Cheap Tricks: A Case Study

In the March issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, I reveal all (well, most) of my tricks for finding deals on flights and accommodation.   

Oh the Skies You'll Fly

Let’s say you’ve been invited to a wedding in Newburyport, Massachusetts. You’re past the congratulatory Skype call and now have to book flights and accommodation. Thankfully, you have a strategy and sit down at your computer with confidence. Being the savvy traveler you are, you know your web browsers track cookies and that booking websites might nudge up the price if you take your time. To get around this, you open a new window in incognito mode. In Google Chrome and Safari, this is enabled by hitting Control (Command for Mac users) + Shift + N. In Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, you hit Control (or Command) + Shift + P.

The wedding is Saturday June 16, so you decide to depart Singapore on Tuesday June 12 or Wednesday June 13 and to return on Tuesday June 19 or Wednesday June 20, because you know Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the cheapest days of the week to fly. Google tells you the airport nearest to your destination is Boston Logan International, but you note that Manchester-Boston Regional as well as airports in New York and New Jersey are also feasible.

Time to search. You open six tabs in your incognito browser window: Kayak, Skyscanner, Kiwi, Expedia, Google Flights, and Momondo. If you were flying to a country within Southeast Asia, you would also check the websites of the regional budget airlines since these are often not indexed by the search engines. After inputting your dates and destination, you compare the results. Kiwi and Google Flights both indicate that in this case, departing Singapore on Monday June 11 is less expensive than Tuesday or Wednesday, and so you adjust your search parameters. In descending order, in SGD, the fare for a single traveler in Economy comes out to be:

  • $1410 on Kayak
  • $1315 on Expedia
  • $1238 on Kiwi
  • $1220 on Momondo
  • $1139 on Google Flights
  • $1018 on Skyscanner

You realize that the cheapest flight has two layovers and the total travel time to Boston is 42 hours. This doesn’t bother you, so you snap up the Skyscanner deal. Or you’re a human being and you fine-tune your filters to search for journeys with one layover and a travel time of 27 hours max. All the search engines now quote around $1430, with two exceptions. Kiwi’s estimating $1550, so you close that tab, and your heart skips happily that Google Flights’ quote remains at $1139.

You’re itching to snap up those tickets. But you take a deep breath and examine the details. The layover is a measly 2 hours but since both legs of the journey are operated by the same carrier and since you’ll be in London Gatwick, a small airport, that should be enough time to make your connection, despite traveling during the busy summer season.

And there’s one more angle to consider. Your hotel in Newburyport will cost about $150 SGD per night, $1200 for your entire stay, which means the total price of your trip would tally up to $2339. You check whether Kayak, Expedia or Momondo have package deals that can beat that. Momondo’s best offer is $2656 and Expedia’s is $2378, but lo and behold Kayak quotes you a package at $2013.

You again wisely counsel yourself to be patient and check the fine print. Sure enough, some tweaks have been made to your parameters. You would be leaving on Sunday June 10 and your hotel is in Boston, a 45-minute drive outside of Newburyport. You decide that’s a compromise you can live with, carefully reread all the details of your booking before paying, and then muse at the irony. The website that initially seemed like the worst deal wound up being the best.

BONUS TIPS!

Here are a few more resources, exclusive for my online readers.

I book trips to other countries once every other month, on average, and Secret Flying has some of the best deals I’ve ever seen. They track down short-term promotions and error fairs on airlines. At the time of writing, they’ve unearthed a deal that would let you fly from New York to Cambodia for just $470 USD roundtripTravel Pirates is a similar resource, though it focuses more on package deals and trips based out of the United States. Six nights in the Hawai’i Hilton plus roundtrip flights from Los Angeles for $890 USD, anyone?

What I like about Secret Flying and Travel Pirates is that they both give very clear instructions on on how to get the discount prices. You’re not surprised by fees or confused by the process, which is refreshing. If you’re flexible when it comes to timing and/or destination, you can find some amazing trip deals.

Lastly is a site for maximizing your layovers: Air Wander. My family lives 16-22 hours flight time from where I live and those long-haul journeys can be exhausting to tackle in one sitting. Enter Air Wander, which lets you pop in your dates, departure and destination, and the number of days you’d like to spend on a layover, and then searches for available options. You can even add more than one stopover or specify which cardinal direction you’d like to fly in.

Say I’m flying Singapore to Ireland on June 1st and can spare two days for a layover. Air Wander tells me that a stopover in Amsterdam will save me the most money, but lists all possible options and how much extra it would cost to stop there (Madrid’s only $8 USD). Turns out, I can fly one-way from Singapore to Amsterdam to Dublin for $430 USD. This isn’t necessarily cheaper than searching through Kayak or Kiwi, but it’s much more convenient than typing out all your multi-city parameters and I love having the ability to compare all possible long layovers without having to do repeated searches.

Happy Travels!

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Turpentine

Very excited that my short story Turpentine appears in the current issue of Wraparound South! Have a read: 

Vermont, 1974 

An audience, withdrawn from the eddying crowds, stood or shuffled in the stiff grass and soft dirt. Summer in Woodstock never got too hot, swaddled as it was in pine trees that combed the cool breezes. The tame heat of the July day unclenched, roping in a gray-gold dusk and a whistling little wind that scratched at the holes in the stage. No longer than a pick-up truck, it was barely more than a few wooden boards on metal poles screwed into place by Cal and the rest of the boys back in May. The real sturdiness had been saved for the inner stage, hidden by the canvas tent and guarded by cartoon women, paint cracking on bare stomachs and bikini tops.

The stage moaned and creaked, but Cal figured the speakers would swallow up the noise soon enough. He was stocky for a 17-year-old, his arms peppered with spots from the sun. He stood with the other hired hands, all teetering on the cusp of manhood and the edge of the crowd, wearing long hair and mustaches that didn’t quite fit yet. Obscuring German’s view from the ticket booth, they clustered together, ostensibly to nudge and josh one other, but really because it was harder to be singled out this way. Cal cocked his head, put a bored look on his face. He couldn’t stand to be mistaken for a member of the goggling audience. German hurled out a scolding, fat lips still around his cut-rate cigarette, and made a few hard gestures. They moved back a step but bet on German staying put, which he did. He smoothed greasy dollar bills into wrung out piles, pinned them down with coins too dull to catch the light. His fingers, dirty with ink, fished in the tires of blue tickets. $2.00. $2.00. $2.00.

The music erupted like a cannon, sending a ripple through the onlookers. Jacko, their own Jimi Hendrix knock-off, sauntered onto the stage and cycled through his smooth sell, cajoling and joking into the microphone. His words crackled and fuzzed.

“Don’t bust no water pumps, alright? Okay. That’s right. Now look, fellas, this is gonna be the last outside appearance that the girls are gonna make before we start this show. You see, we have some of your friends and neighbors on the inside waiting for the show to begin and we can’t keep ‘em waitin’ much longer.”

Jacko’s wide collar, which had wilted in the heat, caught the breeze as he went through the usual gotta-be-18-no-babies-no-ladies respectable rules for the striptease, the burlesque, nothing terrifying or too sordid, just a fun time. His easy spiel wound down into a roll call. Cal felt one of the guys’ elbows glance off his arm and land in his ribs. He pushed back, eyes still on the stage.

“Erma, step out.”

Erma had been given a gauzy green get-up, an old one of Ginger’s, with a swoosh of fabric from her bellybutton to the floor, a flimsy curtain hiding promised goods. She twirled and plucked at it, flipping her dyed Farrah Fawcett do in a move she must have picked up from a movie. Her smile slid off, then flickered on again, bigger this time. The white make-up pancaked across the summits of her heavy breasts began to glisten, catching the yellow legion of lightbulbs drooling above her.

“Bet they’re bigger than Margie’s,” Cal said, pulling at his belt loop.

“No shit, dimwit.”

Out came Lily-Rose, whom they knew, and then Josie.

“Shit, how old is she?” Brian hissed in awe behind Cal’s shoulder.

The pink sequins made Josie—all sticks and freckles—look awfully teen pageant in Cal’s mind. The bulge in his jeans retreated a little. Her straw hair had been wrangled up into a ponytail with a scrunchy, tinfoil-like in its crumple and shine. She was sharp where Erma was plush, and she spun and posed with a mean, determined air. Her smile stayed painted in place, pink and white, a crescent moon above the rosy froth and ebb of her liquidy costume (also borrowed and a skosh too big).

“Margie, step out. The body!”

Cal saw Margie wrinkle her nose and try to hide it by playing cute. The smells drove her nuts: the hot dogs and fried dough, the hay and horseshit, and the summer stench of people, their fingers sticky from sugar and the grime of safety bars. She wiggled and a few onlookers hooted. Some commented to each other in low tones. Cal peered around at them all with dislike, wishing there was something in his appearance, some badge or way of standing, to show his kinship with the girls. Something that would make people stop and nod with respect.

“Now, fellas, when the girls leave this stage, they’re only gonna be wearing two things: just a pair of shoes on their feet and a big smile on their face. Go on, give ‘em a bit of walkin’ music. There ya go. Come on. Show time.”

The girls shook their shoulders, fluffed hair and peachy rolls bouncing, the loudspeaker a bit too close and a bit too loud. The sun dropped down, a quarter into a slot, and the girls lingered a few minutes longer before slinking into the tent, leaving Lily-Rose to walk in circles, her hips swinging in a bid to convince the hesitators near the “Girls Show” sign. It was always ‘girls’, even if one was going on 40 and her tits were really starting to sag and she likely wouldn’t be here next summer.

Lily-Rose had been around a while and the boys turned from her with accentuated ennui, subtly searching the others’ faces for the same.

“Not bad. Not great,” Sam said, scratching a nipple through a fraying Led Zeppelin t-shirt.

“Not as good as my Lulu,” Brian called over the noise of the crowd.

Your Lulu.”

“Right?”

“She may not know she’s 100% mine but she will.”

“Wouldn’t mind giving it to Josie’s pink little pussy. Imagine being the first to rip her open.”

“Sure, a little pounce and push.”

“Would be easy enough with your tiny prick.”

“Bigger than yours. Could get any girl on that stage if I wanted to.”

“Bet I have her begging for it.”

“Like you and Margie,” they crowed at Cal, their breath banging into his cheeks and ears. “Your girl.”

“Not my girl!” He stammered. For despite her large breasts and full legs, Margie was over 35 and Cal was embarrassed.

German sent Paul, a towering black man, to scuttle them and they retreated to their posts: brooms and shovels, pulleys and ropes, light switches, and sponges long blackened and ragged from filth.

Didn’t matter the time of day. Even at high noon when the girls wore sunglasses for the teaser, the sun was never permitted entry into the Girls Show tent. It made its presence known in other ways, in tiny glimpses in the linings and the ballooning humidity. Shows started in the early afternoon, continued until early morning.

Erma now understood what Margie had meant when she said that the exhibition beforehand was worse than the inner show. Out there, people laughed, convinced themselves they would never be low enough to pay the entry even as the girls silently screamed, “But you will! You will!” There was the frowning, the ushering away of families. Old bearded men hoisted their grandsons up by their armpits so the girls could wink and blow kisses at the small, wide-eyed face as they tried not to think of the children they had, or had and lost, or never had. The married couples on double dates appeared after dinnertime, the husbands shaking their heads and smiling, pleased to have moved beyond smutty teenage indulgences and onto clean relations with their wives. Then they murmured plans for later into each other’s ears while those wives directed stone gazes anywhere but at the girls. Usually at their own sensible shoes, which the mud would ruin.

But in the smelly, womblike interior of the Girls Show tent, there was acknowledgement. The crassness had been agreed upon. The girls would be met halfway, no longer a sideshow but the entire point. Men came in alone, mustachioed, arms crossed, often still frowning, but with a paid ticket. Or they entered in packs of four, five, six—the high school boys just over the 18-year cut-off, safe in their numbers and hassling each other about sex. You done it? With who? How many times? Bullshit. Who hadn’t done it? Why not?

“Time to be cavewomen. Make ‘em think they can be cavemen,” Margie wheezed…

You can finish reading the story in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Wraparound South

Wanderlusters, Get Excited!

Appearing in the Jan. issue of the Singapore American Newspaper is my first piece of 2018!  

Vang Vieng, Laos

This is a fantastic year for long weekends, as almost all days off fall at the beginning or the end of the work week. In an homage to FOMO, below are some strategies for maximizing your free time.

Chinese New Year (Fri & Sat, Feb 16–17)

Our only 2-day holiday must be considered carefully. Those celebrating will be flying home to see family, which means, ironically, this is not the best time to visit China, nor countries with large Chinese descendent populations, such as Vietnam. Those not celebrating will be flocking in droves to Thai beaches and Cambodian temples, so skip those as well. Instead, make the most of our longest holiday by going further afield. For winter activities, Japan and Nepal are excellent for skiing and trekking respectively. If you’re craving sunshine, New Zealand and Australia will be in the middle of summer. As with Christmas in the West, the cost of flights and hotels shoot up during CNY, so plan ahead and book early.

Good Friday (Fri March 30)

Missing spring? Avoid the crowds and extravagant prices of Japan in cherry blossom season, by viewing the flowers in the Korean cities of Busan, Daegu and Jeju Island, which hosts an annual carnival. This is also the time to hit those temples in Cambodia. And if you don’t mind heat and humidity, Laos makes for a quiet getaway as it’s low-season for tourists.

Labour Day (Tues May 1)

Fall in New Zealand is a superb time to visit as the summer crowds will have left, the prices of attractions drop and the scenery is beautiful. For history buffs, Vietnam celebrates Reunification Day with processions and decorations on April 30. The more adventurous can fly to Pentecost Island, Vanuatu for the Naghol Land Diving Festival, where local men perform ritual bungee jumps using vines alone.

Vesak Day (Tues May 29)

This important day for Buddhists is celebrated in a variety of ways. Sri Lanka’s cities erect electrically-lit floats. Seoul hosts festivals and parades. Borobudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia is glorious, as thousands of monks gather to chant while circling the temple. This is not a great occasion to visit most cities in India, as temperatures hover at 90°F plus. Keep cool at the annual Koh Samui Regatta in Thailand, which runs from May 26 to Jun 1.

Hari Raya Puasa / Eid al-Fitr (Fri June 15)

Marking the end of Ramadan fasting, Hari Raya Puasa brings festivities and closed businesses in Malaysia and Indonesia. While the atmosphere will undoubtedly be jubilant, note that many tourist destinations in Muslim countries may not be open during the holiday. In China, high-energy Dragon Boat Festivals will be happening from Beijing to Nanjing on June 18.

National Day (Thurs Aug 9)

This is high season on Vietnam’s coasts, where hotels are up to 50% more expensive, so travel inland to Hội An, Nha Trang and Huế, or book a junkboat to explore Hanoi’s dramatic Hạ Long Bay. Only an hour away by plane, George Town in Penang devotes the entire month to arts, culture and heritage. Make it a Malaysia tour by swinging down to Kuala Lumpur and then Malacca, where the weather will be dry and pleasant. It’s full-on monsoon season in India and South Korea, however, so give them a miss.

Hari Raya Haji / Eid-ul-Adha (Wed Aug 22)

A time for feasting with family and spiritual reflection, Hari Raya Haji is less rowdy than Puasa, so less compelling for visitors. Domestic travel, particularly buses and trains, within Malaysia and Indonesia will be packed. Around this time, the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival kicks off in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Among last year’s speakers were Markus Zusak, Padma Lakshmi and even the Queen of Bhutan herself.

Deepavali (Tues Nov 6)

Brave the crowds and head to India, which is a magical place during the Festival of Lights, especially Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. Weather-wise, this is also an ideal time for mountain treks in Nepal, strolls through Shanghai, or viewing autumn foliage in Japan. For trips easier on the wallet, head to Penang or Taipei, two destinations known for amazing street food, with hiking, shopping and historic sites all in easy reach. Hong Kong also boasts pleasant temperatures at this time of year.

Christmas Day (Tues Dec 25)

If you want Christmas spirit but aren’t looking to make a pilgrimage to Europe or the Americas, check out the Philippines. Manila and Cebu will be decked out in lights, and seasonal festivities are not to be missed in the provinces of Pampanga and Cavite. The cooler weather in Bangkok and Chiang Mai means Thailand is another good option. Or treat yourselves to an excursion to the Maldives. While prices are higher at Christmas, diving and snorkeling are incomparable as visibility is excellent during the dry season.

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Books to Gift for the Holidays

Published in the December issue of the Singapore American Newspaper are my recommendations for books to give to people on your Nice list this year:  

Whenever I’m stuck on what to get someone for Christmas, be it a new friend or a relative who wants for nothing, I head to a bookstore. Even though there are people who claim they never read physical books, I honestly believe there’s something for everyone, from audio books to e-readers to graphic novels. Here are a few recommendations – old, new, fiction, and non-fiction – to give you some ideas.

For Friends Back Home:

Give friends back home a window into your life abroad with Janice Y.K. Lee’s dramatic novel The Expatriates, which explores the emotions, identities and relationships of three very different American women in Hong Kong. For a taste of expat life in the 1920s, there’s Far Eastern Tales by W. Somerset Maugham, a collection of short stories born of Maugham’s experiences in Malaya, Singapore and other outposts of the former British Empire.

For the Literary Buff:

The novels of newly-minted Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro will surely be popular gifts this year, particularly The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. But plumb the works of previous winners of the prize and you’ll unearth a host of gift options for the friend who’s read everything. To name a few: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda, and the poetry of Nelly Sachs.

For the Sports Fan:

Sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow’s The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive will be an engaging read for both athletes and fans. The book examines how the mental game is just as if not more important than raw physical capability. On the fiction side, William Hazelgrove’s The Pitcher and Ross Raisin’s A Natural delve into the hearts of baseball and soccer respectively.

For the History Enthusiast:

Any fan of historical fiction will know of James Clavell’s epic Shōgun, but fewer have read his equally-gripping novel King Rat, which follows British and American inmates of Changi Prison during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. For those who lean towards non-fiction and/or American history, it’s hard to find a more epic yet intimate record than Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a chronicle of the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities.

For Young Adults:

Hot off the press is Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a vibrant East Asian reimagining of The Evil Queen fairy tale. YA readers more drawn to narratives grounded in realism will undoubtedly be looking forward to John Green’s latest novel Turtles All the Way Down, which is about “lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara.”

For the Romantic:

Alice Hoffman’s entire oeuvre is not only romantic, it’s gorgeously written. While it’s hard to go wrong with Practical Magic, I’d also recommend The Probable Future, a novel about love always finding a way, whether you’re a teenager or a grandmother, recently divorced or alone for decades. For the readers on your list who want some adventure mixed in, there’s Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, a genre-defying story about World War II nurse Claire Randall, who is transported to turbulent 18th century Scotland and finds romance with the dashing warrior Jamie Fraser.

For the Chef:

Cookbooks are like expensive candles: beautiful but a bit too expensive to justify buying for oneself. Thus, they make excellent gifts. Love Real Food is a stylish vegetarian cookbook by Katherine Taylor of the blog Cookie + Kate, which I refer to religiously despite being a meat-eater. For friends who don’t mess around in the kitchen, there’s Marcella Hazan’s legendary Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a bible for anyone looking to seriously up their dinner game.

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Avoiding Charity Scams

It’s the season for giving, but which non-profits will make the most of your gift? Check out my advice for selecting charities and avoiding scams in the Nov issue of the Singapore American Newspaper

These days it seems like figuring out where to donate your money requires as much research as an undergraduate thesis. Which charities use the largest percentage of donations to serve their cause? Which countries are most in need? How do you know you’re not losing your hard-earned money to a scam?

First things first: vetting a non-profit is simple as a Google search (and if it isn’t that simple, be very suspicious). Resources like GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, and Giving What We Can provide comprehensive breakdowns of the efficacy of a range of charities. Make sure to cross-reference all recommendations with at least one other source to paint a fuller picture. For example, Charity Navigator only focuses on an organization’s administration costs and finances but not its effectiveness or overall impact, so this site’s statistics ought to be considered alongside information found elsewhere.

When doing your research, here are a few notable red flags and pitfalls to watch out for:

  • Avoid celebrity or athlete charities as they are, almost without exception, sinkholes.
  • Really avoid “voluntourism” (and this includes mission trips) unless you’re a medical professional. Giving your time to build a school might feel rewarding, but giving money to a non-profit that will not only build a school but train staff and maintain the property will be far more beneficial in the long run. If you’re intent on getting your hands dirty, join Habitat for Humanity.
  • Putting coins into a collection jar in a restaurant or supermarket is nowhere near as effective or trackable as making a donation online.
  • Be wary of giving directly to orphanages. In general, it will do the children more good if you support verified NGOs who focus on community-based health or social services. There are even instances where donating to orphanages does active harm, as in the case of Haiti, where a reported 80% of orphans are actually children coerced away from their families and exploited for the sake of luring in funds.
  • It’s easy in the moment to let guilt drive you to give to people asking for donations in the street, but resist doing so. Often these organizations have large marketing budgets to execute such fundraising activities. It’s usually the charities you don’t see on the streets that are the ones giving the most to their causes. Forbes contributor Phil DeMuth’s rule of thumb is: “Trust your money to the people you find, not to the people who find you.”

For hard data on the world’s critical areas of need, check out the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website. There you’ll find a wealth of information on not only the challenges but on the opportunities and strategies to resolve these issues.

It is an unfortunate fact of this world that some people view the kindness of others as an opportunity to enrich themselves. At times, it can feel like being generous isn’t worth it. But it is.
Despite the apocalyptic news cycle, global poverty, child mortality rates and illiteracy have declined drastically over the past century and projections expect this trend to continue. Donations have played a huge part in that. So, while you should absolutely do your research and be cautious about where your money is going, to quote author Elizabeth Gilbert: “Don’t get so worried about which charity is best that you give nothing.”

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Marvelous Melbourne

What sets Australia’s cultural capital apart from other food-obsessed cities? Find out in my piece for the latest issue of the Singapore American Newspaper: Marvelous Melbourne! 

If you’re from Boston or Chicago, Melbourne may feel familiar. Universities divide the streets among them. Historical structures are a natural part of the cityscape. Eschewing a single heart, the cities separate into a family of neighborhoods, each with its own twist on a fun night out and on the best meal in town. Melbourne’s character as a whole is laidback, artsy and friendly. Dogs greet strangers with wagging tails. Bartenders and waiters offer ready jokes and recommendations. Sports are taken seriously but don’t reach blood feud levels. The crowds that fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground are often the same ones to descend on the National Gallery.

The CBD is busy during the week but it lacks the frantic bustle of New York City or Singapore. After a few minutes of walking, the small cluster of skyscrapers melts into two-story buildings and old brick workers’ cottages re-appropriated into shops, restaurants, bars and of course, Melbourne’s famous coffee shops. Though second to Sydney in size, Melbourne is often considered Australia’s cultural capital and a stroll through the streets will illuminate why. Painted murals climb walls. Live music spills out of cafés. Poetry readings draw crowds to bookstores. The city boasts over a hundred galleries, the most resplendent being the National Gallery of Victoria. Architecture is quite European in style, with the grander landmarks dating back to Victorian times. Even small residences sport trimmings of vintage iron filigree. But Melbourne’s most well-known expression of creativity has to be its food scene. As a local friend commented, “It is difficult to get a bad cup of coffee here.”

Many cities are food-obsessed, but what sets Melbourne apart is its access to fresh, cheap produce. The majority of food and beverages are locally grown and high quality, from a modest sausage roll with a beer to elevated gourmet cuisine with a cocktail. International chain restaurants have a very minor presence. There are two large urban farms less than 5km from the city center, as well as 20 government-funded gardens on public housing estates. But the commitment to progressive, eco-friendly food preparation isn’t limited to restaurants and large ventures. With eight bustling fresh food markets and over 300 community gardens, the average city dweller can afford an organic lifestyle. I even strolled past a house with lemons and pomegranates growing around the entryway.

While there aren’t as many raw attractions and there isn’t as much for kids here as in Sydney, Melbourne is a veritable paradise for the indie crowd: architectural history buffs, coffee aficionados, musicians and artists. It’s also a very walkable city. Beginning with the grouping of the National Gallery, Arts Centre and Hamer Hall, stroll across the Yarra River to gaze up at the historic Flinders Street Railway Station. Weave through Chinatown to get to the majestic National Library and explore the cluster of bookshops in the area. Continue east for a peek at the art deco style Her Majesty’s Theatre and then the iconic 1850s Princess Theatre, before admiring the stately Parliament House and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Northwards lies the Royal Exhibition Building surrounded by landscape gardens that possums bounce through after sundown. A few blocks west will take you to the trendy, quirky shops of Grattan Street, which is intersected by Lygon Street with its wealth of warm, lively restaurants and the famous Readings Carlton bookstore. Then, when your feet get tired and your mind is whirling, the dinging trams will carry you back to city center. That is, if you can resist stopping in to eat in every joint along the way.

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Buying Books in Singapore

For the Sept 2017 issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, which is all about shopping, I got to ramble on about one of my favourite hobbies: buying books! 

Physical books are basically the best thing on the planet. Unfortunately, when you move between countries on said planet, your library can get awfully heavy (and costly) to take with you. Although it’s easy enough to fill your shelves in Singapore should you miss the crates of books you left in storage, even the most casual bibliophile will notice that prices here are higher than in the US. Don’t despair just yet! Researching your options will save you money and get you inhaling that delicious book smell in no time.

The Big Guys

Singapore’s largest bookstore is Japanese chain Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City, with smaller branches elsewhere in the country. Though Kinokuniya’s Japanese section is expectedly robust, it is far from the only offering, as the store has expansive fiction and non-fiction sections, everything from old classics to new bestsellers to cookbooks to graphic novels to magazines to travel guides. The prices – especially for new or hardback books – make me wince, but the selection is hard to beat. MPH, Times and POPULAR are other bookstore chains that can be found in multiple locations across the island. Keep an eye out for their sales, as you can often find some steals.

The Indie Bookstores

I’m a huge advocate of supporting independently-owned bookstores and since prices in Singapore are expensive anyway, I might as well put my money towards these community lynchpins. Manned by three indifferent cats and some passionate people, BooksActually in Tiong Bahru is a hub of the Singapore literature scene that features a variety of literary events, including readings by local writers. Just down the street is the adorable Woods in the Books, which specializes in thoughtfully-curated young children’s books. Taking up two stories in a cozy shophouse on Duxton Hill, Littered with Books has the personal air of a librarian’s home. The staff are happy to give you recommendations, but will also let you browse undisturbed for hours. Bliss.

Secondhand Books

For those more focused on content than presentation or those excited to spend an hour digging through piles of titles, pre-loved books are the way to go. Singapore isn’t big on secondhand items, but there are three well-established used bookstores that will serve you well, both in price and selection: Ana Bookstore in Far East Plaza, Book Treasure in Parklane Shopping Mall and Evernew Bookstore, which spills out of Bras Basah Complex onto the street. Happy hunting!

Specialty Bookstores

Sometimes your love of a subject goes deeper than what can be found on the average bookseller’s shelves. Also in Bras Basah Complex, Basheer Graphic Books’ astounding selection of books and magazines makes it a mecca for anyone fascinated by design in any iteration, whether it’s architecture, fashion, animation, typography – you name it. For those who don’t mess around in their love of the printed word, there’s GOHD Books on Bencoolen Street. Specializing in rare tomes and first editions (some from as far back as 1595), their stock isn’t cheap but it will make any book collector salivate. If you’re captivated by the continent we live on, look no further than Select Books, whose archive of publications on Asia is so wide, they supply resources to universities, researchers, libraries and governments (including the US Library of Congress). If their retail store in Toa Payoh is out of your way, you can also order from them online.

The Internet

The Internet, of course, is the most convenient source of books. However, don’t think Amazon is your only option, especially now that their Southeast Asia launch has been pushed back. Shipping costs hike the price up and although used books from third-party sellers on Amazon can be wildly discounted, you’ll find that many won’t ship internationally.

Your golden ticket is Book Depository. Though books often appear more expensive than Amazon at first glance, once shipping costs are added, you’ll find Book Depository to be cheaper as they offer free shipping to anywhere in the world. They also don’t require you to create an account to make a purchase. No store’s selection of books can beat Amazon’s, but Book Depository does come close. If you want faster delivery times, OpenTrolley is a Singapore-based online bookseller with prices comparable to local brick-and-mortar stores.

For the bibliophile who wants to support their reading addiction and support others simultaneously, Better World Books not only has free shipping worldwide and an enormous assortment of new and used books, but also donates a book to someone in need for every book purchased. As of today, they’ve donated over 23 million books and raised over $25 million dollars for literacy programs, including the non-profit Room to Read. Thanks to them, you can feel good about restocking your library, no matter where on the planet you find yourself.

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Essential Apps to Survive Singapore

My article on handy phone apps for those residing in the Little Red Dot appears in the August 2017 issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

Once the realm of flashy games and clunky layouts, smartphone apps have exploded into slick convenience geared at serving any need or want you can think of. One of the most technologically hooked-in countries on the planet, Singapore seems to have an app for just about everything. Even the government ministries, banks and bill-payment services can be accessed through your phone. If you’re new to town and feeling a bit lost (or aren’t new to town but feel lost anyway), these invaluable apps will help you de-stress and streamline your day-to-day life.

Settling In

Though 99.co isn’t as established as PropertyGuru, their app is excellent for finding HDBs, condos and landed houses to rent or buy. GoGoVan and LaLamove are easy ways to obtain movers and couriers for jobs as small as food deliveries and as large as an apartment’s worth of furniture. If you don’t own a car but just raided Ikea, these apps are lifesavers.

The biggest challenge upon moving to an unfamiliar city is to pin down amenities, like the closest hospital, most convenient supermarket, your nearest ATMs., etc. For all of those and more, WhereTo.sg has got you covered. The app is still in beta, so there are a few bugs, but the website is solid.

Particularly handy for new arrivals or solo expats, Meetup is exactly what it sounds like: an app that allows you to meet people who share your interests. From walking groups to single moms to language exchanges, the choices are endless.

Shopping & Eating

Carousell is the local equivalent of eBay. You can buy and sell just about everything here, from hair accessories to houses. Perfect if you need to furnish a new apartment without breaking the bank.

Restaurants fill up fast in this little country, so reservations can be critical. HungryGoWhere and Chope are the go-to apps for making bookings. Yes, you’ll likely need both, as their lists of restaurants don’t always overlap.

Also a website, RedMart is one of the best grocery ordering apps in Singapore. The wide range of options and the ability to choose a 2-hour delivery slot make this an incredibly useful service.

Getting Around

If you rely on public transport (and in Singapore, why wouldn’t you?), then Citymapper will be your new best friend. In addition to the convenient “Get Me Home” button, the app even tells you which routes to your destination will keep you out of the heat the most!

Need a ride? You’ve got your pick of apps, from the official taxi companies, ComfortDelGro and SMRT, to ridesharing options like Uber and the well-priced Grab. Four apps might seem like overkill, but there will come a rainy Friday afternoon when you’ll be glad for back-up options.

Hunting for a specific item in an unfamiliar mall can suck up hours of your day, especially since store info on Google Maps can be inaccurate or out-of-date. Pocket Malls Singapore not only allows you to search by store name and category, it also includes maps and directories of all major malls.

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The Ride Home

On July 1, 2017 my short story The Ride Home appeared in the inaugural issue of The Shanghai Literary Review:

The bus swayed as it sidled back into traffic. Air conditioning scoured the windows, fogging the exterior in dribbling mist. The seats were cordoned by ribbed rails of dense fuchsia plastic. Gripping a pole to steady herself, a young Indian girl stood and motioned with a skinny arm. Natasha took the seat with a grateful nod. Such reminders of her age normally grated, but today her bags were heavier than usual. Or perhaps they just felt that way.

Cattycorner to her, in the center of the backbench, sat an older Chinese man with rings on the pinkie and ring finger of his right hand, each gold with a jade stone, one round and one rectangular. This hand darted through a series of gestures every time he spoke – a gruff blend of Teochew and Mandarin, syllables shushed and yanked. His left hand, twisted to display a fake silver watch, rested on his knee. The shells of his long ears gleamed waxy every time he turned to provide his simpering friends with another bon mot. When he wasn’t speaking, he stared straight ahead and smiled, repeating his own words in his head with relish. He decided they should get off and moved towards the door with the swagger of a teenage gang leader.

Natasha was reminded of her husband, the first one, though not because of the old guy’s looks (Jerome hadn’t been Chinese, at all). It was the swing of showy confidence, the high opinion of one’s wit and intelligence, the kind of arrogance that belonged only to the elderly or Americans.

Shedding her years, Natasha looked after them with the same shy interest she had fastened to the posturing boys in school. When two years of National Service had squashed the thrusting egotism of the local boys, she had been surprised at her disappointment. It was that easy to cool and iron out their fight? Jerome’s effortless, warm American noise, the self-assurance of his first proposal and the tender bravery of the second after she had turned the first one down, had seemed exquisitely permanent. Like most prim girls, she had been waiting for an invitation, for permission.

They had been 23. So young, ah? Cautioned parents, friends. They had been married just two years when he died. Her aunts tsked at the inevitability; the wedding had been on an inauspicious day, so what had she expected (and he hadn’t even given her a baby, they clucked in pity). It was a simple death. Sad, but straightforward. No mysteries to solve or regrets. He knew how much she loved him. She knew how much he loved her. Those two years. There was an endlessness there that she found extraordinary, impossible. Their blue skies and watercolor breezes bled into the white squares of her calendar, imprinting onto her days even now. On sharp-edged afternoons like this, heavy errands in Singapore’s blistering storm of sunlight, she held that small parcel of time in her mouth like an ice cube.

Oh, not that her marriage to Henry now – the decades of married life stockpiled – was bad. But it was the marriage she was supposed to have. No matter how attentive Henry was or how lovely their daughter, in her heart of hearts, Natasha considered her life a little less special than the one she almost had. Her first marriage had felt like she had stolen something, been truly selfish for the first time, looked her father’s expectations square in the eye and discarded them. She had nearly gotten away with it too.

Marrying Henry was safe, a neat clicking together of old family friends, her parents in ecstasy that their silly widowed daughter had been moored at last. Henry was a manager at a chemical engineering plant. And he was of Chinese descent, like them. So much easier. Her parents never had to explain Henry the way they had had to cobble together introductions for Jerome, an Egyptian-American who had been going for a PhD in Southeast Asian history when she met him. Jerome had been distressingly outside of their categories. Every odd glance on the street pained them. Every stuttered conversation about hopes for their future grandchildren. And implicit in their suffering were the accusations, silent or disguised.

Henry didn’t look out of place in family photographs, but gawky Jerome never shed the cloak of an interloper, his golden skin alien amongst their pale Asian faces. She had once heard her aunt whisper to her mother, “His skin cannot lighten a bit, ah? Maybe can try those whitening cream like from Taiwan, that type?”

But, as her father had been careful to reiterate almost every time Jerome was in the flat, Singapore was a harmonious multi-racial society and they believed in many races coming together to live in peace. And, of course, they weren’t against interracial marriages in theory. But, as her mother often muttered to friends in dialect, did they have to go so far as to be the poster family for it? Wasn’t being open-minded enough?

They must have breathed sighs of relief over Jerome’s body; he finally fit into a box they understood. It was a thought Natasha had had many times, first with a vicious bitterness, then a sore ache. Now, it was simply a fact, shriveled and ugly.

Natasha pressed the red, square STOP and began to pull herself to her feet. The trim businesswoman next to her hugged her purse into her stomach and twisted her knees into the aisle. Natasha scowled and pushed by, irritated that the woman hadn’t stood up. Jerome, homesick for the States, had regularly snarled at Singapore’s lack of graciousness, the stingy efficiency of strangers’ interactions. He moaned (though never in the presence of her parents) that he just wanted people to smile back when he passed them on the street. Safe in his one-bedroom apartment, he had laughed at the government’s campaigns to encourage kindness, the jejune posters on the buses. When Natasha had blushed, embarrassment and wounded pride, and pointed out that the campaigns were working, he laughed harder.

Ginger steps brought her down to the curb, hot sunshine soaking her through. She worried about the greens and peered into her plastic bag for hints of their wilting. Then, impatient with her old-aunty fussing, she retrieved her umbrella and launched it open. For the short distance through the courtyard of the housing development, she was escorted by a personal, carefully-apportioned shadow. She risked a glance up, through the piercing light, at the carefully-apportioned public housing, thinking how in other countries, government-sponsored tenements were derided. In Singapore, they were expected, demanded.

“Na-ta-shaa!”

The whine of their neighbor rolled up to greet her as she shuffled off the elevator. The open-air corridor channeled the warm wind. The woman stood in her doorway, parental nerves and antique superstitions bundled in rolls of fat mercifully hidden beneath a head scarf. Her full-length dress, always coordinated purples or blues, pinched at her wrists.

“Your mother forget me already, is it? You know, yesterday, I say hello three times,” she said, chin wobbling above a faux crystal brooch as she thrust up three plump fingers. “Three times leh! And she just…” Her eyes bulged wide in pantomime, sharp white and black in their frame. “Like know-nothing one.”

She stared at Natasha with aggression, expectancy, defiance, her simple and spoiled ego on display. Natasha clucked.

“Aiyo, she’s sick, you know.”

“Oh, sick, is it?” She echoed with a rearranging of purple layers and emotions. “Can fix or not?”

“Dunno lah,” Natasha sighed, unlocking their front door.

“You know, there’s ve-ry good program for memory. I make my girl go. One session only and wah! Because my girl, you know, exams so hard now. How to prepare?”

“I’ll think about it.”

“One session only, siah!”

“Talk later, can? Must cook lor.”

After stepping inside and out of her shoes, Natasha exhaled with force. A child’s cry echoed somewhere. Linoleum, scrubbed by her mother in the past, these days by her, clung to the sweating soles of her feet. The lingering smell of chili peppers nicked her nostrils. A fan whirred in the corner of the living room, its breath flipping up the pages of a magazine. The windows, elegantly barred, provided a sliver of sky between the other buildings of the complex, all mirror images of each other.

Their family had swollen in number and pressed against these walls, three generations quibbling over bathroom sinks and crowding around the table for dinner. Being part of a family meant claustrophobia, supporting grandparents while being prodded to have children, and then it meant bewildering lack. The departures of the dead and the married children hollowed out the small apartment, painting it in shades of agoraphobia.

Her mother lorded over the flat, a ragged cat feeling her way around, dull claws picking over furniture she had pushed under her children, grandchildren, husband, guests. Her hunched memory and whittled eyesight dimmed the rooms.

“Jerome not with you, ah?” Her mother asked in crunched Hokkien from her place on the couch.

“Jerome? Ma, you mean Henry.”

“Aiyo!” And she smacked her forehead in a grand gesture, as though it was all part of an act. “I was just testing lah!”

“I know, Ma.”

They had been saying that a lot lately. A hit duet. Natasha felt a scream pull at her ribs and push at her throat. A desire for violence pulsed through her. She wanted to watch her mother groan and struggle and win; not silently misplace people, places, facts. Not mask and forget that she was forgetting. When she finally went, she would take hunks of Natasha with her. She wanted to puncture the scene, to shake her mother and declare that everyone knew she was losing precious, precious things and that foisting on them this feeble excuse that she was playacting was desperately sadder than if she just accepted it. Or maybe it wasn’t. How could anyone gauge one agony against another?

Her mother fiddled with her empty coffee mug. The expectation and need for her daughter to believe her threw shadows across her wrinkled face, flimsy but impenetrable.

“Henry will be home in an hour.” Natasha said, unpacking her canvas shoulder bag.

Library books. The fresh greens for dinner. A text from her daughter waiting on her phone. Natasha stopped.

“Hey Ma,” she said, turning and approaching the withered woman on the couch serenaded by expensive cable television. “Why were you thinking of Jerome?”

“Jerome, ah?” Her mother mused, twisting the cup in place, the porcelain a mean, youthful white in her knobby and spotted fingers. “Don’t think I know. It’s the provisions-shop delivery guy, is it?”

“What?”

“I don’t think I know Jerome lah.”

Natasha’s eyes burned into her mother’s vague face.

“Natasha?”

“More kopi?” Natasha asked, snatching up the coffee cup before anything else left her mother’s open mouth.

She returned to the groceries, sorting them into the fridge and pantry, measuring her breaths. The coffee machine gurgled. In a sulk, Natasha’s gaze drifted to the balcony. It was narrow and pale peach, empty except for a stubborn trio of cactuses, crisping brown at the edges and coughing up tiny mauve flowers.

Jerome had once fucked her out there, with all the family asleep in humid rooms bullied by air conditioners several paces away. She had tried so hard to enjoy it, but guilt and fear had drowned the sense of adventure she knew Jerome had been trying to spark in her. Even now, the memory was impossible to appraise calmly. It was as though she were trying to examine an ember burning in her palm.

She considered it the most grotesque thing she had ever done. A marriage, no matter how peppery and resented, is still tied off with a bow, a fine conversation topic and a respectable act. But sex? The word itself skittered across the floors of the flat, searching in terror for the safety of darkness. The gulf between marriage and children went undiscussed. It was presumed that, somewhere behind a closed door, you would learn to swing over it on a rope without looking down, like everyone else.

She half-remembered half-imagined how quietly Jerome had slid the curtains closed, and then the balcony doors. He had put his hand behind her head and, kissing her, lowered her onto the off-white tiles. Guarded by hanging laundry, the balcony wasn’t really long enough for them to lie down. Her hand came into contact with cement, grazing her knuckles as she crooked and bent and accommodated.

A whispered ‘Wait’ almost left her mouth, but didn’t. Surely, he deserved something from her, some concession for spending the entire day and evening crushed into the apartment with her family. So, she had pretended to be excited when his fingers pushed up her skirt and dragged her panties aside. She had reached for his fly and maneuvered out his erection, because she knew he wanted her to. As he heaved into her, she kept her eyes on the thin black break in the curtains, petrified that a hand would worm through to pull it aside. It was a truer loss of virginity than her first time had been.

Over the years, the vacant minutes she stumbled upon – between pages of a dull book, while pans gathered heat from the stove, TV commercials – brought her eyes to the balcony and to the memory of their violation of it. The rectangular, peach container seemed filled to the brim with an emotion that charged all facets of her. Anger at Jerome, which then splintered into defiance of everyone but him. Disgust at her childishly sculpted sexuality, then pleasure at Jerome’s soft fingers molding it further. Pain at the memory’s presence persisting beyond Jerome’s, how it cooled into permanence while other aspects of him faded. The wrestle of giddiness and guilt whenever Henry and her father leaned over their elbows on the balcony, conversing in serious tones not meant for her or her mother’s ears.

And, all of a sudden, for the first time, Natasha thought of that crumpled coupling with pride, a pride so clear and fierce that she was sure her mother would be able to taste it in the coffee. It waved like a bright, rough-edged flag. She had spent years jiggling in fear and shame, wondering whether her family knew and what they must have thought. But her grandparents and father had passed years ago. Her mother’s prejudices were being sluiced off that (and every other) memory of Jerome. He was hers again, vibrant and young and perverse, ego glowing. At least, until she too returned a memory to the fastidious shelves of her mind, and later, when she went back for it, found it had moved.

Green Tea

Published on June 1, 2017 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

There is no green tea in this picture. But there’s a hedgehog, so…y’know, same same.

Confession: I’m a tea snob. I turn my nose up at grocery store brands, trumpet the superiority of loose-leaf tea over teabags, and was co-head of Bard College’s High Tea Club for three years. It’s easier to make-do with a subpar black tea, as milk and sugar can be added. But a subpar green tea, which ought to have a delicate aroma and layered body of flavor, is intolerable. Often, the problem is the water. Boiling water (212°F) will actually scorch green tea leaves, diminishing their delicate flavor. According to the master tea blenders at Harney & Sons, the prime temperature at which to steep green teas is between 160°F and 190°F.

I’m not alone in my obsession. Tea has been around for a long while. Estimated to have been discovered in 2700 BC, it is one of the oldest beverages in the world. As legend goes, some tea leaves accidentally blew into Chinese Emperor Shennong’s pot of boiling water and voila! Tea became widely popular throughout North America in the 1600s, but the 1773 Boston Tea Party, a precipitating event of the American Revolution, branded tea drinking as unpatriotic. To this day, coffee remains more popular than tea in the United States. Due to Cold War complications, green tea in particular was difficult to find in the U.S. owing to a ban on trade with China, which was lifted in 1971. Since then, tea has grown in popularity and the American tea market quadrupled between 1993 and 2008, a period when antioxidants entered our common lexicon.

As with most trendy health foods, the benefits of green tea are widely misquoted and often exaggerated. Clinical trials have found the effects of green tea consumption to be inconsistent or nonexistent when it comes to weight loss, inflammation or cancer prevention. However, there are proven health benefits of green tea. A 2015 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition found that one cup of green tea per day was linked to a 4% lower risk of death from any medical cause, but is especially useful for averting cardiovascular disease.

You may have heard that tea is the number one most consumed beverage in the world (excluding water, of course). This claim was first made back in 1911 by British scientist John McEwan. Surprisingly, it holds true, especially if all varieties of tea are treated as a single beverage. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, China remains the largest tea producing country, accounting for more than 38% of the world’s total, with India in second, followed by Kenya and Sri Lanka. Japan, however, is the second-largest producer of green tea. Global tea consumption has also been steadily rising in recent years. In 2013 alone, China was recorded to have produced 1.9 million tons of tea and have consumed 1.61 million tons. This makes China the largest consumer of tea by far, though Turkey consumes the most tea per person: about 7 pounds per year. While temperate Ireland and the UK are second and third after Turkey, the tea plant itself needs a hot, humid climate to thrive. This geographical limitation means that ideal growing conditions and tea production are at risk from the effects of climate change. Just one more reason to be environmentally-conscious. Living green means being able to continue drinking green.

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Learning to Listen: Traveling to Nepal’s Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu to spend time with yourself

In their November 2016 issue, Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine published my piece on the beautiful Kopan Monastery:

There is no shortage of yoga poses that require practise and concentration to get right (crow, handstand scorpion, frog), but rarely do we think of savasana as one of them. Much looked forward to after a tough class, we often sink into savasana the way we settle in for a nap, and while corpse pose is a time of rest for the body, it is also intended to be a time of meditation. But meditation doesn’t have to mean the difficult task of totally emptying your mind. Just as there are various forms of triangle pose, there are several approaches to savasana and meditation as well.

Trish O’Gorman, a yoga teacher who has taught Kundalini in the United States for over a decade, decided to deepen her meditative practise by taking part in the 6-day “Open Heart, Clear Mind” course at Kopan Monastery in Nepal this past summer. Taught by Ven. Kabir and David Marks, the course was aimed at beginners and offered, as stated on the website, “guidance and meditations on the essential teachings of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the different ways to develop the mind so as to find balance, clarity and inner peace.”

I’ll admit that the idea of a meditation course sounded like an oxymoron. Wasn’t the point of meditation to do…nothing? I joined Trish early on her final day of the course to learn more, but I would have to wait to hear her thoughts on the experience. The participants, who were mainly from Europe or the Americas, had vowed to remain silent for the entire length of the course excepting discussion group and Q&A sessions. Nevertheless, she confided later, she and some of her classmates had taken several excursions to a nearby coffee shop to chat.

Located on a hilltop on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery is lively. Built in 1971, it is a monastery in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition and home to over 300 monks, lamas, teachers and workers. Visitors are welcome to stay for as little as an hour or as long as several months. As Kopan is also a small school, monks of all ages can be found chanting, meditating and debating philosophy. On clear days, lush mountain ranges emerge from the clouds, revealing green valleys below. A cadre of lazy, friendly dogs roam the picturesque grounds, which include a meditation hall, gardens, a library and dorm-like accommodations.

The day’s itinerary was simple and straightforward, and began with a meditation session before breakfast. The silence I had expected, but this was my first experience with a guided meditation, where a teacher gently urges you to contemplate certain subjects/questions and to envision images, such as the Buddha on a lotus or light filling your body. Guided meditation, also called analytical meditation, is one of the more accessible forms of calming the mind, as it is a more familiar method of structuring and managing your thoughts. While Kopan also coaches on the differences between and strategies to practise silent and structured (chanting) meditation, analytical meditation was the most common during this course. I felt this would be helpful next time I entered savasana at the end of yoga class; instead of the usual struggle to completely empty my mind of thoughts, I could instead select a prompt (like a quote from a spiritual text or a question about how to live with wisdom) and concentrate on contemplating it deeply.

Upon the completion of the meditation session, the participants were released from their silence. Breakfast was boisterous in spite of the spare, plain food provided by the monastery (all vegan, of course). It was clear that Trish and many of the other participants had developed strong friendships over the week.

While teenaged monks in gangs loudly debated Buddhist philosophy in the courtyard, we returned to the beautiful meditation hall for a dharma talk led by Ven. Kabir. Unsurprisingly, for the participants’ final talk, the focus was on how to carry the lessons of the monastery with them and continue following the path after leaving Kopan Hill. Not a rigid lecturer, Kabir welcomed questions and quoted Thoreau and Pablo Neruda along with the Dalai Llama. He highlighted how the modern world challenges our ability to remain in touch with ourselves, and spent some time illustrating how practicing Buddhism is ultimately reliant on self-confidence and on working intelligently with ourselves. What resonated most strongly with me was the discussion on how meditation was essential to reconnecting with our inner selves in a world that constantly tries to pull us out of ourselves by engaging and often overwhelming our senses – touchscreens, headphones, visual media, instant alerts, foods engineered to be addicting. Meditation, like yoga, is all about coming back to the breath and being in the moment.

According to Trish, throughout the course, the dharma talks and guided meditations were quite Buddhist, which could be a guide or a detour, depending on your spiritual or religious preferences. For the first two days, Trish felt at philosophical odds with the monastery and even considered leaving. She wanted less focus on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist doctrines and more exploration of the personal approaches and benefits to meditation. But then things started coming together, she said, particularly in the discussion groups. It all came down to motivation and intention, and how to direct one’s energy towards leading a life of kindness, compassion and wisdom.

Though the remainder of the final lecture centred around Buddhism’s Six Perfections, the lessons were universal and vital: how patience is a balm for anger, how to be generous to ourselves in body and mind, how we set up barriers between ourselves and others. Dharma is about investigating the self, learning to approach not only yoga but our daily lives with mindfulness, and about taking responsibility for our own happiness and our own suffering. Yoga and elements of its underlying philosophy were referred to often, such as karma and samadhi, which you may have heard in passing in a class but which the teacher likely didn’t have time to explain in depth.

Afterwards, lunch was provided and with it, the 6-day course came to a close. Had this been one of the earlier days, lunch would have been followed by two hours of free time and then four 1-hour discussion groups focused on different topics provided by the course leaders.

When asked how she had found the course beneficial, Trish noted that for her, much of the course reinforced what she already knew and practised, specifically the power of adding structure to personal meditation:

“Kundalini is one of the few forms of yoga that regularly incorporates meditation and chanting, but for the other forms of yoga, the monastery’s practises and guidance could be very helpful, especially as the entire point of yoga is to prepare the body for meditation. Doing yoga without meditation is like baking a delicious cake but not bothering with the frosting.”

When we talk about taking higher level yoga classes, we usually think about more challenging arm balances and deeper backbends, so why not take your savasana to the next level as well? Next time you lay your hardworking body onto the mat for its rest, practise guiding your thoughts to contemplate a concept like compassion or a question about the nature of your own consciousness. You may be surprised by how far you can travel through your own depths.

The Temple of Great Virtue

On March 25, 2017 the adorably-named Thoughtful Dog magazine published my short story, The Temple of Great Virtue:

The full name of the place was 1 Night 1980 Hostel Tokyo, the entrance on a clean backstreet two dozen blocks north of Ueno Station. Elsewhere, the areas of Ginza, Roppongi and Shibuya were flaring up, gardens of light and taut gushes of activity, but their vivacity didn’t reach this far. As evening settled in, life bowed and retreated inside, leaving the bright sentry-like vending machines the lone observers of the two girls (or were they women now?) circling the building in search of the hostel’s sign: “1980” in black on a glowing white square. The salaryman’s colors.

Kira dug her fingers into the shoelaces and then the heels of her sneakers, stepping out of them into the economical lobby, too small to complete a full cartwheel in. Clarissa followed suit, eyes flicking to Kira for cues. The girl (Kira wouldn’t call her a woman) behind the counter stood up and the Japanese greeting Kira intended to say emerged in English, to align with the straight brown hair parted dead center and the not quite American accent. This would have been Kira’s first chance to exhibit her language skills in front of Clarissa, a demonstration of how different a world this was from the tri-state area and how necessary Kira was, but no matter. There would be ample opportunity. It was enough that Clarissa was eyeballing with trepidation the ticket machine that loomed in front of the check-in desk.

“Where are you from?” Kira asked, though the girl was probably as sick of that question as she was.

The girl’s wan smile, the way she didn’t look up from their registration forms as she replied, “Canada,” confirmed this.

“But I’ve lived here a long time,” she added, as though by emphasis alone she could more fully fasten herself to Japan, loosen the roots of Canada from the soil of her identity.

“How long?” Kira asked, curious and friendly, an expat herself.

“Five or six years,” the Canadian said, her face a theatrical struggle to recall the number.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kira had lived in Singapore for nearly as long, but didn’t say so. She handed over her passport and wondered if the Canadian realized yet that Japan was not a country prone to adopting its admirers, that she would be forever spoken to in broken English and permitted to make social blunders the Japanese would eviscerate one another for, that her stint here was cute but would always be considered temporary.

“Why are American passports so garish?” The Canadian asked with a snicker, holding Clarissa’s open at the full color photo and the illustration of a bald eagle.

Clarissa didn’t laugh, but Kira did and pulled out her other passport.

“At least the photo is better than the Irish one. Black and white. Like a creepy mug shot.”

They had to pay cash, the Canadian said, disengaging from her check-in booth to identify the appropriate buttons – raised and analog, marked with room types and number of nights, which clicked pleasantly when pushed. But first they would each need to feed the ticket machine ¥6400. Clarissa goggled at Kira. She had forgotten to exchange her dollars at the airport, had assumed she could do that anywhere. As though Tokyo were Disneyland, a series of smooth paths lined with entertainment and convenience in equal measure. Kira shrugged, offered to cover them both, but then found she was short. As the Canadian explained with impatience that a 7-Eleven two blocks over had an ATM, Kira inserted seven ¥1000 bills and retrieved her tickets and change. The Canadian looked askance when Kira handed over a ticket for a big towel along with the one for the room.

“You don’t need the big towel. You get one as part of your amenities kit. You get a fresh towel, body wash, toothbrush, etc, every day.”

“Everyone?” Kira asked.

“It’s only for female guests.”

“Why?” Clarissa asked. “That seems sexist.”

“It’s not sexist. Most of our guests are male, so it’s an incentive to encourage women to stay here. But I can’t check you in until you’ve both paid,” she said with a huff.

They walked through the quiet, humid streets, getting lost almost immediately as Clarissa hadn’t listened to more than the beginning of the instructions. Kira hadn’t listened at all. She hailed a passing businessman in his fifties, who was quintessentially accommodating and pointed them in the right direction. Kira picked over the magazine rack, chanting dumbass in her mind, happily unhelpful as Clarissa realized she would need to overdraft her account. In response to her comment on how silly it was that her $200 was useless, Kira said nothing.

At 28, Kira felt barely adult. It was a role she could assume but which retained the sensation of a memorized act. However, next to Clarissa, three weeks her senior, Kira’s adulthood shone with authenticity. Despite a yearlong boyfriend, Clarissa still exuded the air of a virgin, stammering in surprise when Kira told her they would need to be naked at the hot springs in Hakone. It was a challenge to imagine Clarissa having sex, but unfathomable to envision her attempting seduction. Clarissa still opened her mouth and let burps out at will, unaware that following with an “Excuse me” did nothing to cancel out the disgust that pricked at Kira (and, Kira presumed, others).

“You see her, what, once a year for a lunch when you’re in the States. I don’t see why she deserves ten days all of a sudden,” Eóin had reproached when Kira admitted to reconfiguring her week solo in Japan to accommodate Clarissa’s proposed joint vacation. “At most, she deserves a weekend. What has she ever given you?”

The question resurfaced in Kira’s mind as they made their way back, Clarissa celebrating every correct turn with excited yips.

“I think you’re one of the only people I know who walks faster or at least on par with me,” Clarissa said.

“Huh,” Kira replied, out of breath from keeping stride with Clarissa’s gait, which approached a run and rendered the living, foreign streets mere scenery.

But that’s how their friendship had gone since freshmen year: Clarissa oozing over the depths of their closeness and similarity of feeling, while the grit and texture of who Kira really was vanished in Clarissa’s watercolor portrait of her.

Back in paper slippers in the grey lobby, they obtained Clarissa’s ticket and then waited with amenity kits in hand. A vending machine was wedged between the reception desk and the elevator.

“Gerolsteiner,” Kira laughed, pointing out the bottles. “My German friend used to import that stuff and drink only that because she thought the water in Singapore made her hair fall out. It’s horrible.”

The Canadian leaned back in the check-in booth.

“So bad,” she agreed.

“And my friend would make me drink it every single time I went to her place.”

The Canadian rolled her eyes. Kira suspected that they could become friends, considered inviting her out for a drink.

The sixth floor was: ‘Women’s floor only. The violator will be prosecuted.’ The moderate space had been divided into slivers of hallways and the compact capsules they were to sleep in, each with only a curtain for privacy. Farts would be shared. Their closets lined one hallway, their bunks another. The toilets were in one room (unlocked), the showers in another (locked). The ritual activities, performed alone in a certain order, were to be uncoupled and rearranged and coordinated with others. The sleeping room smelled, a mix of socks and mustiness, as though the few windows hadn’t been opened since the hostel’s namesake year. Kira accepted it, knew she could put up with it for a few nights.

They dropped off their things and returned downstairs with their sneakers in plastic bags. The Canadian had come around her desk to demand in firm English that a huge red-cheeked Chinese woman remove her shoes at the door. The woman wheezed, baffled, mumbling about the bag she had left here earlier. Kira and Clarissa ducked around them as the Canadian, zealous as any convert, advanced on the woman to insist again that she take off her shoes. Tottering with her heels hanging out, Kira remembered that they had to hand over their closet keys before leaving. She held hers out to the Canadian, who scowled and took the crumpled plastic bag. The key hit the floor with a bounce and Kira scooped it up.

“Oh,” the Canadian said, taking the key.

But Kira knew it was too late. She had been relegated to the class of guests who mistreated the Canadian, and now ranked among the locals who tittered at the Canadian for acting Japanese and the drunk men who tried to wheedle their way onto the sixth floor. Kira doubted the Canadian had a procedure for appeals, even if the misinterpretation was hers, and the possibility of friendship extinguished into smoke.

Akihabara’s ice white fluorescents only drove Clarissa’s jetlag in deeper, so dinner was quick, with Kira doing most of the talking around their bowls of udon noodles. When they returned to the hostel, the Canadian replied to their calls of goodnight with a tight-lipped smile. For the remainder of their few days in Tokyo, she was absent, her place at reception taken by a languid Japanese man. Kira was once again stuck with Clarissa on an island of English, where Clarissa seemed to suck up all the resources, spraying her conception of Japan over the living country. It fascinated Kira how Clarissa was incapable of eliminating herself from her observations. Everything was made relevant and relative. It was bearable though. Kira’s relish at Tokyo’s familiar bustle, its brisk autumn stride, plus the afternoons she begged for herself, all countered Clarissa’s disbelief that an Asian country could be so similar and yet different to what she knew.

“They have women-only subway cars? Why?”

“Well, you’ve seen the crush of the commutes. Some men use that to grab a free handful.”

“Wait. Really? But the Japanese are so quiet and polite.”

“You really think what you see is all there is?”

“Of course not,” Clarissa defended, producing the right response without bothering to examine it deeper.

The parks and gardens Kira had fastidiously starred on Google Maps were a pleasant and disappointing green. Kira wanted to propel the friendly, lingering summer out the door and bask in the chilly, fiery solitude of fall, which was in its adolescence, the trees only just gilded around the edges or bejeweled with a few leaves the color of pomegranate arils. By peppering Kira with questions on Japan, Clarissa attempted to mask her impatience as they strolled. A nice patch of green was not Instagram-worthy. Hakone was though…

Finish reading the story at Thoughtful Dog!

 

Sapporo Snow Festival

Published on February 1, 2017 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If living in Singapore has made you pine for cold weather, but you don’t miss the slushy morning commutes or the heating bills, then book a trip to the winter wonderland that is the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri), which is held every February. Located in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Sapporo has a long, rich relationship with winter, even hosting the Olympic Games in 1972. With carved snow and ice sculptures of all sizes, real igloos you can explore, professional skiers showing off their jumps, and ramen and hot drink vendors to warm you up, this festival is exciting no matter what age you are.

One high point for us was the International Snow Sculpture Contest. A tradition since 1974, the competition is an opportunity to watch live as dozens of countries create mindboggling works of art that put my childhood snowmen to shame. Though it wasn’t surprising to see the USA represented, can you believe Thailand, Malaysia and even Singapore have teams?

A treat during the day, the festival is mesmerizing at night, when the enormous snow sculptures are illuminated by music and light shows. Many of the snow monuments are sponsored by companies and major brands – last year featured snow reproductions of tourist sites in Macau and Taiwan, tributes to internationally recognized anime shows Dragonball Z and Attack on Titan, and a snow bullet train to celebrate the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen. However, the festival also remains true to its humble roots and features hundreds of smaller, homemade sculptures created by the citizens of Sapporo. The food corners also rely heavily on local products and dishes, including exquisite seafood, hearty stews, and sake.

The first Sapporo Snow Festival was held in 1950 and featured only six snow statues made by local high school students. Beyond all expectations, the festival attracted about fifty thousand people and soon became one of the city’s major annual events. Less than ten years later, over 2500 people participated in creating snow sculptures. In 1965 and 1983, the festival grounds expanded, adding two subsidiary sites to the original Odori Park location in order to accommodate events such as an ice rink, a snow rafting zone, a PARK AIR Jumping Platform for skiers and snowboarders to demonstrate their tricks, snow slides, snow mazes, several food pavilions, and of course, even more snow and ice sculptures.

In addition to the seemingly endless sights and events of the festival, the city of Sapporo is also worth exploring for itself. Visits to the Sapporo Beer Museum and the top of the JR Tower were a pleasure. And Sapporo is an ideal jumping off point for anyone desperate to hit the ski slopes, as the world-famous powder of Niseko is less than two hours away. Best of all, when you’ve had your fill of winter fun, you can skip the part where everything melts and the snow turns brown and you get Seasonal Affective Disorder by returning to Singapore’s tropical heat, which I guarantee you will have a new appreciation for.

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Clueless About Coffee

Published on August 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With its mélange of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culinary influences, it’s no surprise that Singapore has a long history of drinking tea. Less expected is the city’s love affair with coffee, evident in the plethora of cafés and kopitiams. Sadly, I have never been a coffee drinker and usually opt for a mocha (aka a hot chocolate with caffeine) when presented with a menu of artisanal coffees. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Short Black and a Flat White. Isn’t cold drip coffee just…coffee that’s cold?

Tired of feeling bamboozled at brunches with friends, I decided to get an education. The Singapore Coffee Association, established in the 1950s, pointed me towards a range of options, including Dutch Colony Coffee Company’s variety of workshops. Both Bettr Barista and Highlander Coffee have “Coffee Academies” for the uninitiated, but in the end, I registered for Highlander’s two-hour Gourmet Coffee Appreciation Seminar because it fit my schedule and the price was reasonable. Plus, it promised to “demystify the art and science of making specialty coffee.”

The seminar was held in Highlander Coffee Bar’s spacious backroom on Kampong Bahru Road and was taught by the founders, charismatic brothers Phil and Cedric Ho, who have been educating others on coffee since 2004. Against a backdrop of counters laden with gleaming, complicated coffee machines, Phil walked us through the history of local coffee, which began in the late 18th century thanks to an influx of European immigrants. This led to the birth of the kopitiam (a very Singaporean term combining the Malay word for “coffee” and the Hokkien word for “shop”) and the trademark Hainanese style thick, sweet coffee that is still on the menu today. Since then, the local coffee culture has blossomed. Specialty cafés in the style of Melbourne’s famous coffeehouses, including pioneers like Highlander Coffee and 40 Hands, became all the rage a few years ago and the fire has yet to die down.

“Freshness is the key to good coffee. Always believe in GOD: Grind On Demand,” Phil said, as he passed around varieties of beans. I finally understood that a coffee bean was actually the pit of a coffee cherry. It was mind-boggling to learn how much labor (planting, picking and roasting) went into a single bag of coffee beans. He also revealed that the longer the roasting process, the more body and bitterness the coffee bean has, but the less caffeine (which surprised me).

After Phil’s history lesson, Cedric demonstrated the ideal method of brewing coffee with a table of steaming jugs, shining presses and glass containers more suited to a chemistry lab. He highlighted how temperatures, the age of the beans, the fineness of the grind, the treatment of milk and the type of press all intersect at different points to alter the flavor and quality of a cup of joe. This explanation was, of course, followed by tastings: finely ground Ethiopian coffee from an aeropress, coarsely ground Brazilian from a French press with foamed milk (the first cup of coffee without sugar that I’ve ever enjoyed) and a house blend espresso. The two hours flew by. I now know that “light/medium/dark” refers to how long the beans have been roasted, that high calcium milks can’t be used to make foam and why espresso machines make that high-pitched whooshing noise.

Plus, I finally learned the difference between a Short Black and a Flat White! (A Short Black is simply the Australian term for espresso while a Flat White is a cappuccino without the foam). Who knew?

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Singapore’s YouTubers Poke Fun at Locals and Expats

Published on June 30, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

As many expats and students of foreign languages can tell you, humor is often the final frontier in cross-cultural communication. Jokes risk falling flat, are a nightmare to translate and have the potential to offend. But they can also be a way for expats to understand the cultural norms of their new home.

Local movies and television shows can help, but the grassroots nature of YouTube videos can be even better. On YouTube, the comedy is rougher, the jokes are more of the moment, and the creators are more accessible, often responding to viewers’ questions in the comments sections. And you don’t have to suffer through being the only person not laughing in a comedy club.

Despite Singapore’s reputation as a place that limits free speech, several homegrown YouTube channels offering self-parodying commentary on local topics have sprung up in the past few years. Among the first were Wah!Banana and Night Owl Cinematics (Ryan Sylvia), which were both launched in the second half of 2012, and currently rank as the second and third most-subscribed-to channels in Singapore. The original cast of Wah!Banana has since left to form TreePotatoes, which is now number five. With topics like What Foreigners Think of Singapore and 11 Types of Singaporean Colleagues, these YouTubers have created a space where both Singaporeans and expats can chuckle about Singapore’s unique, sometimes absurd, quirks.

For example, one thing that often comes up is the kiasu attitude of many Singaporeans. The most accurate translation of kiasu is probably FOMO — fear of missing out — which Wah!Banana, Night Owl Cinematics and TreePotatoes all duly mock. The videos depict people waiting in a line just because it’s long, hoarding free ketchup packets, and trampling others to be first on a bus. These not only highlight Singaporeans’ ability to laugh at themselves, they also lessen the “us versus them” mentality expats occasionally develop.

“I think our videos help to show expats a side of Singaporean life they wouldn’t usually get to see unless they have very close local friends,” said Aaron Khoo, a producer, writer and actor on TreePotatoes. “The typical media portrayal of Singaporeans in recent years tends to shy away from the local culture and Singlish,” the local variant of English blended with Chinese dialects, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil. “We prefer to embrace the local identity and laugh at its idiosyncrasies.”

Lingyi Xiong, a producer, writer and actor on Wah!Banana, said that often the depiction of Singapore in overseas media “is about how modern or advanced this place is, or it’s about the food in hawker centers. It’s nice but it’s traditional. It’s not really local enough.” The channel’s 10 Types of People in the Hawker Center video offers a tongue-in-cheek counterpoint.

Sylvia Chan, who co-founded Night Owl Cinematics with her husband Ryan Tan, said “our videos showcase how we behave and how we are. Many expat friends and fans tell us that our videos taught them how to interact with their Singaporean colleagues,” and are an “unofficial portal to know and understand Singapore.”

Expats get a chance to laugh at themselves too. The Wah!Banana video Ang Mo vs Singaporean remains one of their most popular. Ang mo is Hokkien for “red-haired” and has long been the local slang for “white person.” Its use is periodically mean-spirited but most often is not. In the video, sometimes Singaporeans are the butt of the joke and sometimes Caucasians are, but most of the parodies are funny.

YouTubers can get away with presenting a more grounded, less politically correct version of life in Singapore than other media outlets, most of which are government-owned. However, they still operate in a country that saw a teenaged YouTuber arrested for obscenity and “insulting communication” charges last year. As a result, Singapore never comes off looking too poorly despite the satirizing.

Night Owl Cinematics’ If Singaporeans Were Honest video, made for the country’s 50th National Day celebration, is one of the few exceptions. Criticizing Singapore’s bad points with heavy sarcasm, the video begins with a disclaimer on “vulgarity” and ends with reassurances that the criticism is meant as a patriotism-tinged reminder for Singaporeans to be kinder and more grateful. In this way, homegrown YouTube channels not only reveal local humor, but also show how values and traditions actually translate into everyday life.

Like all introductions, there is a learning curve. “Foreigners might have difficulty understanding our accents and our content when they first watch our videos,” Ms. Xiong said. “For some of our videos, you do have to spend a period of time here to understand them better. I think some of the jokes are quite unique. They’re definitely funnier if you’ve been here a while.” Aware of the barrier that Singlish often presents, Night Owl Cinematics includes subtitles on their videos.

As for the future of YouTube in Singapore, the challenge now is to continue appealing to the niche that made them popular while also pivoting to a general audience. Ms. Chan noted that three years ago she thought their site would shift to more international content. “But the thing is we realized despite us focusing on our Singaporean-ism, we gained a lot of international and foreign audience during this period.” Similarly, Ms. Xiong has seen their viewer demographic shift from 80% males aged 25 and younger to a 50/50 gender divide. Although 18-34 is still their main age group, it’s less than 30% of their total audience.

The major problem with local YouTube channels, said Ms. Xiong, is the lack of variety. Like the country itself, Singapore’s community of YouTubers is relatively small, so content and ideas often overlap.

Nevertheless, Ms. Xiong said she thinks more diversity is on its way. “I’ve seen some new players this year…and they seem really promising and new and different.” She added that the Wah!Banana team is considering making a “Shit Expats Say” video in the coming months. I can’t wait.