29 May 2009

Malling Around Singapore

Last week, I attended my husband's final photography class. Their assignment was to take nighttime city skyline photos from the Esplanade performing arts center. Arrive by 6:45...it's about a 10-minute walk from the City Hall MRT station, his teacher informed. Easy enough. As we started our 10-minute walking commute from train to Outdoor Theatre, I took notice of something that has been ever present but until that moment I didn't
truly perceive. When someone gives me directions t
hen attaches a walking distance to the end, I expect to traverse streets and pass buildings or neighborhoods. I don't expect a 10-minute walk through an air conditioned mega-mall fighting crowds of eager shoppers. But the reality is, most of my Singapore
commutes involve this.

To get to the 9 km rural canopy and park hike, you must navigate through underground tunnels, walk through a mall, and pass numerous shops attached to the MRT station. To access the Harborfront Ferry Terminal for any jaunts to Indonesia or to enjoy the weekend on Sentosa Island, you take a 15-minute walk through one of the city-state's largest malls, VivoCity, and never step foot outside.

Even with commutes involving outdoor walks, you can't escape the masses of consumerism that seem to permeate Singapore and its culture. Every Sunday when exiting the Toa Payoh MRT to attend church, we pass through long outdoor interconnecting corridors of clothing, food, and toiletry shops catering to the almost 120,000 residents who live in the surrounding buildings. The area where I take Chinese classes (Bishan) is hubbed around a 5-story mall with movie theatres, food courts, grocery stores, and more shopping than most mid-size American malls.

To be fair, while living in Chicago and commuting via "L" train to various locations in the city, I would pass many boutique shops and even malls (especially along Michigan Avenue). But the phenomenon is different here. Chicago malls stand alongside office buildings, freestanding department stores, and restaurants with a generous and relatively proportional speckling of each. In Singapore, the sheer concentration of malls and shops is simply unfathomable. The commute to and from our home base MRT stop serves as a perfect example, boasting more than 20 malls one way
(I'm not exaggerating).

Whether you are commuting to and from work, sightseeing, or just killing time, there is no way to avoid malling around Singapore.

24 May 2009

Funny Singapore

When we think of Singapore, these two topics inevitably come to mind: the 1994 caning of American Michael Fay and the illegality of chewing gum within city-state limits. Though seemingly unrelated, both these matters highlight a very important aspect of Singaporean life: there is a fine line between having fun and causing havoc. And when you cross that line there is a big price to pay.

In Singapore, the "fun line" (and its limits) seem to fall within 3 major categories: (1) things that are "accepted but controlled"; (2) things that are "accepted but discouraged" in one manner or another; and (3) things that are absolutely "not tolerated."

(1) Buying gum falls into this first category. Contrary to popular belief, chewing and purchasing gum is legal in Singapore. (The ban was lifted in 2004.) Though Bubble Yum is nowhere to be found, gum containing tooth whitening and breath freshening agents is available. But it comes with a catch. You can't just walk to your local 7-11 and buy a couple packs. You must purchase it from a pharmacist....and sign for it providing a passport or national ID number alongside.

Believe it or not, prostitution also falls into the "accepted but controlled" category. Though many prostitutes are here on tourist visas working illegally, the "legal" prostitutes are registered with the government and periodically attend health screenings. Additionally, there are places where prostitution is "allowed" to occur (the famous Orchard Towers happens to be right by our flat), and it is speculated that such areas are "registered." The purchase or sale of pornography is illegal, however. So avoid any fines or jail time and go for the real thing if you are so inclined.

(2) Things that are "accepted but discouraged" are usually identified by the enormous taxes you pay to enjoy them. Cars, booze, and cigarettes are three of these. According to one local Singaporean, cars are taxed up to 200% to discourage citizens from purchase and prevent enormous traffic problems that could potentially plague the city-state. Alcohol is about 3 times the price you would pay in the US, and in many cases it's actually cheaper to drink out that to purchase a beer at your local store.

As for cigarettes, the purchase price is comparable to US standards (around $8/pack), but you can also be fined up to $10,000 if caught in possession of "illegal" cigarettes. Due to the ease of transporting $2 packs across the border from Indonesia or Malaysia, all Singapore-purchased cigarettes are now labeled with a blatant "SDPC" strip (Singapore Duty-Paid Cigarette).

(3) As for the more questionable pastimes that are "not tolerated," vandalism is the most famous for which Michael Fay received 4 strokes of the cane. Parents can also administer this type of punishment at home for general "mischief" or defiance, and the domestic-use canes are available for sale at local grocery stores. Among other "fun" things that may warrant this form of corporal punishment is smoking at school. For this and more serious disciplinary offenses,
it is not uncommon for schools to cane in front of the entire student body as a warning to future offenders.

Though jaywalking and other similar no-nos generally are tolerated, one word of warning for those visiting Singapore. If you want to spend a bit more time here having "fun," make sure you are a valid visitor. Overstaying your tourist visa falls on the mandatory caning list!

20 May 2009

China Town is My Town

Before arriving to our new home, Singapore had been described to us as "Asia light": an intro to Eastern culture, food, and ways of life with the modern conveniences of the West. So when we decided to visit the "real" Asia, I braced myself for the worst. I imagined squat toilets, little infrastructure, and generally sad, uninspired people. Boy were we surprised.

With the ONLY obvious downfall being the at-times cumbersome
air pollution, Beijing proved tourist-worthy to a tee. From the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace to the Great Wall, all sites were impeccably maintained despite the masses of tourists that visit them each day. (And thank God the sites are huge, otherwise like-minded tourists like us literally wouldn't fit!) Admittedly, I did encounter my share of squatter toilets. But all were clean, had toilet paper, and provided soap and running water for the post-toilet ritual. One bathroom even boasted a 4-star rating!

Getting around was easy as well. A fairly extensive subway serves much of the city with plans for expansion currently underway. But for those not wanting to venture underground, taxis are plentiful and cheap (10-15 USD for a 45-minute cab ride to the suburbs). And though the majority of cab drivers don't speak English, most know at least a little. Between their limited English, my rudimentary Chinese, and a few hand signals and Chinese characters, we were able to get from one place to the next, order food, and even carry on simple conversations with locals without a hitch!

Bargaining in the Silk Market proved very easy compared to relentless Cairo vendors and the lengthy Lagos transactions. Don't give your lowest price, start to walk away, and after doing this about 7 or 8 times you'll have the price you want. The vendors will even chase after you through the market while dropping the price by $20!

Despite the ease of travel (signs in English and Chinese) and unexpected modern conveniences (plentiful ATMs and working, clean bathrooms), there were a couple of surprises for us Western folk. At the night market, items such as scorpions and starfish were on display for purchase and consumption. We opted for the dumplings and fried noodles. The bare-butted toddlers also came as a surprise. Children under age 2 (and presumably potty training) all wear pants without backsides. As we saw on more than one occasion, this makes it easy for the children to simply squat on the street when nature calls. And probably most amusing is just how touristy and camera-happy the local Chinese can be. Our friends' two young daughters were approached a couple of times by crowds wanting to take their picture. Apparently, little white girls are a rare and/or interesting site in this northern capital city.

So after bracing myself for the worst and experiencing what I believe is the best Asia has to offer, I can say without a doubt China Town is My Town.

16 May 2009

Controlled Substances

Just prior to our recent Beijing trip, I ran an errand at our local pharmacy. The friends we would stay with in China needed ibuprofen, so we volunteered to restock their supply. A big bottle of 200 mg tablets was what I sought. Easy enough, right? Wrong.

I went to the pharmacy by my house and spent about 20 minutes covering every inch of the store. No bottles of ibuprofen to be found. In fact, the only thing resembling any sort of drug were the vitamins, cough drops, and 5 types of the same brand of acetaminophen.
(Apparently Panadol has the "aches and pains medicine" monopoly here.)

I decided to approach the pharmacy counter hoping they wouldn't be annoyed with such a simple request. "Ibuprofen?" I asked. The counter attendant turned to the locked glass cabinet behind him, opened it, and began to search. He finally found a box of "Nuprofen," Singapore's ibuprofen brand. "But I can't sell this to you" he said. "The pharmacist is not on duty." Huh? It wasn't like I was buying morphine or requesting syringes. But rules are rules, so I stopped by another pharmacy close to my Chinese school. I was in luck! The pharmacist was in.

I requested the ibuprofen, the pharmacist searched in the locked cabinet behind her, and she handed me the pills. Then the spiel began...
she described what the pills were used for, how long my supply would last (24 pills in each box, a two-day supply), and the standard dosage (2 200 mg pills). It was like listening to someone describe how to use a telephone or tie my shoe. I guess Singaporeans are not a pill popping population like Americans are.

13 May 2009

The Land of Over-labeling: Part 2

As I mentioned in "Over-labeling: Part 1," Singaporeans make even the obvious...well, obvious. And pretty much any topic is not taboo in this regard. Just visit a public bathroom and you'll see what I mean.

As any seasoned Asia traveler will know, you'll encount
er two types of toilets here: the "Western" toilet and the "Squatter" toilet. The "Western"
toilet being the seated type most typical of
European and American bathrooms and the "Squatter" being the porcelain-bordered hole in the ground requiring its user to squat.

Since Singapore is in fact in Asia, people may be confused about how to properly use the Western toilet. Luckily, most Singapore restrooms offer at least a rudimentary explanation. Public restrooms housing both types of toilets usually post pictures on the doors of how each is used. But with luck, you may find a restroom with more detailed instructions like the ones shown here.

Unfortunately it is not the Western population being catered to. So in an attempt to be a bit "Singaporean" (when in Rome...), here is a link detailed squatter instructions courtesy of wikipedia.com: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squat_toilet.

09 May 2009

The Land of Over-labeling: Part 1

Though we are only in our second month as temporary Singaporeans, here is one thing I can say for sure: Singapore is predictable...to the nth degree. This convenient feature of Singaporean life becomes blatantly apparent when using the city's subway transit system...the MRT.

Singapore's MRT works much like any other subway. The lines are color-coded, and you know which direction to go based on a particular line's termination point. Easy enough, right? Well, just in case the color-coding and directional logic evades a novices skill set, each line is also labeled based on which directional areas it serves (NE, SW, etc.). Presumably, if you know which area of town you need to go (and can't figure out the colors) you can still get to your destination. And just in case you're still not sure which line is the correct one to board, each line is also numbered.

So by now, any novice traveling by subway in Singapore has probably boarded the correct train. But how do you know at which station to disembark? No problem. Chinatown is labeled "Chinatown." Same for "Little India" and the "Changi Airport." Additionally, all the stations are labeled not only in English but in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. And just in case you don't read or speak any of those languages, each station is also labeled based on directional route with a consecutive numbering scheme (NE22, NE23, etc).

So props to Singapore for making it easy to get around. But for those looking for the excitement of the unpredictable, you'll be predictably disappointed.

06 May 2009

Culture Shock

Thanks to all of you who are sticking with me despite a month-long hiatus from blogging! As a segue into Singapore life, I thought it might be amusing to explore what might happen if a Nigerian showed up in Singapore or vice versa. This is how I see it playing out:

Nigerian in Singapore
"Tunde" arrives at the airport in Singapore and is immediately stopped by customs. He bought 20 IPods during his layover in London and brought two cartons of cigarettes from Nigeria. He's questioned by customs thoroughly, tries to slip the agent some cash which is quickly rejected, raises his voice and yells a bit (to the consternation of the customs agent), and gets his cigarettes confiscated.

Looking to replace his lost goods, he browses in the duty free shops for a bit and finally emerges at baggage claim to a worried looking chauffeur. Your plane arrived over 2 hours ago. Is everything alright? No wahala, Tunde says. His nervous driver quickly drops him off at his new home and leaves hurridly...he's already 5 minutes late picking up his next appointment.

Tunde leaves for work the next day...no car, no driver, no security? He wonders why he must take care of his commute himself and opts for a cab over the subway. He stops at McDonald's on the way, eats his McMuffin enroute, and discards his wrapper out the car window getting a couple odd looks as he does so. He arrives to work about 9:30...not bad considering he had to arrange transportation himself.

His new boss introduces herself, gives a quick overview of his job duties, and sets him to work on a project. Rude, he thinks. She didn't even ask about my family.

Singaporean in Nigeria
"Wan Li" arrives in the Lagos airport and waits for her company vehicle to pick her up. Why she couldn't just take a cab into the city she does not know. After two hours of waiting, her van finally arrives. She's wondering if the van driver did something terribly wrong; afterall, there are four gentleman armed with AK47s following behind. Just for security they tell her. Security? How dangerous is this place?

She's been informed that her commute to work will be long. I've had to commute in from Ang Mo Kio 6 days a week in Singapore, she thinks. Long commute, no problem. Her first day of work, she arrives late...two hours late! Who'd have thought 15 kilometers could take 3 hours! Completely embarrassed she profusely apoligizes to her boss. No wahala, her boss says. He's just arrived as well! Her boss procedes to ask her about her family and chat for the next two hours. By now it's lunch time. Wan Li is getting nervous that she has not yet settled in and been given an assignment. Once again, no wahala. The assignment will come when it's time.

She decides after work she wants to do a bit of shopping. Wan Li heads to the market and is immediately accosted (figuratively, of course) by 10 salespeople wanting her business. She quickly ducks into a make-shift booth to look at a tank top from H&M. "3,500 Naira" the gentleman says...she does the math in her head...$30? I could get this for $5 in Singapore! She finally talks him down to 2,500 and leaves feeling ripped off.

As Americans, I believe we have an advantage. Partly because of language (everyone speaks English, and those that don't know someone who does); partly because of media (we automatically have a common ground based on the international reach of American films and TV); and partly because of a general American knowledge (because of its high profile on the international scene, most people know how Americans act more than Americans do).
But for those coming to and from countries such as Nigeria or Singapore, good luck. They are the ones who will truly be culture shocked.