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…

Turpentine

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

Vermont, 1974 

An audience, withdrawn from the eddying crowds, stood or shuffled in the stiff grass and soft dirt.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

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

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

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

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

“Erma, step out.”

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

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

“No shit, dimwit.”

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

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

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

“Margie, step out. The body!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Lulu.”

“Right?”

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

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

“Sure, a little pounce and push.”

“Would be easy enough with your tiny prick.”

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

“Bet I have her begging for it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.

Singapore American logo

 

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!

“A Single Man” & Baja Fish Tacos

Woo! Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Christopher Isherwood’s short novel A Single Man, which is 50 years old this year and still incredibly meaningful.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

George not only faces the challenges of an expat but, due to his sexuality, he also has a much smaller pool of people he can trust with his true self. It’s akin to speaking a foreign language well enough for day-to-day interactions but not for communicating deep feelings or complex thoughts. You get along with the people around you but you are forever dogged by the knowledge that their impression of you is incomplete, that you have yet to find a way to say exactly what you’re thinking, and that you have no idea how they would respond even if you did.

You can read the rest of my article and discover why I paired A Single Man with a recipe for Baja Fish Tacos HERE.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

Paper Plates updated logo

“The Cave” & Peanut Butter Filled Chocolate Cookies

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my piece about Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s novel The Cave and why it inspired me to make peanut butter filled chocolate cookies. PAPER/PLATES is run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books.

Here’s a snippet of my post:

Reading The Cave is a very tactile experience. Since pottery is a key centerpiece of the novel, I knew I wanted to tackle a recipe that involved molding and sculpting material with my hands. However, I also wanted something with layers, as the modest appearance of the story cloaks a more complex exploration of humanity. These peanut butter filled chocolate cookies fit the bill. Much like the art of clay pottery and much like Saramago’s prose, this recipe requires patience and sometimes one or two tries to get down. But it’s hard to deny the satisfaction you feel upon completion. Be warned that these cookies are very rich; you WILL need a glass of milk to wash them down.

You can read the rest of the article and find the delectable cookie recipe HERE.

And make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

PAPER/PLATES

Why I Thought of You at the Duchess County Fair

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

poem

Pregnant with screaming bodies,
the rides lurched overhead
like drunk Christmas trees.
But before the night took us there,
the cows, quieted by evening,
slept or shuffled on either side
of the barn’s opened belly.
Their prize ribbons swung above,
a dribbling rainbow nailed up
by its strings and pride.
I didn’t look up,
distracted by the tongue braceleting my wrist
and sanding down my knuckles,
the press of the calf’s nose into the cup of my palm.

For Dad’s Birthday 2008

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Division and Illusions in North Korea, the World’s Most Inexplicable Nation

Published on September 3, 2013 in Young & Global Magazine:

Arch of Reunification

On an overcast afternoon in August, I stood on the upper balcony of Panmungak, the main North Korean building in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), gazing over narrow, blue buildings. Dead center between Panmungak and the South Korean building called the Freedom House Pagoda, I could see the thick line of concrete that splits the two Koreas. Though we were a mere 70 kilometers from Seoul, it felt like we were on another planet.

Miss Choi, our tour guide, appeared at my elbow. She was a curvy North Korean woman in her thirties, but beyond that I won’t describe her or provide her real name lest I unwittingly get her into trouble. With a placid smile on her face, she led our group down the stairs, out of Panmungak, and across the quiet compound to the squat cyan buildings.

The JSA is used by the two Koreas for diplomatic engagements, but on that day it was devoid of life, save for stiff soldiers and nonchalant sparrows. Since visitors are forbidden from interacting with tourists from the other side, the area operates on something of a timeshare. As we explored the sparse negotiation space that sat squarely on the demarcation line, Miss Choi recited historic moments and explained that the main obstacle to the reunification of the Korean peninsula was the posting of American troops at the DMZ.

“Our country is divided. But maybe one day soon you can have breakfast in Pyongyang, lunch in Kaesong, and dinner in Seoul,” she finished wistfully.

The members of our tour group glanced at each other, but no one moved to put forth a conflicting opinion. Two days earlier, in the Beijing airport, a representative from Koryo Tours had warned us to expect such discrepancies. North Koreans have a genuine pride in their country, he had explained, and though they know Westerners have different versions of their country’s history, they simply believe we’re lying. Or ignorant. After all, why would our version of history be truer than what they’ve been told their whole lives? Would you believe a North Korean who told you Abraham Lincoln was a Nazi?

It was in Beijing—one of only four airports in the world that can fly you to North Korea—where I had first met the small group of adventurous travelers who would be my companions on this trip. I knew nothing about these people except that they were expats working in Singapore, and their curiosity about North Korea matched my own. It must, because we would be among only 3,000 or 4,000 non-Chinese tourists to visit the reclusive nation that year. For me, although I had moved to Singapore a mere five days earlier to reunite with my fiancé after a six-month separation, I was curious enough to take this trip he had planned, even if wasn’t quite the romantic reunion vacation I was expecting.

The representative from Koryo Tours had also given us guidelines for our visit. We were not allowed to photograph construction sites or people, and we were forbidden from wandering away from our guide. While it wasn’t impossible to sneak photos or creep off to out-of-bounds areas, Miss Choi had the power to restrict the planned activities for our trip if she judged our group to be unruly. Most importantly, later she would be the one to pay for any and all of our misbehavior. So we mindfully asked whether pictures were permitted and followed her like quiet schoolchildren.

View of Freedom House Pagoda and Joint Security Area from North Korean side

Freedom House Pagoda and Joint Security Area viewed from the DPRK side of the DMZ

A short drive from the DMZ, a military lookout point stood at the peak of a hill, which our secondhand tour bus struggled to climb. Inside the little building, a North Korean colonel in full uniform gave us a history lesson in front of a large painted map. He then gestured for us to follow him outside, where a row of telescopes allowed us to peer out at the peaceful, grassy landscape, riddled with silent landmines. Beyond a tiny wall marking the border, military bases flew South Korea’s flag. I only half-listened to the colonel’s stilted English; I was skeptical of the veracity of his facts and more interested in studying his appearance. With his large cap and swamp green military garb, he resembled a Chinese officer from the 1960s. I noticed that his bars of honor were actually a multicolored square of plastic, and I wondered if he had seen a picture of a decorated official and endeavored to appear equally important. Affixed directly above this facsimile was a red, flag-shaped pin that featured Kim Il Sung’s smiling face.

Every adult I had seen in North Korea sported this red pin on his or her left breast, sometimes accompanied by a second red pin featuring the image of Kim Jong-il. Miss Choi said the pins were worn simply out of a desire to show respect; there was no mention of compulsion. However, I later learned that the law used to be: forget to wear your pin once, receive a warning; forget it a second time and face punishment.

Much like the colonel’s illusion of military honor, I discovered that the nearby city of Kaesong was also designed to appear more than it was. Houses of solid concrete had brick patterns painted on their exteriors, and concrete walls sported motifs to mimic stone ones. Kaesong was the only city to change control from South to North Korea because of the Korean War. As such, it is the southernmost city in North Korea. Its name translates to “Triumph”, but it is a town of worn buildings and of families fractured by the 38th Parallel.

Atop a hill, a towering bronze figure of Kim Il Sung gazed down a steep road into the little city. Despite the fact that we arrived into Kaesong at 5:30pm and rush hour was in full swing, the streets were scantily populated. As we would for all dinners on the trip, we ate in a nice restaurant filled with only Western tourists, and it soon became apparent that the locals didn’t make a habit of eating out. We slept in a traditional inn, sleeping under mosquito nets in the heavy darkness of North Korea’s nightly nationwide blackout.

The following day, the drive from Kaesong to the capital of Pyongyang took two hours on Reunification Highway, which had no lane lines, but was peppered with guarded checkpoints. Except for the occasional truck or other tour bus, the highway was empty. Tunnels were devoid of lighting. Cornfields lined the road, as well as flat plains in all shades of green and brown merging into distant mountains. We passed tanned men and women on bicycles, brown cows tied up to graze, children bathing in shallow rivers. It’s easy to forget in such a strange country –especially one so ideologically at odds with the Western world – that people are just people everywhere.

A plush pink charm of the whole Korean peninsula swung from the bus’s rearview mirror as Miss Choi gave us lessons on her country’s history and culture. Once again I was struck not only by the bizarre interpretations of historical events but how much weight they still carried in the present. It seemed to me that the people of North Korea obsessively clung to past slights and lorded over past triumphs, while the rest of the world had long since moved on.

The history North Koreans tell is an idealistic, childlike version of the world. Their heroes are brave, their leaders compassionate and wise, their enemies evil and uncomplicated. The big questions have been answered unambiguously. But looking out over the serene landscape I wondered about the people starving somewhere hidden from view. Did they still love their country, their Eternal President, their Great General? Or was the illusion shattered? Were they heartbroken?

Before arriving in Pyongyang, we pulled over to admire the Arch of Reunification, which straddled the highway itself. The concrete monument consisted of two women in traditional Korean dress—one representing the North and the other the South—leaning forward to jointly uphold a sphere emblazoned with the complete land of Korea.

Looking at the Arch, I didn’t know where the future would take this inexplicable nation, but I knew it wouldn’t be to the joyous and peaceful reunification the North Koreans were convinced was imminent. I also knew that anything I said to the contrary would at best fall on deaf ears, and at worst endanger the safety of our sweet-natured tour guide, so I simply took a photograph of the monument before we moved on.

Young & Global Magazine

 

Top Five Travel Tips for Exploring Asia

Published on August 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

There are plenty of reasons why Singapore is a great place to live. One of them is how easy it is to leave for a short break. Changi Airport has consistently topped lists of the world’s best airports for the last two decades and those with residency status move through it very quickly, but there are still a number of obstacles that can trip you up when setting off to explore Southeast Asia. To help you avoid my mistakes and oversights, here are my top five tips for newcomers to Singapore who are looking to discover the riches of the continent around us.

Number One: Visas!

Visa costs and requirements vary greatly throughout Asia, so right after (or even before) you buy your flight tickets, hit the website of your destination’s embassy to figure out what you’ll need. Many nations surrounding Singapore will allow you to buy an On-Arrival Tourist Visa but some require a Letter of Approval from the local embassy to do this and most can only be purchased in American dollars (and sometimes only in new bills). There can also be extra requirements, like a minimum number of blank passport pages. Bottom line: do your research in advance and prevent a debacle at the airport.

Number Two: Know the Health Risks

Malaria is a year-round risk throughout Southeast Asia but it needn’t prevent you from going where you want to go. A general physician in Singapore can usually provide anti-malarial tablets but be aware that you have to start the regimen a few days before your trip, so give yourself enough time. However, the most frequently reported illness among visitors to Southeast Asia is the highly unglamorous traveler’s diarrhea. While abroad, one of my greatest joys is trying dishes in restaurants frequented by the locals but this can admittedly be risky. So, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to chowing down. Don’t drink or brush your teeth with the local water. Be sure to check that the seals of any bottles of water you buy are unbroken. Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables as they have likely been washed in the local water; the exception is fruit you peel, like bananas or oranges. Be wary of how foods with a high risk of salmonella—like eggs or chicken—are prepared; opt for fried instead of steamed or boiled if you’re uncertain.

Number Three: Take More Cash than You Think You’ll Need

I will be the first to confess that I rely far too much on a credit card and not enough on cash. Take my word for it: it is no fun wasting your precious time in an exotic paradise desperately searching for an ATM. But even if you’re not me and you calculate your trip’s expenses down to the penny and take out enough foreign notes in advance, there will always be an unexpected cost somewhere down the line. For example, did you know you need to pay an airport tax in cash when you leave Indonesia?  So, in addition to taking way more money than you need, I would also suggest you don’t exchange your extra baht, dong, or kip until you’re safely back on Singaporean concrete, where at least the fees will be in a currency you’re used to.

Number Four: Invest in a Necessities Kit

It’s easier to have a little travel bag of necessities on hand instead of rifling through your cabinets for 100ml toiletries before every trip. Ideally an essentials kit for Southeast Asia should include: sunscreen, insect repellant, Purell, painkillers, band aids, anti-malarials, Pepto Bismal or the equivalent, wet wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, extra medication and miniature versions of your normal routine (shampoo, face wash, shaving cream, etc.). And don’t forget the number one necessity: tissues. Much of Southeast Asia operates on a system of BYO toilet paper and you will come to cherish the packets of tissues you cleverly brought with you.

Singapore’s pharmacies are pretty good about carrying travel-sized toiletries, which were once a convenience and are now a necessity if you want to step foot on a plane without checking a bag. And when you’re only flying a few hours to stay for a few days it is worth neither the hassle nor the cost to check a bulky piece of luggage. Pack sparingly and smartly.

Number Five: Relax

I’ve heard a lot of scary stories about Asia from a lot of people who’ve never been. I actually had a friend frantically warn me about a disease in Papua New Guinea that causes a person to laugh themselves to death. A quick internet search revealed that this disease is transmitted via cannibalism, which I don’t generally practice. What I have found from traveling around Asia is a lot of breathtaking sights, delicious food and friendly people.

There has yet to be a country I regret visiting. Sure, the salmonella poisoning in Myanmar wasn’t all that fun, but the Burmese were some of the most genuinely sweet people I have ever met. It’s up to you what you get out of travel. Not every trip will go completely to plan (actually I can guarantee that almost none of them will) but if you keep an open mind and an adventurous spirit, there also won’t be a single trip you don’t learn something about yourself from.

Happy travels!

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Up a Creek With a Paddle

Published on May 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Kayaks on Jurong Lake

If spending time outdoors in Singapore’s oppressive heat seems daunting to you, I suggest venturing out onto water. Luckily, you don’t have to brave the ocean or submit to the rigorous routines of dragon boating in order to enjoy skimming across the water’s surface. Kayaking around Singapore’s peaceful, contained reservoirs can sometimes feel like paddling around a fishbowl and the more adventurous among you might prefer to tackle the salty coasts to venture to nearby islands. But the reservoirs are ideal for young or inexperienced boatmen and they can offer unique views of the familiar skyline. Plus, it is hard to deny how refreshing an afternoon on calm water can be.

Water-Venture’s branch in the Kallang Riverside Park is a welcoming, clean facility that’s well stocked with all sizes of paddles and life jackets. The efficient staff members got us on the water in less than twenty minutes for less than $20 a person and were even friendly enough to laugh at my dad’s jokes. There are a number of other locations where beginners and experts alike can rent a kayak—the Bedok Reservoir, Jurong Lake, the Lower Selator Reservoir, Changi Beach, Marina Bay, Sembawang Park—but Kallang is the favorite location among schools for training their kayaking teams. On weekends, the basin is regularly flooded with colorful clusters of boats but on an overcast Tuesday afternoon, we shared the waters with just one other kayaker and two duckboats, loaded with tourists who gleefully waved at us.

Buffeted by warm breezes and cooled by splashes of water, we paddled leisurely and took time to gaze up at Millenia Tower and Suntec City from novel angles. From this new perspective, the Marina Bay Sands hotel was completely framed by the gargantuan Singapore Flyer and the rolling glass domes of the Gardens by the Bay shimmered in the clouded light. The East Coast Parkway flew overhead but, except for the distant sounds of construction, it was surprisingly quiet.

If you’re eager to explore a less familiar part of Singapore, the suburbs that surround Jurong Lake feel like a friendly town far away from the crush of Orchard’s malls and the crowds that fill the CBD. Pack a picnic basket, a book, and a change of clothes in case you get doused while kayaking, and you could easily spend a whole day at the sanctuary of Jurong Lake Park. To test these waters, we rented sit-on-top kayaks since neither of us had the certificate of training required to rent a closed boat.

If it hadn’t been for the breeze the lake would have been utterly still. Plus it is generally even less crowded than the Kallang Basin, making it the perfect location for inexperienced or nervous kayakers. While floating on the peaceful waters we took in the sights of the Chinese Garden, the vibrant and tall pagodas, the MRT swooping above the dense treetops, and the apartment complexes that peppered the landscape. Unfortunately, not too long after we had paddled out onto the reservoir, a threatening storm sent down a bolt of lightning in the distance and an alarm called us back to shore.

Though this activity may not intrigue paddlers used to white rapids in thick jungles, urban kayaking is nevertheless an unexpected way to see the sights of the city, as well as a refreshing way to exercise outdoors in a tropical climate. Just make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, a few bottles of water, and a willingness to get splashed.

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In the Shadows of Myanmar’s Golden Stupa: New Friends in Old Places

Published on April 23, 2013 in Young & Global Magazine:

Shwezigon Pagoda, Nyaung-U

In the dry heat of the late morning, the gold Shwezigon Pagoda shone blindingly bright against the fierce blue sky. It was February, the very beginning of Myanmar’s blistering summer, and the day was only going to get hotter. Regardless, the compound surrounding the gilt stupa was busy with barefoot visitors. At the giant structure’s base, local women kneeled on cool white tiles or sat on thin mats to pray. Little boys scampered around in packs. Tourists encumbered by cameras gazed up at the elaborate peaks of the various shrines. A dog slumbered in the shade.

Many of the women and children had a yellowish-white paste applied to their faces in a circular patch on each cheek. I knew Myanmar was primarily a Buddhist country and I wondered whether the markings had a religious significance.

A trio of young girls sporting this face paint approached me arm-in-arm and greeted me in English. Like every other local I had seen, they all wore the traditional longyi (a piece of cloth tied around the waist that falls to the ankles) in vivid floral patterns. However on top they wore a variety of shirts not unlike ones I could pick up in an American Target store.

“Hi,” I responded, curious but a little wary. Were they going to ask for money?

“We are students of English. Is it okay if we talk to you so to practice?”

I nodded, with a smile.

Their names were like knotted silk scarves: long and full of soft syllables. I could never hope to pronounce them properly and, out of shyness, I didn’t ask them to repeat them.

The girls at the Shwezigon Pagoda

The ringleader of the little trio had dark shoulder-length hair and a ready smile. “Do you have any questions about our country?” She queried.

“I do, actually. What is the meaning of your face paint?”

She laughed and patted her cheeks. “It is thanaka! To protect from the sun!”

We spent a few minutes chatting about where we came from, and I played them a video on my phone of my teenaged brother in my family’s kitchen in New Jersey last winter. Several feet of snow had walled us in, burying our cars and patio furniture. My new friends marveled at the expanse of white visible outside our windows and they giggled as they proclaimed my brother very handsome.

“Can I be sister-in-law?” The ringleader asked cheekily, causing her friends to squeal and hush her.

“Oh absolutely,” I replied, sending them into peals of laughter.

They were eager to improve their English and pulled out paper notebooks emblazoned with advertisements for the upcoming Twilight movie. I shook my head in amazement. Only six months earlier the Myanmar government had announced that it would cease censoring media before publication, and already Twilight had arrived.

I knew many of the locals refused to acknowledge the country’s name as Myanmar, but when I complimented the beautiful looping letters of written Burmese, the girls shyly corrected me: Myanmar language, not Burmese. Perhaps they were too young to remember Burma before the military junta tightened its grip on the government and isolated the nation from the rest of the world.

The girls’ English writing was neat, peppered with well-rounded a’s and cleanly crossed t’s. The vocabulary lists meticulously written into their flimsy notebooks were curious amalgamations that gathered seemingly unconnected words into one category. One such list contained: elbow, disseminate, max, meander, price tag, and nullify.

I was doing my best to explain how Americans and British idioms were quite different when I noticed “That sucks” was on their list.

“Now that is a useful idiom,” I said with a laugh.

They flipped through several pages, stopping to ask me the correct way to pronounce “I’ve” and to verify the accuracy of their lists of idioms, which some English-speaking tourists didn’t seem to know.

In the shadow of a golden stupa built in 1102 AD, we traded email addresses. Then, promising to stay in touch, we went our separate ways.

In the coming years those girls will undoubtedly see their homeland move through unimaginable changes. The tourism industry is exploding at a startling rate and the local people will have to safeguard their culture against the tide of Hollywood movies, Western fashions, and convenient modern alternatives. But this amicable trio of girls, so eager to learn the English of their visitors, will also have a broader array of opportunities than they’ve ever had before.

Young & Global Magazine

 

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