Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Longest Thursday

Last week we had our longest Thursday ever, courtesy of 23 hours of transit combined with a time-zone change that set us back 13 hours. Our first flight leg was on the longest passenger flight in the world, direct from Singapore to Newark. What do you do for almost 18 hours on a plane? Well, we wondered about that, too...

Hour 1: I am already looking at my watch: are we there yet? But of course we’ve only just started, and we’re not even to Ho Chi Minh City yet. A stewardess comes by and hands us regulation slipper-socks, and we dutifully put them on.

Hour 2: We’re in business class, so the steady parade of food has begun. It’s not so much to feed the hungry as to kill time for the bored; a meal can last almost two hours. They bring Indonesia satay, then salad, then would-you-like-duck-beef-lamb-or-laksa. The seafood laksa is the only Singaporean dish, but we pass it up: we can get these for $3 Sing at a hawker centre when we get back. Plus the combination of spicy shrimp sambal sauce, coconut milk, and noodles just about guarantees day-glo orange spots on my shirt, especially if I’m eating on a plane. They “round out” the meal with bread, cheese, and dessert. I’m hoping they don’t feed us again for another 12 hours or so.

Hour 4: The chipper stewardess informs us that duty-free shopping is now open, in case we missed the 1,000 duty-free shops at Changi Airport (one hazard of an airport where all the flights are international).

Hour 5: It’s always tricky to figure out when to sleep to minimize the inevitable jet lag. But we’re getting in to Newark at 5 p.m. EST, so we’ll try to sleep during the early part of the flight and then stay awake for awhile, so we’re sleepy again when we reach our destination.

Hour 10: We wake up to find that we’ve flown over the sea between Korea and Japan and are still continuing northward. Our path is a giant parabola on the map. We’ve crossed the International Date Line. But the trip is starting to wear on us. Tired and cranky, we spend the next hour dissecting whether moving to Singapore was a colossal mistake or a brilliant idea. We had this same discussion many times during our stressful first months in Singapore. As we really should know by now, it’s a pointless debate, impossible to resolve. The truth is, moving to another country is always a bit of both.

Hour 11: Food again. The crew seems in a hurry, which I’m guessing is because we’ll soon be over land (North America!), with a higher chance of turbulence. After dinner, they turn the lights down to encourage us to sleep again. Joey decides to sleep upside-down to get the blood flowing to his head again. The “lay-flat” seats are indeed flat, but they’re at a slight angle, so your feet are usually pointing toward the floor.

Hour 12: We are flying over Juneau, over the Canadian Rockies and Jasper National Park. I am trying to stay awake, so I decide to watch a movie. There are hundreds to choose from, all on-demand, so I start a very funny Australian faux-documentary about children’s dance studios. Movies on these flights are pretty international: aside from the usual US hits, there’s everything from kung fu to Bollywood.

Hour 16: I can’t help it; I keep dropping off to sleep. In Singapore, it’s the wee hours of the morning. But I am excited by the “Hours to Arrival” number on the flight information screen. After all this time, it’s hard to believe we’re just two hours away from Newark.

Hour 17: Newark provides its usual welcome: an hour-long holding pattern before we even get as close as Elizabeth. The pilot explains that they always show up an hour early to Newark, so the gate arrival “almost” always ends up being on time. In his voice we hear the typical Singaporean’s gentle exasperation at the disorder in other countries. Having lived in Singapore for the better part of a year, we’re inclined to agree with him.

Hour 18: We touch down amid the glow of orange street lights and the mist from a freezing fog. At 5 p.m., it is already cold and dark (we are used to a daily 7 p.m. sunset), but we’ve made it. At last we are back on the eastern coast of the US.

Friday, November 30, 2007

So This Is Christmas...

The American-style elves-and-Santa setups are in the malls. The swankier stores are decked out in swags of silk greenery, poinsettias, and lights. Outdoors, the five-story-high fake Christmas trees clash horribly with the tropical foliage, though nobody seems to mind. But there’s still one problem: it’s hot.

I’ve largely refrained from complaining about the weather here, mostly because I actually like it. But now we’re experiencing the unbearable stickiness of our first rainy season. I thought all the rain might mean cooler temperatures, but instead, the heavy clouds hold in the damp heat, pressing it down on anyone who dares to venture outdoors. And our fragile air-conditioning system, flummoxed by the change in season, has responded by producing warm, steamy air.

Plus the bugs are coming out of the woodwork, or wherever they’ve been all year. We barely noticed them before, but now they’re launching daily campaigns to breach our doors and windows - anything to get out of the rain. (Clearly, they’re spoiled; we have nothing like the floods and monsoons elsewhere in the region.)

All this I could have ignored, were it not for the necessity of putting up Christmas decorations. Even after all those Christmasses in Florida (which, admittedly, were drier if not much cooler than this), it’s the first time Christmas has seemed like such an act of will. First was the lugging of decorations down from storage on the “air-conditioned” third floor, which had reached about 100 sticky Fahrenheit degrees. Next was the battle with a very large cockroach while in the storage room searching for electrical converters so as to light up the decorations without shorting the power grid.

Then there was the garland. Determined to make it feel “like Christmas” in our Singapore home, I’d rashly planned to wrap a faux pine garland all the way up the stairs to the third floor. (The woman at the garden store was baffled. “I know it’s on sale, but where will you put 64 feet of this stuff?”) Unfortunately, while a pine garland seemed warm and comforting in New Jersey, I quickly discovered that in Singapore’s temperatures I could barely stand to hold on to such scratchy prickliness – the equivalent of hauling a thick wool sweater around Miami in June. The homey, festive experience I’d hoped for quickly gave way to a sweat-drenched struggle to wrangle my 64 feet of garland into place on the stairwell before passing out from the heat.

Just at the top of the second floor, I ran out - not of garland, but of energy. That was the point at which I gave up and went downstairs to watch ice-skating on TV with an enormous glass of ice water. Gradually, I started to feel just a little cooler. But it still took me a long time to feel in the Christmas spirit.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club IX

It’s themed to Thanksgiving, it’s slightly quirky, and nine out of ten people probably don’t think it’s a fruit. It’s also our second (and perhaps our last) fried fruit of the month. Our fruit of the month for November is . . . pumpkin tempura.

Yes, folks, while you were eating your tasty Thanksgiving leftovers of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, we were beginning to realize that when you don’t cook your own Thanksgiving lunch, you have an empty fridge at dinnertime, when you just want a bite of something to finish off the day.

So what did we do, resourceful expats in Asia that we are? We went to Sakae Sushi, of course. But I am not a sushi eater myself, and I still had Thanksgiving on my mind, so I ordered my first pumpkin tempura. It’s not made with the “traditional” pumpkin but with a lighter, sweeter Japanese pumpkin, tending more toward the butternut squash camp. Still, it’s yummy, with a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture and just a hint of the autumn we were craving.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Remembering Florida

Recently, I’ve been editing and writing Florida-related passages, and some of them have vividly reminded me of what it was like growing up there. A week or two into the work, I found myself homesick for someplace I haven’t lived in a dozen years or so. True, we have steamy heat and palms and mangroves and shore birds and lizards here in Singapore, too. But there’s much that I miss, at least the way I remember it.

I miss the clack-clack of high-heeled sandals in the tiled, fountain-filled courtyard of the Columbia restaurant in St. Augustine. I miss Ybor City, Tampa’s historical district and home of amazing Cuban food and atmosphere. I miss hearing the rolling syllables of Spanish after every English announcement.

I miss watching the east-coast beaches shimmering during thunderstorms. I miss the beaches at night. I remember getting up in pitch blackness and reaching the beach just in time to see a massive sea turtle crouching over a hole in the sand, dropping dozens of eggs the size of golf balls before shuffling imperturbably back into the sea.

I miss playing one-on-one basketball and shell games with the dolphins just up the road at Marineland - nothing in the world lifts the spirits like delighting a dolphin, especially when no one else is around - before some stupid kid threw something dangerous in and they had to put up fences.

I miss my maternal grandmother’s house, just across the bridge from the ocean, and the way the sand clung to our feet after a day on the beach. I even miss her refusal of air-conditioning. Now I see it was just an extension of her love of the old Florida ways.

I miss Southern sweetened iced tea, more plentiful than water, always the perfect taste, always ice-cold. I love that my paternal grandmother, no matter where she is in the world, just can’t stop herself from asking for “sweet tea.” I feel the same.

I am going back for a week or so in December, to visit and to try to adjust to the inevitable changes. Even so, when I dream of Florida, I think I will still see what I miss, what I remember.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving, Sort Of

We scheduled our Thanksgiving meal at the American Club for lunchtime, because they were sold out at dinner. I asked Joey, “Are you sure noon would be okay?” He looked at me and shrugged. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Because he didn’t get the day off, that’s why.

So in between meetings, he met me for Thanksgiving lunch. Among our fellow diners were a few American families also celebrating the holiday, but most people there were Singaporeans having everyday business lunches.

There was no Macy’s parade - at least, not until 11 p.m. our time, and then it wasn’t carried on any of our cable channels. There was no kickoff to Christmas; with no Thanksgiving holiday to keep the Singaporean retailers in check, it’s been the “Christmas shopping season” since the beginning of November. And, speaking of kickoffs, there was no American football, either.

Still, as we ate our turkey and trimmings, we counted our blessings. Air conditioning (it’s currently 80 degrees and 75 percent humidity, indoors). Cheap calling cards that make our family sound like they’re next door. Email and snail mail, the source of Thanksgiving cards that made today feel more like a holiday. And, of course, next month’s trip to see many of the people we’re thankful for.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ads That Make You Go Hmm...

Found this flyer in our mailbox the other day. At first glance it seems normal enough. Standard aspirational verbiage, the “don’t you want to be like them” approach. What you’d expect from a luxury if perhaps fading brand.

The very last line, what they clearly think is the final kicker, is what gets me. “For less than $119,000*.” I don’t care if that’s in Sing dollars. That’s still $80,000 US. (It might be even more tomorrow, given the dollar’s slide.) And this is for Ford’s entry-class Jaguar.

I have no idea if this includes government tax (import duties are almost as high as the sticker price), the COE (the permit to drive the car, issued in very limited numbers, at auction), and all the other charges. But if not, the total price for the car could set you back more than $160,000 US.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Speedy Delivery

No, not the Mr. Rogers kind - I'm thinking food delivery. Here, plenty of food can be delivered, usually courtesy of guys on zippy mopeds with large boxes on the back. Sure, there’s the standard stuff like pizza, though it’s from a Pizza Hut rather than a Domino’s as you might expect. But pizza is even less appealing here than in the US. And while McDonalds offers delivery almost 24 hours a day, having limp French fries delivered isn’t my idea of dinner.

There are some unusual ones here, but not all of them are great ideas, either. Do you really want your sushi after it’s been sitting on the back of a motorcycle in 85-degree heat? For my money, the perfect delivery foods are Indian and Malaysian foods.

One of the services that has caught my eye is Dial-a-Curry (actual slogan: “You Curry, We Hurry!”), the delivery arm for Maharajah on Orchard Road. Korma, paneers, vindaloos, you name it, paired with naans, parathas, and dosas. That’s food that will still be fantastic when it arrives at your doorstep.

On my way home the other day, I also spotted this delivery truck for Malaysian nasi lemak, otah, and satay. Granted, this is probably for catering, but it’s worth throwing a party for, right? Pizza guys, you’ve got competition!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club VIII

I’m a little late in posting this, but here is October’s fruit of the month. We figured, in the month of jack o’ lanterns, what could be more appropriate than a deep-fried jackfruit?

Our friend got some for us to try at the Hari Raya festivities, and we thought, hey, conch fritters! But no, it was a hard jackfruit fried in a thick batter.

The first reaction for both of us on the first bite was, “What is durian doing in this thing?” Trust us, if there is anything you do not want sneaking up on you, it’s durian - a scarier surprise than any Halloween monster.

Once we knew it was there, though, the taste wasn’t all that bad. Jackfruit isn’t quite as punchy as durian, and it’s a smaller dose, so we could mostly enjoy the creaminess of the texture and the crunch of the batter.

Not the healthiest fruit of the month, admittedly. But surely it’s healthier than the large quantities of Halloween candy we have left over after our lone trick-or-treater (a British neighbor) stopped by.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hong Kong Disneyland

As long-time Disney fans, during our trip to Hong Kong we couldn’t resist visiting Hong Kong Disneyland. As the newest, and therefore smallest, Disney park (it’s still being expanded), the place has been maligned for not enough activities for hyperactive small children or Asian teenagers raised on video games. But we loved it, partly because of the simple pleasures of walking around a Magic Kingdom, soaking up the atmosphere, and watching how the cultural and language differences played out.

A detailed review, for those particularly interested (and if you are, you’re probably related to me):

When you arrive by subway, Disney has its own train off one of the main lines. The train is plush, with windows and rings shaped like Mickey’s head and gold statues of Disney characters. You exit the train at a gorgeous, old-fashioned train station before walking through manicured grounds past a huge fountain with sculptures of Mickey, Donald, and the rest on your way to the gate.

Hong Kong Disneyland is, visually, a bit on the short side. It’s on Lantau, the same island as the airport, so we’re guessing that a bigger Sleeping Beauty’s Castle or Space Mountain wouldn’t have met height restrictions for flight visibility. But it’s still beautifully done, with all the details you would expect from a Disney park.

Food Surprisingly good. Favorites: Fantastic dim sum in a food court in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, amid tapestries that told the story, classic Gothic arches, and lighted pedestals with life-sized statues of dancing Disney princes and princesses. British and Cantonese food at the end of Main Street. Ice cream (selection: chocolate-and-vanilla Mickey heads, chocolate and sesame seeds, red bean, and green tea) while staking out seats for the excellent parade.

Entertainment Fascinating, largely because of language differences. For the main show, the songs were in English, but they spoke Cantonese, and the Chinese characters (for the Mandarin speakers) and English were on screens on either side. Imaging hearing Cantonese spoken with the squeakiness of Mickey and Minnie, the aw-yuk of Goofy’s voice, and the quacking of Donald Duck!

Stitch Encounter, a computer-run audience-interaction show, was also interesting. Since it would be impossible to interact with the audience in three languages at once, the day is divided into English shows, Mandarin shows, and Cantonese shows. It only takes them 15 minutes to switch the technology from one language to the next. Impressive, and fun. Stitch immediately picked Joey out of the audience and announced that he was an escaped space pirate, complete with mugshot on screen. Ah, the memories...

Rides Space Mountain is tamer; there’s just no getting around it. Lots of tight spirals at high speed, but no drops at all, perhaps because of the lack of height. The “rockets” in Tomorrowland have been altered to take on more people; now they’re literal flying saucers, an odd contrast to the Mad Hatter’s Teacups not far away.

The Jungle River Cruise is more like Disneyland in California, much more fun and involved than the one in Orlando. Also, here Tom Sawyer’s rafts are called Tarzan’s rafts, and they float across to Tarzan’s Treehouse. Not much to do, but given the location and the beautiful hills that surround the park, it’s a terrific place to take in the views.

Buzz Lightyear, the Carousel, Dumbo, Mickey’s Philharmagic, and Winnie the Pooh are the same as in Orlando. It’s a Small World probably will be, too; it’s still being constructed, but we could see the familiar facade.

Omissions? Yes, there are plenty. No Frontierland at all - and while it doesn’t exactly make sense in Hong Kong, that means no Splash Mountain and no Big Thunder Railway. No Pirates of the Caribbean. No Peter Pan. No Haunted Mansion. (No Hall of Presidents, either, but that’s a bonus.)

Hotels There are two Disney hotels near the park. The Disneyland Hotel looked so much like the Grand Floridian (though it was billed as European) that we couldn’t stay there - it was just too weird. Instead, we stayed at Disney’s Hollywood Hotel, a casual but glamorous hotel decorated in a perfect art deco style.

If you enjoy finding “hidden Mickeys,” this is the hotel for you. Mickeys tucked into the outer wall. Cubist Mickey carpets in the halls. Mod, flat, circular lights in the restaurants in the Mickey shape. Mickey croutons in the salads. Mickey-shaped tops on the travel shampoo.

And when we got tired of looking at Mickeys, we could look out our window onto the hotel grounds and then out to the bay and the mountains beyond, a constant reminder that we might be at Disney, but we were still in the exotic city of Hong Kong.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Culture Shock: Hong Kong

After our decidely “foreign” experience in Beijing, I have to admit we felt little (if any) culture shock in Hong Kong. It was often in English, easy to navigate, with a great subway. It is true that in casual Singapore, land of the universal flip-flops, I had almost forgotten what it was like to be in the Big City. (Note to self: remember to reintegrate black into wardrobe.) The buildings are taller, the rich are richer, and most people seem to walk with a sense of entitlement, secure in their success.

Plus, in many ways it was exactly what we expected: the truly spectacular skyline of an established financial behemoth, peopled with a global mix of ambitious financieers. And in the background, as we’d secretly hoped, those mysterious, exotic little hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants crammed to the rafters with carvings and lacquerwork, many lit by the haunting glow of deep-red lanterns.

My favorite part of Hong Kong, though, was a remarkable little piece of architecture generally referred to as “The Escalators.” Part of Hong Kong is built up the side of a steep hill, and it’s quite a climb even to get from one block to the next. So they built a series of escalators (really “travelators,” those flat, moving ramps), to carry pedestrians up the hill. They’re raised about one floor above street level, so we rode along while peering curiously over the edge and down into the lanes on either side. Then, any time we spotted an interesting restaurant or shop (and the lanes were packed with these), we just hopped off to investigate. Going down, you have to take the stairs, unless it’s morning commuting hour; then, they change the direction of the escalators so that everyone who lives up the hill can ride down to the central business district to work.

Like Beijing, Hong Kong was hazy during the day, so we skipped the Peak Tram and its supposedly spectacular views from a foothill just outside the city. But the sky cleared up at night, so we took a gorgeous ferry ride across the bay from Kowloon to central Hong Kong for the best views of the skyline across the water. One of the nice things about the ferry is that it’s not a tourist attraction; it’s just what lots of people take as part of their commute every day, for about 50 cents US per trip. Of course, by now they’re too jaded to notice the view, but we think they’re still lucky to have the chance to see this every day.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hari Raya Puasa

Let the celebrations begin! Hari Raya Puasa (Fasting Day of Celebration) marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In Singapore it also marks the beginning of a slew of holidays. This year, the Hindu celebration of Deepavali is in early November; then there’s Christmas and New Year’s, and finally Chinese New Year in early February 2008. Needless to say, the retailers are having a field day with sales events (or “promotions” as they say here).

Which makes us especially grateful for local Singaporeans who have welcomed us--or, more often, Jenn--into their circle. From bowling on Fridays to East Coast dinner parties, from cat sitting while we’re traveling to the occasional help from a maid, we’ve been very fortunate. Many of these are women Jenn has become friends with--and I freely admit that Jenn’s cell phone rings more frequently than mine!

Through these acquaintances, we’ve been introduced to wonderful cultures. Our introduction to Hari Raya Puasa came courtesy of the lovely Monica, who took us out to the Malay Village and Geylang area last week after sundown (and after the breaking of the daily fast) to enjoy the festivities. She simply loves all the different celebrations in Singapore (anything that involves putting up decorations is a big hit), but it was great to spend this one with her. Of Malay heritage herself, she could explain the details of all the sights and sounds.

As usual with these festivals of sensory overload, it was hard to capture the true sense of the festival on film. A few photos, anyway:

These ladies certainly know how to wear a hijab...

...but for those who aren't quite as sure, you can always look to the mannequins for inspiration.

Apparently, one simply must buy new curtains at Hari Raya, and the selection is overwhelming. This shop was one of the few I could frame in the camera.

After some “Halal makan” (must celebrate with food, lor!), we took a stroll through the bustling booths stuffed with carpets and stunning embroidered clothing (and yes, the sign says $55 Singapore dollars, or about $35 US).

Finally, we climbed a footbridge for one last look at the lights down the main thoroughfare of Geylang.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Climate Change… What Climate Change?

Before everyone harpoons me for this title, I should say I believe global warming is real – good enough for a Nobel prize. I’m not sure some climate change wouldn’t have happened without people, but I certainly don’t believe people have no impact.

Having said that, I confess to wishing for seasonal climate change in Singapore. Precipitation doesn’t count. The temperature fluctuations look like an EKG reading at a cemetery. The word "season" has one meaning here, and it involves taste buds.

Yes, I knew this when we moved here, and the lack of temperature shifts doesn’t bother me that much – after all, if I needed a quick fix, I’d just duck into the nearest shopping mall for a/c. But I find the lack of seasons is toying with my sense of calendar. Is it October already? Are Thanksgiving and Christmas really right around the corner? Noticing that Australia is approaching Summer just messes with my head even more.

I’ll have to take my seasonal cues from something else; I hear from a local friend that Christmas decorations will be up in a week or so - maybe that will help.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How Guanxi Killed My Carpet Grass

(Cue film noir theme music.)

This is a story of unfulfilled promises, dashed expectations, sheer incompetence, and guanxi (the relationship-based way of doing business in Asia).

The characters: an out-of-town landlord, a dastardly landscaper, his bumbling gardening henchmen, and one naïve renter whose contract provides for a certain amount of lawn maintenance.

As our story opens, the renter is watering dutifully, even going so far as to invest in technology to ensure even coverage. The landlord has signed a contract with the landscaper, naturally a friend of a friend. The contract calls for maintenance of the newly installed carpet grass, which apparently requires fertilizing and cutting to just the right length, at just the right time every month, in order to survive at all. The renter has no obligations regarding this contract, except to water dutifully. The landlord heads out of town, confident in guanxi to guarantee all will be well.

Unfortunately, rather like cell phone reception, guanxi tends to break down over long distances. With the landlord out of town, the landscaper has as much affection for this carpet grass as one might have for wilted lettuce - which the grass begins to resemble. Out of desperation, the renter attempts to establish some local guanxi himself. Weeks of sweet-talking the receptionist (Catherine) finally garner the renter first-name recognition status. On one occasion, the landscaper himself even shows up for a consultation. The bumbling henchmen finally do it right. The carpet grass begins to thrive.

Then inexplicably, everything falls into disarray. The landscaper is mysteriously “out of the country.” Catherine is nowhere to be found. The henchmen reschedule a maintenance session for three weeks later, then miss one entirely. And when they do show up, they’ve returned to their previous bumbling ways. Here’s what’s left of the carpet grass.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club VII

This month’s fruit is the hami melon, pronounced hahm-ee, not hammy (we think, because apparently the Chinese term is ha mi gua).

Joey held up one of these elongated-canteloupe-looking fruits at the market a few days ago: “Do you know what this is?” I had no idea, and he couldn’t remember trying one, so we took it home to experiment.

We prepared to carve it open, ready for our next exotic fruit experience, but...

“Drat,” I said. “It is just a canteloupe.”

Fortunately it didn’t taste like a canteloupe, though, unless you’ve managed to snag a rock-hard canteloupe that turns out to be delectably sweet inside. This was actually crunchy but must have been ripe, given its intense though slightly astringent sweetness, a bit like sugar cane.

Lantern Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t just about mooncakes of dubious flavors. There are glowing lanterns galore. We were fortunate enough to see the festive lantern displays in two major world cities this year.

In Beijing, we wandered through Ditan Park, which had large lanterns representing Olympic cities, obviously in preparation for the 2008 games. From Moscow to Paris, Athens to Sydney, and of course Beijing, the lanterns were quite a sight. And in the cooler, crisper air of Beijing, it finally felt like “Mid-Autumn.”

Singapore hosted its own lantern extravaganza. With sticky humidity and temperatures in the 80s, the weather wasn’t exactly Fall-like, but the thousands of lanterns made up for it. The theme was all things water related (apparently this year’s national theme).

There were some surprising twists, though: the lanterns depicted everything from Chinese myths to penguins, pelicans, and even the Loch Ness monster.

But our favorites, in both Beijing and Singapore, were the simpler, more traditional lanterns hung in the trees. Perhaps it's more because of what we’re longing for around this time of year. Red spheres or red and gold pagodas glowing in the night, they perfectly echo the deep reds and golds of the changing leaves we didn’t get to see during this Mid-Autumn season.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


If you’ve traveled to any Chinatown around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival, you’ve probably tried a mooncake - a roundish, golden brown pastry filled with red-bean or lotus paste, plus occasionally a single or double egg yolk. In the US, we ate them every fall, learning each other’s preferences: I tend to avoid the salty egg yolks, and Jenn can’t quite talk herself into enjoying red-bean paste (though we both like the lotus). We knew exactly which kinds of mooncakes we liked...or so we thought.

But in Singapore, mooncakes have been liberated, and there are countless variations to choose from. In addition to red bean and lotus, flavors now include green tea (horrible), peanut (not bad), and durian (surprisingly good). Mooncakes have even broken through the typical barrier between traditional Asian dessert flavors and Western tastes. In what appears to be a mooncake arms race among the high-end hotels, some have abandoned beans and durian to embrace chamapagne truffle fillings, custards with “chocolate pearls,” and blueberry cream cheese.

Even the outside varies. The Shanghai style has a crumbly crust more like a biscuit, often with nuts embedded. And we’ve seen many mooncakes made with “snowskin” pastry, pure white and softer than the standard crust. Perhaps it’s meant to appeal to the masses of Singaporeans forever striving to whiten their skin. In my humble culinary opinion, it takes like a slightly soggy, half-baked traditional mooncake crust. Jenn, on the other hand, thinks it’s perfect for the sweeter fillings.

With so much variety, there’s no accounting for taste!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Culture Shock: Beijing

Beijing seemed so huge to us, after Singapore: the buildings are just as tall, but with a larger footprint; a vast mountain range lurks on the horizon; the massive construction projects (most for the Olympics) add their copious dust to the ever-present city smog. But Beijing is a fascinating city for those patient enough to seek out the hidden treasures: the mazes of alleyways in the local hutongs, the tiny streets lined with calligraphers’ shops, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with perfect home-cooked noodles.

How people with no knowledge of Chinese manage to navigate this labyrinth, I’ll never know. (On second thought, I probably saw most of them at the more touristy sites, being herded around in giant packs by fast-talking guides with megaphones.)

But, despite my worries beforehand, now I can proudly say that I managed to get around by myself, and mostly in Mandarin: I conversed with the taxi drivers and didn’t get cheated, bantered with the hawkers and avoided buying a hideous Mao wristwatch or taking a rickshaw ride, haggled from 10 times the price a Beijinger would pay down to only 5 times the price. Exhausting, but worth it.

I covered the major historical sites - Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace - alongside crowds of tourists. But, as usual, my favorites were the quieter, less-traveled places: Ditan Park, where we saw the Mid-Autumn lanterns with a cross-section of locals. A tiny restaurant where friends took us to eat the fabulous Central Asian food (lamb kebabs, rice pilaf, yogurt) of the Uighyr people who live in the deserts of western China. And Mutianyu, where we had the awe-inspiring Great Stairs Wall of China almost to ourselves as it snaked through the mountains beneath a swirling mist.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moment of Weakness

These days, I should be organizing and packing for our trip to Beijing. There are gorgeous travel books to pore over, Mandarin phrases to practice, cool-weather clothes to wash and pack. Instead, I am procrastinating, because thinking about being on my own in China’s capital city fills me with the kind of dull dread I used to get before exams in college courses I hadn’t entirely wrapped my brain around.

It’s not that I don’t want to go; traveling in this part of the world was a major reason I signed on for expat life. It’s just that Beijing is the most “different,” and least English-using, city we’ve traveled to so far, and it’s a daunting place to tour alone.

At first I figured I’d have no problem, with Joey - and his fluent Mandarin - at my side. But then I added up the hours he’d be in conference meetings and found that except for one day, I’d be on my own. So I thought perhaps our American friends in Beijing could accompany me to some of the tourist sites. But their family of four is down with the flu. (“Can I bring you any Western stuff?” I asked today. “Children’s fever reducer,” they croaked.)

So for the first few days, at least, I’ll be navigating Beijing by myself. Joey and our Beijing friends think (perhaps wishfully) that this should be no problem for me, as I’ve had some exposure to Mandarin. But I think my experience has been at the shaky level of the most basic beginner, and my tiny vocabulary just doesn’t seem enough for conversing or haggling or avoiding getting misled or cheated.

And while I wouldn’t have thought the latter would be too much of a problem, many reliable sources - from Frommer’s guides to Joey’s mother - have helpfully pointed out the myriad ways everyone in China will be out to fleece me, the foreigner. There are long lists of advice: Don’t take a taxi from your hotel; they’re there to pick up hapless laowai who don’t know the right way or the right price. Sit in the front, have a map, and act like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. Assume starting prices of goods will be inflated 10 to 15 times for Caucasian faces. Don’t trust advice from the bellhop or museum staff; they get kickbacks for sending you to places where people will charge you exorbitant prices. Be cautious about breathing the pollution, eating the street food, and drinking bottled water sold on the Great Wall (it could be tap water poured into a bottle reclaimed from the trash, the rumors say).

Sure, I could (and probably should) treat all this as some combination of common sense and urban legend. But it’s a lot easier to maintain perspective when I truly know the language or, better still, when I have a fellow traveler or two by my side. I suppose going it alone is “confidence building” and therefore “character building.” But sometimes, after purposely stretching myself for the past seven months, I wonder: could anything just be “comfortable”?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sumatra Earthquake II

This is not my idea of a fun series, but...

Last night, for the second time since our arrival in Singapore seven months ago, an earthquake (magnitude 8.4) shook the Indonesian island of Sumatra next door to us. Then, barely giving the aftershocks time to die down, another quake (7.8) struck this morning in the same region and was followed a few hours later with yet another (7.4). Thursday evening, a fourth earthquake (6.2) struck, this time farther east, near Sulawesi. Edit: Friday saw still more quakes (ranging from 5.0 to 6.4), again off the coast of Sumatra.

The first and strongest was the one most felt in Singapore. Downtown, tall buildings swayed, as they are designed to do to withstand the shockwaves. A few were evacuated. In others, people living on higher floors crowded into the lifts voluntarily after their chandeliers swung back and forth, nearly bumping the ceiling, or they realized their sudden “dizziness” was caused by the real, though very slight, movement of the room.

As for us, we were home at the time, unaware of events until we read about them. While the tall buildings do have a certain glamour and prestige, this was one time we felt fortunate to live in a short one.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What She Wears

Today in the US, it’s the sixth anniversary of my generation’s Pearl Harbor. Every year, we revisit how it happened, conspiracies abound, and politicians and voters contemplate the significance of the event and the reaction to it. And many of us, myself included, remember our personal experience of that day - each of us with our own story of where we were then and how we sought our nearest and dearest.

This year, though, I’m also thinking about this recent article about a Muslim woman in New Jersey and the unwelcome reception she faced while wearing a hijab there. It’s true that the head covering is not commonly seen in New Jersey, and I am honest enough to admit I would probably notice a group of women wearing hijabs there.

But I’ve also learned that all things are relative. In Singapore, I’ve been granted a chance to attach nothing of “notice” to a hijab. Why? Because it is so common in my everyday life here, where a much higher percentage of the population is Muslim. The friendly cashier at the grocery store wears a hijab. So do the sweet librarians at our local branch. So do the women who make the wonderful nasi lemak at Changi Village and the family that runs my favorite lunchtime stall. So do many of the clerks at Ikea, their hijabs displaying the store’s iconic yellow and blue.

And of course so do scores of other women as they simply go about their daily life, running businesses and tending to their children, the same as other Singaporeans - and other Americans - are doing every day.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club VI

This month’s fruit of the month is...well...I have no idea what it is. Looking for interesting fruits we’d never tried before, we picked this up at the grocery store recently, but later we realized there was no name on the label.

It seems to be among those fruits and vegetables that exist for hydration, more than flavor, although it did taste a little sweet. Its appearance and texture are a strange combination, perhaps something like a red pepper or an apple. It’s pretty refreshing when served cold on a hot day, though.

But can anyone tell us what it is?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Out of My League?

It took months, but my local Singaporean friends have finally talked me into it: I have joined a bowling league. And not only have I joined a league, I am now the (proud?) owner of a bowling ball and bowling shoes. The shoes make my feet look enormous, which may be because the Asian women on my team have size 4 feet, but at least I know who’s been wearing them. And I admit that it’s fun to roll my very own ball (blue, with gold flecks) down the lane every Friday.

Lest you get the wrong impression, I am still as lousy a bowler as I ever was. In the US, I subbed in a few times for our team in the company league (with the best team name ever for a publishing group: Helvetica Bowld), and I managed to achieve the dubious distinction of the highest handicap in the league. But with luck and practice, perhaps I’ll improve.

Plus, it’s a chance to spend time with an international group of women I’d be unlikely to meet anywhere else. On my team are three Malay Singaporeans. Last week we played against a Filipina team. I’ve met interesting, accomplished women from England, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Israel, Pakistan, China, Thailand, and Indonesia. (Oddly, no other Americans, so far.) But there are also lots and lots of Singaporeans, as bowling is practically the national sport.

Singaporeans are hugely enthusiastic about their bowling. This might be because the lanes are indoors and air-conditioned; playing outdoor sports here involves a revolting quantity of sweat, except if you play at dawn or dusk, which are prime mosquito-feeding times. Or perhaps it’s an extension of the Singaporean love for all things American; the bowling pro who bored the holes in my ball told me all the bowling supplies and equipment were imported from the US. (Thankfully, this meant he had my shoe size.) It’s true that I’m a minor celebrity in the league just for having lived near a town with “Brunswick” in the name.

But whatever the reason, surprising numbers of people here are dedicated bowlers. When Joey’s office recently had a bowling outing, so many of them bowled in leagues that they had to group people into teams very carefully to avoid letting league team members play together. I think Joey was the only one without his own ball. And many Singaporeans start bowling early in life - the real bowling, mind you, not the birthday-party kind with bumpers in the gutters. A local friend of mine in her early 40s (and, it goes without saying, a league bowler) recently showed me her thumbs. The left one was perfectly straight, but the right one had a slight S-curve to it. “See?” she said. “That’s what thirty years of bowling every week will do. But it’s worth it, lah!”

And although I don’t have quite that much devotion to bowling, I do think it’s “worth it” to bowl for a season or two. Because who would’ve thought that American bowling would be a window onto life in Singapore?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Missing National Day

August 9th was Singapore’s 42nd National Day, and I can’t say it was a banner day for us. Perhaps it’s because we’d already missed our own US Independence Day celebration: the lone American fireworks display was the weekend before July 4th, when we were in Taiwan. But that aside, on National Day we felt more like outsiders than ever, as all the “real” Singaporeans celebrated their belonging.

Not to mention, we hadn’t managed to snag seats for the highly anticipated National Day extravaganza. Singapore recently closed down its 55,000-seat stadium (to make way for a new “sports center” of approximately the same size), so this year the festivities were to be held on a floating platform in the bay, with seating for only about half the usual guests. We didn’t know whether foreigners were allowed to queue for tickets, but we figured even if we were, we’d never out-queue 5 million Singaporeans.

So we decided to celebrate by staying home, watching the show on TV, and enjoying a tradition of our own: making Chinese dumplings. Ever since we met, we’ve been making them together and teaching countless friends how to fold the little circular wrappers around the filling just right, so the dumplings turn out the perfect crinkly shape.

It’s been fairly easy in the US, as we’ve always just bought the wrappers at our local Asian food market. But here in Singapore, where you’d think they’d all be “Asian food markets,” they stock nothing of the kind. We tried wonton wrappers and got chewy, eggy dumplings in completely the wrong shape. We tried paper-thin wrappers used for steaming and ended up eating shreds of burst dumplings after the wrappers stuck to the pan. It just wasn’t the same.

So this time, we rolled out the wrappers ourselves, through many painful hours of trial and error: Dough too stiff, dough too sticky and impossible to remove from rolling pin. Dough I tried to roll out on our old dining table, for more space, that peeled off neat little strips of the table’s wood finish. (Time to make a new batch of dough...) Dough that rolled out square, not circular, no matter what we tried. And, once I finally got it right and had a pile of them, each carefully separated by dustings of flour, it had taken so long that they had congealed into a single, inseparable column. There was nothing to do but start over.

We’d started midmorning, and by sunset we had worked out our technique: Joey rolled one, and I folded it. And if either of us got ahead of the other, we’d dart over to the TV to see what we were missing at National Day. Conversation was odd that evening: “Here’s one to fold.” “Okay. Hey! They’re doing military exercises with an Apache from the US!” And later, “I’m putting this batch in the pan now. What am I missing on TV?” “Well, right now it’s schoolchildren dressed like glow-in-the-dark squid, blowing bubbles in time to the music.” (It was a sea theme this year.)

And by the time the show was finally over, and the citizens of Singapore were saying the pledge and singing the national anthem in English and Bahasa, we were finishing up our own celebration, too: the last pan of perfect dumplings was just about ready to eat.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tales We Could Tell

We’re almost through August, with not a single blog entry to show for it. Perhaps it’s that lethargy-inducing summer heat. (No,’s always this hot here.) But for whatever reason, here we are, with time for only one proper posting to represent the better part of a month. So the question arises: Which tale shall we tell?

There’s the gripping story of “How I Nearly Throttled My Landscaper” (alternate titles: “Death of the Carpet Grass” or “It Almost Ate My Mango Tree”).

Or Joey’s tragic tale, “The Mysterious Disappearance of the Noodle-Bowl Stall” (alternate title: “How I Lost My Lunch”).

Or maybe “A Messy Recovery from Tropical Illness.” No? More information than you wanted? Hmm...Perhaps you’d prefer a (slightly) tamer animal story: “Geckos Gone Wild” or “The Night the Dogs Barked til Dawn.”

For the minimalists, we could relate a tale that’s highly unusual for our life in Singapore: “The Day Nothing Happened.” Or if that’s a little too minimal, what about “Missing National Day”?

The votes are in, and “Missing National Day” has won. (It wasn’t our fault most of you were asleep when we voted. That’s just the way the time-zone cookie crumbles!) Now all that remains is the telling.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Singapore by the Numbers

Today marks the six-month anniversary of our arrival in Singapore, so we thought we’d compile our Singapore experience by the numbers. Here’s our list:

Number of...

...months in Singapore: 6
...other countries visited during those months: 7 cards used up calling US family and friends: 5
...visits from US family and friends: 1 (in progress!)

...times we’ve smelled durian: 20+
...times we’ve actually tried it: 1

...expat gatherings attended: 10
...local gatherings attended: 11

...Singapore malls visited: 11
...Singapore sights visited: 4

...S$75 buffet brunches we've eaten: 2
...S$3 noodle bowls Joey has eaten for lunch: 60+

...kilometers driven on the left side of the road: 4,900
...parking tickets received: 1 (forgot parking coupon...duh)

Number of weeks we haven’t been in perfect health: 1
Odds that week would coincide with family visit: 1 in 26

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club V

I was out with a few of our American friends, enjoying the visual feast of colors at the Geylang Serai fruit market, when someone said the dreaded words: “You haven’t tried durian yet, have you?”

I’d heard this question a few times before, but so far I’d managed not to be asked it anywhere near the fruit in question. This time, there was no escaping it. The durians were in high season, and the ripe, cantaloupe-sized fruits were piled dangerously on slanting stalls just outside the market. I quailed at the thought of trying one.

Why, you might ask, was I so afraid of a little fruit? Clearly, you’ve never smelled one. From literally a mile away, you know it’s there, by the indescribable scent wafting through the air. Rotting eggs? Nearby sewer? The sweaty feet of a thousand old men after a hard day’s work? No, just a nice, fresh durian someone’s been crazy enough to purchase. Even the signs on the buses and the MRT allude to the stench: No food. No drink. No durian.

The real question, I think, is why people long ago decided that something that smelled like this was worth breaking into as a possible source of food. And breaking into it is difficult indeed, on account of the hard, thick, sharp spines that cover every inch of its dark-green surface. Picking it up requires hands of steel - or possibly protective gloves; cutting through the rind requires nothing less than a machete. And after all that effort, what’s the edible result? Less than a dozen small pods, each filled with a mustard-yellow custardy substance.

Worth it, no?

The truth is, although I’d never have tried it without enormous peer pressure (thanks a lot, book club!!), durian is not that bad. As long as I don’t think of it as a fruit. It has a nutty, garlicky taste and a pleasant, creamy texture, something like you might get with a good avocado. I could see myself enjoying it in sauces or maybe even trying a fresh one again sometime. But I still draw the line at the most popular durian product in Singapore: durian ice cream.

Photo credit: Thanks to Cheryl for the beauty shot!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Character Building

I’m sitting here doing the giant exhale that usually follows my Chinese tutoring sessions, wherein I realize the stress I felt beforehand was entirely justified (it’s tough) but, at the same time, I can’t shake the feeling of: that wasn’t so bad. Learning a language in class - in fits and starts, rather than by “immersion” - seems to be always like this for me. It’s the repeated experience of being completely in over your head but not quite drowning, then the realization after every month or so that you’ve actually made a tiny bit of headway, although you’d never have known it at the time.

Today’s milestone was the text message my tutor sent me before class. I flipped open my phone expecting to find a version of “Sorry, I’m running late,” but instead I found a screenful of Chinese characters. I instinctively forwarded the whole thing to Joey for help, but then I realized: I can read this stuff. Or most of it, anyway. (And yes, my tutor was in fact stuck on the bus.)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but without a phonetic alphabet, learning to read and write Chinese is pretty much word-by-word memorization. New alphabets, I can learn (three so far), but this is a different process entirely. Every word is new, so I learn one at a time - first what it means, then what its tones are, then how to read it, then how to write it - slowly chipping away at the giant mountain of characters. (Did you ever stop to think how many words there are in one language?)

And every one I can recognize, outside my textbook and flash cards, feels like a flash of secret code I’m suddenly privy to. In Taiwan, I was like a child: we’d pass a sign on the street, and I’d point to the one (easy) character I could recognize and announce it to the world: “Da!” “Bu!” “Ge!” The taxi drivers, not to mention my husband, probably thought I was crazy.

But I get excited, because I never thought I’d be able to read or write any characters at all. Not having grown up with them, I figured I just wasn’t wired that way, so the seemingly meaningless patterns of lines and boxes would slide right out of my head. But somehow, I think it’s starting to stick. Today I read a text message. And later this week, when we send Joey’s grandmother a thank-you note for hosting us in Taiwan, there will be well-wishes in Chinese characters - some of them in my handwriting.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Frogs of Paradise

We loved central Bali, with its dramatic thatched roofs and steep gorges laden with greenery all the way down to the rushing rivers below.

It was a study in contrasts: the locals and the tourists crowding the sidewalks in nearly equal numbers, the Mexican restaurant with the traditional Balinese temple out front, the woman carrying her load in the traditional way (arrange towel on head, top with something tremendously heavy, balance with effortless ease) past a Ralph Lauren storefront.

And what we also remember fondly is the abundance of frogs, in all forms and in all shapes and sizes.

Our first night in a Balinese-style hotel with an outdoor bath, we were surprised to find this little guy waiting in our shower, keeping as still as he could and trying his best to blend in with the sand-colored tiles:

After that first surprise, we started to notice the bigger, heavier frogs (carvings of wood and stone) at every turn. Some were decorative statues tucked into nooks and crannies. Some were lamps. Whole families of carved stone frogs, stacked one on top of the other, served as fountains or even doorstops.

Some, hands clasped in the traditional prayerful greeting, were dressed in the black-and-white-checked sarongs we’d seen worn in temple ceremonies designed to balance the “light” and “dark” elements of the world. More often than not, there was a hibiscus, carved or real, perched jauntily behind one ear.

And then there was this happy one, that we couldn’t resist taking home.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Identity Crisis

Happy July 4th to those who are celebrating Independence Day in the US. I feel very American today, despite the lack of celebrations out where we are. But I will admit to a momentary crisis of identity a few weeks ago in Shanghai.

I was staying at the Hilton, where the guests were a mix of Chinese business people and tourists who seemed unfamiliar with the language and the culture in Shanghai. Everyone on staff went out of their way to speak English with perfect diction to anyone who didn’t look Chinese. I passed that filter (it doesn’t always work that way, but that’s another post). Still, I felt lucky to be able to understand the conversations in both languages.

My crisis occurred at dinner. As I still had some work to do that evening, I opted for a quick “international” buffet at the hotel. And that’s where I got some strange looks. As I placed a few pieces of sushi on my plate, a family from the US walked by. “Can you believe they eat this stuff?” they asked, probably assuming I couldn’t understand their English. “It isn’t even cooked! And it’s just sitting there, out in the open. Ew!”

Then, as I finished serving myself from the cheese board and turned away, I saw a Chinese couple wrinkling their noses at the blues. I caught a snippet of Mandarin: “Is this completely rotten? What a smell! They eat this straight?” As I walked by them, I saw them stare at the stinky cheese and crackers next to the fruit and sushi on my plate.

Now, I’ll admit that sushi and bleu cheese are a strange pairing on a dinner plate. But I couldn’t help but feel really alone. Here I was, able to understand both American English and Mandarin, but I was completely unable to identify with the people speaking either one.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club III-IV

This month there are actually two fruits of the month: snakefruit and passionfruit. Although they’re common in Singapore, we hadn’t actually seen them up close until we broke into the fruit basket in our room in Bali.

Snakefruit is appropriately named; the reddish outer peel is thin and papery, with a rough, scaly texture on the outside. The piles of peel really do look remarkably like a shed snakeskin. Inside, it’s less interesting - a white, slightly crunchy fruit similar to a lychee, though not as sweet and somehow not quite as refreshing. Oddly, the inside is always divided into one large part and two small parts, like a lychee with two cloves of garlic attached.

The passionfruit looked innocently like an orange or a mangosteen on the outside, but I could tell it was different from the smell, which was oddly familiar though I couldn’t place it - and why was I suddenly thinking of Bath and Body Works? Then I realized: half their products are scented with passionfruit. So, waiting to see what this glamorous fruit would look like, I watched Joey press through the peel and...

Eeuurrggh!!!! The entire inside consisted of a gelatinous, violently green substance I can only describe as goop. Which was filled with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds. Joey poked it with a spoon, and it wobbled a bit, so he tried to scoop some out. He pulled it, it stretched, he tried again, and it slipped off the spoon and snapped back inside the peel. I called the friendly guy at the front desk: “Can you really eat this stuff?” He laughed and said yes, even the seeds. So we did. And, as long as we didn’t think too much about the gooey texture or the horrible crunching sound from all the seeds, it was pretty tasty.

But I think it will be a long, long time before I buy a passionfruit beauty product again.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Too Expensive...?

After the events of the past week, I have regretfully scratched “Balinese import/export tycoon” off my list of future careers.

Wandering through a stone-carving village in central Bali, watching all the artisans at work, we couldn’t resist picking up a couple of pieces - and then we realized they were so heavy we couldn’t pick them up. So much for putting them in our luggage! So we decided on cargo shipping (as in, on an actual ship). The distance is, after all, maybe 1 percent of the distance from Indonesia to the US, so we figured it would be relatively cheap.

Unfortunately, what I never calculated for was the haggling - or rather, the multiple hagglings, at each stage in our multinational transaction. First we negotiated for the carvings themselves. (In retrospect, that was the easy part.) Then we bargained over getting the carvings into a crate, then port-to-port freight, then getting the crate off the boat into a warehouse, then customs clearance, then home delivery and unpacking. That last one was the most painful - but we should’ve known that any mover in his right mind would jack up the price once he found out he’d essentially be hauling 400 pounds of rocks!

It was a pretty reasonable process, actually. But the hitch was - I might as well admit it - I am an abysmal haggler. Case in point: toward the end of our Bali trip, I was so tired (or maybe so relaxed) that I somehow managed to bargain the price up. (You try crunching numbers while vacationing in a soothing tropical paradise, and see how you fare!) It was so hard for me to be on my guard with the Balinese, who are kind and sweet and easy-going and completely readjust the numbers - turning a whole transaction on its head - without even blinking.

“One for 50,000 Rp,” said one gently smiling, elderly shopkeeper. “Buy more than one, and I give you better price!” So I offered two for 80,000 Rp total - not a very ambitious bargain, but a slight discount. “Oh, no,” she said, with a show of horror. “I lose money, then! I give you two at 70,000 Rp each. Good price for you.” No, no, I said, feeling that at last I was getting into the swing of things. 60,000 Rp each is my final offer. “Okay,” she said, “you happy, I’m happy,” and we were done.

It was only later, when I found myself forking over 120,000 Rp, that I realized she’d redirected the whole negotiation from “total” price to the price for “each.” So now, instead of one for 50,000 Rp, I was paying 60,000 Rp apiece.

My admirably patient Chinese tutor has been trying to break me of this unfortunate tendency. Just by looking at me, she could tell I was probably overpaying for every vegetable at the Chinese wet market. She was sure that, with the right phrases, she could teach me to haggle doggedly down to rock-bottom prices. So some of the first new Chinese I learned from her was, “Tai gui le!” (Pronounced Thai, gway, luh, it means, “Too expensive!”) And in the name of doing my homework, I have tried it a few times. So far, I’ve gotten it to work almost as effectively as when I say it in English. On the upside, now I can haggle badly in two languages. That’s progress!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hanging Gardens

When I’m not frustrated or discouraged or homesick (all natural parts of expat life, I suppose), I realize it’s the simple things in life that keep me going. Regardless of where I am, if the grass in my yard is growing and green and fuzzy - and the leftovers in my refrigerator are not - then what more could you ask for, really?

So I can appreciate living in a place where the plants grow, whether you help them or not. Here, I can pretend my spectacularly brown thumb is edging toward green; I accidentally kill a plant, and it magically resuscitates itself within a day or so. And the consistent year-round sun and humidity encourage rapid plant growth, so the surroundings always seem to be on the verge of becoming again the rain forest that once filled the island.

Taking advantage of this exuberant growth, Singapore’s government long ago decided to make Singapore a “city in a garden” - so in addition to some nice public gardens, a couple of mangrove swamps, and the patch of remaining rain forest, the city streets are lushly landscaped. Elaborate tropical flowers and stunning traveler’s palms burst from between buildings. Even the footbridges are swathed in colorful blooms:

The highways were the biggest surprise for me. After living in the northeastern US, I was used to the concrete tangles of overpasses and divided roads, with nary a plant in sight. So I’m always amazed, driving down Singapore’s ECP on my way into town.

I ease the car onto the green, shady highway beneath arching oak trees so thick I can barely see the sky. At the side of the road, perfectly shaped flowering shrubs of all colors flash by. To my left, I can look through the trees and catch the glint of sunlight on the water; the sea is just moments away. Then the road opens out for a sunny stretch lined by neat, Hollywood-like rows of huge palm trees that sway gently in the breeze. The median is filled with carefully tended tall plants flowering in reds, yellows, pinks, and deep purples.

As I move into the next shady stretch, where the oaks again arch gracefully over the road, I see a flashing road sign that must be unique to Singapore: “Slow. Plant Watering Ahead.” As I coast by, I smile at the sight of a huge water truck and a gardener directing what looks like a fire hose at the trembling shrubs.

My other favorite road sign is “Plant Pruning Ahead,” where I can expect to see a gardener calmly clipping away at the shrubs, as though he were working on a hedge in his own backyard - not on a shoulderless road next to cars passing by at 90 km/h. In this climate it’s not hard to imagine that, without the gardeners pushing them back, the plants would extend slowly into the roadways, covering the concrete and asphalt of civilization with verdant nature. It’s a nice change from the plants I remember, that needed far more skill than I had, and far more painstaking encouragement, to make it through the winter.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dou Xia

As if I hadn’t had enough difficulty keeping up with the Malay, Bahasa, Mandarin, Cantonese, and various English pronunciations, recently I found myself face-to-face with someone who was speaking Hokkien to me.

It happened on my way out of a car park. The attendant leaned out of the kiosk window and mumbled something. Whuh? It took me awhile to realize he was asking for the car’s plate number. I don’t speak Hokkien. My parents speak Taiwanese, which is a similar dialect, but I’ve never been taught - I had enough trouble with Mandarin.

So reaching really deep into what little brain I have left, I uttered a garbled “Ji’ bwe xi’ zhap” - more from instinct than anything else. I half expected him to hand me paper to write it out, but he understood enough to type the number in and reply, “Gao koh.” So I handed him a ten and got one back as he lifted the barrier and said, “Dou xia” - many thanks.

The experience highlighted yet again the delightful mystery of language in Singapore. Sometimes when I step up to an unfamiliar hawker stall or hop into a taxi, I find myself playing a game of “old maid” with language. Let’s you speak Mandarin? No? Hmm...Let’s try the old standby: English? Not that either...Pity, I’m running out of options here. No, sorry, I still can’t understand you (is that Bahasa?). Why don’t we try charades? And so it goes.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Test Drive

Tuition. No, it doesn’t refer to the cost of college. For Singaporeans, tuition is the extra education that almost everyone attends after the regular school day is over. In those additional hours, they learn how to logic their way through tricky questions. They learn to memorize huge amounts of material in a short amount of time. And these were the people who assured us that, “if you study,” the Basic Theory driving test was “easy.”

So we did study, keeping in mind that 15 percent of test takers do fail and a 44/50 was a failing grade. The test actually wasn’t too difficult (though Jenn suffered acute “test anxiety” when she saw the touch-screen computers all arranged for the test), and we both passed. But I’m glad we studied; the Basic Theory test often requires you to choose the best answer, or the answer that is “most correct,” from a set of choices that all seem pretty good.

So, to celebrate our passing grades, here are some related questions we (now) know the answers to. Try them out, and let us know how many you got right!

1. This single jagged yellow line means
(a) no parking 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Sundays and holidays.
(b) no parking at any time, except for pickup and dropoff.
(c) no parking at any time, and no stopping for passengers.

2. Except on public holidays, bus lanes are restricted during the following times:
(a) Mon. to Fri., 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 7:00 p.m.
(b) Sat., 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
(c) both (A) and (B).

3. ERP stands for
(a) Electronic Road Protocol.
(b) Electronic Road Policing.
(c) Electronic Road Pricing.

4. A sign that states “70 km/h” means you should
(a) maintain 70 km/h.
(b) not exceed 70 km/h.
(c) drive between 60 and 70 km/h.

5. When would a driver be allowed to turn at a red light?
(a) When finishing a right turn to clear a yellow-box junction.
(b) When making a left turn as traffic allows.
(c) Turning at a red light is never permitted.

6. You should park your vehicle at least this far from a bus stop:
(a) 6 m.
(b) 9 m.
(c) 12 m.

7. This sign means
(a) expressway ahead.
(b) bridge ahead.
(c) tunnel ahead.

8. This sign is a
(a) mandatory sign.
(b) prohibitive sign.
(c) restrictive sign.

9. This sign means
(a) one-way traffic ahead.
(b) proceed straight only.
(c) turn only as traffic permits.

10. Overtaking (passing) a bus at a bus stop, you should
(a) stop behind the bus and wait for passengers to alight.
(b) slow down and be ready to stop in case passengers cross the street.
(c) lightly tap your horn to notify the driver.

Bonus Question. To qualify for a driver’s license in Singapore, you must
(a) be 16 years of age or older.
(b) have 20-20 vision with or without corrective lenses.
(c) not be prone to attacks of giddiness.

Answers: 1. b 2. c 3. c 4. b 5. a 6. b 7. c 8. a 9. a 10. b Bonus. c

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club II

Whoops! It’s almost June, so I have just enough time to slip in a fruit of the month for May (missing April was bad enough!). This month, we bring you: the rambutan.

This one, already half open, was given to us by the Thai fishermen who paddled our canoes in Phuket. The fruits can be found not just in Thailand but all across the region. We even had a young rambutan tree in our backyard when we moved in; unfortunately, before we got our first crop, our landlord discovered that the rambutan tree’s sweet, sticky sap is a magnet for bugs of all kinds and had the tree removed.

The inside of a rambutan is moist and refreshing, similar to a lychee. We still find the hairy outside intimidating, though. The fishermen could expertly pop them open with one hand, but we have yet to approach a rambutan on our own without a knife. (Would you?)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

4 Things I Hate About Shopping

Shopaholics in the area have been salivating for weeks in anticipation of Singapore’s big June event: the annual Great Singapore Sale. According to the local paper, people set aside about $300 US per family member ($1200 US for a family of four!) just to shop the sale. Although I’m not much of a shopper, myself, I thought surely I’d catch some of the shopaholic spirit here. But it’s just not working for me. Why? Well, since you asked...

1. Expensive stuff. Coming from the US, I fell prey to the idea that “things are cheaper in Asia.” No doubt they are, in less developed areas like Indonesia and Vietnam. But here, while there’s a vast selection of merchandise, expect to pay for it accordingly. There are still deals to be had on textiles along Arab Street and knicknacks in Chinatown, if you can haggle like a local. But the majority of items - even electronics - are costly. It’s about status. It’s about quality. So, basically, it’s about a lot of dollars. Which does tend to make the Sale less exciting for me: I’m just not motivated to snap up those $400 chef’s knives, even if they are a fabulous Henckels set marked down from $550.

2. Lucky draws (raffles). As in most of Asian culture, “luck” is an integral part of everyday life here, and people tend to be very open about their pursuit of material gain. So I guess it’s natural that the idea of winning something for free is a national obsession. During the Sale, lucky draws are an even bigger attraction than actual discounts on merchandise. People will stand in line for hours at the mall for one of these “Spend $200 and have a chance to win this (fill in the blank).” As for me, once was enough: I’d actually gotten all the way through filling out my first lucky draw entry form when I realized the prize was me, in front of an audience, jumping around in one of those booths with flying dollar bills and grabbing as much as I could. Nope, not for me, never mind.

3. Huge crowds on evenings and weekends. Singapore to the tai tai (“wife” in Mandarin, but here more a society wife, or at least one not working full time) is a soothing and peaceful place. Parking is plentiful, the malls are never crowded, and there’s always a seat on the bus. But that’s because at least half the population is at the office. On evenings and weekends, Singapore morphs into Disney World in the middle of July: everywhere you look, long queues and teeming masses of sweaty parents trying to calm their cranky children. And, country mice that we are, we still forget to plan around the crowds. Case in point: last weekend we rashly decided to spend the evening browsing at the swanky malls of Orchard Road. Too late, it dawned on us that we’d hit a perfect storm: the first weekend of the school holidays and the first weekend of the Great Singapore Sale.

4. No online shopping. Some advice, should you wish to escape the crowds and browse from the comfort of your laptop: You can’t. It’s hopeless. Since online credit card purchases are almost unheard of, most businesses don’t bother selling online. And because of this, many don’t even have helpful websites that reflect the kinds of products they sell. There are maybe 6 or 7 million shops in Singapore, so I keep hoping to go online, look at websites with lots of pictures, and narrow the list to shops I actually want to visit. But as it turns out, the only real way is to go to all of them in person. How people have this much patience, I have no idea. But at least now I’ve figured out why they’re all so thin! Imagine the miles they must log. And, after all, if you don’t go in person, you miss out on the lucky draw! Which is motivation enough in itself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pirates of Phang Nga Bay

The island of Phuket is known for its resort-filled beaches and its nightlife, but we were looking instead for its quiet Thai peacefulness and spectacular nature, so we joined a canoe excursion to the phenomenal limestone caverns and wildlife-filled lagoons of Phang Nga Bay.

Phang Nga Bay is dotted with huge limestone islands, some of which have hidden lagoons, accessible only through caverns in the rock. Entering our first cave was an experience straight out of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” complete with the eerie tlop, tlop of the water dripping off the cavern walls and the squeaking of hordes of tiny bats.

After a short trip - through total darkness (the guides do the paddling here) - our path opened out onto a spectacular lagoon open to the sky. The towering limestone walls were covered with trees, ferns, and orchids, and everywhere we saw the colorful flash of kingfishers in flight. Looking up at the vertical forest surrounding us, we were tiny, floating intruders, tiptoeing quietly through the hugeness of this paradise.

Suddenly, there was a whoosh of wings as the air above us filled with a colony of flying foxes (huge, fruit-eating bats) who lived in the highest trees on the island. We could see the reddish glints of their fur as they soared high over the lagoon.

By the time we traveled to our next cave, the tide had risen, narrowing the openings of the caverns. The guides jokingly reassured us we’d be able to get out again, so we laid back in the canoes and slid through. Staring up at the low ceiling of the cavern, we were dazzled by the brightness: thousands upon thousands of oysters were gleaming in the dim light.

We could have stayed for hours in the lagoons. But the tides were still rising, so the guides carefully paddled out of the low cavern into the open water, and we looked back once more at the now seemingly impenetrable islands of Phang Nga Bay.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bad Taxi Driver

Of course, Penang isn’t the only place where the “taxi driver” may be anything but. The other day, I was even surprised by a “taxi driver” in Singapore.

First, he had no idea where I was going. I was heading home, something I’ve done via taxi plenty of times without any complications. While we don’t live on a major street, the area is well known to many taxi drivers. But my driver had no clue where to go. He didn’t even know how to get to the expressway, two blocks from where he picked me up. I had to give him turn by turn directions until we finally arrived at my door.

I said, “I’d like to pay by NETS” (a debit card).

“No can,” said the driver, ignoring the enormous sign that said “NETS accepted.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t know how...system.”

I tried another tack: “Okay, I have cash.”

“Total $18.50.”

“Here’s a $50 bill.”

“No can,” he said again.

“You don’t have enough to make change?” I asked, surprised. $50 bills are commonly used for amounts like these, as Singapore doesn’t have $20 bills (or at least, I’ve never seen one).

He shrugged his shoulders.

“Well,” I said, “your sign says I can also use a credit card, right?”

He thought about this. “Don’t know how...” And he gestured that I was welcome to try to use the system myself, if I knew how.

I tried to think of alternatives. “Do you even have $30 for change?”

“Sorry, can.”

At this point I’d spent more time trying to pay for the fare than it took me to get home. NETS and credit cards have almost always been accepted by taxis if they are marked. I’ve paid for scores of taxi rides by cash and have never encountered any problems. How is it that this guy had no idea how to get around, no change, and no idea how to process payments? All this despite driving a taxi that is part of the largest taxi fleet in Singapore – clearly, he was covering for someone else.

Not knowing what else to do, I gave up and had to call upon my loving wife to rescue me. “Jenn? Could you come outside? With your wallet? ... Oh. No, really, I’m not being robbed.”

Sunday, May 20, 2007

“Taxi Drivers” in Penang

“Taxi! Taxi!” The calls came from the crush of Penang taxi drivers, descending upon the pier to snag early-rising cruise-goers filing off the tender and blinking confusedly in the bright morning sunlight. Usually, as recognizable “tourists” in this part of Asia, we’d be prime targets. But we successfully pushed through the crowd of taxi drivers at the pier to walk a few blocks to our first stop of the day: Chinese clan houses built out over the sea.

We had been walking for so long that we were beginning to wonder, when a lone man walked up to us. “Do you need a taxi?” he asked. We explained that no, we were just trying to find the clan piers. Surprisingly, he gave us excellent walking directions, without even a hard sell on the taxi ride. So on our way back, when we saw him again, we took him up on his offer of a taxi ride downtown.

Unfortunately, we soon found out that his car had no resemblence to a taxi at all - not even a single marker that said “TAXI.” And we weren’t reassured when the first thing he did was pull into the nearest gas station to refill his completely empty tank. “Just a moment,” he said, smiling. “Sorry for the delay.” So we waited as he went to talk to the gas station attendant. Strangely, no money changed hands, but our driver soon returned and began filling the tank. He waved significantly at the attendant before we left.

An uneventful ride later, he dropped us off, pocketed his 10 baht, and drove happily away in the direction we had come from. “You know,” Joey said, thoughtfully, “from what I learned in Mumbai, I’d say he’s no taxi driver - just a guy with no money for gas. I’ll bet he just promised the station attendant that he’d be right back with 10 baht, just as soon as he got it from these tourists he was driving downtown.”

Having sworn off Penang “taxis,” as we later left a museum we found our way blocked by a trishaw driver determined to have our business - and, unfortunately for us, his buddy the museum guard, who backed him up. “But it’s a trishaw for one,” said Joey, pointing out the obvious flaw in this particular model. But the driver insisted I could sit in the seat, and Joey could perch on the seat back just in front of him. There was really no getting around it, so we settled on the lowest fee we could manage and gingerly arranged ourselves on the cart.

I’d asked the driver just to take us to the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E&O), since it wasn’t too far and I’d figured there were no major roads on the way. But suddenly we wheeled into a two-way road with two lanes on each side. Our tiny trishaw was moving at maybe a quarter of the speed limit and weaving gently in the exact center of the road. But the cars didn’t seem to mind, and schoolchildren on the curbs waved happily at us, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be creaking down a traffic-filled road while balancing precariously on a tiny cart. Our driver, getting quite a kick out of this, even managed to maneuver us over a speed bump without pitching Joey off onto the street.

And that was how we drove right up to the door of the E&O, sister of the Raffles Hotel, icon of refined British colonialism and decorum. The doormen, in perfectly pressed linen and proper pith helmets, were quite nice about it. But it took us a good half hour in the deserted bar (accompanied by at least a quart of fresh mango juice) to feel we were civilized enough to show our faces in the lobby again.