31 December 2009

Train Transit in Texas?

Who says you need a car to get around Dallas. This truck-driving, SUV-obsessed metroplex has finally gone metropolitan. From Plano to Pearl Street and Fort Worth to Victory Park, DFW residents can now commute cross-town by train.

In 2002, the beginnings of the DART Rail System made their debut traversing from northeast Dallas to downtown. And with the new TRE line (opened last year) and the forthcoming Green Line from Carrollton, you can get anywhere from downtown to the airports to Cowboys games, all for less than $4 a ride.

Taking the plunge myself, I opted for TRE transit on a recent jaunt to visit my sister in Fort Worth. Now I don't claim to be a public transit expert by any means but I am fit to compare, having lived in and visited countless cities all with very different interpretations of what constitutes "public transit."

Logistically, DFW's train system can be a bit confusing, especially for a city not honed in the art of train travel. There are different fares for local and regional travel, and travel direction is not clearly marked. Luckily (in true Texas style) there are plenty of locals and seasoned train travelers who are more than happy to help you along. From buying tickets, to reading maps, to just passing time on the train, DFW commuters are the friendliest and chattiest I've met. The personal touch doesn't stop with the riders either. Train attendants announce each stop, remind you to collect your belongings, and periodically patrol the cars to answer questions and monitor clientele.

Scheduling can be a bit of a setback for the late-comer; at times the next train won't arrive for another 1.5 hours! But for those proficient in punctuality, travel time is fast...so fast that
“it’s not even enough time to get into a good conversation on the phone” according to one rider. And the plush seats and free wi-fi make it all the more convenient and comfortable.

Despite some minor drawbacks, this first-time rider gives props to DFW for tackling public transit. While Dallas' larger-city counterparts notorious for sardine-like population densities
(like D.C. and Chicago) have maintained fairly successful public transit programs, Dallas has gone above and beyond offering similar transit in a low-density metroplex whose borders span 9,286 square miles. And more so, it's done this in a town whose citizens truly take pride in their ride.

29 December 2009

D-town Dustings

For the first time since before I can remember, Dallas has celebrated the holiday season in true fashion...with a glistening, gleaming White Christmas. Yep, you heard it folks...3-plus non-consecutive days of snow, including a rare Christmas Day appearance. And after 14 months of perpetual summer in Nigeria and Singapore, the white-dusted December was a real treat.

Snow in Dallas is not a novelty by any means, but it is a rarity. Several years may pass without the precipitous winter wonder making an appearance. As such, it's never expected but overwhelmingly appreciated. Children will yell out in class when snow starts to fall; co-workers will stop work, debating the likelihood of accumulation; and people actually pause to glimpse the wet flakes before they kiss the warm Texas ground.

Dallasites know to watch keenly for its silent procession. It marches softly in, the rain stepping softer on your roof. It approaches with the silent sloth of a bell-less steer and the rain-turned-snow falls long and slow like the twang of a Texas drawl. It retreats just as clandestinely, turning back to rain, and washes away the powdery evidence that it had once touched surface.

Though not a necessity for the holiday season, Christmas snow in Dallas is always welcomed, genuinely appreciated, and never taken for granted.

23 December 2009

Dressing for Dallas

Have you ever noticed how pretty people in Dallas look? Like the city in which they reside, Dallasites portray an air of groomed casualness that is all there own. It's not fancy, but manicured. It's not formal, but deliberate casual. You see, Dallas attire (and attitude for that matter) makes casual look formal and formal look casual. And the Christmas season makes this all too apparent.

Everyone who's anyone in Dallas has professional pictures taken for events and milestones: engagements, first babies, and yes, Christmas cards. But a Walmart sitdown session for 12.99 just will not do. No, no. Blurred backgrounds, creative clothing color combos, and looks of candid blissful perfection are musts. It's the glamor shot look without the off the shoulder dresses, caked on make up, and, well....glamor.

Perhaps the Reata (a true Texas restaurant inspired by southern flavors) epitomizes this unique DFW style to a tee. My sister calls it "cowboy fancy." While atmosphere and cuisine indicate upscale dining, there is still room for the casual cowboy. Calf fries (a Texas delicacy made from the more sensitive calf parts) are deep fried chicken style. Gourmet elk sausage sits atop a down home favorite - cheese grits. And those are just the appetizers.

Dining attire also reflects the duality of farm yard formal that epitomizes Dallas. Waiters don Wranglers and formal black Western-wear shirts bedecked with silver accents. The clientele show up in anything from suits to boots (or both). Jean, t-shirts, blazers, ropers, and Stetsons...all wear is welcome.

So when dressing in Dallas, just remember: it's one of the few places you can wear jeans to a wedding (but you better have some boots to scoot).

18 December 2009

Dallas Driving

After 14 months of commuting by foot, train, or taxi, I finally returned to the wonderful and reckless world of Dallas driving. Yep, you heard me right…100% non-defensive death-wish driving. And the reality of the hopeless and hapless situation hit me full force last night.

My roommate from college lives close to the Dallas’ trendy Greenville Ave. Convenient to many a Dallasite, but not so much from where I grew up in Carrollton. When I asked my father how to get there, this was what he said: “take the George Bush Tollway to the Dallas North Tollway then 635 to 75 south.” Four highways? You gotta be kidding me!

But here’s the kicker…he said I might consider going straight to 635: “those tollway drivers go way too fast.” Now dads never stop being dads; but, come on. I grew up flying down 35 and zipping along 121 and 635. I knew Dallas highways and knew how to drive on them. But seeing as I am a pre-George Bush Tollway transplant out-of-state, I took my dad’s advice and went the sure way to avoid getting lost. And boy was I glad I did.

I was barely on the entrance ramp to 635 when a driver almost hit me from behind. Quickly getting away from the entrance and exit points to avoid a similar (and perhaps less lucky) situation, I clicked my signal and headed left. Not two minutes later I was slamming on my breaks (and my horn) for another driver who obviously didn’t check his blind spot. By this time, I had to make my grand exit-ramp entrance onto Central Expressway. Two cars in front of me, I see a car shoot across the solid white line right in front of the ramp divider, barely missing the safety barrels and causing everyone in front of me to stop short. If 635 is considered “safer,” I can’t imagine the tollway tribulations!

This morning, my prejudice against Dallas driving was reinforced. Shutting down the entrance from 635 to the tollway was a tanker that shook buildings as it collided, exploded, and not doubt killed its driver. And this isn’t the first time a wreck so dramatic has topped the news. On my last visit to the D-town a semi fell from an upper ramp to a lower ramp, crushing cars and stopping traffic for hours.

Now you may say this sort of stuff happens everywhere, and it does. But I’ve driven in lots of cities with lots of traffic (Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco); and nowhere else have I found a consistent disregard for and a general collusion against anything and everything that travels over 55 miles per hour. Maybe we should all take dad’s advice and go the sure way.

17 December 2009

You Can Take the Girl BACK to Texas...

So I've officially landed in the Lone Star State (and Brian is soon to follow). Though I haven't lived here since college, I've been a regular visitor for over 8 years coming home for the holidays and to visit family and friends. So imagine my surprise when, upon returning home, familiar morphed to foreign.

Houston is the first place we landed. Flying into Intercontinental on the north side of town required us to do two things: rent a car and drive clear across the city to our finally destination in Nassau Bay. Though not a ground breaking observation to say the least, I had never considered just how difficult it would be for someone (say from China where the general public has been driving for only 8 years) to visit Houston. Few public transit options, the city has to be 4-times the size of Singapore or more, and the size of the highways are a bit intimidating even for a native like me! Let's just say I have a new respect and appreciation for any foreign resident who travels here for business or pleasure.

Though the highways are mammoth to say the least, the "everything is bigger in Texas" mantra stops there. Upon entering the city, there was a complete absence of big-city shock value (despite Houston's standing as America's 4th largest city). No doubt a result of Houston's expanse, everything seemed too short for a city so populated. For someone just returning from the concrete jungle where everyone lived and worked in 30+ story buildings, I found myself wondered where all the people went. Even Lagos' downtown seemed a bit more "city-esque" than this southern Texas oil town.

Along with the big, small things that I hadn't noticed before jumped out...like how much I missed hearing tejano and country music on the radio (There's some sort of familiarity that comes with flipping through stations and getting "whiffs" of Spanish and twang). Or restaurants with names like "House of Pies" or "Sushi King" (Do you really want to eat sushi from a place that sounds like a burger joint?). Or how about a Bud Light truck being pulled over by a cop in a pick up (Sounds like inspiration for a county song).

But one thing that was and still is familiar is Houston's southern charm. Though not as pronounced as the sugar-coating in say Savannah or other self-proclaimed "true" southern towns, people and politeness go hand-in-hand here. A former roommate (and fellow Texan) noted upon her inaugural move from Texas to Chicago that men don't offer seats to the ladies on the "L." I guess politeness is bit like tejano music...you don't miss it 'til it's gone.

12 December 2009

Home Sweet Home

Just because I'm back in the U.S. (yes, you heard me right; we have officially moved back) does not mean America the Beautiful is off the hook. For the past year, I've been writing about my impressions of other countries, other people, and other cultures. I've been genuinely interested, often curious, and at times critical of what I've seen, heard, experienced, and felt. But it would seem a bit unfair for me to write about (and judge to some extent) the going-ons of other cultures and not scrutinize my home culture with the same degree of interest, curiosity, and criticism.

So please continue to read...for as curious as you may have found Nigeria and Singapore, I can almost guarantee the U.S. provides just as much entertainment (and maybe more so). For the month of December, I'm hanging at home in the Lone Star State; then it's back to organic eating and the Wine Country of San Francisco's Bay Area. So stay tuned....

06 December 2009

Ignoring Culture

It's easy when living abroad to focus on differences. I myself am no exception as you've probably read in many of my blogs. Differences are interesting. Differences make for good conversation. Differences are acceptable explanations for things that may go wrong. But what I've come to realize is that our friendships and courtships do not depend on accepting differences, ignoring differences, discerning differences, or being "culturally sensitive." They depend on embracing similarities.

It is not necessarily similar upbringings, but it can be. It is not necessarily similar religious or ethical beliefs, but it can be. It is not necessarily similar cultural backgrounds, but it can be. My point is that often "culture" gets in the way of knowing the person as they are away from the cultural backdrop that might or might not influence their lives.

I think of my friend Esther as I write this. Chinese-born but living and studying in Singapore while I was there, she quickly became a very good friend. Sure, there were times when I did something that I knew was culturally awkward in her eyes. But she knew my character and I knew hers. We both valued education, were hard workers, valued friendship and loyalty, respected family responsibilities, and depended on each other more than I think either of us knew. You see it wasn't despite our cultures that we became friends; culture never was a factor to begin with.

I realize that it's trendy to be culturally sensitive, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. But at some point we should tread softly on the fine line between "culturally sensitive" and "culturally obsessive." When we meet someone of the same culture, we
automatically assume a certain status quo. If someone is late, rude, or cheap, it's just who they are. But what if they're Latino, American, or Jewish? Well then, it must be "cultural." You see, culture is all well and good until you start focusing on it, assuming the presence of it, and choosing relationships based on assumptions that go with it.

When culture is the same, status quo is very often ignored. So maybe that's how we should approach all our relationships...even the intercultural ones.

02 December 2009

Einsteinian Esperanto

In light of some of the recent comments regarding Esperanto, I feel I should digress a bit and address the issue. While comments have been made regarding Esperanto as the future for a worldwide lingua franca, I for one submit to a more Einsteinian approach to language use and evolution: language cannot be created but can be destroyed, and certainly can change to other forms.

Esperanto is a feat in its own right. With vision for a language which could "foster harmony between people from different countries," L.L. Zamenhof completed Esperanto in the 1880s. Since then it has acquired between 100,000 and 2 million speakers, has seen the publication and translation of literary works, and has a passionate following that remains strong today. (Thank you, wikipedia.=)

That being said, many of my blog readers have hit some very important points. As a student of culture, I have been consistently taught that language and culture are inextricably linked. While Esperanto presents a good option for communicating in the multinationally influenced world we now live in, it lacks the naturally evolving culture that goes alongside. From this perspective, language nor culture can be created.

Also, with Esperanto's use of a modified Latin alphabet and the associated phonetic counterparts, there seems a large portion of the world left out of the mix...namely those using various Asian spoken and written forms. One may say that an alphabet of some form had to be chosen; but why the Latin alphabet and the primarily Western-based grammar? After all, by wikipedia's average estimation, almost twice as many people worldwide speak Chinese than English (the most common Latin alphabet language) followed by Hindu/Urdu (whose alphabet is based on Sanskrit). Esperanto clearly has certain socio-political influences, which could not only favor certain languages and cultures over others, but potentially hinder or destroy those from non-Western nations and cultures.

Finally language is not something you can force upon someone. Even during colonization, when English or French or Spanish was brought to other areas of the world, the lingua franca did not evolve in its original form. Pidgins, creoles, and full-fledged new languages were born and evolved into their present-day counterparts. And this didn't happen just in one place, it happened almost everywhere, in places separated by oceans and terrain. As a property of language itself, language (and culture) cannot be created...it can only evolve to different forms.

As an aside, I welcome any and all comments to my blog. But please, if you have political affiliations related to particular topics, I do ask you identify yourself properly. As much for the informational purposes of my readers as for the integrity of the blog I write.

28 November 2009

By the People, For the People

As our time living abroad comes to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect on the differences between Lagos and Singapore. But what most travelers do not realize is just how much Nigeria and Singapore have in common. The countries' histories and cultural make-ups seem all too parallel. And if you visit both countries today, you may wonder how one could have done so much and the other done so little.

Nigeria and Singapore were both occupied not only by the British, but the Portuguese. Lagos is actually Portuguese for "lagoons" and Portuguese influence in cuisine and architecture is still found in Singapore’s homeland of ‘ole, Malaysia. While the past Portuguese influence in both countries is present but scant, the British influence permeates, most obviously in language. English is the lingua franca, with most using the local creole (Singlish and Nigerian pidgin) to communicate.

Nigeria and Singapore both claim a mixed cultural backdrop: Nigeria’s dominant tribes being Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba; Singapore’s ethnic mixes consisting of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian. Both are key port cities, boasting prime locations for stop-offs and drop-offs. And their equatorial climates encourage rampant growth of just about anything that is planted.

But most surprising is both Nigeria and Singapore parted from the British empire the same year (1963). In the almost 50 years since independence, Singapore has grown to cosmopolitan acclaim, provides high standards of living for a large percentage of its population, and boasts some of the toughest schools and brightest professionals worldwide. Nigeria, on the other hand, still struggles to provide for even its richest inhabitants and has been riddled with corruption, civil war, and poverty.

So why has Singapore thrived and Nigeria dived? After all, Nigeria has oil (and lots of it) and Singapore boasts no resources of its own. Many may claim greed the culprit…after all, how often in history have we seen countries swimming in the coveted resources of the day only to fall victim to thievery and social decay? Others may think it’s cultural work ethic or unresolved tribal conflicts.

For me, I believe it goes beyond this, yet all being symptoms of the bigger culprit at hand. While Singapore evolved, Nigeria was created. As a well-respected friend and brilliant theorist wrote, “our superconductor world is at odds with centuries of native tribal and religious conflict. Consequently, when the pressure is on to ‘make it happen’– get that infrastructure up and running, stop the tribal infighting, hold free elections, and join our United Nations – the emerging nations are like high school football teams playing against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. It is not that nations can’t make it happen; it is that their nation-building process has yet to evolve and may not evolve for 100 years.”

You see, Singapore was given the chance to evolve as it should, to face troubles in its own time and way, to create a country when the time was right. From the beginning, Nigeria’s nation-building process was forced. Three major tribal groups were shoved into one country for no other reason than convenience. Its borders were drawn by Europeans living far away from the reality at hand. And, as with many African nations, particular tribal groups were given favor by the colonialists and granted the power to rule over all tribes. For too long, Nigeria was denied the right to develop on its own time line, in its own way.

While Singapore had a hand in its own creation, Nigerians still struggle in a country that was created neither by the people nor for the people.

*The picutre of Lagos is courtesy of outhere.de

26 November 2009


In light of my recent posts and the comments that followed, I'd like to feature a Web site that could be humorous or insightful, depending on how you look at it:


23 November 2009

Lost in Translation

My trouble started at the Southeast Asian Civilizations Museum. As part of their ChinaFest event, they offered free activities for adults and kids alike: Chinese Quiz Show, Chinese Opera performance, and ancient Chinese bowling. But what I anticipated most was the calligraphy station. Finally, I would find out my Chinese name! It sounds a bit silly, I know. But I feel a certain disconnect with a language when there is no spoken or written counterpart for my own name.

At the station, there was a binder for Western name translations. Eagerly I flipped through, found Sarah (with an "h"), and showed it to the calligrapher. So proud I was of my Chinese name – “sha la” (莎拉) – that I showed off my new-found nomenclature to a Chinese–Singaporean friend. “You know that means ‘salad,’” he said.

One of my annoyances as a student of Chinese is the seeming bastardization of the language when it comes to many foreign translations. Not that I was expecting my name to mean "beautiful woman" or " princess." But at least something like "wife of Abraham" or "mother of nations." For example, Hong Kong actually means “fragrant harbor;” Beijing means "north capitol"; Nanyang (Singapore's name of ole) means "south sea"; and my favorite, xiang shui – perfume (literally meaning fragrant water).

But as in the case of my name, often it is sounds not meanings that are mimicked. Take a look at Singapore's MRT map and you'll see how this beautiful language can be twisted around. While Lakeside station (hu – lake, pan – bank) and Little India (xiao – little, yin du – India) actually mean what they say, Sembawang (san ba wang) and Dhoby Ghaut (dou mei ge) only sound like their English counterparts with little regard for meaning. It’s a bit like spelling out a concept in sign language versus actually using an already available all-encompassing sign.

And so on the basis of sound similarity (and to assist foreigners with recognizing their own native-words-turned-Chinese), my name becomes “salad.” The irony? Sha la really doesn’t sound that much like Sarah, now does it.

17 November 2009

Is Singlish a Sin?

As an English speaking visitor to Singapore, don’t expect to understand everything that is said. Though most Singaporeans do speak English, the Chinese-esque grammar combined with tones and pronunciation unfamiliar to the Western ear can make communicating a bit tricky. But is Singapore English, known as Singlish, a sin? According to the Singapore government it is.

For 6 years, Singapore has tried to play language police through its Speak Good English movement. Web pages, blogs, and teaching and vocational materials promote “standard” English as the preferred form. But as a student of language and culture, this particular topic strikes too close to home. The official stance of the movement is “to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood.” Being universally understood is important; after all, what is the point of communicating in the same language if you can’t actually communicate. But "grammatically correct"? I'm not buying it.

In my experience trying to understand and be understood in Singapore, it was never the grammar that stood in the way. I quickly caught on to the shortened affirmatives (like “can” instead of “yes, you can”), and since Singlish mirrors the simpler Chinese grammar it’s actually easier to understand than the convoluted and repetitive “standard” English grammar. More so, different accents, pronunciations, and idioms were the cause of communication troubles. So why the big movement for speaking grammatically correct?

Singlish has a stigma: the uneducated, the working class, the foreigners who come to work there for a pittance all speak perfect Singlish. As I see it, wiping out Singlish is not a matter of being universally understood; it is a political and socio-economic statement put forth by the government. It elevates the educated to “preferred” and reduces the uneducated to unacceptable. It brands the upper echelon as “standard” and the working class as deviant. It blatantly states who and what practices the government finds acceptable and unacceptable.

Much like the English-Only movement in the United States, which often ostracises or in extreme cases punishes people speaking Spanish in vocational or educational settings, in Singapore Singlish has been dubbed a sin by the powers that be.

14 November 2009

China Talk in China Town

On my recent visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre, a particular display caught my eye. It described Chinatown as the opium den center of the city where high-end clientelle as well as "coolies" frequented for their daily fix. "Coolies"??? This was a term I hadn't heard before.

For those just as clueless as me, "coolie" is actually in the American-English dictionary: "
an unskilled laborer or porter usually in or from the Far East hired for low or subsistence wages." For those more vocabularily inclined, what you may not know is its origin – a loan word from the Chinese kǔlì (苦力), which literally means "bitter; hardship" and "strength." With 75% of Singapore's residents hailing from Asia's most populace country, it's no surprise that Chinese (in its various forms and dialects) dominates the linguistic cultural backdrop.

Though English is for many the lingua franca of Singapore, various dialects of Chinese (mostly Hakka, Hokkien, and Mandarin) are spoken at home and to friends of the same linguistic network. Code-switching (using both English and Chinese) is frequent and no-switching (no English, Chinese-only) is not uncommon. From business cards, to retail signs, to advertisements, Chinese holds its own in this English speaking "international" city.

But it isn't just the "China Talk" here that hints at Singapore's dominant cultural population; just listen to the English
(endearingly called Singlish) spoken by Chinese, Indians, and Malay alike. Singlish cadence is staccato and short, with syllables deliberately separated and sounding a bit abrupt to the American ear. Not only is the cadence short, but the actually sentence constructions are, too, mirroring the concise uncomplicated Chinese phraseology.

Speaking in fragments or removing subjects or even verbs is also commonplace in Singlish exchanges. When you answer in the affirmative, a simple verb often suffices ("can," "have," "take" instead of "yes, you can" etc.). This is taken directly from Chinese grammatical structure, which doesn't really have a word for "yes." Also, Singlish sentences often conclude with a lingering "laaaah" or "maaaaah." Similarly, "ma" is the Chinese interrogative indicator placed at the end of questions; while, "le" is placed at the end of many statements as an intensifier or to indicate a completed action.

Both in phonology and cadence as well as construction, the Singaporean English
is no doubt influenced by its Chinese counterparts.

***As an aside, the photo above was featured on
Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. What Mr. Bourdain may not know is that this sign is a perfect example of the linguistic fusion apparent all over Singapore. Not only does its name appear in Chinese and English, but also pinyin. "Tian tian" is the roman alphabet pronunciation of the two symbols which appear above it. Tian tian (天天) actually means "every day" in Chinese.

11 November 2009

A China Town, No Doubt

Though Singapore claims a healthy mix of cultures and backgrounds (Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Eurasian), the Chinese heritage is by far the most pronounced and has affected Singaporean culture in both big and subtle ways. From food, to tradition, to speech, Singapore is a China Town, no doubt.

To give a bit a of background, the major influx of Chinese immigrants to Malaysia occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. Formerly being part of Malaysia, Singapore also welcomed these Chinese traders and travelers well before its independence in 1965. In fact, many a Singaporean claim not a Malay but Peranakan heritage – a mix of Malay and Chinese ethnicity and tradition. This insurgence of Chinese culture that started centuries ago today remains strong in Singaporean daily living.

Chop sticks and angular soup spoons are staples in Hawker Centers and Food Courts (though I've been told to only use chopsticks when given a bowl; forks are used for plates). Hawker Centers' menu displays are written in Chinese and pinyin (the roman alphabet version of Chinese pronunciations) and with less frequency in English. And of course the cuisine itself, though some is uniquely Singaporean, includes the basic rice or noodle and soup mixtures we've come to know as "typical" Chinese.

The Chinese language dominates conversation as well. As much (or even more so) than English, I hear gossiping, business, and pleasantries exchanged in different Chinese dialects. On more than one occasion, I've needed to "find" an English speaker to help out with purchases and requests. And perhaps most revealing are the signs in Little India...there are more written in Chinese than in Tamil! Even Little India's grocery store has an automated machine saying "ni hao" ("hello" in Chinese) as you enter.

Though Chinese is by no means a necessity here and Western foods abound, visitors will leave knowing Singapore is a China Town, no doubt.

08 November 2009

Baba-Nyonya Pride

I'm not so sure our Indian friend from my previous blog would vie much better in Malaysia. While Chinese–Singaporeans prefer to deal with their own in business relationships, Chinese–Malaysian (known endearingly as Baba–Nyonya) are among the most successful businessmen and Malaysia's richest residents. As evidenced by Melaka's Baba–Nyonya house-turned-museum, its sheer size and international flare on display leaves little doubt of Baba–Nyonyas' influence, affluence, and stories of success.

Malaysia's population has been influenced by and integrated with other cultures for centur
ies. From the Jawi (Tamil–Muslim Malay) to the Chitty (Tamil–Hinu Malay), mixed heritage is a reality for many living in Malaysia. But it is quite obvious which Peranakan group lays claim as the "true" people (or at least the most prominent) of Malaysia, even more so than native Malays – the Baba–Nyonya. Literally translated as "Grandfather–Grandmother," Baba–Nyonya tradition dominates much of Malaysian and Singaporean culture. Identifiable by their batik sarong kebaya (the nyonya's attire of choice) and famous for their multi-cultural cuisine (fusioned flavors which include coconut milk, pandan leaf, and lemon grass to name a few), Baba–Nyonya heritage is easily identifiable and loudly pronounced.

And prideful they are! Even here in Singapore, the local television network broadcasts a weekly comedy that spotlights, plays with, and exaggerates the uniqueness and stereotypes that come with Baba–Nyonya pride. Sayang Sayang (meaning "dear" or "love" in Malay) follows one Peranakan family as they compete for the family business, challenge each others' "Nyonya" skills in a kueh chang-making contest, don traditional Baba–Nyonya batik, and even publish a Peranakan dictionary (Chinese Peranakan of course).

Though Peranakan refers to people of any mixed ethnic origin, Peranakan pride means Baba–Nyonya on the Indochinese Penninsula.

***The first picture above is courtesy of Singapore's Peranakan Museum. The second picture displays
kueh chang, Nyonya rice dumplings.

05 November 2009

Hierarchy of Business

As an "outsider" living abroad, it's difficult to know and often even harder to understand the rules of engagement for your host country. It might be the business card ritual that catches you off guard (a necessity at meetings, with the 2-hand exchange being as important to the meeting as the business at hand). Or it could be rules for treating someone to a meal (still haven't figured that one out). But what I didn't expect were the rules of hierarchy...rules that at home aren't as pronounced as here in Asia.

This unofficial (or maybe it's official) caste system of the high-wage, low-wage variety first came to my attention at my place of residence. One of the restaurant staff, who was working as an intern, had to return to the Philippines. He couldn't find a job; they were only hiring Singaporeans because of the economic downturn he told me. Made sense, but this guy was a hard worker and seemed more capable than some of the full-time Singaporean staff! It seems there is a certain respect and advantages that simply come with a Singaporean passport.

And for the non-Singaporeans who do get hired, often the less-than-desirable jobs with less-than-desirable pay are what awaits them. My husband recalls looking out his window from the 26-floor and seeing at eye-level Indian construction workers building a nearby skyscraper. When he commented that he wouldn't want that job, a co-worked replied that you wouldn't find a Singaporean doing that work. Live-in help from the Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia don't fare much better. Though perks are included (like room, board, and trips home), the standard wage is about USD 300 per month.

Even among the Singaporean "elite" a business hierarchy exists. Our residents cafe not only serves as a breakfast nook but with the same frequency as a venue for businessmen vying for contracts. As such, I often overhear tid-bits of the dealings. Recently, I witnessed an Indian man being let down easy by an Australian business contact. His Chinese clients, the Australian said, "they like to do business with Chinese...you might have a better chance in Malaysia." The conversation ended with the Australian suggesting Indian contacts might also be a better option for his non-Chinese companion.

In the Singapore workforce, being Chinese–Singaporean is more than advantageous...it's predestinous!

02 November 2009

A Buddhist Christmas?

And I thought Americans started Christmas early...

For the past 3 weeks, more and more Christmas decorations have appeared on our neighborhood's main thoroughfare (which also happens to be
shopping district). Orchard Road runs 1.5 miles long before turning into Tanglin Road for another half mile...and Christmas decorations span the entire length! Complete with Santa Village, ornaments, lights, a 5-story Christmas tree, and snowmen (I guess there is such thing as snow in Singapore), this is by far the largest and most glamorous effort I've ever seen to 'Tis the Season!

But this over-indulgence in Christmas flare strikes me as a bit odd. Aside from the obvious early arrival of holiday cheer, last time I checked Singapore's population was half Buddhist. With Christianity accounting for only 15%, why would Singapore go to such lengths to celebrate (or at least decorate for) this Christian holiday? The answer: well, it's plastered alongside, above, and around the decorations on Orchard Road...money.

Enter the holiday season and enter the consumerism frenzy. Maybe not for its own citizens, but Singapore is an international city with a reputation for good shopping. And there's no better time than Christmastime to make up for losses during an economically-challenged year. This money-making mindset which dominates Singapore is not only evident by what you see on Orchard Road, but also by what you don't see elsewhere. According to some locals, Singapore invests in things that make money often to the detriment of non-money making ventures. The art scene is a perfect example.

Trying to find Singaporean art (or any decent collection for that matter) is like looking for a Christmas tree in Mecca. The Singapore Art Museum has an obvious paucity of local artists, and its permanent collection leaves much to be desired. In fact, if you want to see good art go to the hotels (a huge money maker in this tourist town). The Conrad, Regent, and Ritz–Carlton take pride in their art collections no doubt in response to their patrons tastes. Ranging from SE Asian masters to Chihuly, Frank Stella, and even Andy Warhol, these hotels put Singapore's national art efforts to shame with the Ritz–Carlton alone housing 4,200 pieces.

In Singapore, the old saying certainly rings true: money makes the world go round. And while art museums may yield little profit, hotels and "Christ"-mas mean money!

30 October 2009

Sex, Sexuality, and Censorship

A couple of weeks ago, I was at home watching a rerun of Friends. (Yes, we do get tons of American shows here.) It was the New Years Eve episode where the "friends" sulked in Monica's apartment watching the rest of their party welcome in the New Year. Chandler tries to cheer everyone up, noting "there are 3 guys and 3 girls here" – everyone would get a New Years kiss! For those who know the episode, it ends with Chandler throwing a tantrum because no one will kiss him, so Joey lays a big one right smack on his lips!

Well, Singapore's version was a bit different.
Right when Joey started to lean in, a white flash came across the screen and the next frame was Chandler looking bewildered (apparently for no reason). Hmmm...is Singapore really that "homophobic," censoring out even the most light-hearted of homosexual references?

Perhaps not. Featured on HBO recently was Philadelphia, the story of a gay lawyer who is fired when he contracts AIDS. I watched the movie in anticipation of its famous scene: protagonist Tom Hanks dancing with boyfriend Antonio Banderas at a costume party, then the kiss on the dance floor. (I've always been a bit jealous of Tom Hanks in this role.) Smiling, watching, waiting, then cut! No kiss for Tom Hanks in Singapore's version.

It appears that "sexually illicit" material going through the filter of MediaCorp, Singapore's media monopoly, can be talked about and referred to but not actually seen. And it's not just homosexual actions that get the boot; sex in general is closely guarded. In the movie Parenthood, references to pornography, vibrators, and oral sex are kosher. But when it comes to the "big" scene in Sex and the City (The Movie), MediaCorp leaves you hanging. Even Singapore's adult entertainment stores don't sell porn (in magazine or video format).

Now I'm not an advocate of the porn industry; nor do I condone explicit material on television where those not mature enough to handle it have easy access. My shtick is this: Chandler kissing Joey is not in the same league as seeing someones ho hum up close and personal. And if you are going to censor the sexually explicit in Singapore, why not start at Orchard Towers (endearingly called the Four Floors of Whores).

And so I pose the question: Why censor? After all you can get the real version of what you don't see on TV (both hetero- and homosexual) just down the street from my house.

27 October 2009

The Population Push

Ah, the joys of city living. As many of my friends will attest, I am pro-public transit all the way. In fact, public transit systems top my "benefits list" of big-city life. During the 6 years I called Chicago home, I cabbed it to work only twice and found the "L" to be a convenience rather than annoyance – the obvious exception being bitter winter days waiting 20-plus minutes on outdoor elevated train platforms. So why has my pro-public protocol taken a turn for the worse? Population, Planning, Pace, and Perspiration is why.

Singapore is the 3rd most dense country in the world and almost 4 times as dense as the Windy City.
The population "problem" (if you can call it that) makes even the most docile commuter (like me) want to push people out of the way! But let's be honest here. I've done the daily commute on New York's Manhattan Island – an area much denser than Singapore – and never did I feel the population push as much as I have here. But unlike Manhattan's work-day population swell, as professions swarm in from elsewhere, workers in Singapore often come here...and stay. Live-in help (which undoubtedly is forgotten in the population density calculation) call places like Malaysia, Philippines, and India their true "home." So when we talk population, official calculations may lie askew.

But the population is as much an issue of distribution as actual numbers. City planning also contributes to commuting stress on the part of many an expat. While New York City boasts Central Park as its main reservoir of undevelopment, about 23% of Singapore's land mass is forest/nature preserves and 2/3 of the country's surface area is reserved for water catchment...places commuters wouldn't necessarily hang out. In addition, MRT stops are not commuter-only places of transit. They are housed inside large malls with restaurants, boutiques, grocery stores, and of course all the consumers that frequent them.

Pace and perspiration are one in the same. Except for the escalators which move at NASCAR speed, the pace here in Singapore is at a loitering level. For many a commuter heading to their professional places of work, showing up with arm-pit sweat marks from a quick commute is definitely faux pas. Even the workday, which starts late and ends late, is designed to avoid the hottest parts of the day (2 to 5 pm). For those used to the bustle of cooler climate commutes, you may find yourself packed-in and your promptness inpolite.

When it comes to the population push, commuters beware...Singapore will give you a walk for your money.

25 October 2009

My Malaysia

For those planning a trip to Singapore, might I suggest 2 no-misses while in the area. Easy to get to and quite a contrast to Singapore's cement jungle, Melaka and KL should top your list.

A 4-hour bus ride puts you right where history (or at least colonialist history) began in this area of the world. Melaka was Singapore before Singapore was Singapore as the major stop off point for those heading East to West. An active port in its heyday, Melaka was frequented and settled by Chinese merchants, then occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English before gaining independence in 1957. Remnants of these multi-national influences are impeccably preserved in present-day Melaka. With its outstanding shopping, quaint small-town feel, and rich but modest historical sites, Melaka deserves a day or 2 even for self-proclaimed city slickers.

Two more hours on buses departing every 15 minutes (what could be more convenient than that) puts you up-close and personal with hands-down the most beautiful buildings on earth...the Petronas Towers. Standing like wedding day brides side-by-side, these towers dominate the KL skyline. But that's not all KL has to offer: a birdpark that "out-birds" Singapore's open-air aviary; the Batu Caves that challenge even the most fit with its 272-step climb; and Little India's weekend night market that rivals the chaos found in "Big" India.

Accessible, unique, historically rich, yet often overshadowed by close-by Thailand and Singapore, these Malaysian cities provide "quality" time for all their visitors.

22 October 2009

A Not-So-Hidden Gem

Now that our time in Singapore is coming to an end, I'm visiting all those places that have taken the back burner to trips, nights out, or just watching TV. Having ridden past the Chinese Garden MRT stop several times, curiosity finally got the better of me...and boy am I glad it did! According to one of my guidebooks, Singapore's Botanical Garden outranks the Chinese Garden by 2 stars. My other guidebook doesn't even mention it. But if you take my advice, Chinese Garden is definitely worth a visit.

Numerous pagodas offer picturesque views of the park from above. Near the Stone Boat lies a pond with hundreds of hungry fish (a couple breeds native to only SE Asia) pouncing the surface for any food stuff. The abundance of bridges vividly reflected in the water it traverses will cause any onlooker to stop for a photo. And for those not impressed by Chinese Gardens, never fear. The Japanese Garden is housed within! Complete with an enclosed bonsai display, both gardens are sure to impress.

Don't be deterred by its "far-away" location. It's right on the way to further-out "no miss" attractions like the Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park, and Singapore Zoo. It also makes for a great day when paired with the Tiger Brewery tour. Even when compared with Botanical Garden's location, Chinese Garden's location is arguably as convenient. After all, currently there is no MRT that stops at Botanical so get ready for the 25 minute walk from MRT to park gate! And once you have arrived, be prepared to battle crowds; unlike the relatively desolate Chinese Garden, Botanical is overrun with families, runners, locals, tourists, and weekend yoga, tai chi, and dance classes.

Though not over-hyped by Singaporeans or guidebooks alike, in my book Chinese Garden is a no-miss.

16 October 2009

Past is Prologue

In the heart of Singapore's Chinatown lies three restored shop houses that offer a peak into Singapore's Chinese heritage, both good and bad. Being a museum, I expected to get a bit of history, learn some tid-bits about the early Chinese settlers, and maybe learn a new Chinese word or two. But what I didn't expect was an unveiling of motivations behind rules, norms, and habits that are now part of Singaporean everyday life.

The museum is set up like a living archive: personal accounts and quotes paper the walls; video taped old-timers recount memories of a less cosmopolitan Singapore; and photos on display archive times past and the red-hatted samsui women who swore off marriage and worked in construction to build the Singapore we know today.

The first video I stopped to watch recounted the post-Raffles days when Singapore's port was open for free trade. Tea and silk were not the only things traded however
. Another export got the best of Raffles' new-found colony: opium. Opium dens of various "grades" littered the streets of Chinatown attracting both high-end visitors and "coolies" (manual laborers without vocational skills). And seamen coming ashore en masse also gave rise to another industry still alive and well in Singapore...prostitution. But the opium and prostitution brought more trouble than business. Addiction grew rampant, especially among the lower working class, and sexually transmitted diseases reach pandemic proportions.

When considering these two new realities that hit Singapore by storm, it sheds light on present-day national practices. Drugs are now "highly" illegal. And if you don't know what I mean by "highly," just take a look at your embarkation card as you enter this city-state: "Death for Drug Traffickers" it reads on the back. Also, prostitution is regulated to the nth degree. All prostitutes must register with the government and submit to frequent health screenings, a practice which started in the late-1800s.

In addition to sailors and foreign businessmen flooding Singapore, immigrants from China arrived (and are still arriving) seeking money and a better life. Though some (tailors, barbers, etc.) came with marketable skills, those unskilled lived a hard life most apparent by where and how they lived. With little money and little free time, their living quarters were sub-par to say the least. Recreated in the Chinatown Heritage Centre is the dorm housing common for migrant workers of the 1900s.

You may wonder what closet-size dorm rooms have to do with today's housing situation in Singapore. Well, recently a Filipina migrant I know (with marketable skills, mind you) was ousted from her "apartment" after the building shut for code violations. Apparently the landlord had divided already small apartments into numerous smaller rooms, many without windows or proper ventilation. Dorm living is still a reality in Singapore for much of the migrant worker population (both skilled and not).

But perhaps my favorite historical idiosyncrasy made-present is the "spot reserving" norm here in Singapore. In the heritage museum, one account described an outing to the Majestic Theatre back in its heyday. People used to designate their seat by placing a handkerchief on the location they chose. Any present-day Singaporean knows that reserving your spot during lunch-hour rush is key. And guess what they do? Place their handkerchiefs (well, now they are mass produced napkin packets wrapped in plastic and sold street-side) on the hawker centre table of their choice.

Maybe the past isn't necessarily necessarily prologue; but it sure does hint at what may be to come!

(Samsui photo taken from http://yesterday.sg/2007/04/samsui_women/)

13 October 2009

Crossing the Line

There is a local show here in Singapore that interviews "the new foreigner in town." On the last episode, a Korean newcomer was asked what things she's had to get used to in Singapore...her reply: "Singaporeans love to stand in line...I haven't quite figured out why Singaporeans stand in a long line for something like a free cookie." Boy did she hit the nail on the head!

In a previous blog, I described our experience at the Asian Civilizations Museum on National Museum Day. And yes, it was a free for all. Free admittance, free special exhibition entrance, free ice cream, and of course plenty of free time spent in long lines. But today Singaporean queuing tendencies crossed the line.

On my way to the MRT today, I noticed a queue wrapping around the shopping mall close to home. Amidst the crowd was a small booth with people wearing placards advertising Colgate's Sensitive Pro-Relief toothpaste. Hmmmm...a line for toothpaste? Well, I guess I've stood in line for things of less importance than toothpaste before. But this particular line was not moving; it was a standstill of close to 100 people on their lunch breaks waiting for something Colgate-esque. The time value of money concept was obviously not at play here.

I guess "the new foreigner in town" was right: Singaporeans love to stand in line, or maybe they just have more patience than most. I optimistically concede to the latter.

08 October 2009

Mid-Autumn Moon Cake Mayhem

This past weekend, Singapore (and the rest of Asia) celebrated their Mid-Autumn Festival. As important to Singaporeans as Thanksgiving and Christmas are to Americans, Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for family and friends to gather, light lanterns, watch the moon rise (which is at its fullest and brightest), and eat moon cake.

Legend has it, Cheng'e (the moon goddess) and her husband Houyi were banned to the earth to live as mortals following the death of the Jade Emporors 9 sons at the hands of Houyi. Seeing his wife's distress, Houyi searched out the pill of immortality and once obtained placed it in a case for safe keeping. Curiousity getting the best of her, Chang'e found the pill just as Houyi returned home. Not knowing that only half was needed for her own immortality (the other half was for Houyi), she swallowed the entire pill. She floated to the sky, eventually landing on the moon, and can still be seen dancing there during MoonFest.

For those not impressed by legend and tradition, you are bound to enjoy the moon cakes. Like Christmas cookies, moon cakes come in traditional forms and creative new concoctions. With a gingerbread-esque encasement, traditional cakes are filled with anything from egg to lotus paste while their modern counterparts boast coatings and fillings of chocolate, brandy, or herbed cheese to name a few. And it's no surprise that any hotel with a reputation has their own versions to sell at a price as pretty as the cakes themselves.

So to all my friends, family, and blog followers who couldn't enjoy Mid-Autumn Fest with us, we say:
中秋节 快乐 (zhōng qiū jié kuài lè)!

04 October 2009

Culinary Curiosities

Growing up, I remember dreading those 5 words my mom would say when she didn't feel like cooking: "let's have breakfast for dinner." That phrase would usually be followed by post-7pm scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Breakfast for dinner? Come on. But just recently the true arbitrariness of our designated choices for morning, noon, and night cuisine came to light.

Now that the new ION Orchard mall opened, my daily commute requires me to navigate a sea of stores and loitering crowds. Nestled between shoe shops, clothing boutiques, and casual dining restaurants is Dunkin' Donuts. My first encounter with the newly opened store was on my way to church one Sunday morning. I remember making a mental note that Singaporeans must not like donuts. The store was empty except for a few token expats getting their sugar rush for the morning.

The following evening I passed by the same store and couldn't believe my eyes...pouring out of this sweet-treat "breakfast" shop at 10pm were two long lines with dividing ribbons to guide the queues. They even had an addition "express" line for those wanting just one or two donuts. Here in Singapore, donuts are an afternoon and late-night snack not a weekend breakfast item or morning staple for those wearing blue.

It's not just scrambled eggs or Dunkin' Donuts after noon that might cause one to pause either. How about beef noodle soup for breakfast (a staple in Vietnam), red beans and rice for dessert (a sweetened Singaporean treat), or fritatas in the afternoon (ever tried tortilla espanola?). So here's to embracing breakfast time in the evening time. And thanks to my mom who, when dad was out of town, would always suggest: "let's have dessert for dinner."

01 October 2009

Foreign Flavors

No trip would be complete without sampling the local cuisine. That is half of holiday fun! And along with the familiar, there are certain to be foreign flavors worth sampling.

Being the stepchild of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, I had low expectations for Cambodian cuisine. Bland, rice-based imitations of the Thai's flavorful food was what I expected. Boy was I surprised. Amok and glassnoodle salad were fav
orites of mine in Cambodia. Using lemongrass, coconut milk, chili, and cilantro, these Khmer cuisines tantalized my taste buds and were favorites of mine on the trip. Pineapples and coconuts were a plenty and used for drinks, flavoring, served whole, or as a garnish. As for the more "local" snacks, fried spiders and and silk worms (tasting of nuts and milk) were offered to us along the way.

In Vietnam P
ho Bo was an obvious expectation. But for breakfast?? As I soon found out, this noodle and beef soup is not served for dinner, only for the lighter meals of the day. More appropriate for the evening meal were the pancakes (yep, not a breakfast item here). These flour or egg based wrappings (you choose) were more like mini, deep fried tacos than the doughy sweetness of their American counterparts.

For those wanting a continental breakfast rather than traditional Vietnamese soup, there is a culinary surprise for you...the best baguettes I've ever had! Served with butter or jam, the Vietnamese have the French to thank for this addition to their culinary repertoire. Served alongside a glass of iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk (the typical serving method), it is a breakfast both Westerners and Easterners can enjoy.

28 September 2009

War Remnants Museum

This particular topic is emotionally charged to say the least. What I write below are only my perceptions from a post-Vietnam generation perspective. As my parents suggest, people growing up and living through the Vietnam War may have different perspectives than my own. And I welcome comments to this regard!

I should have braced myself for the grand entrance into a communist nation, not to mention a nation that doesn't exactly call Americans friends. Perhaps it's because the Cold War is over and the communist era has taken a backburner to other international issues, I expected Saigon to be alive with all modern conveniences, industry-ready, and tourist friendly. After all, they are opening a Hard Rock Cafe–Saigon this month!

Though modern in many ways, this former South Vietnam stronghold seems to exude sadness. Few smiles are seen on the street; billboards display the hammer and sickle conspicuously alongside Vietnam's flag; and Saigon's main attraction (the Reunification Palace) stands as a daily reminder of communist presence (now reality) in Saigon. But what I saw on the streets did not prepare me for what I saw in the War Remnants Museum.

Formerly know as the Museum of American War Crimes (need I say more), its galleries bear names such as "Aggression War Crimes" and "Historical Truths" gallery (hmmm...can history really be considered "true"?). Within the walls of this museum were photos, captions, stories, and accounts of the atrocities committed by American soldiers during the American–Vietnam War.

True, there are always two sides to every story. But what disturbed me most wasn't what I saw. After all, American soldiers don't have the best reputation for playing fair during wartime. Rather, it was what I didn't see that upset me. There was no mention of South Vietnam as its own sovereign country. There was no mention of civil war. There was no mention of the fact North Vietnam killed their Southern counterparts, too. There was only mention of "liberating" the South from the hands of "the aggressor." It's as if the roots of the war were erased, South Vietnam never existed, and the reality for South Vietnamese was that of complete oppression by the United States.

The artifacts and exhibits themselves I found troubling as well. Captions for many photos created a picture of torturous, violent American soldiers injuring and killing innocent Vietnamese soldiers. At the risk of sounding pithy, this was war, people would die, and it wasn't just the Vietnamese who were dying. Also, many of the photos on display could be left open for interpretation. And with unattributed captions, could we really be so sure that the child was "begging the American soldier to not kill her father."

In content as well as presentation, the museum focused on grains of truth turning them into generalizations and reality. It amplified the actions of the "oppressor" while almost erasing North Vietnam's own participation in wartime activity. It didn't record history, it created history...a history that generations of Vietnamese will now come to know, learn, and believe.

24 September 2009

Life Begins

Traversing the Cambodia–Vietnam border is like crossing from the United States into Mexico. The differences slap you in the face! Not expecting to see much contrast (after all, we were traveling by boat and how much can you really from a riverbank), it became immediately apparent just how different these two neighboring countries are.

Except for borders distinguished by mountains and oceans, I've always thought of territorial lines as a bit arbitrary. A random line drawn by someone a long time ago to distinguish what is mine from what is yours. But as you leave Cambodia and enter Vietnam, the river seems to know it's entering a whole new world.
The wide-set banks quickly contract; the unchanging landscape becomes a smorgasbord of chaotic vegetation; and the desolate banks become centers of activity. I found myself wondering if we were on the same river!

Where life along the Mekong in Cambodia saw little activity, the lively banks of Vietnam are a testament to its expansive population (85 million to Cambodia's meager 15 million). Stilted houses sprinkle the Mekong all the way to Chau Doc. Rickety wooden boats with palm leaf canopies transport people and products down, up, and across the river. Those using less traditional methods of transport depend on river ferries to get them and their motorbikes from one side to the other. Even the rice fields come right up to the Mekong's waters.

With few expectations of what
life and livelihood is like in Vietnam, traversing the border by boat gives you a taste for what is in store.