In which I share questions I’m asked every time I go back to the US

***I’m going through my draft posts and finishing them/adding to them to get them out into the world***


My friends and family are well educated about Singapore by this point (some were more educated about Singapore than I was when we moved here).  However, inevitably while on vacation in the US, I will have conversations with people who know nothing about Singapore, or who are very misinformed.  I was reminded of these conversations recently when Stacey shared on FB that someone had recently tried to explain to her how Singapore was a city in India.

I often don’t mind educating people about Singapore.  But then there are times when I just want to finish my Christmas shopping and not give an in-depth lecture about the location and history of Singapore.  Or talk about the bubblegum thing.  Or Michael Fay for roughly the 500th time.  I sometimes feel like I should just carry a pamphlet with the answers to these questions written down.

We’ll do this by topic

Geography FAILS

Now, the US is very local-centric.  Our evening news covers the very small part of the state we live in.  In Boston you would rarely hear about something that happened an hour away, for example.  National news is minimal and international news consists of the Duchess of Cambridge giving birth, the country the US is at war with on any given day (but only if something really interesting happens or a lot of people die), and/or stuff that involves Americans.  So it is unsurprising that few people know where Singapore is–I’m not sure that I could have done better than to point to Southeast Asia before moving here.

That said,

  • Is it in China?/What part of China is that?
  • Having to explain what a city-state is.
  • Being asked if it snows a lot here in winter, AFTER I’ve said we’re close to the equator.


Again, many Americans don’t have the best grasp of US History, and most schools interpret World Civilizations to mean Fertile Crescent, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Western Europe, conquest of the Americas, Africa only long enough to talk about the slave trade, and then the US until World Wars 1 and 2 and usually stops before we get to Korea, Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union etc.  In US History the Pacific front of WW2’s narrative is Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, we bombed them, we won.  I’m still learning so much about World War 2 and what that experience was here in Asia.

Again, that said

  • People don’t know what a British Colony is/was.
  • People don’t know that the Pacific Front of WW2 affected anyone but Japan and the US.


Broken record here, but people in the US know very little about foreign cultures.  Some people pick stuff up from The Amazing Race, but only a small percentage of the populace travels outside the country.  So if they have heard anything about Singapore, it is one of two topics.  If they haven’t, I get other awkward questions.  I should include language here, but I’m going to give it its own category.

  • Is it really illegal to chew gum there?
  • Why can’t you chew gum?
  • Isn’t that the place where they caned that kid (Michael Fay)?


Everyone asks what language is spoken in Singapore and is SHOCKED to hear that it’s English. Like I said, the concept of a British colony and that it became a separate nation in the wake of WW2 is strange to Americans because we’re such an insular people.

The idea that English is a primary language in a country where the majority of the population isn’t white showcases some ugly internalized thought–that English is a white, western language.

Nor is this confined to just the US. Kirsten Han told me that when she applied to university, she was made to take the TOEFL test–an examination given to a foreign student to see if their English is up to snuff. Despite her being a native English speaker.


None of these questions comes from a malicious place, but they are common and they are exhausting.


Updated to add–I still get some of these when I talk about living in Singapore for seven years. But not with the same frequency.

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