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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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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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.

Living in Singapore: Lifestyles Chapter (Updated!)

LIS title

The Living in Singapore Fourteenth Edition Reference Guide is finally out!

Written by expats for everyone, the guide gives essential information for a seamless move to and maximum enjoyment out of the Lion City. It’s published by the American Association of Singapore and each chapter is written by an experienced writer with many years of living in Singapore (like me!), giving readers the best possible insight into life here.

Living in Singapore

I wrote the original Lifestyle Chapter for the Thirteenth Edition in 2014 and this year I had the opportunity to update it. The chapter covers everything from political activism to pornography laws to libraries to the LGBT scene to environmentalism to religion. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

So, you’re fully unpacked. You’ve figured out your morning commute. The kids are settling into their new school. Your phone is loaded with local emergency numbers. You know where the nearest grocery store is. All the basic necessities have been taken care of. Now what?

In a diverse, modern metropolis such as Singapore, there’s no reason to simply hunker down and survive your time as an expat. While it’s always difficult to leave behind the communities that matter to you, you don’t have to sacrifice your passions just because you find yourself living abroad. It’s important to tailor your life as an expat to your preferences, lest you begin to resent your new environment.

Perhaps you’re a devoted Protestant seeking a church to attend. Perhaps you’re hearing impaired and wondering how to find a new circle. Perhaps you’re a compulsive environmentalist or a BDSM fetishist or a bookworm. Perhaps you’re all of the above. Our lifestyle choices are what make our lives ours, no matter where we are. This chapter covers a few ways to transplant your old habits, hobbies and values into this fresh setting. You might even be inspired to try something new.

This year, we even have a funny commercial to promote the guide!

You can purchase Living in Singapore as an eBook through Amazon, Apple iBookstore, or Google Play.

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.

Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy

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

Though it might not pack the wild personality of cities like New York or London, Singapore is hard to beat when it comes to sheer convenience. Here is a list of what I think makes living in this city-state a uniquely easy experience:

Public Transportation. The most obvious of Singapore’s modern conveniences, the buses and trains are clean, cheap and punctual. One of the benefits of this city state’s youth is that the train network was built less than 30 years ago (unlike the NYC subway and the Tube, which are each over a century old), so its infrastructure is up-to-date and even allows for cell service. And if there aren’t any buses or MRT stations near you, the taxis are equally convenient, inexpensive and accessible.

Overhangs. Though it often goes unnoticed in the day-to-day, the majority of the city’s buildings have been carefully planned to feature an overhang in some form. While these are crucial for those sudden rainstorms, they’re equally vital for weathering the tropical sunshine. During a visit to nearby Malacca, I was surprised at how much more intense the day’s heat felt and realized that the difference was the abundance of shade that Singapore’s overhangs and plentiful trees provide.

AXS Stations. Like shrines to convenience, the 900+ AXS machines tucked into corners all over the island are most impressive for allowing you to pay all your bills in one fell swoop, from utilities to medical to the credit card. Not only that, bills that arrive in the mail have a barcode at the bottom that you can scan into an AXS Station, so you don’t even need to type in the details before dipping in your debit card. These stations also enable you to pay fines, top-up your ez-link card, buy and collect movie tickets, book an NParks BBQ pit and apply for a camping permit.

Mobile Phones. For anyone who has wrangled with AT&T or Verizon contracts and despaired over their rules on which phones you could use, Singapore’s system is a refreshing change. As long as you have a local SIM card, you can buy a new phone at any time without having to navigate a tangle of regulations. Plus, phone numbers are portable, meaning you don’t need to change your number if you switch to a new service provider.

Everything is Online. Singapore was ranked highest globally for smartphone penetration, according to a 2015 survey by Deloitte’s Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications. Following suit, local retailers have also increased their online presence. RedMart and Cold Storage allow you to order groceries online or through mobile phone apps. A slew of restaurants, like Simply Wrapps and Smiths Authentic Fish and Chips, have unique apps and rewards programs. Even government services make accessing information and submitting feedback through websites a piece of cake.

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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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Giving a Holiday Party

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

In my opinion, the holiday season begins a bit prematurely in Singapore. Orchard was decked out in tinsel weeks before Hallowe’en and supermarkets started playing Michael Buble’s Christmas album even earlier. So there’s been plenty of time to think about and plan a holiday party. But if you’re wondering how to prepare a Christmas dinner in your shoebox-sized oven, or if you’re worried tropical heat and the holiday spirit don’t mix, or if you just hate the idea of cleaning up after a party…keep reading.

The Tree. Like many of us, pine trees are not native to this part of the world and some handle relocation better than others. Avoid the little ones on ice that supermarkets sometimes carry; despite their green needles, they’re often already on their way to being totally brown by December 25th. IKEA is a reliable source of both artificial and real trees, but be warned they sell out quickly. Tangs or Robinsons also carry artificial (even completely pre-decorated) trees. My favorite option is to support local nurseries (like Far East Flora, Thomson Nurseries, or Bedok Garden & Landscaping, to name a few), who offer several sizes of U.S.-sourced pines. Don’t worry – you’ll get used to perusing Christmas trees in the humidity.

The Decorations. You have a wide range of options when it comes to balls and baubles to decorate your home with. Malls have pop-up exhibitions or shops where you can grab some cheap and cheerful danglies (Tangs has a whole floor). Larger Cold Storage outlets offer Christmas-themed paper plates and napkins, while IKEA carries cute decorations and cheap yet festive glassware. You’ll see a bunch of “Christmas Fairs” advertised but they’re often like any other shopping event (except with an additional stall or two selling handmade holiday-related items); it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find decorations.

The Food. I confess: despite throwing several Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, I have never actually roasted my own turkey. I don’t trust my skills or my finicky oven. Conveniently, both NTUC and Cold Storage begin filling orders for Christmas feasts starting in late November. You can have an entire banquet quite literally delivered to your door, complete with gravy, stuffing, wine, and dessert. Several restaurants and specialty stores also feature festive catalogs, like Da Paolo Gastronomia, Royal Plaza on Scotts, The American Club, Meat the Butcher, and Huber’s Butcher.

The Clean Up. If you’re DINKs like us and a live-in helper would be overkill, fear not. There are cleaning services you can call, but I’ve found most require you to pay for a couple of weeks rather than a one-off service. Thankfully, there’s an app for that. Helpling is like Uber for cleaning services. You hook it up to your credit card and input your address, number of rooms, extra requests, and your desired timing. Note you’ll want to schedule in advance as it can take a few days for them to find someone for you.

Regardless of the premature festivities, holiday parties these days are no longer the dreaded gauntlet they once were. The best part of all these conveniences is that they allow you to return your focus to the heart of the season’s celebrations: enjoying time with friends and family.

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Living and Giving as an Expat in Nepal

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

We’ve all seen the photos: the streets of Kathmandu flooded with rubble, the Nepalese families picking through the remains of their collapsed homes, the piles of bricks where Durbar Square used to be. But since the two earthquakes in April, which left over 8,700 dead and apparently shifted Mount Everest by three centimeters, Nepal has been steadily rebuilding.

A United Methodist Pastor in the Detroit Conference who has lived in Nepal for the past few years, Rev. Dr. Jan L. Beaderstadt has been actively involved in the disaster recovery and has been working with Renaissance Outreach Ministries to raise aid money for those living in the mountains, which were some of the hardest hit areas. He recently traveled to Tinmane Village in the Gorkha District to distribute tents to families who lost their homes.

“I am impressed with the attitude of the people,” he commented in an interview. “They have pulled together to help each other. There has been very little in the way of looting. Even though the government has been slow in getting aid to the people who need it, the people haven’t resorted to violence like they would have in other developing countries. Nepalis are patient people.”

If you’ve been wondering how you could best support Nepal’s efforts to reconstruct, the answer is fairly straightforward according to Dr. Beaderstadt: book a trip. Half a million people in Nepal work in tourism and it’s a crucial pillar of the impoverished nation’s economy. While aid is helpful, tourist dollars are a much-needed source of funds to keep the nations on a steady path to recovery. If you’re worried about safety, know that the has lifted travel warnings for most areas. The photos, though dramatic, are hardly the whole story. Most of the country was unaffected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, with only 14 out of 75 districts suffering damage. Almost all national parks and protected areas, including UNESCO heritage sites and popular trekking destinations.

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Walking around Kathmandu with Dr. Beaderstadt was like being escorted by the mayor. Every few minutes he called out jovial greetings and shook hands with those he knew, from trishaw drivers to shop owners.

“You never run out of new thing to try in Kathmandu,” he declared before leading us into a restaurant posted with a sign that read ‘Probably the Best Pizza in Town.’ Inside, he immediately launched into a long conversation with the head waiter, apparently an old friend. We had met Dr. Beaderstadt a few days earlier in Nagarkot, just after my husband and I had trekked 18 kilometers through the mountainous Nepalese countryside, a section of the Kathmandu valley that the earthquakes devastated.

He mused that the earthquakes may prove to be a blessing in disguise, as the disaster has given people of all castes and religions something to rally around. In addition to long held social and ethnic hierarchies, the recent transition from monarchy to democracy has not been an easy one. The king relinquished sovereign power in 2006 and although elections were carried out relatively peacefully, quagmire-inducing political tensions and power struggles continue. Regardless, “for the most part, life goes on even when government is almost non-functioning at times. The people here demonstrate that they can function as a highly civilized society even if the country [has taken nearly a decade to draft] a constitution.”

While many expats hold themselves separate from the communities they reside in, since leaving American soil in 1998 Dr. Beaderstadt has enmeshed himself wholeheartedly in every new environment. While running a Bible School in Bangladesh and making frequent visits to Kathmandu, he was approached by his current partner, Kul Bahadur Gurung of Alliance Treks & Expeditions. Together they co-founded the Be-Kul Language Training Center to conduct leadership, management and English language training for local businesses. Though Dr. Beaderstadt noted that dealing with bureaucracy, particularly navigating the expectation of bribes, was one of the greatest challenges of living in Nepal.

“The people are wonderful, although lousy time managers,” he said. “Everything gets done by ‘tomorrow’ but tomorrow never seems to come. We often have severe power cuts that can last up to 11 hours a day. You often don’t have water on demand. But you get used to it, learn to plan ahead (they publish a daily power outage schedule) and learn to take life a bit easier.”

In spite of the unpredictable availability of amenities and the impending task of reconstruction, Dr. Beaderstadt has no plans to leave Nepal any time soon and is anticipating the arrival of his wife after she retires in a few years.
“Those living here get a chance to really immerse themselves in the local culture and make some really good friends. It is a relaxed atmosphere. I love it here.”

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Guide to Singlish

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

Despite what a number of Westerners think, you don’t need Chinese to live comfortably in Singapore. The only language you need to get familiar with is Singlish, a dialect so unique that it has its own separate Wikipedia page (which is well worth a read, especially for the many uses of “can”). Although treated as a mongrel of Mandarin and English, Singlish also includes an array of words from Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese, and even some Tamil. For anyone who hasn’t grown up as a bilingual (sometimes trilingual) Singaporean, fluency in Singlish is a near impossibility. But to get you started, here is a beginner’s toolkit of crucial vocabulary and phrases.

Ang mo(h)
Originating from the Hokkien word for “red-haired”, ang mo is now common slang for “white person”. Sometimes considered pejorative, it’s nevertheless a widely used term that frequently appears in the media.

Aunty and Uncle
A polite way to address an older man or woman, especially if you don’t know their name. It’s akin to using “Miss” to get a waitress’s attention or “Mister” for a taxi driver.

Can
A stalwart of Singlish, this single word is a ruthlessly efficient combination of an English word and Chinese syntax, and you will hear it everywhere as a confirmation. Often, “Can” is used in place of “Okay” or “Yes.”

Can?
The question version of the above, “Can?” is often tacked onto the end of a request and can mean “Is that alright?” or “Are you able to…?” For example, “Finish this by tomorrow, can?” (Once in a hawker centre when the beer aunty said ‘No more jugs. Can?’, I was genuinely confused as to what she was saying until she held up the can of Tiger.)

Chope
Vital for those hoping to get a meal at a hawker center, “chope” means to save a seat by placing the cheapest or most useless item you have (usually a packet of tissues) on the table. To remove or ignore someone else’s tissues is considered a grave sin indeed.

Kiasu
Hokkien for “afraid to lose”, “kiasu” is essentially the anxious, selfish “Me first!” spirit you see in those who edge you out of the way so they can get on the bus before everyone else or in that friend who always has to one-up you.

Lah!
More assertive than an exclamation point alone, “lah” regularly appears at the end of assertions and declarations. Its tone can range from imperative to impatient to reassuring.

Leh
Another of Singlish’s many sentence ending particles, “leh” is used to soften a command, request, claim, or complaint that may be brusque otherwise.

Makan
The Malaysian word “to eat”, “makan” is deployed as a verb or a noun.

Revert
The eyelash in the eye of all English grammar purists living in Singapore, “to revert” is frequently used to mean “to return/respond to me”. Technically, “to revert” is defined as returning to a former habit or condition, but it most commonly appears in Singlish as a request in business emails. For example, “Can you answer this question? Please revert.”

Roti prata
This is a double whammy. The first meaning of this term is a flaky, fluffy, delicious Indian pancake that goes well with curry gravy and is quite popular. Since making the roti prata involves flipping the flat dough back and forth between one’s hands, “roti prata” has taken on a second meaning: a person who keeps changing their mind.

Shiok
Originally a Malay expression, “shiok” conveys a feeling of pure pleasure and happiness. Usually used as an adjective, this word pops up in a lot of advertisements.

Tai chi
Another double meaning. You may know tai chi as the Chinese martial art but because of the slow pushing movements, “tai chi” is also used to describe somebody who constantly pushes work onto others.

Take away
Where we would say “take out”, here it is “take away” (or if you’re really savvy, “ta pao”). You might not think there’s a big difference but asking for take-out will often earn you a confused look. No good if your stomach is grumbling for makan lah!

Wa(h) lau!
A mild exclamation of annoyance, disbelief, exasperation, frustration, surprise, etc. Usually considered one of the more polite exclamations, its literal translation is something like “Oh my gosh!”

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The Rich World of Kyoto

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

When you live surrounded by the glossy newness of Singapore’s infrastructure, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dignity of Kyoto’s several thousand years of architecture. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, this city is a bastion of the nation’s culture and is rife with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My husband, however, couldn’t get over the fact that progress seemed to have halted in the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic bubble collapsed And yet the trains still run perfectly, the buildings are old but not decrepit, and the analog ticket machines work without a hitch. If your impression of Japan was formed by sushi restaurants, anime, and the somber economic statistics, a visit to Kyoto will reveal a nation of more depth and breadth than you can imagine. This is a country that knows itself, that treasures its multilayered identity, and is content to move at its own pace.

Kyoto is home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, big and small, and you can spend weeks going from one to another. Instead of hitting sites at random, I suggest doing research beforehand to hone in on the temples and shrines you really want to see, and then plan a route accordingly. My top three are as follows:

    1)    Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll want to set aside at least half a day to wander dreamily through the endless corridors of red-orange torii gates trailing up the mountain.

    2)    Heian Jingu. The vivid shrine buildings are reason enough to visit but it’s the stunning traditional gardens (which took 20 years for gardener Jihei Ogawa to perfect) that elevate this expansive site to magical.

    3)    Kinkaku-ji. Probably the most well-known temple in Kyoto, this is a popular site well worth the crowds. It doesn’t matter when you go, as every season renders the gold temple picturesque for different reasons.

Other temples and shrines I recommend are: Ginkaku-ji for its lush moss gardens, Kiyomizu-dera for the views of Kyoto, Daitoku-ji for its bouquet of sub-temples and historic Zen gardens, and Yasaka Shrine for a night walk. Though of course, there are thousands more.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

Since it is possible to overdose on temples, take advantage of your time in Kyoto to experience some of Japan’s traditional arts. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon just strolling along the preserved streets of Gion, the country’s most famous geisha district. While genuine geiko (the local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) can be spotted in the evenings, you’re more likely to see women in colorful kimono during the daytime. Many of these are tourists who have dressed up for the day. If you’re eager to join them, there are a number of shops that will rent you an entire outfit, from the socks and shoes to the elaborate hairpins. The geiko and maiko still visit and entertain at the teahouses dotting Gion, and during cherry blossom season they give an annual dance performance called Miyako Odori (literally “Dances of the Old Capitol”), which we were lucky enough to catch. If you’re in town during the month of April, it would be a shame to miss. Gion is also the perfect place to buy high quality souvenirs, such as handmade pottery, paper fans, goods crafted from kimono style fabrics, lacquer ware, origami paper, green tea leaves, matcha powder, and more. While a formal Japanese tea ceremony can last up to four hours, a cozy teahouse just off the main stretch of Gion called En offers visitors a taste of the elaborate rituals. With explanations in English and the opportunity to try whisking green tea powder ourselves, it was an informative yet calming experience for everyone.

Kyoto’s geographic location and Japan’s comprehensive train system make it easy to incorporate several day trips into any itinerary. Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji are all less than an hour on the JR Line and each offers something different: delicious food and energetic nightlife in Osaka, a sprawling park overrun with friendly deer in Nara, the famous beef in Kobe, and the brilliant white, immense 680-year-old castle that is the centerpiece of Himeji. Before your trip, you can purchase a JR Rail Pass for the Kansai region, which will allow you to move between these cities with ease.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Of all the day trips we took, Arashiyama stands out. A mountainous district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is known for its scenic beauty and restful atmosphere. The shallow, slow-flowing Ōi River is peppered with small boats full of day trippers. Paths into the leafy hills lead you to such gems as Matsunoo Taisha, one of the oldest shrines in the Kyoto area, as well as the Iwatayama Monkey Park, the ethereal bamboo forest, and a stone engraved with four poems written by Zhou Enlai, who was inspired during his visit to Arashiyama. After a long day of strolling along the river and basking in the gorgeous surroundings, a soak in one of the many onsen (hot springs) was heaven.

Once known for being a challenge for non-Japanese speaking visitors, Japan has gone to great lengths to make navigating its streets less scary. Buses and trains announce stops and tourist attractions in English. Station names and signs directing you to nearby sites have all been translated. The majority of restaurants we ate in had an English menu on hand. However, it’s the Japanese people that make Japan a genuine joy to visit. Their renowned politeness is often referenced as a joke or a cliché, but it’s impossible not to appreciate when you come face to face with it.

For example, after wandering through the beautiful Isuien Garden in Nara, I asked the attendant of the gift shop if he happened to know the English name of a splashy pink flower blooming across the grounds. He said he wasn’t sure as he only knew its Japanese name; would I mind waiting a moment? I heard him phone the woman manning the entrance and overheard her say that she didn’t know it either. The attendant returned to me with a regretful bow and a sincere apology, all over the name of a flower. It’s the effort put in when there’s no need, the almost obsessive attention to detail, and the cherishing of true quality that make Japan an exceptional and exquisite place to visit..

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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!

The Many Faces of Geylang

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

Geylang’s Famous Shophouses

As a new expat, the first neighborhood in Singapore you learned about was likely Orchard. The second was probably Geylang. Although its reputation as the country’s red light district isn’t undeserved, there’s a lot more to it than simply being a city’s sordid underbelly. With its historic shophouses and delicious hawker food, it is also a callback to pre-1970s Singapore.

The name “Geylang” is theorized to be a corrupted spelling of the Malay word ‘gelang,’ which is a type of edible creeper that grew throughout the area. Like its namesake, the neighborhood isn’t a single trunk. All throughout its length, Geylang Road has offshoots of lanes called lorongs extending perpendicularly towards Sims Ave or Guillemard Rd. Both the main stretch and the lorongs are home to micro-businesses offering everything from bicycle repairs to bathroom fixtures to, of course, food. If you’re looking for piles of fresh durian or mangosteen, authentic dim sum, the best chili crab in the country or the trademark frog porridge, this is the neighborhood to explore.

But the bustling day trade probably wasn’t the reason you heard about Geylang so early into your tenure here. The district is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of brothels. Some are regulated by the Singapore government, while others pose as KTV (karaoke) lounges or operate behind the scenes illegally. In order to gain an insider’s view on one of Singapore’s more infamous neighborhoods, I interviewed my friend Dafydd Green, who has lived in Geylang for just over a year.

SAN: Why did you choose to live in Geylang? Did you know the reputation of the area before you moved there?

DG: Geylang is going through a big development push now with many buildings being knocked down and condos going up. Having lived in places like Beijing before, I like seeing this development take place so I thought it would be more exciting to live there… I knew about the area’s reputation beforehand but it didn’t really phase me.

SAN: What do like about living in that area?

DG: I like the diversity you see if you walk around. On most Lorongs there is a Buddhist building and there is a vast array of Buddhist schools. You get a very interesting perspective on the island’s history because much of the area is made up of Peranakan buildings with old trade shop names, historical ‘clan’ or area association buildings (e.g. the Tang Lim Association and Xu Clan Association building, which would have been used in the past to bring immigrants from a certain area and surname together).

I am a big fan of the people who hang out here – you need only say a couple words in Chinese and sometimes you can be invited to join a table and be fed or hydrated well. The 24-hour nature of Geylang is also something I have come to really appreciate because it works with any lifestyle. For example, there are many places open for breakfast at 7am, the whole street is open for lunch, and you can be guaranteed a great prata or char siew between 2am and 6am. There are also a lot of legitimate massage places that are open late, and there’s nothing better than KTV followed by a foot massage.

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

SAN: What do you dislike?

DG: Sometimes it gets under my skin when busloads of people turn up and don’t walk in straight lines. I think the sheer amount of people passing through makes the street a bit dirtier than most places in Singapore. The more liberal approach to spitting and urination adopted by some is displeasing to say the least. I also don’t appreciate being thought of as a potential customer by the many “male enhancement” pill sellers on the street!

SAN: What has your experience been like with the seedier sides of the neighborhood?

DG: I don’t think it’s possible to avoid some of the seedy elements of Geylang, but unless you visit certain areas then these are very scant. Vice and gambling are contained to a few lorongs. I don’t oppose legal prostitution, and ‘negotiation’ is very discreet so it’s not that Geylang is a vice-ridden cesspit that makes residents uncomfortable. You only come across the seedier aspects in certain places and at certain times (e.g. the occasional police raid), but in many ways Geylang is far less sketchy than Orchard Towers.

Prostitutes are in different places, such as the odd lorong, in brothels or in high concentrations on certain strips. As a lone male walking through some places, you will be approached and touched but it’s not a big deal to shrug off. Actual brothels aren’t obvious, and you only see prostitutes if you go inside. Depending on your disposition, you may find negotiations between prostitutes and customers a bit disturbing but the legality of prostitution is very matter of fact — you will sometimes see policemen checking ID cards, and there isn’t any aggressive or pushy behavior towards prostitutes.

The seedier elements for me are the illegal sides of prostitution. It’s obvious I think who is there illegally because some are very nervous and clearly not Singaporean. A surprising aspect was how some of them come across – there are prostitutes who dress in a revealing way, but others wear something like a Sunday dress and carry a handbag. It’s kind of similar to visiting the red light district in Amsterdam, where people sitting in windows don’t wear as little as possible, but are just waiting for customers to come.

SAN: What are your favorite places to eat in Geylang?

DG: There are some great places for food. Beyond the many frog porridge and Jiangsu places, there’s the very famous L32 on Lorong 32 that sells ‘handmade noodles’ accompanied by dried fish, a meat of choice and fiery chilies. There’s a Penang seafood restaurant close to the Aljunied MRT station that serves up a great Penang Laksa. Both Ho Kee Pau (43 Geylang Lorong 27) and Wen Dao Shi (aka 126 Dim Sum) at 126 Sims Ave dish up great dim sum. My personal favorites are a ‘knife cut noodle’ stall on Lorong 27 and a Malay stall run by a charming couple that serves up some of the best Malay food in Singapore.

 

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