Spilling the (Bubble) Tea

Opinion

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If you were expecting an article consolidating the best places to get bubble tea in Singapore, I’m sorry to disappoint you (rest assured, that’s an article for another day – the illustrious world of bubble tea spans far beyond the humble University Town Gong Cha). Today, I’m talking about a different kind of bubble. The bubble of “Yale-NUS’s awesomeness”, as Yip Jia Qi ‘20 succinctly put in “Bursting out of the Yale-NUS Bubble”

The “Bubble” is not unfamiliar to many Yale-NUS College students. Almost every year, students write articles such as “Revisiting the Yale-NUS Bubble” and “Is Yale-NUS Elitist?”, examining the benefits and detriments of this incubated environment. But as a lowly freshman who has just entered the chat, the school seems pretty awesome indeed. Where else would I find a space that encourages me to voice my opinions, usually only expressed during imaginary arguments in the shower? 

I’ve already seen incendiary debates about Singapore’s identity as a multiracial society and impassioned students raising awareness on the burning of the Amazon rainforest. If you’re unsurprised by this, allow me to explain why I – as a Singaporean, topics like climate change, the LGBTQI+ community and consent culture are not mainstays of dinner conversation. In fact, subjects like these are typically deemed as taboo in Singapore and are often not discussed at all, let alone in such an open and extensive manner. 

In hindsight, it’s the general climate of passionate, opinionated individuals that truly manifest this principle, the ones who create avenues and platforms to spark discourse on the things that matter. 

Take the diversity blackboards, for instance – scrawled on top were trigger questions such as ‘What do you think of the racial climate in Singapore today?’ and ‘What should the future of our multiracial society look like?’. The rest of the space was soon populated by scathing criticisms of privilege and earnest appeals for a change in Singapore’s multiracial society. Although this by no means goes to say that every student in Yale-NUS is entirely comfortable discussing such topics, in many ways, there are more than ample opportunities to get the conversation going. 

So that got me thinking: Do we keep these conversations going outside Yale-NUS? 

While I would love to say that the answer is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and call it a day, the responses I’ve received are slightly more complex than that. It would be obviously be a generalization to claim that Yale-NUS students completely clam up about taboo topics in external communities, but students are undoubtedly more vocal in expressing their views within campus. Looking deeper into this phenomenon, the reason for this is two-fold. 

The first reason is pretty straightforward: it’s a lot easier to share your views with people who agree with you. Outside our cozy little bubble, we’re likely to encounter more conservative, ‘traditional’ views that contradict the comparably liberal sensibilities often espoused in Yale-NUS, assuming one managed to get a conversation about taboo issues going in the first place. 

Jiang Haolie ’21, coordinator of the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE), states, “It is [a] reality that Yale-NUS attracts a certain Western-style, progressive slant to things,” and “the lack of exposure to conservative, far-right sort of things [means] that people [don’t] really know how to engage with it.” In an environment where the majority of the student population are more inclined towards a liberal perspective of issues, our views are constantly being affirmed by others who feel similarly. That’s all fine and dandy, until our conversations begin to sound like this: 

“(insert opinion here)” 

“I agree!” 

“Cool.” 

“Super cool.” 

This echo chamber may be comforting, or indeed conducive in creating an affirmative environment, but what’s the point of starting a conversation if all we want to hear is the sound of our own voice? At some point, “we need to be more willing to engage with views that are uncomfortable to us,” Jiang says. This doesn’t mean we agree with what others are saying – rather, it means earnestly trying to understand the opposition’s point of view, checking our own biases and being open to correction or challenge. So next time, maybe sit with that racist and/or misogynistic uncle you always avoid and try to find out what he believes what he believes, understand the context and environmental factors that contribute to his opinions, before promptly explaining all the reasons why he is very, very wrong. 

Secondly, it’s all about language. Throwing around words like ‘hitherto’, ‘paradigm’ and ‘divestation’ are fine if your audience is accustomed to such terminology, but take that same conversation out into the streets, the workplace or even into our homes and you might not get quite the same response. Inevitably, when we are taught Common Curriculum subjects like Philosophy and Political Thought and Modern Social Thought, our speech is colored by the academic jargon and concepts introduced to us by the curriculum. In fact, many of us might hesitate to share our thoughts on important issues in communities beyond Yale-NUS for fear of coming off as ‘arrogant’ or ‘elitist’, or simply not being understood. 

Lim Jingzhou ’20 is co-founder of the Cassia Resettlement Team, a team of volunteers helping elderly residents in their journey of relocation from the Dakota Crescent housing estate and walking with them as they sink roots into their new home at Cassia Crescent. Given the nature of his work, Lim works with a range of stakeholders on a regular basis, from the general public to social sector professionals. “Each requires tailored approaches and the language used differs across context,” Lim says. While most of us might not be dealing with government officials and working professionals nearly as often, the same rule applies in any other situation: if we want to continue these conversations beyond Yale-NUS, we need to make our language accessible. Use Singlish, be aware of our target audience and keep our words short, sweet and concise. 

Now, to return to my initial question: Do we keep these discussions about contentious or taboo topics going outside Yale-NUS? 

Having spoken to students like Wong Cai Jie ’21, who shared about Fossil Free Yale-NUS College’s fossil free teach-ins at the College of Alice and Peter Tan, Nanyang Technological University and a technology company, as well as plans to hold online teach-ins about divestment, the answer seems clear. Admittedly, the involvement of several Yale-NUS students in the organization of the SG Climate Rally and CAPE’s regular outreach efforts are just some of the many examples of our vibrant student activism scene. But taking a step back from all these student-led organizations, the focus of this article is a little more personal. 

I’m talking about conversations with your parents in the food court, interactions with colleagues in the office pantry, catch-ups with non-Yale-NUS friends over coffee. Given the context of a more private sphere, for most Yale-NUS students, I venture to argue that the answer becomes less affirmative. “On a personal level, I engage a lot with my own folks… and they go, ‘Oh, I don’t get what this Hong Kong thing is about, or this book as well.’”, Jiang shares. Naturally, it can be discouraging to argue fervently for something you feel so strongly about, only to be met with blank faces or indifference to the topic. It’s especially so when that indifference is coming from the people whose opinions you care about the most. But how can we claim to be advocates for change and discourse if we can’t even engage with those closest to us?

As vital as it is to spur action and spread awareness in the public domain, the conversation has to start right where we are. I trust that many of us do want to see our conversations eventually manifest, and that begins from engaging with views that might contradict our own and speaking the right language. We can fervently debate issues and advocate for causes until the cows come home to graze in the courtyard, but if we never bring that conversation beyond our bubble, then we can never expect anything to change.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com.

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