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.