Oberlin Blogs

Soaking Up The Sun in Singapore

February 18, 2011

Ruby Saha ’14

Okay, so that title is more alliterative than true since it rained about 70% of the time while I was in Singapore, but in celebration of this beautiful sunny day today, I thought I would finally sit down and reflect on a really wonderful month in Singapore, which is currently where my immediate family lives. Coming back to Oberlin has just been one great whirlwind of activity; between taking 6 classes (I GOT INTO ALL MY CLASSES! HUZZAH!), pestering professors to let me register for said classes, checking PRESTO with paranoid frequency to make sure no one else steals my spot, bargaining for textbooks, trying out all the new restaurants that have cropped up and attempting to keep up with this mercurial weather, it's just been a mad rush pretty much since I left Singapore.

But first, a tiny celebration for the advent of Spring. It's green again! Well, at least until Thursday, when it's supposed to start snowing again.

(Unfortunately after this point my camera decided to stop co-operating with me, so I'm afraid you're going to have to use your imagination to picture Singapore until I can upload some photos asap!)

Officially, I went to Singapore to study Classical Arabic. That's what's on my transcript, anyway. Unofficially, I also did a piano intensive, had some lessons with my crazy Russian violin teacher, drove my family up a wall, was stuffed to the gills with my mother's excellent cooking, got a fish bone stuck in my throat, celebrated Chinese New Year, spent time with some of my closest high school friends (who I don't really get to talk to very often while at Oberlin thanks to the messed up time differences between the US, the UK, Singapore, Australia and China, where my friends are all scattered around), and Skyped my Oberlin friends who I missed just as dearly while I was away. (Seems like we're always stuck in this constant cycle of missing people, which is a sad realisation!)

I decided to study Arabic because I did it for a semester here in the fall and was pretty unhappy with the pace of the class. I felt I needed something more intensive because I think it's a really beautiful language and I've always wanted to be able to speak it fluently, so my mum did some legwork for me (see Ma, I do give you credit!) and found a school in Singapore for me to study, ostensibly because she thought I would have a hard time dealing with how cold it would be in Oberlin, but more likely so that she could feed me to bursting point, which is exactly what she proceeded to do. That isn't a complaint, just a statement of fact.

Studying Arabic was as wonderful as it was frustrating. I studied 3 times a week for 90 minutes at a school called Ahli Fes on Changi Road, which is quite literally on the other side of the island from me, so it took me about an hour to get there by MRT (the metro system in Singapore), which is a long time considering we're talking about an island only about twice as big as Manhattan island. This turned out to be useful for practicing before class, especially when I was memorising the different colors, but I do feel kind of sorry for the people sitting next to me who had to listen to me mutter things like "qamiiSuhu aHmer" ("his shirt is red") and "shAauruhaa aswad" ("her hair is black") under my breath.

The brothers who run Ahli Fes are Moroccan, and they run a translation program for critical patients coming from the Middle East to receive treatment in Singapore, as Singapore has some of the best healthcare programs worldwide. My teacher, Ustaadh Zouhair ("ustaadh" = "teacher"), has a fantastic sense of humour but was also fairly draconian, putting me on the spot every day as soon as I walked in, which was great for learning but terrible for my nerves since I never knew what he'd cook up for me next. Moroccans also speak French and Arabic and since he rarely gets a chance to speak French, we ended up speaking in French quite a bit, which was good because it gave me a chance to keep up with not one but two languages. There are also some concepts of Arabic grammar which exist in the French language but not in English, so this was also very useful.

Learning Arabic is not actually as difficult as people think it is. First of all, learning the alphabet is the easiest part. Arabic is a phonetic language in the same way that Japanese or Russian is, so each letter represents a single sound that almost never changes, with of course a couple of exceptions like the letter ة, called the 'taa marbuta', which is a grammatical marker for feminine words and sounds like 'a' in some cases and changes to a 't' in others. In this respect, Arabic is a lot easier to learn than English because English sounds change all the time; for example, 'gh' can be a hard 'g' like in 'ghost', or an 'f' sound like in 'enough'. This doesn't happen in Arabic, which is just wonderful because there are enough things that make the language hard as it is.

One thing that makes Arabic hard to learn at first is that there are sounds which just don't exist in English, like the infamous ع ('Ayn); the closest I can get to describing it accurately is that it's sort of like a groan of frustration, but that doesn't even come close to illustrating the phonetic complexity of emitting this sound. I'm fairly convinced that anyone who learns Arabic as an outsider who can actually say that sound perfectly will achieve the meaning of life. There are also 'emphatic' letters that you don't have in English, i.e. sounds that are spoken in a deeper way, like ط (Taa) or ص (Saa), which also deepen the surrounding vowels. I'm probably making it sound very complicated and I guess at first it is, but it gets really easy with practice. Like I said, the alphabet is the easiest part.

I might as well have started from scratch because, as it turns out, my textbook is useless and the course I took here leaves out all of the small vowels (in Arabic there are three long vowels which can also be consonants, and three corresponding short vowels) which actually have a million grammatical functions and you really can't learn Classical Arabic without them, so I'm amazed that they were completely left out of the syllabus here. I learnt more in 3 weeks than in an entire semester of Arabic 101, and it was absolutely worth it.

Apart from that, I also studied piano twice a week with an equally draconian but brilliant teacher, Jane, and also went for violin lessons once a week with my wonderful Russian teacher Alexander Souptel who is the kindest, funniest and silliest man I have ever met and who is the only person who could get away with comparing bow-grip to 'drrreeenkeeeng vodka'.

Mostly, I'm glad I chose to go back home to Singapore because I was a lot more homesick than I'd realized, and I think I would have had a hard time if I'd only stayed for a week instead of for the whole month of January, and I was surprised that I didn't feel like it was too long, although my parents may disagree with me there. I had a really great time because it was a good balance of work, play and chillaxation, which is great for me because I'd either have been bored to tears or seriously stressed out.

If for whatever reason you're planning to spend your Winter Term in Singapore and have anything to ask me about it, or are planning to study Arabic for your WT and would like some advice, I'm always happy to answer questions and I get email notifications for comments so I'll be able to answer you pretty quickly, so PLEASE feel free to ask me anything! (:

Now go out and enjoy this beautiful weather!

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