12 Hours in the Civic District

Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the cultural and historical heart of Singapore.

From architecture to food, heritage to nature, war memorials to high tea, the Civic District is the cultural and sociopolitical heart of the Singapore. If you have visitors who only have 12 hours in the country, this is where to spend it. If you have 12 months here, I highly recommend devoting a number of weekends and afternoons to exploring everything there is to see in this very walkable part of town.

Considered the birthplace of modern Singapore, the exact borders of the Civic District (sometimes called the Civic and Cultural District) vary, depending on who you ask and what search terms you put into Google. Generally, the area is considered to begin at the National Museum of Singapore and stretch southeast, ending at the waterfront.

Start your day with one of Singapore’s most iconic buildings, Raffles Hotel, which reopened this year after a lengthy refurbishment. Everyone goes for Singapore Slings at the Long Bar or for high tea, now served in the Grand Lobby instead of the Tiffin Room. While both are worthy outings, visiting Raffles Hotel early in the day allows you to see the gorgeous colonial architecture in the blush of morning light, and it’s likely to be far less crowded.

Read the rest here!

Winter Round-Up: eSports, Fake Food & Birds of Paradise

Behold the second installation of my round-up of the weekly posts I’ve written for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys, some of which have been featured in the Ready to Travel section of the Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) website and app.

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.

Traditional Filipino parol. Copyright : ewastudio 

26. Vibrant Christmas Traditions in Asia

Christmas has long grown beyond a simple Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. The combination of glittering decorations, gift exchanges and the spirit of goodwill towards mankind has kept the holiday popular even amongst non-Christians. Traditions have, of course, evolved over time (Mary and Joseph did not deck the manger with strings of blinking LED lights) but they’ve also been localized in a myriad of ways…

25. Real Destinations for Virtual Competitions

It may seem strange to travel to a foreign country to watch people play a game on a screen, but live eSports events are no joke. The major tournaments frequently outperform both the NBA Finals and World Series in viewership, and with sponsors like HP, Samsung, T-Mobile and Toyota, money is flowing in to create dedicated spaces where fans can cheer for their favorite teams….

24. A Tasting Course of Singapore Architecture

With its blend of traditional shophouses and trendy cafes, Tiong Bahru is high on tourists’ must-visit lists for its Instagrammable dishes and building-side murals. But it’s also a microcosm of Singapore history, particularly the last century, as well as a hub of heritage trails and hidden green spaces. StraitsJourneys expert Dr. Tai Wei Lim said it best when he described Tiong Bahru as the historical bridge between pre-war, post-war and post-independent Singapore…

23. Three Ways to Do Tea in NYC

Autumn is the perfect time of year to snuggle up in a tea shop with a thick book or a few friends. After the sweaty slog of summer in New York City, the crisp weather sends a crackle of energy through the streets. The cooler it gets outside, the cozier it gets inside…

22. Overlooked Art Museums

Every major cosmopolitan city has its star art museum. And while the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York have earned their international acclaim, their fame can make visiting these renowned galleries a crowded experience. Fortunately, there are a few places off the beaten track where you can view breathtaking masterpieces in relative quiet…

21. A Treat for the Eyes: Japan’s Fake Food Industry

In his 1933 manifesto on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows, author and novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō notes: “It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.” While he couldn’t predict how globally famous Japan’s fake food would become, I’m betting he wouldn’t have been surprised…

Copyright : Gustavo Frazao  

20. Organic Wines of Sonoma County

Just 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has a well-earned reputation as one of California’s top wine regions. Recently, it’s appeared in the news due to a dramatic series of wildfires, but Dionysus must be watching over Sonoma because the smoke has cleared and its vineyards continue to welcome visitors with open arms…

19. Jewels of the Jungle: Birds of Paradise

“It’s difficult not to be enchanted by the birds-of-paradise. They’re some of the most extraordinary birds in the world,” commented Ch’ien Lee, accomplished biologist and professional photographer. The diversity in their extravagant plumage is astonishing, often including highly elongated and elaborate feathers extending from the beak, wings, tail or head in all colors of the rainbow….

18. Beijing to Taipei: An Art Collection’s Wild Journey

What was Chiang Kai-shek doing lugging art out of China? Stealing priceless antiquities, according to some. Rescuing them from destruction, according to others….

17. The Otherworldly Architecture of Turkmenistan

The absurd splendor of Turkmenistan’s architecture hits you from the get-go with its airport. The main terminal in Ashgabat International is shaped like a soaring falcon and cost $2.3 billion USD to construct. This sparked some controversy as critics claimed the building was much larger than needed to handle the country’s relatively low traffic rates. When I passed through two years ago, that was very much the case….

16. Wildlife Photography: Advice from an Expert

These days, anyone can take a picture at any time, but that doesn’t mean the art of photography is as easy to master. This is especially true when it comes to photographing wildlife, an endeavor that often takes more patience than specialized equipment….

15. The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 2)

Naming a country is complicated. Sometimes it’s appropriate to draw from historical context and sometimes it’s better to create a brand new moniker. Sometimes it’s easier to just call a place after its landscape and sometimes it’s worth taking the time to craft a name that will reflect everyone involved. As previously mentioned, the origin stories behind nations’ names, tangled and strange though they are, can be separated into groups….

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…

Custom-Made: Then and Now

People often joke that shopping is Singapore’s national sport and, like the rest of the island, it has evolved drastically over the past 50 years. Read all about it in the June/July issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

 

Custom embroidery by Zann & Denn

Envision shopping in Singapore and it’s usually Orchard Road that pops into your head, a beacon of modernity, overflowing with brand name designers from all over the world. But just a few decades ago, a shopping spree here was a much different affair. Until store-bought fashion became readily available in the 1970s, tailors and dressmakers met all sartorial needs. Well-to-do society women would purchase paper sewing patterns from Robinsons, arguably Singapore’s most well-known department store, and then trawl for bales of fabric in the array of shops on High Street. Even celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor were known to visit these luxurious made-to-measure shops for one-of-a-kind gowns.

According to local musician Vernon Cornelius (affectionately known as the ‘Cliff Richard’ of Singapore), the start of the nation’s style consciousness was in the 1960s, when television and rock music came to the island. But in order to dress themselves in outfits they considered a “sincere form of expressing our own identity,” most young people like Cornelius had to save for weeks or months for custom, made-to-measure clothes. A far cry from the stockpile of cheap clothing now available at the click of a button.

While the nation’s love of shopping and fashion have in no way diminished, tailors have had to adjust to the times. The prevalence of online shopping has reduced the requests for made-to-measure clothes but has increased the demand for alterations. Fabric stores are fewer. Today, most are grouped together on Arab Street or in People’s Park Complex. Sewing has also become a less common skill, so the average age of dressmakers is rising, with fewer apprentices to take their places.

Suzanne Chua, a graduate of Raffles LaSalle, considers herself one of the youngest in the industry. “And I’m nearly fifty,” she laughs.

Chua and then-boyfriend-now-husband Dennis Koh jointly launched Zann & Denn in August 1997, currently located on Kreta Ayer Road, a few steps from Duxton Hill and Chinatown. Despite the challenges facing the industry, Chua remains hopeful that there will continue to be a market for bespoke clothing. After all, she notes, it’s not merely shopping. It’s an experience. And there’s nothing quite like owning something completely unique.

For Chua, maintaining her career in the made-to-measure industry has gone hand-in-hand with adaptation. She recently began collaborating with Universal Studios Singapore to create costumes for enormously popular events like Halloween Horror Nights. She comments that the free range to be creative in designing costumes has been invigorating.

“Passion is what keeps you going when the market is low. I’m not a person who gives up easily,” Chua says. “There were many, many tailors; it depends on who perseveres.”

If you’d like to further explore Singapore’s rich fashion history, check out the book Fashion Most Wanted by John de Souza, Cat Ong and Tom Rao.

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Eat This, Not That: Singapore Edition

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

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

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

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

Instead of: Yoghurt
Try: Rice Pudding

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

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

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

Instead of: Mexican food
Try: Arabic food

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

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Qing Ming Festival in Singapore

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

Ancient cemetery at Yoshino, Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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Cheap Tricks: A Case Study

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

Oh the Skies You'll Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BONUS TIPS!

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Travels!

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Buying Books in Singapore

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

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

The Big Guys

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

The Indie Bookstores

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

Secondhand Books

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

Specialty Bookstores

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

The Internet

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

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

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

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The Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Na-ta-shaa!”

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

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

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

“Aiyo, she’s sick, you know.”

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

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

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

“I’ll think about it.”

“One session only, siah!”

“Talk later, can? Must cook lor.”

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

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

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

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

“Jerome? Ma, you mean Henry.”

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

“I know, Ma.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“I don’t think I know Jerome lah.”

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

“Natasha?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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SCUBA in the Summertime

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

If you’re looking to try something new this summer, why not learn how to scuba dive? Singapore is surrounded by some of the world’s top dive sites, so it would be a shame not to give diving a try during your time here. Like driving a car, learning to dive can seem overwhelming at first. There are new terms and rules to memorize. You’ll probably ask, “What does that button do?” at least once. And you have to pass both a written test and practical demonstration of your skills to earn your license. But just as you developed muscle memory for changing gears and checking your mirrors, it won’t be long before clearing your mask and checking your oxygen level become automatic.

If the thought of paying for all that equipment turns you off, don’t worry. Dive resorts are usually stocked with everything from fins to wetsuits to regulators. There are only two pieces of gear I would recommend you invest in as a beginner: a carefully chosen mask that fits you well and doesn’t fog, and water boots in your size (occasionally rented fins can cut into your heels and sometimes you enter the water over a rocky beach).

There are a number of acronyms you’ll learn during your diving course but the first one you should know is PADI, which stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Founded in the 1960s, PADI isn’t the only diver training organization in the world, but it is the largest and the most well-known in Southeast Asia. Other training organizations like National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) can also be found in Singapore. There are dozens of PADI-certified dive shops throughout the island but Eko Divers in Outram Park came recommended by a friend. We took their 3-day course to earn our Open Water certification, which consisted of two classroom sessions and one full-day session in a nearby swimming pool. The final segment of the course consisted of a weekend at a dive resort in Dayang, Malaysia, where our instructor guided us through the three ocean dives we needed to complete. Most dive shops in Singapore run weekend or week-long jaunts to the myriad dive sites in Indonesia and Malaysia (and beyond), providing plenty of opportunities for you to put your new skills to use.

Diving in Tulamben, Bali (103)

While my husband and I have only completed the entry level course, we have yet to feel restricted when exploring the reefs of Southeast Asia. The Open Water certification allows us to dive to a depth of 18 meters (to go deeper, you need an Advanced Diver certification), but I’ve found that most dive spots in the region can be enjoyed within this range. While the Advanced qualification allows you to do night dives and to go down to 30 meters, the main reason I’m considering earning it is to be able to more thoroughly explore shipwrecks. Encountering a turtle amidst the remains of the USAT Liberty, a relic from the Pacific War just 30 meters off of Bali’s shore, was nothing short of magical. And hovering alongside the teeming hull of a sunken sugar transport ship off the Perhentian Islands was one of the most breathtaking (no pun intended) sights I’ve ever seen. Yes, I pretend I’m the little mermaid every time.

In a time when selfie sticks have become a plague and we are pressured to capture every moment on film, scuba diving forces you to be in the present. You can’t use your phone or listen to music. You can’t even talk. Language is reduced to a series of simple hand signals: “Everything okay?” “Trumpet fish!” “Clownfish!” “Time to ascend to the surface.” While I certainly wouldn’t mind having a video of the sardine run in Cebu or a photo of that octopus in the Batangas, those memories are all the more precious because they were experienced fully. No reaching for a camera phone or trying to think of a caption for Facebook. Though you can, of course, buy an underwater casing for your camera or rent one from some dive shops. Nevertheless, I recommend you simply focus on your strange new surroundings and soak it all in.

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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!

Developing an International Resume

Written in March 2015 for Aureus Consulting:

Applying for a job in a foreign country contains a myriad of communication challenges. How do you translate your school records? Should you use British or American English in your cover letter? What if your references don’t speak the language of the company you hope to join?

Business standards and professional expectations can be tough to navigate, particularly when it comes to the crux of your application: your resume.

The UK and the US wish to know nothing about you but your qualifications in order to minimize the amount of influence your gender or race has on the decision to call you in for an interview. Many people even forgo listing hobbies. Singapore, on the other hand, normally wants a photograph and a date of birth, and you’re more likely to be selected if your experience or previous titles directly overlap with the position you’re applying to. In addition to a photo, the Philippines sometimes go as far as expecting your height, weight, religion, and even parents’ occupations. Be prepared to fax your resume in Japan, where cultural/organizational fit often outweighs hard technical competency. Inappropriate email addresses are grounds for immediately rejecting a CV according to 38% of employers in Brazil and 36% of employers in China.

Research has shown that it takes just 6 seconds for a potential employer to decide to reject your resume or get to know you better, which means no matter where in the world your career takes you, the first impression of your curriculum vitae is crucial. So how can you develop a resume that is impactful worldwide?

Regardless of cultural norms and expectations, some elements of a strong resume are universal. Your contact information should be near the top and your email address should be professional (no “Iheartmartinis@hotmail.com”). Formatting should be consistent and clean – bullets should be neatly aligned; bold and italics are great ways to highlight achievements but they should be used sparingly; and don’t mix and match fonts. The descriptions of your work experiences should be evocative and your accomplishments should be quantified. Don’t say you were the number one sales person without including the net gain you earned for your company. Don’t say you increased the efficiency of production without including by what percent you increased it by. Numbers are clear markers of success in any language.

Put the effort in to make sure your experience is accessible to a person who knows nothing about your country. Every employer in Malaysia will know that Petronas is a Fortune 500 company, but odds are that employers outside of Southeast Asia will not and so it’s up to you as an applicant to include that detail. Generic job titles can also work against you. A potential employer won’t be able to visualize your responsibilities from “Marketing Manager” alone. Even if that technically was your official title, add a qualifier – like “Head Marketing Manager for APAC Region” or “Digital Content Marketing Manager” – to give readers a shortcut.

And lastly… Spell-check. A careless error makes a poor impression in any culture.

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