Summer Round-Up: Weaving, Sugar and Libraries

Woo! It’s been a busy summer. (Yes, I still mentally divide the year into European/North American seasons even though I live on the equator.)

For those who don’t know, at the end of May I began writing weekly posts for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys. And because my boss is an awesome lady, she got us a partnership with Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS), who have been featuring my pieces in the Ready to Travel section of their website and app. A few have also appeared on Tourego.

Since these pieces are all fairly short (hooray for the #TLDR era), I thought I’d put them together in a periodic round-up instead of giving them all individual posts here.

And so…

Behold! My stuff.

14. The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 1)

It’s easy to forget that the map of the globe wasn’t always the way it is today. Borders have been redrawn too many times to count. Populations were abruptly combined into states by colonizers. The names that locals gave to their lands sometimes stuck and were sometimes overwritten by a foreign nation’s interpretation…

13. WILD Eats

Organic produce and eating local might sound like modern trends but for the people of Sarawak in Borneo (Malaysia), it’s been a way of life for thousands of years thanks to the rich biodiversity of their 130 million year old rainforest. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo is estimated to contain more than 15,000 plant species, over 5,000 of which are found nowhere else on the planet…

12. Crafty Curriculum: Weaving and Indigo Go to School

The StraitsJourneys team recently joined our Expert Lynelle Barrett and Leong Minyi, founder of Mai Textile Studio, in leading a workshop for children at the Waldorf Steiner Education Association. This was an exciting way for StraitsJourneys to give back to the community, and also a chance to teach local kids about traditional textiles…

11. A LOOK UPSTREAM

The Republic of Singapore turns 53 this year and as usual, the National Day fireworks will take place where the Singapore River empties into the bay. Much like the country itself, the river reflecting these lights has shapeshifted throughout the past century…

10. UNUSUAL FINDS IN LIBRARIES

Generally, when you visit a library, you know what to expect: books for borrowing. Some people may have been shocked when shelves of CDs and DVDs for rent began cropping up, but here are a few libraries with even stranger finds amongst the stacks…

9. OLD PATHS TO NEW PLACES

Hanoi, a city that’s been standing for over 1000 years, has been going through a recent development boom. But even as skyscrapers are springing up, the scene on the ground is still flush with cultural gems and hidden corners. The new is being woven into the old, forming a thrilling tapestry of streets lined with both ancient temples and trendy cafes…

Photo Copyright: Andrey Maslakov

8. The Bitter History of Sugar

Between the endless articles on how sugar shapes our bodies and the endless advice on how to consume less of it, it’s rarely mentioned that sugar has also heavily shaped the modern world. And much like the cavities and diseases our bodies are wracked with, this deceptively harmless sweetener’s impact on the world is markedly negative…

7. Electric Akihabara

The story of the Akihabara shopping district in Tokyo is essentially the story of every high school nerd in the 1980s. Shops here were the first to sell and celebrate home computers at a time when they were only used by specialists and hobbyists, and naturally, their indoorsy consumers were also big fans of anime…

6. Art by Humans, Art by Nature

For those looking to spend the summer immersed in beauty, Penang should be at the top of the list. Thanks to its 130 million year old rainforest and 5,000 years of human civilization, the island has a wealth of both natural and man-made art. In fact, the whole month of August is devoted to it….

5. A Year in Literature

There is a beautiful line in Jhumpa Lahiri’s international bestseller The Namesake that you’ve probably seen floating around the internet: “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” The exploration of unfamiliar lands can happen on the page or on a plane, and in some magical instances, both at the…

4. The Thread of History

Clothing has always straddled the line between art and function. Born out of necessity, methods of creating and wearing textiles have evolved to represent cultural values as well as individuality. With evidence of its existence dating back 27,000 years, weaving is one of humanity’s oldest activities. It is also one of the most universal…

3. The Multicultural Mosque

The end of Ramadan is fast approaching and there’s excitement in Singapore’s humid air. Hari Raya Puasa (also called Eid al-Fitr) is a holiday about generosity, charity and reflecting on one’s past actions. Since practicing Muslims conclude a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, it’s no surprise that food is also a huge component…

2. The Cultivated Elegance of Taiwanese Tea

When the phrase tea ceremony is mentioned, you likely think of Japan’s meticulous rituals or of Chinese wedding traditions. However, the lesser-known tea culture of Taiwan is no less captivating. “Tea is not merely a drink but an art form in Taiwan,” states Dave Lim, owner of Sun Ray Cafe in Singapore and…

1. Zoom into Angkor Wat

 As the largest religious monument in the world, the architecture of Angkor Wat is unquestionably impressive from a distance. The central temple stands at 213 meters tall. The entire complex spans 162.6 hectares. The city is comprised of more stone than all of Egypt’s pyramids combined. But equally impressive are the details…

Eat This, Not That: Singapore Edition

For expat stomachs looking for familiar foods, get a taste of some alternatives in my piece for the May issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

For most people, it’s the stomach that takes the longest to settle into a new place. Even if your mind is thrilled at living in a different country and you love trying unfamiliar foods, at some point, your belly starts whining, “When can we go home?” While you can order practically anything online these days, the cost (both in time and money) of recreating your childhood favorites can add up quickly. But every problem is an opportunity in disguise, to quote John Adams, and this can be a great excuse to shake up your list of go-to meals. Below, I’ve rounded up some cheaper and/or local alternatives that you can substitute for your pricey favorites until your next trip home. Who knows? You may end up liking the substitutions better.

Instead of: Strawberries, Blackberries, Raspberries & Cherries
Try: Mangoes, Dragon Fruit, Mangosteens & Passionfruit

$12.80 for 9 strawberries, anyone? This was one of my stomach’s biggest temper tantrums, since ripe berries have been a longtime pleasure for me. But paying that much for a tiny punnet of watery berries just wasn’t worth it. Fortunately, the tropics are literally overflowing with fruit and the shorter distance fresh food has to travel to get to you, the healthier and tastier it will be. Due to their spiky, scaly and sometimes fuzzy appearances, regional fruit can appear intimidating, but look to the pineapple for encouragement. It also must have baffled Westerners when it first appeared on supermarket shelves, but we think nothing of its prickly hide these days. Give other tropical fruit a similar chance. (Though if you want to skip durian, no one will hold it against you.)

Instead of: Yoghurt
Try: Rice Pudding

With much of Asia being lactose intolerant, the options for yoghurt are limited and/or expensive. A French friend commented that the average yoghurt aisle back home was 20-30 meters, as opposed to the 2 meters here. However, you may have noticed there’s plenty of rice to be found and for fairly cheap. Rice pudding is simple to make at home and is comparable to yoghurt in texture and calorie count, though you won’t get the same bacterial benefits. Also like yoghurt, rice pudding can be sweet or savory. In Singapore, the most common flavors I’ve seen are mango or coconut.

Instead of: Potato chips
Try: Nori (dried seaweed)

You’ve likely already encountered nori as the wrapping on your sushi, but it’s also crazy tasty when in dried sheets. Plus, the health benefits leave other salty snacks in the dust. In 100 grams, nori has: Protein, Vitamin A, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc. All for 35 calories and 0.28 grams of fat. Potato chips (even veggie chips) also boast some of the above vitamins and minerals, but for up to a whopping 536 calories per 100 grams, plus a ton more salt, sugar and 23 grams of fat. Prices between nori and potato chips are comparable too.

Instead of: Mexican food
Try: Arabic food

Another big heartbreak for me upon moving to Singapore was the scarcity of excellent Mexican food that wouldn’t break the bank. But have you ever noticed how similar Mexican and Arabic cuisines are? Compare the holy trio of guacamole, salsa and sour cream to the dips found in mezzes. According to chef Roberto Santibañez, flavors like cilantro, cumin and cinnamon wound up in Mexico centuries ago thanks to the Arabic empire’s spice routes. The most obvious overlap has to be tacos al pastor, which are directly descended from Lebanese shawarma. So, the next time you’re craving a bit of Mexican, head to the Arab Quarter and follow your nose. I doubt you’ll leave unsatisfied.

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Qing Ming Festival in Singapore

Learn about what binds us all together as human beings in my article for the April issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

Ancient cemetery at Yoshino, Japan

Across every culture, creed and continent, we human beings venerate and respect our dead. In hyper-modern Singapore, evidence of this is rarely on display amidst the mania for improving efficiency, the omnipresent internet that can fill every spare moment, and the competition for top positions in schools and companies. But several times a year, local families do take breaks from the nation’s frenetic pace to celebrate traditions that honor their departed loved ones. The most well-known of these is the Hungry Ghost Festival, when the souls of the dead are believed to roam the earth, much like Halloween. But also like Halloween, it has evolved from a somber memorializing ritual into a more lighthearted, commercialized event. The Qing Ming Festival, on the other hand, remains a low-key time for families to come together to pray at the graves of ancestors.

These visits can occur during the ten days before or after the Qing Ming Festival, which occurs about two weeks after the spring equinox (April 5 this year). In order to avoid traffic jams, large crowds and high temperatures during the day, many Singaporeans opt to go after dark or in the early morning. In addition to cleaning the gravesite, families light incense and candles, make offerings of food and drinks, and burn joss paper gifts. Taoist and Buddhist institutions observe the occasion with prayers and rituals performed on behalf of the deceased.

Known as Tomb Sweeping Day in English, Qing Ming’s origin is commonly traced back to Jie Zhitui, a 7th century Chinese nobleman who was revered as a model of self-sacrificing loyalty. Jie followed his wrongly-accused prince into exile and was by his side until the prince was installed as the duke of the state of Jin. The duke was generous to those who had helped him in adversity, but Jie was unfortunately overlooked and so withdrew to seclusion in the forests near Mount Mian. When Jie failed to reappear despite the duke’s attempts to lure him back, the duke ordered a forest fire to smoke Jie out of hiding but Jie was instead burnt alive. In remorse, the duke inaugurated the Cold Food Festival to memorialize him. This festival accrued the elements of ancestral veneration during the Tang Dynasty, and the present importance of Qing Ming is attributed to Emperor Xuanzong, who wanted to curb the excessive, ostentatious ceremonies wealthy citizens were holding to honor their ancestors. In AD732, he declared that respects could be formally paid just once a year, on Qing Ming.

As with most ancient traditions, Qing Ming has been adapted for the modern era. The variety of burnable paper offerings has expanded to include replicas of cars and Louis Vuitton handbags. Homage websites and online memorial halls have flourished in Mainland China. The biggest change in Singapore, however, is that a number of families now bring offerings to niches in columbariums where the ashes of their loved ones are stored. (In Chinese tradition, it’s terrible luck for the living and the dead to reside in the same space, so the ashes of the deceased are never stored in the home.) Due to scarcity of land and growth in population, by 1985 Singapore had reclaimed 21 cemeteries in order to repurpose the plots. Approximately 120,000 graves were exhumed and moved to columbariums. Today, the state-owned Choa Chu Kang cemetery is the only remaining place open for new burials, but with the caveat that the gravesite will be exhumed for cremation after 15 years. It is thus incredibly busy during Qing Ming.

While there is no universally accepted theory on the origins of our honoring the dead, the earliest undisputed human burial dates back 100,000 years. And there is some evidence that even hundreds of thousands of years earlier, Neanderthals were burying their deceased with precious items. It’s not surprising then that Qing Ming shares much in common with so many other countries’ practices: Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, Pchum Ben in Cambodia, Obon in Japan, Famadihana in Madagascar, Galungan in Bali, All Saints’ Day in Christian culture, and the list goes on. These rituals not only allow us to celebrate those who have come before us, they also illuminate how connected we the living are to one other.

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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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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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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.

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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In This Part of the World We Call This Small Talk

Published on March 22, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

The long haul from Singapore to New Jersey requires a layover, often in Shanghai, where on one recent pilgrimage home, an older American gentleman boarded and took the seat next to me. True to the American stereotype, he was friendly and outgoing. It wasn’t long before I learned that he had gone to China to teach and, now disillusioned, was returning home for good. His main source of consternation? A Chinese woman he had thought he was becoming romantically involved with, whom he had spent hours chatting with over dinners, who then — out of the blue — gushed that she wanted him to meet her husband. His bewilderment was still on his face. If it weren’t for in-flight entertainment, he likely would have continued to discuss his disbelief for the rest of our 15 hours in the air.

Small talk is confounding: it’s obligatory but must be casual. It’s a frivolous interaction that may or may not be the initial part of a chain reaction that leads to deeper relationships. Too shallow and the reaction is never sparked. Too deep and the conversation is damned as awkward, inappropriate. But where is the line between small talk and genuine conversation? Between friendship and romance? As my seatmate discovered, depending on where you are in the world, that line can be in unexpected places.

When living abroad, your ability at small talk needs to be rebuilt from scratch, along with your knowledge of which topics and comments qualify as casual or intimate. It’s not called an art for nothing.

For instance, in the United States, directly asking a new acquaintance how much they paid for something is akin to a needle scratch (unless you preface the statement with an apology and the excuse that you’re shopping around for the same item). In Ireland, Great Britain and Japan, it’s doubtful that even that qualifier would be enough to stymy the awkwardness. But in China, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese descendent populations, money isn’t tinged with the same shyness. A casual conversation on which neighborhood you live in can readily lead to the question of how much rent you pay. It’s a question I still stumble to answer gracefully.

On the other hand: while politics is considered a potentially treacherous topic in the U.S., discussions and even criticisms of the government’s actions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they are for Singaporeans or the Chinese. As far as I can tell though, no matter where you are in the world, sex remains squarely in the taboo category when it comes to casual conversation.

Even the eternally neutral topic of the weather can let you down. Small talk in Singapore only occasionally references it, as the equator doesn’t offer much diversity, while it’s almost the de rigeur conversation starter in the changeable climates of the U.S. and Europe. Understanding the local varieties and nuances of small talk will make adapting to life in another country smoother, but it can be a challenge to shake the conversational parameters one was raised with.

The British, Irish and Australians have a history of laughing at themselves and teasing others, even in ‘serious’ business scenarios, which can be startling for cultures who value ‘saving face’. In the USA, we view chatty sales people as slippery. We appreciate a clear demarcation between casual conversation and shop talk, that moment when we ‘get down to business’. Here’s the sales pitch, separate from us enjoying each other’s company. However, my potential clients in Singapore would be disconcerted if I implemented such an obvious tone shift; I would appear to be sweeping our budding friendship off the table to make room for money. In Chinese culture, non-business talk is integral. Without it, the growth of a business relationship can be sluggish regardless of the efficacy of the collaboration. Several corporate dinners can go by before business particulars are even mentioned.

At its core, small talk is about meeting new people and planting the seed for new relationships. The challenge is to recognize when an acquaintance or colleague has become a friend. The topics you discuss with that person may be intensely personal for you but everyday conversation fodder for them. The mistake the gentleman on my flight made wasn’t presuming romance where there was only friendship, but assuming that his style and expectations of communication were universal.

An Expat’s Easy Return to Singapore: It’s a Tale of Two Cities

Published on January 13, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

By the time I was 10 years old, I had lived in five countries across three continents: Ireland to London to Tokyo to Singapore to New Jersey. By the age of 23, I had picked up my American citizenship and an American fiancé who was willing to move to Singapore with me. But I had no illusions that I was returning to a lifestyle I knew.

There are few territories on earth that have changed as quickly or as drastically as Singapore has over the past two decades. I can count on one hand the landmarks from my childhood that still stand. My experience as an expat in Singapore now differs sharply from my parents’ experience in the mid-90s, when the island nation was just shedding its rank as a hardship post.

During the two years my parents lived there, two notable incidents placed Singapore in the consciousness of both Americans and Europeans: Briton Nicholas Leeson caused the spectacular collapse of Barings Bank from his position in Singapore, and 18-year-old Michael Fay became the first American citizen to be sentenced for caning under Singapore law for vandalizing cars and public property. Despite negative media, Singapore’s economic wealth continued to grow at a rapid pace as the onset of the Japanese recession sent many international firms searching for other footholds in Asia. Nevertheless, many expats in the finance sector, including my father in his role at J.P. Morgan, were obliged to take frequent trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong, who retained their reputation as financial powerhouses in the region. These days, Singapore can hold its own as a center of business.

Even without Singapore’s explosive growth, technology like Skype and WhatsApp have transformed the previous alienation of expat life into a far more connected existence. My parents made the costly phone call home once a week at most; I can see my family’s faces and hear their voices for hours every day if I choose. Mom mailed photos of us to my grandmother; I’m friends with most of my family on Facebook. With the exception of a handful of guidebooks, my parents arrived in Japan completely blind; I had the luxury of turning to Google to explore life in Singapore before I stepped on a plane.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same. Life in Singapore was as easy for expats then as it is now, particularly when contrasted to the self-contained and still somewhat xenophobic Japan of the 1990s. Singapore was a smaller, less congested city than Tokyo and presented a wider range of Western food. They spoke English. Mom formed easy, close friendships with the other expat mothers in the condo, while we children played in the pool. That condominium surprisingly still stands. When my dad visited in 2012, he noted that although Singapore’s outer shell had changed, the people fundamentally had the same attitude and disposition. Mom commented that Singapore’s rigidly regulated multiculturalism, where everyone celebrated everything, had created a diluted culture 20 years ago and that today the city feels even more sanitized; in many ways, Singapore no longer feels like an Asian city.

Ironically, the move from Singapore to the U.S. was the hardest by far. When we were in Asia, we were expats and thus part of an instant group. When we landed in New Jersey, we needed to make friends in an already settled community, where we were simply faces in an extraordinarily diverse crowd. Immigrants and their descendants were ubiquitous; it was not a small, supportive club. Our Irish accents and penchant for British spellings garnered prejudice more than once from neighbors and teachers. Despite the difficulty in adjusting, the U.S. remains to date the country my parents have lived in the longest.

When I was considering a move to Singapore in 2011, they were enthusiastic. There was no fear around it; Southeast Asia was familiar territory and Singapore was the safest country in the region. My parents’ experiences had long ago taught them that living abroad gives you a perspective and an appreciation that traveling alone cannot. Although it’s tough being 12 time zones away, to my parents’ eternal credit, they encouraged me to go out and explore the world. I will always remember what Mom told me when I was getting emotional on the day I left: “This isn’t a good bye. It’s a see you later.”

Southeast Asia Travel Secrets

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

With Singapore being so small and the surrounding region being so rich with culture and beauty, it would be a shame not to travel as often as possible. There are what seems like a million websites and apps out there to help with everything from packing to pinpointing the ideal snack joint, but here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful over the last three years.

If you’re looking for flights:

Southeast Asia is a hive of budget airlines that compete with each other, which means plenty of cheap offers every week. Sign up for emails from TigerAir, Jetstar, Scoot, and AirAsia to get access to flash sales. Even Groupon has some great offers. Websites like Skyscanner and Kayak are also ideal for comparing cheap flights, while sites like Zuji go further and offer hotels, car rentals and entire holidays.

If you’re looking for hotels:

Booking.com is always my go to due to their free cancellation policy.

If you’re not sure about visas:

The State Department’s SmartTraveler app lays out everything you need to know about passport requirements, visas, entry and exit fees, locations of American embassies, local laws to take note of, tips on staying safe, and any other restrictions or requirements you can expect to encounter.

If you want someone else to do all the work:

It’s a lot of fun planning out a personalized itinerary for a new destination, but it does take time and research to pin down all the details. Companies like Eco Adventures provide everything from English speaking guides to hotels to internal flights, while making your trip as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible.

If you want the inside scoop:

Each article on WikiTravel is a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know before you go and when you’re there. It’s easy to navigate due to clearly marked sections like “Get In” and “Eat”, and it’s one of the more reliable sources of information about ATMs, local scams, what prices to expect and how to avoid being disrespectful. TripAdvisor’s website and app have also proved invaluable for finding hidden gems, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to affordable nail salons.

If you’re looking to get around:

Uber has proven a lifesaver multiple times in multiple countries, from the United States to Vietnam. Since the Uber app is already hooked up to your credit card, you don’t need to worry if you’re stranded somewhere without cash. And since the driver will have you and your desired destination located on GPS, you don’t need to worry about giving him directions or language issues.

If you’re looking to just explore:

Google Maps is hard to beat. Look up your destination and save the map so you can access it even offline. If your phone has linked with the local phone network, the satellites will also be able to place you on Google Maps.

If you’re hungry:

TripAdvisor and Yelp are probably the most universally reliable, though sometimes digging through the piles of reviews can be exhausting. Usually I just recommend following your nose and taking a chance on a place that looks good. Long lines of people waiting to eat are also a good sign.

If you want a crazy adventure:

Koryo Tours are the people who got us in and around North Korea, but if that’s a bit too crazy a destination for you, they also offer adventures to remote parts of Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia.

If you’re in an emergency:

Hopefully you have travel insurance. I personally recommend ACE Travel Insurance. They found me a clinic up to international standards when I contracted salmonella poisoning in Myanmar. If you’re already in the thick of things, the Travel Safe app is a directory of police, fire and medical services around the world.

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Minding Your Manners

Published on May 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Etiquette can be tough to master at home, let alone abroad. It seems like there’s always something new to learn. For example, I only just found out that if a Singaporean woman introduces herself as Madame Lim, she is using her maiden name, as opposed to when she uses Mrs. Hoh, which is her married name.

As a tourist in Singapore, you’ll likely be forgiven your faux-pas, but if you’re an expat doing business here, it’s a good idea to adapt to the work environment. As the saying goes, “Think global. Act local.”  When you put in the effort to understand local expectations, it not only shows your clients that you respect them, but will also enable you to adjust your marketing strategy or meeting style for a greater chance of success.

Punctuality is a virtue so arrive to meetings on time. Introductions are almost always in order of age. Ethnic Chinese generally use a very light, extended handshake feeling the traditional Western bone-crushing grip is offensive. Chinese men and women may shake hands, but the woman must always extend her hand first. Older ethnic Malayasian men may only shake the hand of another man. Younger Malays sometimes shake hands with foreign women, but it is more appropriate to bow the head which is how two Malay women meet. Indians may shake hands with members of the same sex and will smile and nod when being introduced to somebody of the opposite sex. Hugs are rare in the US in business, but pretty much non-existent here even between friends. Don’t back slap or high five either. In general, folks here simply don’t like to be touched.

If you’re introducing two people, state the name of the more senior or more important person first. When meeting with a Singaporean counterpart, wait for him or her to introduce you to the rest of the team. Avoid using first names until your Singapore counterpart suggests it. This is especially important when dealing with older people. In fact, most Chinese counterparts will introduce you by your last name.

Resist the temptation to give compliments. Giving or receiving compliments is not common in Chinese culture. In fact, if you do give one, your counterpart will probably respond with the words, “Not at all” or “It is nothing” rather than “Thank you.” Conversely, Singaporeans think nothing of asking highly personal questions that Westerners considered inappropriate.

Kang Ha Pheng Sim Kok Building

Here as in Japan, you should use both hands to pass your business card with your name facing the person. Study the card. Take the time to ask how to pronounce their name properly. Leave the card on the table horizontally facing you during the meeting. This is a sign of respect. Whatever you do, don’t put it in your back pocket. Never deal out your own cards like a deck of cards.

In Chinese culture, it’s important for people to see the exit. Since 70% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, it’s best you sit with your back to the door. Generally, you will be told where to sit as there is a strict hierarchy so simply wait to be told where to sit and you’ll be okay.

Appropriate dress depends on the industry in which you’re working. Finance jobs, for example, generally demand a full suit and tie whereas many other industries in Singapore are much more casual. Try to gear your style to the client’s.

Everybody likes to feel as if they’ve won, but this is particularly important in the Chinese culture. If you’re selling something, for example, give an initial price with a room for negotiation.

Most cultures consider it polite to offer a visiting client or business partner something to drink upon their arrival. In the US and the UK, we expect glasses of water to at least be chilled or better yet have ice. Room temperature water smacks of a half-hearted attempt to provide a nice drink. But in Malaysia, Singapore and a few other Southeast Asian countries, it’s a nice gesture to clarify whether they would prefer warm or cold water. The belief that drinking too much cold water will make you sick is still a fairly common one so if you can handle warm water, it’s probably best to just sip and make do.

Once refreshments are handled, it’s time to get down to business by…not talking about business right away. Relationships, rather than strict economics, rule business partnerships in Asia and so the straightforwardness that Americans value so highly can strike the wrong tone. We think we’re being honest and not wasting time, but the chunk of the business meeting you devote to small talk can often be the most productive part of the rendezvous. However, no matter how well that conversation goes, it can still be difficult to determine whether or not you have successfully made your case. In the same way that Singaporeans value relationships, they are also often reluctant to say “no” outright. Part of my job requires me to pitch our consulting services one-on-one to potential clients and I can never tell if I’ve made a sale until the moment they sign up. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have led nowhere, while conversations I wrote off as a wash led to that person buying a package several weeks later.

Singaporeans often put more stock in facial expression, tone of voice and posture than in the spoken word. They pay as much attention to what isn’t said to what is said. Silence is actually quite important in negotiation. By pausing before you answer, you signal that you’ve really stopped to think about what the other person said and how you want to respond. This is a symbol of respect while responding quickly is seen as rude behavior. Speaking loudly is also a sign of rudeness. Most locals speak softly and sometimes smile to avoid embarrassment and not necessarily because they think what you said is all that funny. If you’ve been getting a lot of smiles in your meetings, it may not be because you’re the stand-up comedian you think you are!

Something else rude? Moving something with your shoe or pointing the soles of your shoes towards somebody so don’t prop your feet up on the table. Things like pointing and whistling are totally unacceptable. Shrugging and winking are confusing.  Never write anything in red ink.

If you’ve lived here for more than ten minutes, you know that food is a big deal in Singapore. Business lunches can be super fancy or a quick meal at a hawker center. If you’re hosting, remember that Muslims don’t eat pork and devout Muslims should be taken to a halal restaurant. Hindus don’t eat beef. And there are no three martini lunches in Singapore. In general, drinking during the day is frowned upon, but drinking at night is acceptable and often an important part of bonding with clients.

Another thing to be mindful of is how you speak about Singapore. While Singaporeans themselves will be the first to admit they love to complain, that doesn’t give you equal rights to whine. Think about how you would feel back home if an expat complained about life in your city. Even if you agreed with their gripes, you would likely still feel a pang of defensive patriotism. Keep your bellyaching about the restaurant service or the weather to your own circle of friends and out of any professional relationships.

At the end of the meeting, guests should be walked to the elevator. High-ranking guests should be walked to the car. When a Singaporean offers to send you to the airport, they are literally offering to take you or collect you themselves.

Nevertheless, being polite on local terms doesn’t mean relinquishing all the traits that have made you successful back home. I begin my workshops by stating outright that I’m a loud American, which means I’m going to make them talk in class, urge them to work in groups and expect them to ask questions. The belligerent interactivity is often novel for adults who were taught in the more restrained Singapore style. When mixed with elements they’re to which they are more accustomed, communication not only becomes easy, it becomes enjoyable.

And don’t forget the number one rule of doing business in other countries: if you accidentally offend, simply apologize and take the lesson with you.

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Expat Health and Beauty Woes: Goodbye Home, Hello Frizz

Published on April 23, 2015 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

WSJ ExpatThe Wall Street Journal‘s hub for expatriates and global nomads, recently published my piece on the physical challenges of living in Singapore as a non-native. Here’s a snippet:

This means that tried-and-true styles from other climates simply might not work in Southeast Asia. (Layers? Forget it.) A friend from Chicago declares that Singapore taught her to finally embrace her curls.

Color is another challenge, especially if you’re a bottle blonde like me. Asians obviously aren’t concerned with a blonde dye job appearing natural, so most stylists in Singapore seldom combine highlights and lowlights.

Read the rest HERE!

Singapore: ‘An Expat Life Starter-Kit, Tiny and Neatly Contained’

Published on February 4, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

Capitol Building

The Wall Street Journal recently launched WSJ Expat, their hub for expatriates and global nomads, and recently published my piece on expat culture in Singapore. Here’s a snippet:

Even lifelong expats like me don’t consider Singapore to be our final stop, partly because Singapore itself is still figuring out what type of country it wants to be. It’s hard to plant roots in a city you might not recognize by the end of a two-year contract. Construction projects are ubiquitous; familiar streets completely transform in mere weeks. Even the iconic Merlion statue (referred to as the “personification of Singapore”) was relocated in 2002 and renovated in 2012.

Read the rest HERE!

The Charm of Inle Lake

Published on October 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

A quick flight north from Yangon and a long, winding drive through the mountains of Myanmar will lead you to the gorgeous expanse of Inle Lake. The calm, blue waters are a bracing contrast to the red earth and the dusty green landscape surrounding it. Located in the Nyaung Shwe Township of the Shan State with an estimated surface area of 116 square kilometers, it is the second largest lake in Myanmar. We stayed at the scenic Hupin Hotel in rustic rooms that stood on stilts in the low, lapping water of the lake, which was host to a flotilla of emerald-green water plants. From our balconies we watched boats return to the hotel through the pagoda-style gateway in a fence made of sticks that separated our cove from the open water. Since we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and had scheduled a full day of touring the lake for the following day, we opted to borrow bicycles from the hotel and explore by land.

Cycling along the quiet little road in the dappled shadows of the trees had the thrill of a childhood adventure. We exchanged waves with the schoolchildren bound for home in their green longyi while we swerved around the occasional traffic: a truck carrying twenty people, a ramshackle tractor or two, men on motorcycles, and women encumbered with hefty bundles of sticks. Small paths led from the main road to simple pagodas and to the tightknit communities of local villages. Before we knew it, the afternoon had flown by and we had to hurry back to the hotel to catch the sunset. A tall hill stood next to the resort and we decided to scale it for a better view. Perched at the peak was the home of a Buddhist monk clad in traditional orange robes who happily pointed us to the western side of his pagoda-style living quarters and asked us about our homelands. I paused to remove my flip flops before stepping onto the wide stone porch that encircled the building but the monk shook his head and said there was no need. Plus the dogs would steal my shoes if I left them unattended. A gaggle of friendly, well-fed mutts romped around the grounds, pestering us to play as we soaked in the setting of the sun over the glittering Inle Lake. At night the secluded Nyaung Shwe Township slept under a brilliant blanket of stars.

The next morning we hired for the day a long, thin boat and its operator, and by 8:30am we were whizzing across the vast blue lake in the bright sunshine. The boat was affiliated with the hotel and so was well-equipped with cushioned chairs, umbrellas, water, and blankets to weather the sun and the wind. After some time we arrived at the Ywama inlet for the morning market and our boatman expertly maneuvered us through a traffic jam so thick you could barely see the water. Our boat mostly rubbed shoulders with the brightly painted tourist boats, but on the other side of the thin inlet I could see a large number of the unadorned canoes of the local villagers beached on the reedy shoreline.

IMAG1181The stalls around the edge of the market were piled high with souvenir items (Buddha statues, gemstones, marionettes, and the like – which may or may not have been authentic) but the further in we wandered the more we saw the stalls for locals on their daily errands. Women with thanaka (a creamy paste with cosmetic and sun protection purposes) painted on their cheeks sat cross-legged on elevated mats behind small mountains of tomatoes, eggs, and leafy greens. There were wide baskets of peanuts and beans, tables of flip flops and t-shirts, and piles of watermelons. Vendors fried bread-like snacks and served tea. A few tailors sat at their pedal-powered sewing machines under a loose patchwork ceiling of colored tarps. In one corner, a few barbers were laughing with their customers. Sitting at one of the marketplace’s outer edges was a row of men behind woven mats laden with fish big and small, all shimmering in the morning sun. Some were still gasping for air.

The Intha (the 70,000 or so people of Inle Lake) live in four cities bordering the water, in numerous small villages along the shore, and also on the lake itself. The village of Ywama is just one of many rustic villages and is part of the rotating market cycle of Inle; each weekday the market is hosted by a different village on the lake. After escaping the bustling clog of boats, we continued our tour by water. We zipped past villages built entirely on stilts that either stood in the water or in the verdant riverbanks. Floating mats of vegetation, anchored in place with bamboo poles, sported ripe tomato plants. Residents waved from their canoes, and from the bamboo walkways and simple bridges that arched over the canals. Since nearly all the homes and public buildings were perched on piles driven into the lakebed, these villages had no town squares. Instead, the Intha gathered in pagoda complexes and monasteries like Nga Phe Kyaung (nicknamed the Jumping Cat Monastery for its cats trained to jump through hoops). Unsurprisingly, these peaceful community centers receive most of their guests by water and are rimmed in long docks.

Approaching by boat every time, we spent the afternoon paying visits to a silk weaving shop, a metal smith, a silversmith, and a parasol workshop: all exquisite industries that the people of Inle Lake are known for. The culture of the Intha is rich and fascinating, and it is heavily influenced by Buddhism and by their aqueous environment. They are water people through and through. They’re on boats as often as not. Their cuisine is centered around fish. Every stork-like house has a collection of canoes leashed to the porches from which the Intha simply reach down to the water’s surface to wash their clothes or themselves. The entire drama of their lives is played out on this lake. But the most notable aspect of the Intha—and of the Burmese people in general—is their genuine affability. A warm smile and a friendly wave greeted us wherever we went on land or water. On our return to the hotel, as our boat coasted through the sunset, we passed a young woman sitting cross-legged at the bow of her boat and she impulsively tossed me a flower. I grinned in thanks and she waved goodbye before effortlessly sailing off across the surface of her home.

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Yogyakarta in a Weekend

Published on May 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Prambanan

When I was first invited to spend the weekend in Yogyakarta, I admit I had to Google where it was. Located in the southern part of Central Java in Indonesia, the district of Yogyakarta is famous for its proximity to two breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple compound of Prambanan. Regardless of my ignorance, Yogyakarta (occasionally spelled Jogjakarta) has become Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination after Bali and it is widely regarded to be the center of Javanese culture. Best of all, it is small enough to make it an excellent weekend destination from Singapore.

Friday Afternoon

A purple storm brewed in the sky as we made our way through the bustle of Yogyakarta’s small airport and the March rain came down hard during the hour-long drive to the Manohara Hotel. The hotel cuddles up to the Borobudur Temple compound and it is the only guesthouse within walking distance from the immense 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist structure. Not long after our arrival, we borrowed umbrellas from the front desk and set off into the wet afternoon. We scaled Borobudur’s six square levels and the top three circular platforms, simulating the path that Buddhist monks follow on pilgrimages to the temple site. The rain darkened the stone statues of headless Buddhas that guarded each tier and the entire temple had a hushed, peaceful atmosphere about it. Borobudur’s Javanese architecture perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology: the dense stone base of represents the sphere of desire; five square terraces represent the sphere of form; and the sphere of formlessness is represented by the three circular platforms as well as the large stupa topping the structure. The ascending stairways and paths are lined by over 2,000 carved stone panels in the walls which depict these three realms in detailed relief.

Saturday

We woke bleary-eyed before dawn and were led through the dark by a hotel staff member, who gifted us all with flashlights. After gingerly climbing to the temple’s summit, we perched on the ledge of the top tier to await the sun amidst the Buddha statues encased in their perforated stone stupas. The countryside was quiet and the full moon shone like a spotlight over our heads. Pale blue mists swirled around the surrounding mountains and then glowed gold as the first rays of sunlight struck them. Birds sang overhead in the fresh morning air, which was warming up quickly.

After breakfast, we relocated to the Phoenix Hotel, an elegant historic building from 1918 in Yogyakarta City, and spent the day leisurely weaving through the throngs of horse carts, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, cars, trucks and pedestrians. On the crowded streets of the popular Malioboro district, petite stores sold everything from cellphones to traditional Javanese clothing. Men caught naps in the shaded seats of their trishaws. By the park, women crouched over fiery barbecues grilling delicious-smelling satay skewers. Yogyakarta is a prosperous town that is growing—like a great many towns in Indonesia—but it is growing at a rate of its own choosing. Foreign investment is present but it doesn’t overpower the local culture, giving the city a distinct personality that is an inimitable blend of heritage and modernity.

Yogyakarta retains strong communities that are focused on carrying on traditions in silver work, the creation of batik fabric, and gamelan music. But the most alluring of these artistries are the performances of wayang kulit or shadow puppets, which are fastidiously crafted masterpieces of leather, buffalo horn and bamboo. The ethereal movements of the shadowy figures draw you into their world and you find yourself transfixed on the story they tell. There are a number of puppet shows that take place on various days in Yogyakarta; the best way to find one is to ask a local (or the front desk at your hotel) where the best show near you is.

There were two more stops on our list before dinner: the kraton and the bird market around the Taman Sari castle complex. ‘Bird Market’ turned out to be a misnomer; while there were cages upon cages of roosters and parakeets and budgies, you could also buy squirrels, puppies, bats, pythons, hedgehogs, iguanas, civets, and the list just kept going. While the market provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the local people, it’s not for the squeamish. Live ants and maggots are kept on hand as birdfeed, and plenty of the cuddly animals are purchased to be eaten.

The Yogyakarta Kraton complex serves as the principal residence of the sultan and hosts a number of official ceremonies, however the sultanate officially became part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. The compound is often hailed as the cultural heart of the region. Music and dance performances are regularly held within the palace grounds and the buildings are a majestic display of Javanese architecture. Most of the palace complex is a museum with numerous artifacts on display, including a variety of gifts presented to the sultanate from the kings of Europe and a complete gamelan set.

Sunday

The Phoenix Hotel provided a good night’s sleep, breakfast and a convenient starting point for our final destination. Upon our arrival to the Prambanan Temple Compounds, the staff manning the entrance tied white and indigo batik around our waists, which drew much amusement from the groups of local schoolchildren also visiting the famous UNESCO site. The stunning shrine was built in the 9th or 10th century and consists of over 200 separate temples, which makes this compound the biggest temple complex in Java, the most expansive Hindu temple site in Indonesia, and one of the largest temple sites in Southeast Asia. Originally there were 240 temples but a number of those have unfortunately been reduced to piles of rubble on the grass. The compound is dedicated to the three great Hindu divinities—Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma—and is considered to be one of the world’s top three ancient masterpieces of Hindu architecture. The central building is devoted to Shiva and looms high at 47 metres (154 feet) tall. We spent hours exploring the otherworldly temple complex, and it was too soon that we were on our way back to the airport to catch our flight home.

Though the region of Yogyakarta is small enough to see in a weekend, the city’s warm and unique character also makes a destination worth experiencing for a second time. There are far too many streets to discover, cheerful people to meet and tasty restaurants to try to only visit Yogyakarta once.

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