Study abroad reflection: Joseph Ong

Botanic gardens- Joseph Ong

One of the funniest things about being in Southeast Asia is my identity as “American” changes depending on where I am. In America, for example, everyone speaks to me in English. In Singapore, however, while the other students will speak to me in English, whenever I interact with Singaporeans from the older generation when at the airport, buying groceries, or trying to order food, the uncles and aunties will address me Chinese. In Taiwan, even though I addressed the airport staff in Chinese, the airport staff would reply to my questions in English only. I guess I come off as “too American” in Taiwan but not so much in Singapore.

In a number of ways, that’s been one of the peculiarities of being in SE Asia. While my name is similar enough to fit in and I may look enough like a Singaporean-Chinese male to pass as a local in Westernized Singapore, no matter where I travelled — Thailand, KL or Melaka, Jakarta — people can quite easily identify me as someone who’s not from SE Asia. There’s always something that’s just a little bit off — whether it’s my manner of dress or the way I look, there’s just enough for locals to realize that you’re a stranger in their parts (and, in KL, it means that the taxi driver will offer to take you someone for a good deal more than it would actually cost were they to use the meter). We Westerners just don’t quite fit in — we stand out just a bit too much, I suppose.

We’re very different, actually. I was born and raised in America, and I identify with American culture and many of the customs and habits that I didn’t pay attention to: grabbing a knife at the

Ramly Burger- Joseph Ong

dining hall to eat your food with, ketchup, cheese, peanut butter, napkins, a population that has a largely Christian majority, friends with pale skin and some generic mix of European ancestry…In SE Asia, gone are these things, and in their place is something which was, at first encounter, totally exotic: Milo, dragon fruit, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist shrines, Halal utensils, chili sambal, kaya, a two dollar bill, coconut milk, the juiciest mangoes, an oppressive heat, crowded buses and subways; new languages; and, when you step out of Singapore, non-potable drinking water; still water, brimming mosquito larvae; traffic; stray cats; grime, trash, and graffiti; street food and snacks. Have you heard Taylor Swift in Malaysia? Hearing an American musician with an American accent while you’re in a Malaysian cab traveling through the streets of Kuala Lumpur (or KL, as it’s called here) — certainly, somewhere that’s quite far away from America, both geographically and culturally — is quite weird.

Our first trip outside of Singapore was to Melaka, Malaysia -- an interesting historical site, as it was heavily colonized by the Europeans, and, before that, was a strong port for the Chinese explorer Zheng He. It’s quite funny to see the effects of imperialism in the East: to see Dutch architecture, traverse the Portuguese wall around the city, read British names on tombstones. It certainly makes you reflect on how imperialism has developed a country and wonder what the country would be like were it not a former colony. Sure, I knew about colonialism and the trade between Asian colonies and the European continent, but being there and seeing it for myself was quite a different experience. The Western perspective of history can be a bit skewed, I think, toward a very Ameri- or Euro-centric world view. It’s easy to forget or decontextualize much of what didn’t directly happen in Europe.

Esplanade- Joseph Ong

The Japanese occupation of the Pacific Theater (or Pacific Theatre, if you so choose), is largely ignored in American textbooks. While the atrocities of the European Axis powers are heavily taught, the acts of violence committed by the Japanese during wartime against other Asians in the Pacific have been largely ignored by teachers of American history. A somewhat bitter sentiment has remained in Asia as a result.  Our tour guide in Melaka very plainly said that there was still resentment against the Japanese in Melaka, and he apologized if you were treated differently because you were Japanese (and also advised mentioning that you are Japanese). Singapore, however, has no such resentment — for, as other students have framed it, Singapore was “too diverse” to rally up a group toward retaliation or anger.

It’s a funny thing to say about Singapore, that Singapore is “too diverse.” I, too, was under the impression that Singapore is a diverse place; I was told it’s diverse during my

frog porridge-Joseph Ong

pre-departure meetings, my research online showed that Singapore is composed of four main ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays, Indians, and “Other”) and that Singaporean culture and food is a mix of those four groups, and I saw that signs and announcements in the trains were written in four languages (English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay). However, when I was asked by a sociology professor to share my views of Singapore with the rest of the class, I (after pointing out I had been in Singapore for the entirety of 96 hours) said that I thought Singapore was a diverse place. The classroom immediately went silent — I wasn’t sure if what I had said was wrong or not. I later learned that no, Singapore isn’t really a diverse place: if we look at the racial demographics, the Chinese make up 74% of the population, with the Malays (13%) and Indians (9%) making much smaller parts of the population. Singapore isn’t really a diverse place, but it does a very good job of making it seem like it is a diverse place. Housing is allotted to roughly reflect the demographics of the country so that one ethnicity cannot “dominate” the others. Food, as mentioned before, is available from all ethnic backgrounds at hawker centres (in fact, as I later learned, the government allocates stalls to different ethnic foods on purpose, with the result that each hawker centre has a variety of food styles to choose from). It’s a kind of fabricated racial harmony, I think, but it works.

That’s another thing about Singapore. The government can be a bit oppressive by American standards: all three phone companies are government owned/monitored and all media channels (and the internet) are censored. Chewing gum is illegal and punishable by a S$1000 fine (the same fine given for public urination Smoking in public is allowed only within yellow boxes about 3 meters by 3 meters painted on the ground (a nice idea, actually). Caning is still used as a form of punishment (and if you pass out during your caning, they hospitalize you and then they give you the remaining strokes when the doctors have determined you have sufficiently healed). Singaporeans have a CPF account, a form of government-mandated saving; a certain percentage of their pay check goes toward their CPF account, which they can access later to pay for housing, their child’s education, or retirement. Singaporean students bemoaned how they had to wait so long to access their money; I told them about how I have to pay into but probably won’t get to withdraw from Social Security. They quickly reflected that the CPF isn’t that bad.

Thailand beach- Joseph Ong

In addition to studying and traveling, I also worked in a lab here in Singapore doing stem cell biology, both throughout the semester and during the summer. My work in the Ng lab has most recently focused on working toward immortalization of human muscle cells, a feat which has been accomplished in mouse muscles but not in human muscles. Such an accomplishment will not only allow us to highlight the differences between mouse and human muscles and thus develop better models of human muscles for research, but also will help unravel what factors affect age-related damage and diseases in other tissue types for the purposes of combating age-associated diseases. To this end, I had established three cell lines, one with suppression of one cell-cycle regulator, one with suppression of another cell-cycle regulator, and one with suppression of both. Previous work demonstrated that suppressing these two genes together was able to de-differentiate muscles in mouse models. On the basis of this work, we examined whether or not suppressing these same genes would either cause de-differentiation or result in gene expression patterns that would extend the proliferative capability of human myoblasts. Ultimately, our observations suggest suppression of these genes does not seem to support proliferation of myoblasts, and qPCR data show that the myogenic gene expressions of these cell lines are somewhat dissimilar from wild-type hSKM cells. I’d like to thank MSPS, the Glynn Family Honors Program, and the Career Center (Centre?) for sponsoring my time here. Doing research in another country has allowed me to see how different labs operate and my time in this lab has been valuable in honing my skills of cell biology and developing techniques in molecular and cell biology, and has also allowed me to explore options for employment outside the US.

As my time in Singapore comes to an end, it’s funny to think of how much time has passed and how much I have learned. I’ve developed so much confidence (let’s see that KL cab driver try to charge me extra now!) and have so many more life experiences under my belt. It’s a bit ironic: in the 2015 calendar year, I will have only spent 14 days in the United States when school starts up again in August. It’s been a big adjustment, living on my own and making new friends, and it’s given me a lot of ways to grow and develop. I’ve become used to the heat, the crowded public transportation, and the Singlish slang. I’ve seen the grandeur of a Singaporean thunderstorm, and I’ve been attacked by a monkey. Singapore is a beautiful place, and I’m glad to have spent seven months here.

Joseph Ong Class of 2016


Originally published by Ke’Ana Bradley at on August 12, 2015.