Friday, August 29, 2008

Battle of the Airlines

Having flown on three different airlines in the past week, I feel compelled to write a small review here so as to warn, prepare, and encourage all flyers to know what they are getting into should they sign up to take flights on either Delta, Midwest, or Singapore Airlines. Consider the following:

Since I took my first independent flight cross-country to Phoenix, AZ and then my first transcontinental flight to England, I have been a tireless enthusiast of Delta airlines. The service by this airline has always seemed more professional and competent to me than most other airlines I have taken, judging from the sharp, pressed look of the attendants at the check-in counter, to the impressive range of beverages and snacks offered throughout the flight, to the usual timeliness and rarity of delays in flight scheduling.

However, in flying to Singapore, I had the chance to directly compare the services of a transcontinental flight on Delta Airlines (DA) to that of Singapore Airlines (SA), as the former airline took me from Atlanta, GA to Seol, South Korea, and the latter took me from Seol to Singapore. Much to my surprise, I found Singapore airlines to be quite superior, mostly because of the finer quality of all the finishing details. Upon entering the plane, a passenger might think that DA had superior quality seats, as these were covered in navy blue faux-leather upholstery, compared with SA’s thatched-looking gray-and-violet seats. However, after sitting in each seat for several hours, I can honestly say that my back and buttox much preferred whatever design SA used for its seats, because I did not feel nearly the same compulsion to squirm and awaken my limbs every sixty minutes on that flight, as opposed to on my flight with DA.

The next apparent difference between DA and SA was in the ages and appearances of the flight attendants. When I first entered the SA plane, I was initially struck by the amount of makeup each flight attendant wore; with their identical bright blue eye-shadow and fire-engine red lips, they looked like they were made up for a dance recital! However, the more I studied these attendants, the more I found their appearances more pleasing than those of the DA attendants. First of all, they were remarkably younger. All of the SA flight attendants were under thirty years of age, and the majority were female. Furthermore, their uniform consisted of a tribal Malay dress, which was beautifully detailed and patterned. It was all very unique, and I would be certain to recognize a SA flight attendant anywhere, as opposed to a DA flight attendant, who could be male or female, of nearly any age (ranging from thirty to nearly fifty years of age), and wore nondescript white blouses and navy skirts or pants.

The next bases for comparison are the amenities. The meals served on SA were tastier (spicy fish with rice and pickled vegetables compared with soggy gnocchi, limp spinach, and chicken in salty pasta sauce), the menu more professional-looking (a green, white, and gray cardstock pamphlet detailing all meals, snacks, and beverages that would be served as opposed to a single sheet of paper listing the entrée selections), and the dessert more appetizing (ice cream! versus saltine crackers—unless the refrigerated bun was supposed to be dessert, I couldn’t decide). Also, the video selection was broader and more appealing on SA (three episodes of House on SA versus one on DA; plus, I didn’t have time to watch nearly all of the movies that interested me during my flights to and from Singapore, but I quickly exhausted my options on flying to and from Atlanta, and not just because the flight was twice as long), and the console for viewing videos and playing games was significantly easier to operate on SA than on DA. (DA used touch screens, and although this may be more advanced technology, the remote control offered on SA was significantly easier and more precise in actual use.)

Finally, when it came down to the tiny details, Singapore was simply more thorough. On my DA flight to Seoul, my reading light was broken, which effectively prevented me from getting any reading done for that fourteen-hour leg of the trip, as we were required to keep the window shades down to emulate “nighttime” for the majority of the flight. Then, on my flight back, I was not given a menu so that each time the attendant came around to ask for our drink/snack/meal preference, I had to ask what the options were. (The attendant never looked happy about having to recite the list.) Last but most certainly not least, the earphones I was given on both my DA flights to and from Singapore never worked in both ears. I do not know whether this was due to the actual earphones or the earphone jack, but it was one more detail that made the flight seem longer and slightly less enjoyable. It makes me sound like a spoiled rotten brat to complain about these details, but they really are what made the difference for me between the Delta and Singaporean airlines.

Now, on to Midwest. I flew Midwest to Madison, WI for a job interview, and I can honestly say that these flights (I had a layover in Milwauke) were the most unique I have ever encountered. First of all, for the longer leg of the trip (to Milwauke), every seat in the plane looked as thought it were made for a business-class passenger. There was no front section portioned off for first class; the entire plane consisted of huge, cushiony, faux-leather seats that could probably have fit both me and an identical twin, had we been willing to squish. Then, when we were midway through the flight and it was time for the mid-flight snack, instead of bringing around small packages of salty, plastic-y tasting peanuts, the flight attendants wheeled a cart down the aisle and from it served each passenger two freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Hot-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies—on an airplane! Meanwhile, other airlines are charging extra for every checked bag. Some things never cease to amaze me.

In conclusion, I won’t say that one airline is necessarily “superior” to another. Delta has provided consistently good service, and I expect to continue using their services in the future, especially as I now have a SkyMiles account with them. However, when it comes to the details, I must say that I am supremely impressed by the thoroughness and professionalism of Singapore Airlines; I will certainly recommend this airline to anyone planning to travel to or around Asia, and I hope that the next time I travel to Singapore (when, not if!) I use this airline for the lengthier legs of my trip. And last but not least, Midwest certainly distinguishes itself from its competitors, at least in my mind. I hope enough people use this airline to enable it to continue providing such pleasantries as business-class-sized seats and chocolate chip cookies!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

By Every Means of Transport (except sailboat)

The 33-hour travel-a-thon, otherwise termed My Trip Home from Singapore, began—as might be expected—in the Singaporean airport, with my plane taking off an hour late. Ordinarily, this would be no more than a frustrating inconvenience (one more hour tacked onto my 24-odd hour scheduled flying time). However, this time it proved to be a major problem, because my layover in Korea was only scheduled to be one hour long before my next flight was o take off for Atlanta.

I spent a significant portion of that flight fretting over what I should do, were I to miss my connection (particularly because I was switching from Singapore Airlines to Delta at the Korean airport), and when we landed in Seoul, I found I was left with literally twenty minutes before my next flight was scheduled to take off. Now I was very concerned, because I knew from having passed through on my way to Singapore that the Korean airport requires a second security check, which would thus add to the delays of debarking the plane, finding my gate, and procuring my new boarding pass.

Luckily for me, almost as soon as we landed, a “Mister Leslie GoldstINE” was paged aboard the plane. I made my way to the front and was quickly escourted off the plane and shuttled y a pert little Korean woman all the way to my next gate—just in time for boarding.

At this gate, I met a new set of troubles. As I was given my next boarding pass, I was informed by the desk attendant that it was mandatory that my baggage go through customs in Atlanta. However, the woman at the Singapore check-in counter had told me that my bag would be checked all the way through to Newark, and I could go through customs there. If my bag didn’t show up in Atlanta, the Korean attendant told me, I would need to file a lost luggage claim with a Delta representative. I could give them an address, and when they found my bag, they would mail it to me.

I immediately set about making plans for What To Do in case my bag was lost. First, I needed an address. I decided my cousin Kim’s would have to do, since having my bag sent to Pittsburgh would do me no good, and I wouldn’t be living at my Queens address for another week-and-a-half. Unfortunately, my address book was packed in my checked luggage—the allegedly lost bag—so I would need to call Kim (or, as it turned out, my parents, since Kim did not answer her phone) to find out her exact address. Second: what had I packed in that bag that I would need immediately upon arriving in NY? Luckily, I had my glasses and contacts case in my carry-on, but I was using eyedrops for solution (thank you 9/11 airport security and your fabulous 100ml rule), so contact solution was a must. Also, I had packed my toothbrush in my carry-on, and I could always borrow soap and shampoo from Kim until my bag arrived, but I would still need to buy deodorant. The main problem would be what clothes I would wear to my Madison, WI interview with Epic Systems. I was pretty sure I had packed all of my underwear and most of my respectable-looking shirts, so I would need to deal with that in the two days between my return to NY and my departure to WI. At least I could probably renew the library books I had packed in my bag online, assuming no one had requested them.

I spent a good hour of that 14-hour flight making lists and plans so as to avert panic. Again, my layover would only be about an hour-and-a-half long, so I wouldn’t have time to dilly-dally over this lost luggage matter if I wanted to make it through customs and to my Newark flight on time. Luckily for me, my bag appeared on the conveyor belt in Atlanta, and all was well. Until I got to Newark, of course.

I made it as far as the Air Tram—the shuttle that was supposed to take me out of the airport and to the NJ train station—before more dilemmas arose. After one stop, the shuttle I was aboard announced that is was now “out of service” and would all passengers please “move across the platform” to wait for the next arriving shuttle. All of us tired, disgruntled passengers (including one fat, middle-aged white tourist with too much luggage who announced in a far-too-loud voice “I’ve been travelling for six #@$%! hours”) trudged across the platform to wait twenty more minutes for another shuttle that was currently running the opposite direction and would consequently need to finish that circuit first before coming back to pick us up. After yet one more shuttle change after that one (since the Air Tram apparently needs its own separate shuttle to go to the train station, in spite of running on one continuous track), I arrived at the NJ train station, only to find that the next train to NY Penn Station would not arrive for another forty-five minutes. It was midnight at this point in my trip. I had been travelling for over 24 hours.

Next, as I waited for the train, I was approached by a trim middle-aged black man. In all manner of apologies, he explained that the axel on his car had broken and, as his wife had taken his debit card before his trip, he had no way to get money for a train ticket an cab fare. He was terribly embarrassed to have to ask—after all, look how well he was dressed, in his business suit, with his leather cell phone holster—but could I please lend him $25? I don’t know what made me do it, but I gave him the money and let him call his wife on my cell phone, as his had apparently run out of batteries. Maybe I do believe in karma and was hoping to improve mine. In any case, if a man dressed as well as him felt he had to lie and scam $25 out of a poor twenty-something white girl like me, then shame on him. I’d like to have a bit more faith in humanity.

The NJ train was by no means the last leg of my trip. When I arrived in NY Penn Station, I still needed to take the 2/3 subway up to 125th St. (Harlem). Even finding the Uptown train proved to be a challenge: once I got inside the turnstile, I found the underpasses to all Upton red line trains blocked off. I was at the point of hysteria, not wanting to go back out to ask the attendant in his glass encased booth what to do (as that would involve paying to re-enter through the turnstiles, never mine dragging m suitcase back through in both directions), but also not wanting to take the Downtown train to who-knew-where in the hopes of transferring to an Uptown train, when a large black man descended the Downtown steps in front of me. I asked if he knew how to get to the Uptown trains, and he not only directed me (across the Downtown platform and down the steps on the other side, which I would have had no way of knowing), he even carried my suitcase back up the stairs from which he had descended to the Downtown 2/3 platform. Maybe he was my good karma payback.

In any case, I got on the Uptown 2 train, only mildly suspicious of the “local 96 St” label on the front. “Maybe it will run express after 96th street,” I told myself, since the 2 usually runs express, anyway. Alas no—I was fated to utilize yet one more form of transportation before reaching home. “Ninety-sixth street will be the last stop on this Bronx-bound 2 train, due to construction,” came the announcement, somewhere around 72nd street. “Please use the free shuttle service to 149th street where you can pick up continuing 2/3 services to the Bronx.” 149th street? I just wanted to get to 125th! It turned out that the substitute shuttle did make all of the same stops as the 2 train would have, only there were no announcements or signs, and since the bus was so crowded even at 2:30a.m., I could not manage to make out a single street sign, so I successfully missed my stop and had to walk back from 135th street. “At least,” I told myself, “it wasn’t 149th street.” That would have been an awfully long walk, and I might have had to dodge the remains of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach along they way….

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fitting In

It’s one thing to be unique and stand out; it’s an entirely other thing to be rude or inappropriate.

One prime example of this dilemma is the ever-mystifying conundrum concerning office attire. Quite simply, what is “business casual”? No scary heels or three-piece suits I can understand, but when one editor shows up in jeans and a T-shirt while another wears stilettos and pencil skirts, is the implicit message “anything goes” or that you can only dress the way you want once you’ve reached a certain status? And if so, what status is that, when half of the men in your office show up in polo shirts and jeans, while the rest of the men in the very same building wear ties and shiny black shoes? Parents advise dressing for “the position that you want”; however, reality proves that such get-ups will only earn you stares of “who does she think she is?” contempt from female coworkers and raised eyebrows from male colleagues. Fitting in, it seems, is the best—if sometimes most elusive—option. A chunky turquoise necklace or flashy earrings are fine to give your appearance some “personality,” but beware the statement you are making when you start with suit jackets. Thus, the question of What to Wear remains.

The same issue of “fitting in” was just as imperative for me, if not more so, when I was in Singapore. Certainly, I had no chance of fitting in aesthetically, with my 5’9” Caucasian female self, but I was more determined than ever not to appear the arrogant, offensive American stereotype the world has fashioned. I would speak more softly, try eating whatever was offered to me, try to identify and respect whatever boundaries existed in Angela’s household, and do my best to listen patiently to and decode Singlish conversations instead of demanding that everyone speak in “proper” Standard English. The last thing I wanted to do was peg myself as The American Foreigner with Angela’s friends or family, so I figured that the best way to do this would be to do as they did! After all, there is some truth to the phrase “When in Rome….”

This is not to say I went so far as to become a completely different person. I never lied and said I enjoyed a certain food when I didn’t. That would have been torturous for me, and I was there to enjoy myself! Furthermore, if it had been Angela visiting me, I would have been mortified if she pretended to love every single new food item we gave her to try, just to be polite. Therefore, I voraciously attacked each new dish, scarfed down the ones that appealed to my tastes, and tried my best to graciously decline the remaining few that were not so appetizing. (I know several people who would have loved that papaya milkshake, though. If only my sister had been there to finish it for me!)

Yet, I didn’t want to impose myself where I was not wanted. I would have loved to watch Mrs. Tan make dinner and perhaps learn something about Chinese cooking, but I noticed that the other members of the family tended to stay out of the kitchen when the white gauze curtain was pulled over the doorway to the kitchen (indicating that she had begun making dinner). Thus, I did not intrude. The kitchen seemed to be Mrs. Tan’s domain (I rarely saw anyone else in it, cooking or otherwise), and so it was only after much internal debate that I took the courageous step to get a Yakult drink from the refrigerator one evening. Angela’s family was being so hospitable in putting me up for these two weeks; I did not want to take all of their food, too!

As for napkins and ice water, if Angela, her family, and her friends did not need these things at mealtimes, why should I? Just because I was raised to expect these trifles every time I sit down to eat certainly does not mean I need them. Quite honestly, I never even noticed that I came to expect them until they were no longer offered. I certainly didn’t miss using a fork, spoon, and knife at mealtimes, perhaps because I voluntarily chose to use chopsticks throughout most of my college career, making me somewhat of a spectacle in the dining halls. (“You’re going to eat a salad with those?” I was frequently asked. “Why?”) Imagine how awkward I would have felt if I had been incapable of using chopsticks in Singapore; I would have had had to ask for utensils at every single meal! And the food courts and coffee shops in Singapore may not even have offered utensils! Then what would I have done? Been the really pathetic, disgusting American and eaten with my hands?

In any case, I did the best I could to be polite and proper in a country of different size, nationalities, customs, and expectations. If I did anything wrong or offensive, I apologize profusely to anyone I may have offended, but I can assure Angela, her family, and everyone in Singapore that in spite of any seemingly less-favourable observations I may make, I loved every minute I spent on my trip, and while America may have “freedom of speech,” we have plenty of homeless people, trash-ridden sidewalks, and an unemployment rate that is twice as bad as yours (for a population that is 66 times lager…) to make up for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

You can chew gum in Singapore, but you can’t…

Find napkins. Anywhere. Seriously, Angela and I must have eaten at over a dozen restaurants, and I believe that only one, maybe two of them gave us paper napkins to go with our meals. When I ate at Angela’s house, I received chopsticks and a Chinese-style soupspoon as utensils for dinner, but no napkin. And this, when I was eating things like chilli-covered crab and sautéed prawns! The result: messy hands at pretty much all mealtimes. I felt like one big American slob at the dinner table.

Buy black clothing. Or at least Angela can’t. According to her mom, black is an inauspicious color and should only be worn in mourning. When I found this out, I told her that I must be a very unlucky, because at least a fifth of my “work clothes” are black.

Drink cold water. Or, again, at least in Angela’s household. According to her mother, cold beverages are bad for the digestive system, so all of he water in her house is double boiled (kill those microbes!) and then left in containers on the counter. I, for one, cannot figure out how, in such heat and humidity, Singaporeans can stand to drink tepid, room-temperature water, but for the time I was there, that’s what I drank. No ice cubes, nothing. And forget about getting a cold beverage with any take-out meals. They don’t even offer beverages at the food counters. To get a drink, you have to go to a completely separate vendor. Apparently Singaporeans don’t need napkins to wipe their hands at mealtimes, and they don’t need any beverages to wash their food down, either. Being American, however, I do need some sort of liquid to whet my palate as I consume food products, so in order to avoid being a major annoyance every time we sat down to a meal, I carried a bottle of tepid water with me 24/7. Apparently that’s a normal enough thing to do; Angela carried one, too. She just didn’t drink hers at mealtimes.

Escape military service. If you’re male, that is. Upon turning eighteen years old, every Singaporean male is required to serve two years in the military. He may then be called back into service at any point in time, at the government’s discretion, up to the age of fifty or so. This on-call service include re-training, combat, etc.

Protest. Four people plus one sign equals a demonstration. Demonstrators are arrested. You want freedom of speech? Move to America.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I am NOT a picky eater

Ever since I can remember, I have been branded as the Picky Eater in my family. Granted, I suppose I have earned that title, considering that compared to the rest of my family members, I do tend to have the most selective palate.

My “selectivity” began as a child. (Or, at least, when I was younger—because when does the division between child and adult become apparent? When we go to school? When we graduate from school? When we get married? So perhaps I am still a child. Either way, I am about ten-to-fifteen years older than the age I am talking about.) I distinctly remember the dread that would appear on my grandmother’s face every summer when I would stay with her and my grandfather for one week by myself. This dread specifically when it came time to prepare a meal. She would ask me what I wanted, and I would tell her. Then, however, after she made it and set it out on the table, I would take one look at it (or, if she was lucky, one bite) and insist that this was not what I wanted. She didn’t make buttered noodles like mom did. I only liked Kraft macaroni and cheese (the boxed kind, not her homemade kind). The pork chops tasted weird. Even the orange juice she had was wrong: it had pulp.

Now, although I am not nearly so particular—I eat things prepared in a variety of ways other than how my mother cooks them, for instance, and I will choke down pulpy orange juice if I must—I am still branded as being the Picky Eater of the family. I am the only one who, for example, will not eat any sandwich with mayonnaise on it. I also do not care for 99% of cheese, eggs, or red meat products.

However, since I have been to Singapore, I have tried such a variety of foods that are obscure to us Americans—and have enjoyed them!—that I refuse to bear that title any longer! I believe that had I been raised in an Asian country, I would have thrived and perhaps grown quite corpulent eating all of the delicious foods here. They don’t load up their dishes with cheese here, nor do they tend to feature as much red meat on their entrée menus. Instead, it’s all fish, fish, fish! And noodles, and rice. And vegetables!

To illustrate, let me give a list—accompanied by a few photos, of course—of a number of foods I have tried and enjoyed during my stay here. I must credit Angela for making sure I tried each and every one of them, for without her direction and insistence, I would probably have not known where to begin in my culinary excursions, nor would I ever have been so adventurous.

August 6: kaya (sweet pan dan leaf paste) on toast; kai lan (leafy stir-fried vegetable); Hokkien mee (prawn noodle with lime and chili); sugar cane juice; ice kacang (like a sno cone mountain topped with red beans, grass jelly, corn, coconut milk)

August 7: cai xin (green leafy vegetable, served with chicken chop claypot); longan (fruit with tough shell and opaque white grape-like inside); rice burger una gi (eel served between two rice patties/“buns”)

August 8: eel; baby octopus; dragon fruit; *papaya milkshake* (the first thing I did not like)

August 9: char kway teow (cockles—a shellfish tasting a bit like oysters—with flat kway teow noodles and skinny mee noodles in a soy sauce with scallions); chendol (similar to ice kacang); *durian* (second thing I did not like—it’s a custardy fruit that you have to crack open)

August 10: black fungus (surprisingly good!); dried bean curd skin; glutanous ball in sweet wine (a dessert soup)

August 11: laksa (spicy soup with thin noodles and veggies/seafood); tomato prata (similar to naan); milo dinosaur (chocolate milk with powdered mix on top—very delicious and can/should be easily brought back to the states); rambutan (again with opaque white grape-like inside, but very deceiving hairy pink-and-green neon rind)

August 12: fish ball soup; kang kong (hollow stemmed green vegetable in spicey sambal sauce); ice cream sandwich (this is a square of ice cream in your choice of flavors served on a piece of white bread dyed green and pink; very unusual!)

August 13: mangosteen (dark plum colored fruit with white tiny sectioned juicy insides); baluku (meaning “head lump”; similar to longan but with more seeds that taste bitter); coffee bun; red bean ice cream

August 14: watermelon juice; chicken floss bun

August 15: sashimi (sushi without the fixings, otherwise known as raw fish)

August 16: soba (cold gray noodles served with iced soya sauce and wasabi paste)

August 17: *pig intestine; pig stomach* (items 3 and 4 that I did not like); seaweed; sesame paste (a hot black dessert soup)

Thus, in conclusion, I would like to cast off my title of Picky Eater in lieu of a more apt description: Adventerous Eater!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Living “Anywhere”

Angela is nothing if not a patriot. She is willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of her country, but she loves it in spite of these shortcomings and insists that it is doing “the best it can” under its circumstances. When I reflect upon my own beliefs concerning America, I find that I must feel the same way. Sure, we have our faults as a country and a society. Certainly, I am not happy with the way some of our institutions are run, with the way some of our politicians behave and the choices they make. I am certainly not happy with the national reputation we have created for ourselves as Americans. However, I too believe that we as a country are doing the best we can with what we have: the space, the people, the power, the resources. We are trying to improve upon what we have been, what we are, what we want to become, and that is what matters.

I say all of this because Angela asked me whether or not I thought that, after being here for two weeks, I could live here. It was a question I truly had to consider, because at this point in my life, I am claiming to be open to living pretty much “anywhere.” Contrary to popular belief, I am only choosing to live in New York City because that is where the majority of publishing jobs are available. (Therefore, if I am located where the jobs are found, hopefully my immediate availability will make me a More Attractive Candidate.) Would I consider living in Singapore permanently?

My immediate reaction was, “Sure; why not?” This country upholds one of my most desired qualities: cleanliness. As opposed to the litter-strewn, piss-stained, gumwad-caked, smelly streets of New York, these streets and sidewalks and even building walls look as though they are powerwashed daily. No bizarre stenches waft from arbitrarily placed dumpsters or port-a-potties throughout parks or on street corners. One time I even went running and was horrified when, without thinking, I spit on the grass. I could have been fined $200!

So the city is clean. More than that, though, I am positive it is very safe. Why? Because if no one will steal your belongings in a public area, then the chances of getting mugged, much less shot or killed are slim-to-none. Let me illustrate: When I went to NUS (National University of Singapore, where Angela attends college, or “university” as they call it here) with Angela for classes, we ate in the canteen with her friends. (The canteen is their equivalent of a dining hall or cafeteria, only open to the outdoors, like nearly everything else.) When I go to eat, I almost always hold my bags until I have all of my food, and then everyone finds a table together, sits down, and eats. Here, however, we set our bags down at a table far from where we would be standing in line to order our food. I had brought Angela’s laptop to do work later while she was in an afternoon class, so this was included. “Just leave your stuff here,” she told me when we got up to order. And we just left everything—my camera, her laptop, all of our books and phones and everything—right there, unattended in the middle of swarms of college students to go order our food. We did the same thing when there was a break in the middle of one of her classes: we just left all of our bags and belongings in the classroom and stepped out to go to the restroom or get coffee. Needless to say, I was impressed. Imagine living in such a secure, trustworthy society!

Lastly, I must say that I love the food. So much fish! So much fruit! I am surrounded by cheap deliciousness. Lunch the other day was a bowlful of spicy vegetables, noodles, and fish soup called laksa, and you wouldn’t believe what it cost me. $1.80! And that’s in Singaporean currency, not even American! I guess this isn’t a very valid reason to move somewhere, but still, if I didn’t like the food, it would certainly be a deciding factor not to move somewhere.

But. But but but. Initially, I thought that constant sunshine would be a huge bonus. Imagine having a tan all year round! I would certainly never have to worry about getting seasonal affective disorder (all you Pittsburghers and Rochesterians know what I’m talking about), and I would only need to buy one wardrobe’s worth of clothing: summer. However, even after two weeks here, I’ve come to realize that pretty much everything I do is in terms of seasons. I’m always waiting for that “relief” period. Right now, the warm weather is fine. I don’t mind the humidity because I know that in a few days, I’ll be back in a place where I don’t feel like I’m breathing in a sauna and where I don’t sweat in my sleep. In the same way, I regularly enjoy summertime because I know the cool breezes of fall are coming. I enjoy winter snow and fireside cuddles while looking forward to the hot sun-bathing days of summer. I am most able to enjoy the present because I know that the future holds something different but equally enjoyable. Here, there are no seasons. There is no winter relief from the heat and humidity. I feel as though I would be waiting forever for something I rationally know will never come.

Additionally, for all of its cleanliness, Singaporeans must pay a price for the beauty in which they live and the conveniences they enjoy. This price is freedom of expression and, therefore, influences on change. Four people with one sign is considered a demonstration, and demonstrations are illegal in Singapore. Instead, they have a corner on which single people are permitted to “speak freely.” Not criticizing the government, though. Drug trafficking is punishable by death—of which they inform every aircraft passenger upon landing at the Singapore National Airport. And because defacing public property is such a severe crime, skating parks are the singular locations in which citizens are permitted to do graphiti without retribution. Every time I run at the local “track” (a sidewalk running for about a 1km loop around a small child’s playground and stunted basketball court), I go past one of these skating parks. They are covered in rainbow messes of beautiful artwork and scraggly acronyms, but not one letter extends outside the concrete park area.

I am not sure I could live in such knowing confinement. And I am almost positive I could not live without seasons.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Aspirations

Let me clear up a misnomer: just because Singapore is closer to China than the United States does not mean there is better press or more excitement here concerning the Olympics. In fact, because Singapore has next-to-no athletes competing in the games*, the country actually shows very little interest in the games at all. An illustration: the other night, I went to a pub called Harry’s with Angela and two of her friends, Kan Kan and Chris, for drinks. At the pub, they had three large screens. Now, I would wager that in any U.S. bar, with the Olympics being as big of a deal as it is, at least one of those screens would have been showing some Olympic event or other, no matter what other sports events may be occurring at the time. At Harry’s, all three screens were showing a football (read: soccer) match. And no, it was not an Olympic football match; it was not even an international football match; it was a match between two English provinces. Imagine a pub showing only American football preseason games or minor league baseball when the Olympics are going on. I was beside myself.

What’s more, it’s not as if Singaporeans don’t have the facilities to become great Olympic athletes. Granted, their climate isn’t exactly ideal for intense training—I tried running today and made it approximately one mile before I felt as though I were about to have an asthma attack from the humidity—but they have much more space than I anticipated they would, and they certainly never have to worry about winter coming along and messing up any training schedules!

In Bukit Batok, the “community” where Angela lives, about three blocks from her house, is a community swimming center. I call it a center rather than just a pool, because it is actually comprised of three giant pools: a wading pool, a children’s pool, and a lap pool. The entry fee is incredibly inexpensive: one Sing dollar per visit, no membership needed. Therefore, I have taken advantage of this facility nearly every other day I have been here. Here, however, is the clincher: the lap pool is Olympic-sized. That’s right: it’s fifty meters long.

Now, one would think that if a community has an Olympic-sized pool as its community lap pool, it must have a good many hard-core swimmers in the area training for competition. This may be so, but if there are such swimmers around, I have not seen a single one. Instead, every time I go, I am faced with a variety of pseudo breast-strokers, mostly men, who bob up and down the pool, completely disregarding any lane markings and stopping on the walls for undetermined lengths of time right where I aim to do my flip turns. This, of course, is only possible because there are no lane ropes provided, so the whole experience comes down to one big Dodge the Swimmer game. If nothing else, it has given me a new appreciation for why all the bobbing Asian breast-strokers back in Rochester never seemed to have any concept of lane etiquette. Clearly no one is taught how to get out of an oncoming swimmer’s way, much less how to let one pass by you when you are going the same direction. And if they don’t know these skills, the it’s no wonder they don’t bother to try circle-swimming.

I still wonder, though: with such large lap pools available for every community block of homes, at such a cheap price, in such consistently nice weather…where are the athletes??? I feel like I’m back in my England conundrum, although at least people here think they are athletic. Several of them wear the attire and look very concentrated as they swim or jog or wave their arms in circles at their sides. I imagine that the swimmers here believe they are getting a workout, but their heart rates cannot possibly exceed 120 bpm.

America is just so sports-crazed. Are we the weird ones? But then again, there is always China, with its 24/7 training “schools” for youth Olympic hopefuls. We don’t do that to our children; instead, we have parents who sign their kids up for sports camps and lessons and clinics and teams. We have 24-hour sports channels and pay athletes exorbitant sums of money to lift heavier weights, to jump higher in the air, to run faster. We have bodybuilding shows, blogs for runners, Sports Illustrated, Should we be focusing on something else? How to run our country a bit more like orderly, peaceful Singapore, perhaps?

*The Singapore government will not even send their water polo team, which is internationally ranked, because of the expense of sending an entire team of athletes; it opts instead to send a handful of individual athletes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Singapore: Where Starbucks is not a coffee shop

In Singapore, Starbucks is not considered a coffee shop. Starbucks is a café. A coffee shop in Singapore is equivalent to our food courts, only it is housed in an outdoor pavilion, and all of the food is very cheap. What we call cafes, they call restaurants. In their “coffee shops,” you order at the particular vendor you want, and instead of standing at the stall waiting for your food (which, admittedly, would just cause more congestion in such a crowded area), you go and sit at a numbered table, which you indicate to the vendor. The vendor then drops off the food to that particularly numbered table. No congestion around the vendor’s booth; no tip required. Quite a smart arrangement, if I do say so.

I am sure American food companies would protest that this system would hurt their pocketbooks, since more employees would be required, but really, each vendor would only need to employ one food runner, two at most. Food courts—excuse me, coffee shops—are not that big, and everyone does not eat from the same vendor at the same time.

So to make this clear, let me illustrate several linguistic conversions. First I will list the term for what the US concept would be. Therefore, when I put the term US coffee shop, imagine a Starbucks. Then, I will list what the equivalent Singaporean (yet still English) term would be:

  • US coffee shop (e.g. Starbucks) = Sing café
  • US food court (e.g. outdoor mall food court) = Sing coffee shop
  • US café (e.g. Panera) = Sing restaurant
  • What is Singapore like?

    The best way I can describe it is that it is to ask you to imagine a Florida beach resort: with all the little mini condo/hotel rooms clustered together under the red tile shingled roofs, with covered walkways palm trees lining every street and sidewalk, and bushes of flowering ferns clustered at the roadsides. Now blow it upwards toward the sky about twenty-five more stories, hang clothing out slatted windows on bamboo rods, crank the humidity up about five times what it is in Florida, and you’ll have a superficial view of all of Singapore. Literally.

    There are no slums. This is because in Singapore, there are no homeless people. Even buskers (those people who play music on the streets with a plastic cup by their feet) must have a license granted by the state. All of the buildings are painted in colors you see in tropical southern states: white, coral, peach, sea foam green, goldenrod yellow. Each cluster of high rises—owned by and rented to residents by the state—is our equivalent of a community and has its own swimming pool, track, playground, and network of covered walkways.

    I must describe these walkways. If you have never stayed at a hotel resort before, there is no way to give you an accurate visual picture of what they look like. Basically, they are narrow, permanent roof fixtures covering all the sidewalks that wind between the high-rise apartment buildings. If I were completely ignorant of the climate here, I would presume they were meant to protect citizens from the rain, but I imagine they are more for protecting people from the blazing hot sun than for anything else. They’re certainly handy when the rain does come, but relief from heat is most essential here.

    What I cannot imagine is what happens when a longtime Singaporean resident travels outside his or her country. What a shock it must be to realize that no other country in the world bothers to protect its citizens from the elements!