness, American suburbs–blocks of featureless, neighborhood “housing estates” that are built up, invariably, around a Walmart Supercenter and accompanying fast food chains–do not differ too greatly from the HDB scheme, except that the American communities have, at least, the virtue of generally developing in an organic manner as the population and the free market demand. Nothing spontaneous exists about the HDBs; they are spaced with the same mathematical precision and statistically perfect efficiency as the park benches along the Singapore River. As we continue northward, passing through HDB after HDB, every dystopic novel I’ve ever read comes to mind, and I cannot help but shudder at the similarities.
After forty-five minutes of traveling due north, I arrive at Woodlands Station–the northernmost Red Line stop and the closest to the island’s northern boundary, a narrow ocean strait that separates Singapore from the city of Johor Bahru on the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula. Here, the community does possess a somewhat distinct character due to the bustle of the nearby border crossing. The Singapore side of the strait features a long boardwalk, and as I stroll along this promenade, I note how close the Malay side is. The strait is scarcely a quarter-mile wide, and a less-than-rational part of me thinks, “I bet I could swim that.” Bright red warning signs displaying unequivocal images of soldiers pointing guns at persons emerging from the water quickly dispel this notion from my mind. I settle for taking a few pictures of the border crossing, and then climb back aboard the train to continue my journey.
Upon leaving the Woodlands, the Red Line turns southwestward and, in conjunction with the Green Line towards Joo Koon, takes me through the great industrial district of the country. As I peer out either side of the train car, mile after mile of factories, assembly plants, power generators, and warehouses stretch to the horizon. Black soot hangs in the hazy, polluted air, and few people other than equipment operators and commercial drivers are visible on the dirty streets. No housing or boutiques or schools or parks exist here; only big business. Here, the proletariat sweats out the products with which the CEOs, comfortable in their corporate headquarters and office towers in the distant metropolis, make their millions. Again my thoughts turn to literature, this time to Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
I wrap up Saturday by riding the Red Line back to my hotel, but early Sunday morning, I am again on the MRT grid–this time on an eastbound Green Line train. As with the Red Line on Saturday, the Green Line initially follows a subterranean course as it passes under the heart of the city and then emerges above ground as it takes me through another string of faceless HDB communities. Only as we approach the eastern edge of the island does this monotony change. The rail line splits, with one branch heading towards the Changi International Airport and the other, the one on which I ride, continuing onwards to the easternmost MRT station, Pasir Ris. Pasir Ris is a beach resort, but quieter and less ostentatious than the Sentosa resort my friends and I visited during my first weekend; it sits on the northeastern limit of the island and faces one of the country’s major shipping lanes. The site appears to be popular with local families, many of whom have brought picnic baskets and beach umbrellas for a weekend outing. Seated on a sand-covered bench next to the beach, I watch the beachgoers playing in the foreground and the massive container ships drifting past slowly in the background.
A combination of blazing tropical sunshine, 8000% humidity, and sand fleas eventually drives me back to the MRT, and as I make the return trip to my hotel, I reflect on my brief but thorough survey of the country. The HDB communities linger on my mind. Are they eerie creations of a Parent State, or brilliant solutions to a pressing problem of overcrowding? I think of the families at Pasir Ris beach, many of whom undoubtedly live in nearby HDBs. They had seemed happy and whole enough, and definitely not oppressed or dispirited. I ultimately decide that I personally would reject the manacles of HDB sameness but that I cannot pass judgement on the constructs generally. After all, they provide for millions of people the fundamentals of life: shelter, education, employment, and food, at affordable prices. Worse institutions certainly exist. Thus, as my circumnavigation of the island comes full circle, so too do my thoughts regarding one of Singaporean society’s most basic building blocks. Quite the journey for a weekend.
My initial blog entry for Singapore ended with a paragraph about the remarkable absence of violence and theft in the country and with a rather cryptic statement about the costs to achieve this state of safety. I wrote, “However, this security, and indeed the entire utopia of Singaporean society, comes at a price,” and then, my entry abruptly ended. Anything more than this vague sentence I feared to write because, for the first time in my life, I faced an environment in which I did not enjoy the guarantee of free speech. Despite using a VPN to cloak my transmissions and blogging solely on a private webpage, I did not feel comfortable publishing the following commentary until I had left Singapore for good. Now, I feel as though I must complete my Singapore story.
Singapore is a dystopia. To the visiting tourist and to residents, if they don’t question appearances, the place seems ideal. Tropical weather; beautiful foliage coupled with a modern, urban setting; diversity of culture and cuisine; efficient mass transit; immense wealth; excellent schools; low taxes; near absolute personal safety. One doctor remarked to me, “It’s perfect; it’s like Disney World.” Indeed, and equally as illusory.
My first indication of the stark contrast between the rosy facade of Singapore and the brutal reality, I have previously mentioned in that initial blog post. That is, the country’s drug laws. As our flight touched down at Changi International Airport, the smiling stewardesses–or, “Singapore Girls,” to use their misogynistic epithet–cheerfully handed out the immigration entry forms, which are printed with a bold, red, all-caps message, “DRUG TRAFFICKING IN SINGAPORE IS PUNISHABLE BY THE DEATH PENALTY.” This severe and immutable justice carries over to the country’s laws for even minor offenses. A sign I encountered at a public swimming pool showed a picture of a youth stealing a phone; petty larceny, punishable by 7 years imprisonment and three strokes of the cane. Frequent roadway signs showed an X through a person crossing the street; jaywalking, punishable by a $5000 fine and 6 months in prison. Chewing gum, $1000 fine. The absurdity of the laws has earned Singapore the nickname of “Fine City,” a moniker about which the locals jest and which some enterprising capitalists have converted into T-shirt designs. Yet, few are willing to challenge these laws or the lawmakers who enact them.
Any persons who might wish to object to the draconian policies have few avenues for voicing their complaints. At my hotel, I received a daily copy of the state newspaper, The Straits Times. Reading through the headlines, I did not initially perceive why every morning I came away from the paper feeling uninformed. Slowly, aided by the comments of an ex-American doctor I met who described the news as “sterilized,” the truth dawned on me. The paper, and indeed all press in the country, is censored. The degree of censorship does not rival that in China or North Korea, but still, journalists cannot criticize the central government. In the stories I read, whether about Ebola or ISIS or maritime threats from China, there was seldom commentary about what Singapore should or should not do; articles simply list the basic facts about the subject and never analyze The State or Its actions. I compare this muzzling to the free license given to vitriolic pundits and brazen commentators like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart back home in the U.S., who regularly lambast the President and politicians and who receive in return not state censure but, in the case of Colbert, invitations to testify in front of Congress. Not so in Singapore.
Indeed, journalists who do attempt to say something of substance are silenced. One day, I read an article reporting the nationwide ban on a documentary film produced by an expatriated Singaporean woman about the communists who led an attempted revolution against the Singapore government in the mid 1900s. The government film bureau ruled that the movie is subversive to state interests. Rather than produce a rebuttal to the film and offer their own version of the history, government officials simply blocked the usurper and her message.
The one “outlet” afforded to the populace is a sham. A small plot of land in a city park, the so-called “Speaker’s Corner” is, ostensibly, a free speech zone. However, one can only assemble there provided the following conditions are met: the speaker is a native Singaporean or permanent resident, the speaker has obtained a permit from the Parks Authority and has provided a detailed itinerary of the schedule and topics of discussion, and the speech does not evolve into a protest or march. Lastly, the government reserves the right to refuse any speaker if it feels that his or her message will negatively affect state interests. During my stay in the country, two college-age activists were jailed when their rally at the Corner became too large and threatening. In other words, one can exercise free speech, as long as that speech takes place at a scheduled time and place and does not broach any sensitive issues, and the government can make it “unfree” at anytime.
In sum, the idyllic picture of Singaporean society has a dark side. The gleaming skyscrapers, posh malls, safe streets, and financial wealth of the country stand upon an authoritarian political structure, a lack of free speech, and a culture of submissiveness. Granted, I was only in the country for 7 weeks, and my conclusions are undoubtedly both overgeneralized and unfair, but there is a reason why Freedom House ranks Singapore as only “partly free” and why Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 151st of 179 in press freedom. Some people may be willing to exchange their liberties for the luxury and security of Singapore. It is a personal choice. As for me, I’ll take the dirty and destitute streets of America; they may be fraught with danger and littered with used condoms and needles, but at least I’m free to say so.
Right now is the time of year when newly hired residents are starting their clinical work at the hospital, and as such, icebreakers abound. Icebreakers are those painfully awkward questions that teachers, camp counselors, and HR professionals seem uniformly to believe represent the sole approach for introducing humans to one another. The questions vary from the vapid–what is your favorite color?–to the strange–if you were a kitchen appliance, what would you be?–to the intrusive–what is your most embarrassing moment? The answers to these questions are invariably as banal as the questions themselves; respondents give safe, socially normalized, uninformative replies–thereby providing no entertainment and failing to accomplish the icebreaker’s very purpose of acquainting people with one another.
In this spirit, I recently faced the timeless classic icebreaker, “If you were a superhero, what would be your superpower?” Before the group of assembled residents, I gave one of the standard, well-worn replies: “To fly!” “Be invisible.” “Walk through walls.” But internally, I wondered: What, truly, would I want to be able to do, if I could do anything? The answer came to me more quickly than expected. I don’t want to run at light speed, to have superhuman strength, or to move objects with my mind. I want to understand the human heart. To assuage pain or shame or anger when people hurt. To dismantle fears when they feel afraid. To bolster resolve when they fail. To celebrate joys when they love.
Turns out, I already possess this power. We all do. We exercise it in the moment when we give our seat to a weary stranger on the subway. When we help an elderly widow with her groceries at the store. When we smile and say “thank you” to the office janitor. When we read books to shelter kids at the local library. When we grab a beer with a friend and just listen to the crickets and the settling quiet of dusk. When we pause for a moment, consider the feelings and worries and needs and dreams of the people around us, and act. Then, we have superpowers.