Let’s down a cultural bottle of vodka!

Cleaning up my laptop, I stumbled upon a few old writings from 2 years ago, when I was applying to college. This is a piece I find particularly adorable-I remember distinctively how I was always claiming that I didn’t believe in “cultural differences,”  that I myself would not let any cultural barrier prevent me from making friends all over the world. I still honor this belief, although most of the thoughts around it have developed drastically, as I’ve grown a lot since college. The question of cultural differences becomes so much more multifaceted. But oh well, here comes a peak into 17-year-old Nam Nam’s mind. 🙂

I am rarely late for school, except this one time when I was stuck in an eerie traffic situation: a SUV driven by a Westerner was making a turn and met with a truck driven by a Vietnamese. Both were using the “passing” beam, yet both hesitated to move on, causing a slight congestion on the road. Finally the Vietnamese driver decided to pass first, leaving me still perplexed. Later I found out that in many Western countries, “passing” beam was used when the driver meant to give way to the other car; while in Vietnam, the driver used the beam to indicate his desired priority.

The situation I witnessed was a case of cultural difference. And as I perceive, cultural differences are so common that they may lead to eerie situations on a daily basis and even severe conflicts among regions and nations on a larger scale. But could cultures be merged or adjusted in some way to reduce these cultural boundaries without losing any of their national and ethnic idiosyncrasies? This question has significantly stimulated my curiosity for exploring cultural differences; yet I could not foresee that it would also help me develop a more aware and open mind as a young person until I traveled abroad for the first time to Singapore six years ago.

Knowing that Singapore is one of the most globalized countries, I took on the trip with a hope of finding a satisfactory answer for my question. During one week on the Merlion Island, I remember discovering Singaporean culinary world with my friend Nhat Tra. We came to different food areas in Singapore, from Clark Quay, Joo Chiat to Redhill Market and Food Center, savored stunning dishes in every of the country’s finest food corners and then did a small interview with the locals about their nationalities, cultural peculiarities and the way they adapted within a multicultural country. Nhat Tra helped me with the notes while I did the asks. I initially felt very awkward, especially in front of foreigners, because I wasn’t confident about my English-speaking skill. However, the driven force of curiosity to find the answer for the question on cultures merging had given me courage to overcome diffidence and awkwardness. To my amazement, I discovered that the dishes I tasted did not entirely originate in Singapore but rather to different ethnicities around the world, from China to India, from Asia to Europe.

The prolific genres of food best represented Singapore’s multiculturalism. Nevertheless, such diversity, in cuisine, language, and even religion, virtually doesn’t create racial clashes within the country. Although at first natives and foreigners in Singapore might not be accustomed to one another’s distinctiveness in many aspects of life, they learn to respect one another’s cultures and co-live in harmony. This racial and cultural cohesion in Singapore, according to Yintian—a food stall owner I interviewed in Chinatown—is the result of not only a well-disciplined governance but also of the adaptation and negotiation among different races. For example, apart from special food items of particular ethnicities, Singapore cuisine has been largely constituted by cross-cultural combinations, such as the Peranakan, a mixed style of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine, or Kristang, a mixed style of Portuguese and Malaccan cuisine. As I approached ordinary people and saw for myself the magnificent amalgam of cultures in Singaporean life, mostly through the world of food, not only did I build a deeper connection with the surrounding world but also believe in the possibility of cultures merging; it may be difficult, but still attainable, if we are all willing to draw blurred lines between differences and lean against mutual understanding.

The question on culture merging has crucially amended my outlook on culture. But most importantly, it helped me outgrow my old self towards a more dynamic and active person, gain more self-esteem and perseverance to solve whatever incoming enigmas as well as have the motivation to take changes and contribute to creating a united world in the future. Just as Allan Karlsson said in “The hundred-year-old man who climbed through the window and disappeared,” the solution to any conflicts in the world is to down a bottle of vodka together and look ahead, so too should we deliberately downing every vodka bottle of cultural differences with a view to attaining universal solidarity—this is what I look forward to and fully believe in.

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