Saturday, February 24, 2007

Singapore's Other Passion

It’s not my fault that so much of this blog has involved food. Singaporeans, despite their usually petite physiques, live for food. The unique blend of cuisines forms the cultural heart and soul of the country. There are restaurants, food courts, and hawker centers on almost every street, lurking around every corner. People try new food, get together for food, talk about food nonstop. We have yet to ride with a taxi driver who doesn’t work it in somehow. And for us, it’s been an easy entree into Singaporean society.

But Singaporeans’ other passion, without a doubt, is shopping. We’ve never lived somewhere with so many shopping malls in one place - even New Jersey can’t touch it. We figured these were just air-conditioned havens from the muggy heat outside, but apparently people actually buy things, lots of things, or how do all those stores stay in business? But we haven’t had much luck with this particular Singaporean passion. I have yet to figure out how they actually find everything, with no Target or Wal-Mart as an all-in-one stop.

For something specific here, you need a specialty shop. But there are thousands of these, some tucked into warehouses and back alleys, and almost none of them in the phone book. To find a sprinkler for our grass, I searched the malls - nothing - and every possible entry in the yellow pages - no help there. So I tracked down an obscure online reference to a specialty garden store and talked a taxi driver into helping me find the building. It still took me half an hour to find the shop itself; the entire ground floor was a loading dock filled with people who couldn’t speak English, and when I finally found the elevators and a directory, the place I was looking for wasn’t listed. I headed up anyway and ended up exploring a labyrinth of dark, concrete hallways punctuated by shipping and receiving areas, abandoned offices, and mysteriously ornate doorways with gates securely locked. But I found my garden store, which had no plants but did have a warehouse full of garden equipment in unlabeled cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling. The proprietor, a man of few words, dug a sprinkler out of the piles of boxes and named a price. I didn’t try to haggle.

And we haven’t learned how Singaporeans avoid being completely overwhelmed by the endless, though findable, variety of mall shops. We’ll hit a mall on a weekend with a list of ordinary household items and emerge hours later with nothing on our list, but with some completely random item that might be useful at some vague point the future. Today, for example, we went 0 for 10 on our list, but we became the proud owners of a rice cooker/slow cooker combo (special settings for rice, porridge, nasi lemak, and stew! Making a stew with rice probably causes it to explode). I’m not quite sure how this happened. But while we have this nifty new kitchen appliance, we still have not managed to procure meat and vegetables to eat with the rice. Of course, we’ve seen some great meat and vegetables when we’ve passed by a local wet market (like a farmer’s market), and we always intend to buy some. But, wouldn’t you know, we’re always on the way to the mall...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Birthday Presents

My first Singapore birthday was a happy one, with the added bonus of some especially thoughtful gifts...

From Joey: high tea at the gorgeous and historic Raffles Hotel. A fun chance to play “colonial,” sans the social and political damage wrought by the Empire...

From Mom and Dad: a birder’s guide to Southeast Asia. An early present - if only I hadn’t put it in the sea shipment by accident! Starting in March, I’ll be able to name all the unusual birds we see here.

From God: the first good, hard rainstorm over our home since we arrived in Singapore. Satisfying beyond words.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Best Meal in Singapore

I’ve now eaten two mind-blowingly fabulous Sunday brunches in Singapore - one at the Four Seasons and one at a gorgeous, modern restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel - but I have a new contender for the Best Meal in Singapore. In fact, I think we have a winner.

This meal, unlike the other two, wasn’t served in a five-star restaurant. No ice sculptures, no free-flowing papaya and passion-fruit martinis, no white- and black-truffle risotto. Instead, there were 15 people packed into a three-room HDB (public housing) flat, one grandmother cooking with the expertise of generations, and a glorious noodle-tossing finale.

I don’t know how many new expats get to experience this; it can’t be many. But we were lucky enough to spend our Chinese New Year’s Eve eating a traditional reunion dinner in local style, at the home of a wonderful Singaporean family who adopted us for the occasion.

Although as friends-of-friends they'd never met us before, Chin and Esther graciously picked us up at our doorstep and drove us to Chin’s mother’s home in an older HDB estate. HDB (Housing Development Board) apartments aren’t what Americans might think of when they hear the term “public housing.” In fact, although tourists and expats hardly ever see inside them, about 80 percent of Singaporeans are happy to live in them. While they tend not to be as modern or as large as private condos and townhouses, they are scrupulously clean - it being Singapore - and well cared for.

We walked up four flights of stairs and down a long row of identical doors, each with a different-colored decorative gate in front. Soon, we reached an open door where Chin’s sister was waiting to welcome us inside. We slipped off our shoes and stepped into the packed room. I was vividly reminded of Thanksgiving at home: the uncles were laughing at a movie on TV; the teenagers were playing mah-jongg, oblivious to anything going on around them; and most of the women were in the kitchen, busily putting the finishing touches on the meal. The younger children ran back and forth, channeling the excitement.

New Year’s treats were everywhere, each in its own red-topped jar, and we weren’t there more than a minute before we were pressed into trying some. Our favorites were “love letters,” rolled cookies perhaps imprinted with messages of love, and bakkwa (in Cantonese, or ro gan in Mandarin), a sweet pork jerky. We’d brought some bakkwa as a gift - you can’t show up empty handed on New Year's Eve!

Soon afterward, the meal was ready, and we packed ourselves around the kitchen table to eat. The table was loaded with “auspicious” foods: a soup with cabbage and fish balls and tripe (I skipped the tripe), a delicious whole fish with leeks, a lightly fried fish steak fresh from the morning’s market - possibly the best fish I’ve ever eaten - braised pork, an assortment of vegetables and sauces, sea cucumber (try this if you get the chance), cold chicken, roasted duck, and a red curry of chicken and potatoes, all homemade that day - even the chili sauces. There was also a plate of little fried nuggets of shrimp and vegetables - we don’t know what they were, but we should have asked for the recipe!

After we ate, the adults moved into the living room to talk as the children pushed into the kitchen for their shift. Everyone spoke English, and Esther told us it was easier, because there were so many dialects of Chinese in the family. Chin speaks Hokkien (like Taiwanese), Esther speaks Cantonese, and the children study Mandarin in school. Chin’s mother knows all three dialects, so she speaks a different dialect to each person in turn.

At the very end of the night, the whole family gathered in the kitchen again for the traditional tossing of a noodle dish called lo hei (in Cantonese, or yu sheng in Mandarin). It’s basically a cold salad of long noodles, shredded vegetables, crunchy crackers, sesame seeds, a light sauce, and fragrant spices including cinnamon and ginger. Everyone grabbed a pair of chopsticks, and together we reached in and tossed the mix higher and higher, shouting New Year’s greetings and wishes for the coming year. “The higher you toss, the more luck you’ll have this year!” they said. But parents were careful to tell the children that if you toss noodles out of the bowl, there goes your luck!

After the tossing, we each ate a small bowl of the noodle mix to cap off the celebration. And then we headed home, grateful for our adopted family and our incredible Lunar New Year meal. The best meal in Singapore, indeed.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

When in Rome...

Singapore wants to make sure all entering expats are of only the highest caliber. In addition to making photocopies of college diplomas and ordering high school transcripts (no matter how long ago that was), we suggest preparing in advance with the following Sample Entrance Exam. When in Singapore...

1. What should you do first before walking across the street?
(a) Look left, because they drive on the left.
(b) Look right, because they drive on the right.
(c) Look left, because they drive on the right.
(d) Look right, because they drive on the left.
(e) Walking? In this heat? Hail a taxi, lah.

2. How do you ask the grocer for 0.75 lb of ground beef?
(a) The conversion factor is 2.2, so request 1.65 kg.
(b) The conversion factor is 2.2, so request 0.34 kg.
(c) Pantomine how many fistfuls of meat you want.
(d) Just point to the beef and hope they give you the correct amount.
(e) Give up cooking and go to the hawker center for a $2 bowl of noodles.

3. What do you do with an avocado and a cup of hot chocolate?
(a) Eat the avocado for dinner and drink the chocolate for dessert.
(b) Drink the chocolate and eww! Avocado, yuck!
(c) Make guacamole and a mochaccino.
(d) Blend the avocado and chocolate together for a creamy dessert shake.
(e) Make the creamy dessert shake, but to make it even more Singaporean, add beans.

4. Which of the following is not found at a food court?
(a) chili paste
(b) air-conditioning
(c) fresh fruit juice
(d) napkins
(e) empty seats

5. What behavior on buses or the MRT may result in a fine?
(a) eating or drinking
(b) pushing your way in without letting people out first
(c) forgetting to wear deodorant
(d) sleeping while leaning on the stranger next to you
(e) forgetting to swipe your card not only when you enter but also when you exit

Answers: 1. d, e. 2. b, e. 3. d, e. 4. d, e. 5. a, e.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day

For all its inconveniences, Singapore does offer remarkable improvements in some areas - flowers, for example. This was the arrangement that arrived at my door today, delivered by an elderly Malay man who solemnly shook my hand and wished me a Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Year of the Pig

Today was Joey’s birthday, so tonight we celebrated by going into Singapore’s Chinatown to absorb the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of the Lunar New Year festivities for the upcoming Year of the Pig. The actual event isn’t until next weekend, but going then is the equivalent of standing in Times Square while the ball drops...with about twice as many people packed into half the space. And in the weeks leading up to the holiday itself, the celebration reaches its peak.

We rose out of the MRT station into a riot of reds and golds, crowds of shoppers, music, noise, and huge outdoor shopping and eating stalls decked out with Buddhas with pig noses and fake firecrackers (real ones are no longer allowed). The focus of Chinese New Year is prosperity - even McDonalds has something called a “prosperity burger” - so people buy anything and everything to celebrate. Moving slowly through the packed streets, we watched parents grabbing fistfuls of candy for their children and eagerly choosing clothing, amulets, wraps, jade, decorations, sausages, meats, baked goods. Couples were posing for pictures in front of giant flower arrangements under sparkling lights strung through the trees. Old men were busking on the corners, singing Chinese folk songs for coins. Everywhere you could hear the beat of a dragon dance; we didn’t see the dance itself, but full-size dragon heads swayed in every shop entrance, and salespeople bounced adorable miniature dragon marionettes in time to the music.

When our senses began to be overwhelmed by the scene and the smell of incense wafting through the air, we wound back through the shops until we found a quieter line of food stalls where we could sit for a while. In a typically Singaporean mix, regional street foods were on the menu right next to the traditional Chinese New Year foods, and we couldn’t resist buying a couple rolls of popiah (similar to a spring roll, but with crisper, more intense flavors and served cold instead of deep-fried). The Chinese woman who served us took great delight in our enjoyment of the dish, and she told us so in perfect, unaccented English - a surprise to me, after the Chinatowns in the States.

We headed home soon after that, exhausted by the crush of people, the commotion of music, the frenzy of activity that overheated the streets even on a cool, breezy night. Afterward, we realized we’d forgotten to take pictures. We might try to go back for a few photos, but I doubt we could capture the excitement, the chaos, the blaze of lights and colors.

You just had to be there.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Singapore How-To's

It's true: different countries just do things differently! Even in an English-speaking, Westernized country like Singapore, we’ve had to relearn quite a few normal, everyday things we couldn’t have imagined anyone doing any other way. Some examples:

How to turn the lights on. In Singapore, switches are down for “on” and up for “off.” It seems basic until you try to operate this way.

How to air-condition the house. First off, it’s aircon to you, in noun, verb, and adjective form. “Our aircon isn’t working. We should aircon the building. The house is not aircon.” And the temperatures are in Celsius, so I always do a double take when I turn the temperature down to 19 degrees. Note to self: flashing green and orange lights mean you've overused the aircon (again) and it's starting to freeze over. Call immediately to have it “serviced.” Typical Singaporean servicing schedule: once every three months. Time before we needed our first service: ten days.

How to take a shower.
First, turn the switch on for the room’s hot-water heater. Wait 5 minutes for the light on the switch to go out. Then, turn the switch on again. Leap into the shower, because the hot water may start to run out in 7 minutes. If the room contains both a shower and a bathtub, repeat the switch cycle at least four times, instead of two. (Singaporean alternative: avoid both air-conditioning and hot-water problems by opening windows and then taking cold showers to cope with the heat.)

How to open a bank account. Joey’s on what’s called an employment pass, since he’s been sponsored by his employer to work here. I’m on a dependent pass related to his pass. So when we went to the bank to open a joint account, the woman said to Joey, “Well, I can open an account for you, but for her, I need a letter of reference from a Singaporean or a Permanent Resident who has an account with us. That way we know her character is good.” (I knew I looked like the shifty type!) It’s the same with other accounts; the Internet guy needed Joey's vital stats, not mine. But he did let me sign the paperwork, “just this time.”

How to address someone named Joey. In Singapore, apparently “Joey” is always thought of as a female name, not a male name. Joey has gotten letters addressed to “Madam Joey,” and even the taxi driver who met us at the airport was holding up a sign that read “MS. JOEY.” But don’t you address him that way.

How to adjust to the tropical heat. Oh, come on, you really thought we'd learned that by now?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Crash Landing

Only one week since the 22-hour trip from JFK to Singapore, reality is setting in. The expat guidebooks say we should now be in the “honeymoon” phase: “You will feel as if you are on an extended vacation in an exotic locale. Minor irritations will pass unnoticed, and everything will appear fresh, new, and exciting.” But it’s the footnoted exception that sounds more familiar: “Some expats may experience a ‘crash landing,’ bypassing the honeymoon phase completely.”

See? Already we’re exceptional expats.

It’s not that we don’t like Singapore. On our trip in October, we were charmed by the modern city, the lush greenery, the incredible variety of cultures and foods. Downtown has our kind of city life: clean and safe (on account of strict laws) and never in a hurry (on account of the heat). Way out east, where we live, there’s a tropical, suburban feel. And for variety in between, there’s a decent-sized rain forest, houses and gardens left over from British colonial rule, and a water-spouting merlion.

So we threw ourselves into the three-day house-hunting preview, racing along after the realtor and trying (and failing) to keep all the options and the geography straight. But it really came down to excessively small, dark apartments close to town, or excessively huge, bright townhouses farther out. The realtor and relocation consultant agreed with us that the townhouses were great, but they also tried hard to sell us on the tiny condos in the massive, often aging, highrises in our budget. “There are squash courts!” the realtor would say, as we stared at miniature bedrooms and un-air-conditioned kitchens. “And a mini-mart! Remember that when you come in January for your real housing search.”

But they called in December to tell us that a nice townhouse we’d seen was, surprisingly, still available “if we act now” - the implication being, the market is heating up, and rents are rising all the time. Yes, it was east of the city, they said, but there were two bus stops close by, and it was a reasonable commute. Plus, it was brand new, in a quiet neighborhood, with its own backyard - almost unheard of in Singapore.

So we signed a lease in December to start on January 30 and congratulated ourselves on having something certain in the middle of an uncertain time. We wouldn’t be priced out by the market! We’d know exactly what to bring! We’d avoid a month of temporary housing! We’d sail straight into our home-away-from-home for the next two years.

But within a week of our arrival in Singapore, we started to wonder if we’d made the right decision after all. Perhaps it’s because we missed the vacation-like “soft landing” of a long hotel stay or temporary housing (with daily maid service), but suddenly every great feature of our home seemed to have a downside: There are no highrises blocking the breeze and the light, but that’s because we're close to the airport (though actually we hardly ever hear the planes). We have an amazing home security system, but that’s because part of the Singapore prison system is close to us (though no prisoner has ever escaped from there). We have a beautiful yard a few miles from a rain forest, but it hasn’t rained since we arrived, so it’s all we can do to keep everything watered. It’s quiet, but that's because we’re so far from the center of town, where other expats live.

We didn't think that last one would be a problem, actually. Many expats who live in the central areas spend their time here in an “expat bubble,” but we figured living slightly east of the city would give us a chance to mix with locals, too. Unfortunately, in our three-day geography primer, we hadn't learned just how far east it was possible to be on a tiny island city-state. While we’re ideally placed to interact with the locals (once they get used to having us around), we’re far from other expats, who are a lifeline for new arrivals like us. We’ve already met a number of expats, all wonderful people, who’ve offered help and recommendations on grocery stores to try and organizations to join. “It’s all right here in the center of town!” they say. Trouble is, we aren’t.

But in the meantime, there are things to enjoy, too...exotic bird songs in the backyard, gorgeous greenery, a temperature that’s about 70 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than where we left, festive decorations everywhere for the Chinese New Year celebrations. Hopefully these will inspire us as we try to settle in after our “crash landing” in the beautiful city of Singapore.