29 July 2009

Fear Factor

As part of my university degree requirements, I had to take Intro to Public Relations. Press releases, radio spots, and of course public service announcements were in the mix. I don't remember much from the class, but one thing I do remember is that you cannot scare your audience. If you are dealing with a topic regarding health, bad habits, or dangers that cause injury or death, you cannot elicit too much fear or the audience won't listen. Apparently this PR strategy is not heeded here in Singapore. Rather, campaigns in Singapore seem to take the fear factor approach.

When I first arrived in Singapore, I remember waiting patiently for the MRT and watching the TV monitor displays to pass the time. It was an anti-terrorism campaign. Same stuff I had seen before...if you see a suspicious person, report it...if you see a bag unattended, report it. All of a sudden the TV monitor showed a massive explosion spreading throughout an unidentified train tunnel. "Don't let this happen to you," it implied. Holy Moly! That wouldn't be the last time I would be taken aback by government-issued warnings.

Upon entry into Singapore, visitors experience this fear-instilling approach as soon as they touch domestic soil. The backside of all entry cards gives an unmistakable warning to anyone carrying drugs: "Death for Drug Traffickers." Could misidentification of my prescription drugs cause a problem? What if I'm the victim of clandestine trafficking being an unknowing mule for another? Holy, Holy Moly!

Even buying cigarettes here can really scare the beejeebies out of you. All cigarette packets display in graphic detail diseases you can contract from smoking habitually. It makes you think twice before lighting up. So perhaps this fear factor approach has some merit; after all, I don't encounter too many smokers here, and Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. But I for one still look away when the anti-terrorism video plays in the MRT station.

26 July 2009

Luck of the...Asian?

Whether one is superstitious or not, one concept ingrained in Chinese-Singaporean culture (and perhaps other cultures around Asia) is auspiciousness. To be honest, when I first heard the word "auspicious" in conversation (and yes, it is used in conversation here) I didn't know exactly what it meant. Sure I had heard the word before, but always in the context of something philosophical or magical, never in the course of my everyday encounters.

For those who aren't sure about its meaning, it is a combination of being prosperous and lucky but with prophetic undertones. So one might be born in an auspicious year or have auspicious energy or plan a big event on an auspicious date. In any case, it speaks to just how much "prophetic luck" affects life here in Singapore.

Many a bride will avoid the month of July (see my July 23 blog) as it is not considered an auspicious month. I've found a woman in Kuala Lumpur who devotes her entire blog to finding an "auspicious date" for her upcoming wedding (the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 7th months should be avoided), and singaporebrides.com hosts discussion boards on how to find auspicious wedding dates. It's obvious auspiciousness is important, especially with life-changing events.

But even with everyday circumstances auspiciousness seems to play a role in the good, the bad, and the ugly. A friend of mind relayed to me his year-long struggle to find a job. He attributed his bad luck to un-auspicious timing for those born in the year of the dragon. Luckily some tithes at the temple helped rectify the situation. He has now worked over 8 years for the same employer.

Many believe everyday struggles and triumphs as well as life-changing experiences are related to auspicious timing. And for those who don't believe, stick with the year of the sheep for big events...just in case!

23 July 2009

Religion or Superstition?

Many Asian cultures are tagged as being superstitious. According to one of my Chinese–Singaporean friends, Singaporeans are even more "superstitious" than Chinese. From avoiding certain events at particular times of the year or placement of objects in the home in a particular way (or the home itself), it is easy to see how particular habits and beliefs may be labeled as "superstitious."

But where does religion end and superstition begin (or vice versa)? Regardless of denomination or creed, could what we consider superstitious in fact function like religion?
To get to the crux of the matter, let's look at something considered "superstitious" by Western and Eastern cultures alike: Ghost Month (zhong yuan jie).

A friend here in Singapore, who considers himself a bit "superstitious," warned me of the unlucky month of July.
In Chinese tradition, the number 7 is considered "spiritist" or "ghostly"; hence, the celebration of Ghost Month in July. This is when ancestors are thought to come out from the lower realm. You are not suppose to swim or stay out late, and you won't see many weddings since this is not an auspicious month, my friend told me.

Admittedly, this did seem a bit "superstitious" at first. But consider it in comparison to All Saint's or All Soul's Day and Dia de los Muertos. The first are considered highly religious, with All Saint's Day being a Holy Day of Obligation for this who are Roman Catholic (a mortal sin if you don't attend Mass). These days commemorate deceased ancestors and saints that both have and have not attained "entrance" into heaven.

Finding its roots in the Roman Catholic All Soul's Day, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated by Spanish-speaking communities worldwide. It is thought the dead souls find it easier to congregate among the living on this day. As in Chinese tradition, where often meals are prepared with empty seats around the dinner table, favorite foods and memorabilia of the departed are placed on altars on the Day of the Dead to encourage visits from ancestors.

All three commemorations mentioned above actually seem more similar than different. And while getting married in July may be considered superstitiously unlucky for the Chinese, I for one would think twice before celebrating marriage on Friday the 13th or Halloween. Perhaps before labeling something "superstitious" we should take a look at our own definition of "religious."

20 July 2009

Citizens, Rice Up!

Despite the trials and tribulations of trying to find home cooking while living or traveling abroad, there seems to be one staple regardless of where you go: Chicken and Rice!

I'm sure all of us (at least those of us from the US) have fond memories of Mom's recipe from the back of the Campbell's Soup can: 4-6 chicken breasts, 2 cups rice, 2 cans of cream of mushroom and voila!

Though it takes other forms elsewhere, chicken and rice seems to a constant and basic meal for most around the world.
In Lagos, it was chicken and jollof rice (a spicy version made with red pepper paste accompanied by roasted chicken). Tasty even to those with Anglicanized taste buds that are primed for spice. In Singapore it is chicken and rice, a simpler milder form that is flavored with chicken fat rather than cream soup or peppers. According to our Filipina friend, chicken and rice is a basic and common dish in the Philippines. And of course we are all familiar with the sesame-flavored Chinese fried rice that is a standard accompaniment to various chicken dishes.

So if you are worried about how foreign cuisine will jive with whatever you personal culinary tastes may be, rest assure you can always find your chicken and rice. But still bring the Pepcid, just in case.

14 July 2009

Foreign Food Frenzy

One day during lunch with my husband and his coworkers, Brian's boss (a native Singaporean) relayed to me her food trials and tribulations during her extended stay in the US. While Brian and I salivate over just the mention of good Tex-Mex, April had difficulty finding good Singaporean food while in the Bay Area. (Let's just say the 1 Singaporean restaurant saw her family's faces on a weekly basis.) April's son also found it weird that the chicken came without heads and feet, and I'm sure Curry Fish Head (which I am told is excellent) would require a search party to find, if it even exists at all, in San Francisco.

The lack of "home" cooking and the appropriate ingredients is one of the major disadvantages of living away from home. No matter who you are or where you go, the comfort foods you've learned to love are often hard to come by. But whether you are Singaporean in the US or vice versa, to get the food that tantalizes your taste buds is often a matter of creativity, research, money, or all three.

: Often local goods may be substituted for specialized ingredients not found in your country of residence. Jalapenos are scarce in Singapore, but I have (cautiously) tried an array of local peppers which offer similar flavor and spice. Ground chicken is hard to find but ground pork is plentiful and adds a bit more flavor to our Tex-Mex taco plates. And Brian's cousin on his 25th year in the Philippines has wisely invested in a tortilla press.

: Sometimes products you think are not available actually are marketed under different names. In Singapore, Chinese parsley is cilantro and ladyfingers is okra. A quick glance and a whiff confirm the synonymous produce names. And when nomenclature is not the hindrance, sometimes just making connections and asking around will yield the goods you crave. In Nigeria, people will often trade or sell goods carried in from the US and will have pantry sales when their stint is over. One friend had a connection with a local who obtained the unused goods from Air France flights. An impromptu trunk sale would yield such things as smoked salmon, champagne, and of course excellent cheese.

: More often than not, the products are available but at a hefty price. Celery at $10 a bunch makes you think twice about making gumbo in Nigeria. $1 per tortilla makes taco salad a little more appealing in Singapore.

And when creativity, research, and money fail there is always the local cuisine to explore, try, and learn to love. Fried plantains are a new favorite of mine, and pork fried rice is now the evening meal when I need something quick (move over spaghetti, there is a new flavor in town)! But no matter where you go, rest assured there will be something for you...it may just take a bit more effort.

07 July 2009

A Tropical Monopoly

Close to Singapore and a welcome refuge from the bustle of city life, Bintan provides a popular weekend getaway for Singapore and Malaysian residents who can afford resort-style pricing. The Indonesian tropical island is both easy to get to (just a 55-minute ferry ride southwest of Singapore) and desirable by more affluent standards. Though our day-long jaunt did not involve a resort stay, the influence of the resorts on this tropical community (both good and bad) was blatantly apparent.

When first booking our ferry tickets, I noticed only 1 ferry company serviced the island’s northern terminal. At first I thought it was a mistake; after all, when visiting its sister island of Batam just 35-minutes away, I had my choice of about 5 different ferry services. But after fruitlessly searching for other options, I finally booked the lone option: Bintan Resort ferry services. As suspected, this is the only ferry service offered…interesting.

Upon arrival and before even clearing security, the familiar “Bintan Resort” logo greeted us again this time not as ferry services but as a tour company. We approached the counter, were greeted promptly, and before we knew it had purchased a mangrove tour. Feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse for not shopping around, I scoured the terminal for other tour companies to see exactly how much Bintan Resort had ripped us off. But to both my satisfaction and dismay, there were no other tour companies…very interesting.

Soon we were transported to the Bintan Resort main office to pay for and join our mangrove tour. The office fronted a quaint handicraft village that also housed what seemed to be “local” restaurants and massage parlors. Taking a quick look around before our mangrove tour started, I noticed something odd. All the shops and restaurants were fully staffed despite an obvious paucity of tourists; the shop owners all wore the same uniform; and though attentive they were not eager to sell. Hmmmm….quite a contrast from the city vendors we encountered later that day that wheeled and dealed looking to make a sale.

From ferry terminal to local transportation to tours, shopping, and eating it seemed as though Bintan Resort had a hand in it all. Whether it’s good for the local economy (providing jobs and free housing to employees) or debilitating to local community growth (the “real” local shops and industry don’t stand a chance against the Bintan Resort conglomerate), it is obvious this tropical monopoly influences the livelihood of those who call Bintan home.

04 July 2009

Rules of Engagement

After living in a foreign city for a couple of months, differences in daily living seem to augment. At first certain things may not seem too different; after all, one usually focuses on the familiar when confronted with new living circumstances. But slowly these subtleties become annoyances that are difficult to understand, adjust to, and overcome. For me, this challenge has been the daily commute.

Now to a novice visiting Singapore, this may seem a petty complaint. How can I gripe about a city with premier and reliable public transportation? Well, it isn’t the actual trains and buses that cause the issue; it’s the “getting to” the trains and buses that proves a constant challenge. I’m sure most have experienced the following awkward situation:
You are walking swiftly along when you get close to someone approaching from the opposite direction. You go right to avoid them and they mirror you, you go left and they mirror you again. Soon you are doing a face-to-face dance with a stranger as you both try to pass. It usually ends with a laugh and a smile and you go along your merry way.

In Singapore, this happens to me about 3 times a day and I haven’t quite figured out why. Perhaps there is confusion about which way to flank. Singaporeans drive on the left side of the road, so logic would have it that everyone should guide left. Not so. In fact, I find guiding right to be more frequent. It couldn’t be the large expat influx either since most come from England and Australia, both left-driving countries.

Perhaps the sheer concentration of people renders any rules of engagement null and void. After all, there are 5 million people living and commuting in the 2nd most densely populated country in the world. Or perhaps there are rules based on environmental factors that still evade my perception. Regardless of the reason, the “dance” is a daily occurrence for me.

If I actually reach the MRT station without having to perform the “dance,” another challenge is posed…the escalators. Now logic would have it that whether you are going up or down, the escalator on your left would be the one you want. Not so. There are as many escalators flanking right as left, and their up–down directions change all the time! Once safely on the escalator, there also doesn’t seem to be a rule for walk-side vs. stand-side. I’m often get caught in a “pushing” situation trying to pass others and catch my train. I have also missed trains on numerous occasions simply because the walk-side stand-side rules do not seem to exist.

Though a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, it seems odd the lack of engagement rules for the daily commute. After all, Singapore doesn’t have the reputation for being unruly.