Edinburgh: Artful & Approachable

I didn’t mean to turn my trip to Edinburgh into an article. It just sort of happened? Read all about it in the August issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

“Picturesque” is the ideal word for Edinburgh.

If the Gothic architecture and striking geography of Scotland’s capital aren’t enough to convince you, the homegrown arts scene should. Edinburgh is famous for its festivals, concerts and live acts. The annual Edinburgh International Festival features invitation-only performances in music, theater, opera and dance. However, the most well-known is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as it’s the world’s largest arts festival. Unlike the International Festival, anyone can perform almost any type of act. Last year, there were over 50,000 performances in everything from children’s shows to spoken word to cabaret, though the Fringe is best known for its robust comedy segments.

Similar to Melbourne, Edinburgh is very walkable, and anything that isn’t in walking distance can be reached via a robust network of trams and buses (almost all of which have free Wifi). The general atmosphere is laidback. The people are warm. The food scene is flush with local produce and craft alcohol. Both metropolises have been named Cities of Literature by UNESCO and this year an exchange program was launched to facilitate networking between their robust literary scenes. Even on a casual walk through Edinburgh, you’ll encounter statues and monuments to literary greats such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

In addition to being a haven for writers, Edinburgh is wealthy with galleries and museums, many of which are free. I highly recommend the National Gallery for two reasons. One, it features spectacular work by Renaissance masters, including Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. And two, by studying paintings from hundreds of years ago, it’s possible to see just how little the cityscape has changed over the past millennium. Modern-day Princes Street, one of the main thoroughfares, is instantly recognizable in Alexander Nasmyth’s painting from 1825. This is partly due to regulations that limit the height of newer buildings and partly due to the city’s topography.

The multi-leveled nature of Edinburgh means there are several prime vantage points from which to gaze out over the sprawl. Calton Hill is worth the climb, but Edinburgh Castle, of course, takes the cake. The stone fortress watches over everything from its perch on the aptly-named Castle Rock, as it has done since the 12th century. Boasting just under 1000 years of history, it routinely tops the list of Edinburgh’s must-see sites. It has two spectacular approaches. You can stroll through the verdant Princes Street Gardens and then languidly take a path up a grassy slope that’s populated with daffodils in spring.

Or you can start at the bottom of Old Town and meander up the Royal Mile, which begins at Holyrood Palace and follows the medieval streets directly to the castle gates. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops and detours, as this route passes St. Giles’ Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, Scottish Parliament, the University of Edinburgh as well as a plethora of notable restaurants and pubs. There are also numerous secret passages and small, winding stone alleys to explore. Some of them you may already be familiar with, as parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed here.

Like I said: picturesque.

 

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Hiraeth

Bamboo Telegraph, published by the American Women’s Association, featured my poem Hiraeth in the July/August 2018 issue:

Hiraeth

but on a future page, I write hiraeth,
letters straddled by blank lines,
storks in a lake sky white, black feet in the danger
of events waiting to encircle the definition

a homesickness for a home
you cannot return to,
or that never was

a casual elimination of past and future, the place
where I was born but never lived,
the towns
where I lived but wasn’t from,
the undiluted person I could have become,
the safely planted future I could have raised,
the past stitched into place with swift
dips of an easy needle

I have made a home in the homesickness,
in the hiraeth – a here
with its end
smudged long by fuzzed, unfamiliar reeds
and I have sowed it in my future, where
the person I do not know yet, the person I will be
will find it
and remember that
she can never return to me

 

Salvage

Bamboo Telegraph, published by the American Women’s Association, featured my poem Salvage in the May/June 2018 issue!

Salvage

The paper moon sleeps
in a notebook
above a massacre of pen caps
and mislaid chunks of words
which weren’t evacuated with
the mouths that, spit and teeth and tongue,
allowed them to live.
Only oddities remain,
staying, swearing, staring.
Survivors that have all their syllables
are snapped up by the harassed and indifferent
and taken to some poem,
some book, some brittle literature.
And when the slips of remainders, the
afterthoughts, the words we say we want
to take back
but will actually obliterate,
squirm through the hacked silence
in the dirt,
I get on my hands and knees
and salvage.

 

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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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 in the stuffy and dim dressing room, which was only the passage between the outside stage and the inside one. It was a nothing space the girls used as a chrysalis, morphing from advertisements on the front stage—mere tempting gloss—to full bodies on the inner stage, stripped and solid.

“Good way of putting it,” Erma replied, sliding a finger under the straps digging into her shoulders.

She and the girls sipped bottles of beer through straws to preserve the magenta or scarlet or garnet. Lipstick wasn’t as cheap as it used to be. Prices kept inching up. Beer, warm as it was, made the time on stage whizz by, spread the memories of it into a jazzy blur. Like trying to remember the shapes of clouds while keeping afloat in salacious, white rapids. Buzzed and silly, she wasn’t there really. Erma heard the music, saw the lights, felt her back on the wooden planks pocked black from cigarette ash, heeled shoe pressed against a vertical beam.

Near the end of the 45 pop record, if Jacko gave the nod, the girl would choose one of the men leaning on his elbows over the lip of the stage, usually someone young and astounded, slink up and press her crotch towards his face, her knees coming to hover past his ears. Hairy hands would grip her thighs while she shifted to avoid a cramp and convinced them all she was enjoying herself. Sometimes she was.

Erma counted fifteen beats, her sight up in the pointed ceiling—all shadow, murky and safe. Then she placed her palm on his forehead, sweat meeting sweat, and pushed gently. His fingers dug in harder (sure to bruise, would have to powdered over for later shows), so she gave a theatrical shove, removed herself with a coy roll and hit a wobbly final pose a beat after the music fell off. The men cheered and smiled, pleased to have gotten their money’s worth along with a story to tell over work drinks on Monday.

Backstage was an orgy of rushing. The guzzles of water. The girl coming off sliding past the girl next on. The scrabble for matching tops and bottoms. Slick breasts and stomachs pressing into heads or arms reaching for cosmetics. The missing compacts. Mascara reapplied or wiped off. And some girls just trying to sit down for a moment, to light cigarettes and not to lose their flame in the shuffling by.

A carnival was all noise until it wasn’t. Somewhere before dawn (Cal wasn’t much for watches; they reminded him of his father), the trembling Ferris wheel and the hoarse Tilt-a-Whirl collapsed into silence and stillness. The crowds were replaced by worn tracks in the dirt, boot prints and litter. Balloons fell into rubber scraps in the dark. There was just the flapping of the flags—colorful by day, black teeth by night—and the trickles of conversation caught in puddles of orange light.

The greasy pink letters of EXOTIC glistened as Josie emerged from the tent, her knees red and her feet bare. She never did like the habit of shoes. Dawdling, she tilted her face up at the rolling piles of clouds, juicy-looking and icy white from the moon.

“Saw you boys divvying us up back there,” she said, accepting Cal’s half-smoked cigarette and noticing his fingers were smudged at the knuckles.

Cal meant for her to give it back but she didn’t, and he didn’t know how to ask.

“Boys nothing,” Erma said, letting the canvas flap close behind her. Her breasts had been re-holstered and shelved inside a sweater patterned with seagulls, their wings brushing her collarbone and gliding over her curves in a way that made Cal wish he had held onto his cigarette to offer it to her instead.

“Boys nothing,” she said again. “Didn’t you see that awful girl during the teaser? Right in the middle and by herself? First thing I saw when I stepped out.”

“Tried not to look too close at them all up front,” Josie said, catching falling ash in her palm before tipping it to the ground.

“She was all pinched in, falling socks and unwashed hair. Coulda just killed her, aiming those slitty eyes at me. Can guess what was galloping through her mind. ‘My panties may be dirty but at least they’re on.’”

Erma caught her breath.

“Don’t mind them, Erma,” Josie murmured.

“You feel all that?” Cal asked with wonder, his eyes tracing the thin lines of anger roosting around Erma’s mouth.

Cal hadn’t heard the other girls talk this way, never heard them do more than snarl at the day. Most of them had sealed shells like Josie, only letting in the occasional peep or shooting out the occasional barb. Even when Margie had let him into her cot and bullied him into pleasuring her properly before letting him stick it in, she never talked too much in the past tense. Cal realized he had learned to do the same since he arrived over a year ago.

He gave Erma a small smile, a real one. Out of her make-up, she couldn’t be called pretty; more handsome. Big sister-ish, but your best friend’s big sister, so there was a charm there, a cozy type of sexiness. Josie saw the soppy infatuation in the smile, steeping like a cheap teabag in cool water. She snorted and threw Cal’s unfinished cigarette into the grass, where it sent up threads of smoke. They watched her beeline for the girls’ sleeping tent.

“Josie doesn’t like boys too much, huh?” Cal said, his unsure hands finally settling in his front pockets.

“They’ve been rough with her. Always had the three older brothers tussling, chasing her around, giving her Indian burns and plummy bruises.”

“Daddy stripped her down before whipping her? That sorta thing?”

Erma’s eyes, an old brown, fixed on the tent flap where Josie had slipped out of sight.

“Your daddy do that?” She asked.

“Often as he could.”

“You sound too moneyed for that.”

Cal grit his teeth and looked away.

“No amount of cash can fix a primo jerk. He tattered up my step-mom for years ‘til she finally snapped. Booked it back to Colorado three months ago.”

“My daddy never laid a finger on me. Spoiled and petted me ‘til I was rotten as my teeth. Hardest time in my life, the spring he died.”

Cal had a thought and strained to examine it: Women were good at appearing to give you an awful lot. They opened their legs, sometimes even just for him. They could make you feel real lucky, let you touch the innermost part of them, and still not really give you anything of themselves. Only a weeny memory she could whisk away with a neat and straightforward denial. She could make you strangers again with a snap of her fingers. She could throw every layer of clothing at your feet, and while you bask in her marvelous nakedness, for her it’s as routine and impersonal as the jokes a train conductor makes as he moves through cars collecting tickets. But Erma tipping out her past and her feelings was intimate. To tell the spiteful world to its face that it had hurt you, now that was a real thing.

“It’s rad that you talk, you know? I could get a big crush on you,” Cal confessed, feeling boyish and daring.

“I don’t doubt it, kid. But I figured it wouldn’t take much.”

Erma knew an overripe heart when she saw one, purpling and full and stretching out to her. Her daddy’s gave out on him, seized and stopped in the middle of his evening coffee in an April so wet the walls sent the windows groaning in their frames. Mud got into the pipes. Flowers drowned before they were born. The cemetery was a terror.

Not much wonder she married a neighbor boy two years older than her, who was tan with door-to-door sales and stuffed with a heart liable to gush with too hard a squeeze. Like her father, he was too gentle with her, as though her full figure was thin china. Her husband’s kisses were as tenderly placed as playing cards on a tower. The lamps in their bedroom were kept off so often, she kidded to her friends that she couldn’t recall the color of the pillowcases. In the dark, he would crouch over her on all fours, worried of resting too much weight on her, and stroke feathery, tickly touches up her chest and arms. Then, a timid entrance, a weak burble that would never plant a thing in her, and if she even sighed too loudly, he would rear up and out of her, begging to know what was wrong, he was sorry, had he hurt her.

Josie had laughed at that, Erma remembered, but there had been a low finish of wistfulness. Josie had skipped senior year of high school to get hitched to a chubby-cheeked, soft-voiced mechanic from one town over. He had whimpered fine promises in the garage as her head bobbed in his lap, under his hand. She had figured him a safe bet after all those boys who had yanked her about in cars in the school parking lot. But she discovered that she couldn’t have kids and he took a wrench to her, and that was that. Back to where she was, but with a fractured shoulder, an annulled marriage certificate, and a toxic cascade of sneers and pity hosing down the sidewalk around her feet.

“I’m not really like those other guys,” Cal blurted out.

“You’re young and might not know, but men say that an awful lot to girls,” Erma replied, eyes unfocused.

Cal’s mouth twisted and his hands burrowed deeper into his jeans pockets.

“Still,” he said. “I wasn’t divvying you up at least.”

“You were watching us real close.”

“Watching people on a stage isn’t a crime.”

She studied him for a few long seconds. He fidgeted, wishing he could take that last sentence back.

“I suppose it ain’t.”

Just as he made up his mind to try and put an arm around her, she said good night. But instead of following Josie’s route to a cot in the sleeping tent, she ducked back inside the dressing room. With a pull of a knob on a string, one of the bare bulbs shuddered into life. Erma thought again of that girl in the crowd out front, who had stood alone, arms crossed, sour mouth ossified, her face filling with the evening light.

“Know exactly what it was: At least I’m not you. At least I’m not you,” Erma said to herself, poking around the heaps of fabric until she felt the familiar corners of a cigarette pack.

Tears drizzled from her eyes but she paid them no attention. She sat in one of a pair of fold-out chairs, the bulky fuse box leering overhead, and struck a match. The metal of the seat was cold and the paint flaked under her touch, revealing rust.

Two cigarettes later, Josie found her. Erma’s gaze was hooked into something Josie couldn’t see, but she could guess well enough.

“I told you don’t mind,” Josie said, words snapping like branches.

“She was just…poor. She was poor and dirty and she thought—she knew—she was better than us.”

“Probably just some prissy farmer’s daughter, dumb as a rock unless you’re talking about how cows shit.”

“But that’s what I mean! To have that kind of stupid filth thinking it has a right to look down on…” Erma’s hand covered her own mouth with a firm grip, Barbie-pink press-ons against her cheek.

“Damn, Erma,” Josie said, exasperated. “What d’you think this was gonna be like?”

“No…I…I know.”

“You’re acting like a daddy’s girl again, looking at me with those big wet eyes, hoping someone else’ll make the world just what you want. We’re not going back.”

“No. Of course not.”

“So?”

Erma pulled in air through her damp nostrils and let Josie stub out her cigarette on the floor. Josie cupped Erma’s chin and leaned in. The kiss was pushy and caring. It was the kiss Erma had left town for, discarding her house and husband after a single week of mulling it over. Though Erma cut a more maternal figure, it was Josie who did the holding, cradling Erma into her bony chest and petting her hair the way Erma normally did for her. The mental susurrus of not allowed, not allowed, not allowed faded as she inhaled the smell of Josie’s skin. Josie planted little bites on her ear and neck until Erma’s breasts were firm and sensitive in their cheap bra. They pressed into the flock of gulls and then Josie’s possessive fingers. Unlike the men’s greedy fistfuls, Josie’s stroking and opening of Erma’s yielding body was about making all of Erma hers, a responsible ownership.

“What you looking at, little boy?” Josie’s voice rang out, javelin thrown at the wide eyes of Cal, peering around the tent flap.

Erma’s red face dove into her palms as Josie leapt up, advancing like a foul-mouthed scarecrow on Cal, who vibrated in hesitation.

“Little sonuvabitch. Looking for a free show. Acting all nice so you can get a few decent screws later. Why don’t you—”

Cal stumbled away from the Girls Show tent, away from Josie’s blistering anger. The cool summer night trickled into his lungs. Worried she would come after him, he began to lope through the alleys between tents, his erection painful against his zipper.

Turning a corner, he found the unwelcome figure of Margie, smoking with a tremulous hand.

“Oh Cal, honey, you won’t believe. German just told me—”

“Jesus Christ, Margie. Not now,” he moaned, peeling her needy grip off his arm.

“…it’s my last summer. They’re turning me out September first.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find yourself a nice warm street corner somewhere. Now, just leave off!”

There was unbelievable hurt on her face, but all he saw was the flab of her cheeks, the puffiness of her eyes, the new wrinkles. She hiccupped, sobbed.

“Didn’t I tell you not now?” He demanded, turning away, his own eyes hot and threatening.

He marched out into the charcoal morning, chest squeezed, the taste of turpentine coating his mouth. Once, he had tried to spook the artist touching up the busty silhouettes on the truck and got a handful of the stuff winged at his face. That choking and stinging, he felt it now too.

END

Much obliged to Susan Meiselas, whose photography and recordings inspired this story.

Wanderlusters, Get Excited!

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

Vang Vieng, Laos

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

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

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

Good Friday (Fri March 30)

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

Labour Day (Tues May 1)

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

Vesak Day (Tues May 29)

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

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

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

National Day (Thurs Aug 9)

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

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

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

Deepavali (Tues Nov 6)

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

Christmas Day (Tues Dec 25)

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

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Books to Gift for the Holidays

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

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

For Friends Back Home:

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

For the Literary Buff:

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

For the Sports Fan:

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

For the History Enthusiast:

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

For Young Adults:

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

For the Romantic:

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

For the Chef:

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

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Avoiding Charity Scams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marvelous Melbourne

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

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

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

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

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

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Buying Books in Singapore

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

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

The Big Guys

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

The Indie Bookstores

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

Secondhand Books

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

Specialty Bookstores

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

The Internet

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

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

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

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Essential Apps to Survive Singapore

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

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

Settling In

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

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

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

Shopping & Eating

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

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

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

Getting Around

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

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

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

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The Ride Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Na-ta-shaa!”

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

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

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

“Aiyo, she’s sick, you know.”

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

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

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

“I’ll think about it.”

“One session only, siah!”

“Talk later, can? Must cook lor.”

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

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

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

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

“Jerome? Ma, you mean Henry.”

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

“I know, Ma.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“I don’t think I know Jerome lah.”

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

“Natasha?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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