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Summer Research in Singapore

Singapore, wealthy but profoundly water-challenged, celebrated 50 years of independence on Aug. 9, and anthropology prof. Martha Kaplan and two Vassar students were there. Kaplan brought Paige Abramowitz ‘16 and Paarul Sinha ’17 to the Southeast Asian island nation this summer to help her conduct a study of the nation’s water issues and to analyze its national rituals. She says she was impressed with how quickly her students absorbed information about a culture they’d never experienced before.

Culture shock can be valuable to an anthropologist, because you begin your study without any preconceived notions,” she says. “Paige and Paarul went right to work finding the key sources for their studies. They talked to experts and they talked to people on the street. They did exactly what anthropologists are supposed to do.”

Kaplan was awarded a Fulbright fellowship last year to write a book contrasting water policies in Singapore, Fiji, and New York. She subsequently obtained funding   from the National Science Foundation to bring undergraduates to Singapore in the summers of 2015 and 2016 to help her with her project and to oversee the students’ independent research. Abramowitz and Sinha were the first to be chosen.

During their first two weeks in Singapore, Kaplan accompanied Abramowitz and Sinha on tours of the country’s museums and religious and historic sites, and she introduced them to government officials, professors, and water managers.  Alisha Cherian ’14, whose family is from Singapore, and who is currently a graduate student in social sciences, also joined the team. The students also attended key events celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary of its independence. Then they chose topics for their independent research.

Abramowitz, an anthropology major and Latin American and Latino/a Studies correlate from Millburn, NJ, says she decided to study food issues because Singapore is so densely populated (nearly 7 million people live on fewer than 275 square miles) that only a small fraction of its food is grown locally. She notes that one of the country’s most popular meals, “chicken rice” (chicken cooked in ginger and garlic and served with rice and chili sauce), is considered Singapore’s national dish even though none of the ingredients are grown in Singapore.

Abramowitz says she learned that the way food is marketed in Singapore is tied directly to how the country has evolved since it gained independence from England in 1965. Back then, most people lived in small residential neighborhoods, and they bought their food at local stores or from street vendors, she explains. Over the past few decades, most of the people have moved into high-rise apartments or condominiums, triggering a change in the food distribution system.

Today, most prepared foods are sold in “hawker centers,” large markets located in the high-rise neighborhoods where food retailers sell their wares. “These centers have completely replaced the street vendors as the country has been transformed,” Abramowitz says.

Sinha, a pre-med and sociology-anthropology major from Pittsburgh, PA, says she became interested in studying Singapore’s gardens while she was helping Kaplan gather information on its reservoir system. “Gardens are maintained by the government along the creeks and streams that are part of the water system, and I was interested in learning more about them,” she says.

These parks with their greenery and flowers have long been public gathering places. Recently, however, people have begun “coming down from their high-rises” to create community vegetable gardens, Sinha says.

Kaplan says she was surprised to learn about this new phenomenon. “On the one hand, developing Singapore as a “garden city” has been an important governmental policy there for years. But after only five weeks, Paarul learned some things I didn’t know about Singapore’s gardens, especially the community gardens,” she says.

Now that they are back at Vassar, Abramowitz and Sinha are preparing papers on their research and will present them at the New York Conference on Asian Studies, which will be held on the campus in October.

Abramowitz says she’s also considering using what she learned about food issues in Singapore as a basis for her senior thesis. “I studied food issues in Ecuador in the summer of 2014 and had planned to write my thesis on what I learned there,” she says, “but now I’m considering incorporating some of the work I did this summer as well.” Abramowitz is also applying for post-graduate fellowships to study food issues in other Asian countries next year.

Sinha says learning how to conduct anthropological research is helping her decide what aspects of medicine she wants to pursue. “My studies this summer definitely enhanced my interest in public health issues,” she says, “and I think I can also bring what I learned into the classroom this year. I’ve gained a perspective, learning how to look at how cultures work, that will help me in many other ways.”

--Larry Hertz