Category Archives: Expat Living

If You’re Talking About Me, I Don’t Want To Know

*We interrupt London recaps and training banter so that I can have an Expat Moment.  I don’t have too many of these, but I’ve experienced a weird situation several times recently, and it’s been bugging me, so I’d like to get it off my chest.

First, a little background: There is a Singlish term used out here to refer to a Caucasian: ang moh.  The literal translation of the Mandarin is “red hair”, although the phrase is now used to refer to any Caucasians, regardless of hair color.  [Some of the first Caucasians in this part of the world were merchant sailors – many were Dutch – some Dutch people have red hair.]  I’ve heard the term described as a “racial epithet” – and while I won’t pretend to understand every nuance or subtlety in its meaning, I can assure the Americans reading that “ang moh” is nowhere near as powerful and charged a word as some racial epithets in the US.

For example, I will refer to myself as an ang moh in conversation with locals, and use the term as an adjective to describe my “ang moh hair”, or an “ang moh habit”.  So although I don’t usually hear friends or family refer to me this way (which makes sense, since they, you know, call me by my name), “ang moh” is not a taboo term.

Singapore, here’s the thing: This is just a friendly reminder that I, and I’m sure many other ang mohs in Singapore (even those who didn’t marry into a Singaporean family), know the phrase.  I can even pick it out in a flood of Mandarin, “xxxxxxANG MOHxxxxxxx,” – plain as day.  So when I’m out by myself at Sheng Siong, or the kopitiam, or on the MRT platform in Bedok (all places where there’s a high probability that I’m the only Caucasian around), and you and I have a casual interaction – then you turn to your friend and say something in Mandarin that includes the words “ang moh” – I can pick that out as clearly as if you said my name.  And in this context, I’m pretty sure that you are talking about me, and/or Caucasians in general.

And honestly?  I walk away feeling kind of icky.  It turns out that I don’t like being the subject of a discussion being held right under my nose, in a language I don’t really know, and loudly enough for others nearby to hear (in a language many of them understand).

I’m not sure what I was doing that was so notable.  Yesterday, I was paying for my groceries, exchanging receipts with the cashier.  As I gathered my bags to go, the person behind me in line said, “(Something) ANG MOH (lots more Mandarin I couldn’t understand),” then she and the cashier laughed and looked at me.  I didn’t find my soda water, yogurt, and watermelon to be so hilarious…

And today, in the MRT station?  When I stepped out of the bathroom stall?  I’d just finished a workout with a client – so first I peed, then I changed into a dry, better-smelling shirt for the ride home on the subway.  This seemed, you know, courteous.  But wrangling off a sweaty shirt and sports bra, and into dry replacements in a small stall, took a minute or two.  So as I stepped out and and an auntie barged in past me, calling to her friend in the next stall, “ANG MOH (something something something in Mandarin),” what came after didn’t leave much to my imagination.  Auntie, I am sorry if my extra minute caused you discomfort or inconvenience.

Am I being too sensitive?  Probably.  Am I unaccustomed to being the “foreigner”?  Perhaps.  But the idea of being discussed – and knowing I’m being discussed – right under my nose, annoys me.  I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, bothers me.   I have no doubt that people talk about me behind my back.  But I like who I am, and feel pretty comfortable in my own skin, thanks to some tough lessons learned during middle/high school.  Instead, I think that what bothers me is the fact that these folks don’t consider that I might have some idea of what they are saying.

So I suppose my request is this: If you want to talk about me in Mandarin (or any other language), maybe you could you refer to me as “that sweaty girl in the red shirt” or “the woman in the purple dress”?  There’s a much greater chance I won’t know that you’re talking about me.  Although…on second thought…I intend to learn enough Mandarin that I know those phrases, too.  So maybe instead, just lower your voice?  Or wait until I walk away?  At least then, I won’t know what’s happening.  Thanks.

And in the meantime, I’m going to have KMN teach me something I can say in these situations.  Probably along the lines of, “Excuse me, but I do speak some Mandarin.”  That should give the person pause.  🙂

[I should note that this is a lesson for us all, myself included.  In the 21st century, lots of people speak lots of different languages.  Be careful what assumptions you make.  My husband is more good-natured about this kind of thing than I am, but it’s pretty ignorant of an American to tell him, “Wow.  Your English is REALLY good!”  Especially when the person who made the comment has no idea where KMN grew up.]

Put yourself in my position: A foreigner living in a country where it is absolutely obvious that you are not native.  What do you do when you know someone is talking about you in a language you don’t really speak?

A. Shut up and walk away
B. Respond in English
C. Learn and use a snappy Mandarin response
D. None of the above.  Instead, I would ___________________________________.

 

Some Days, You Feel Like an Oaf

If you’re living in a new place (abroad, or perhaps just a very different area in the same country), no matter where it is or how flexible you are: Sometimes you have a ‘culturally bad day’.  This may or may not be tied to an acute feeling of homesickness (for me, it’s usually not), but it’s just one of those days where small idiosyncrasies that you usually take in stride…conspire to frustrate and annoy you.  Or, in this case, frustrate and annoy me.

[Disclaimer: These observations aren’t meant to be criticisms.  I love living in Singapore: The country is clean, convenient, organized, efficient, diverse, and lets us see family often.  The people (friends and strangers alike) have been incredibly good to me.  But every so often, things get hard for a few hours.  Or maybe just an hour.  So I share this story in the interest of full disclosure, because I want you to see the full experience – good and bad – of working/training/living-abroad life.  I want to be real – so here is a peek into one of my less-fine hours…]

This is how things went yesterday when I headed out to pick up a few items at Fairprice, one of the local supermarkets:

1. So. Many. People.   I like my protective bubble of space, but in a city (especially in Asia), all bets are off.  90% of the time, I’ve learned to handle the crush of people.  As I was walking through the mall to the Fairprice (yes, many supermarkets are in malls; malls are everywhere in Singapore), a woman carrying a bunch of shopping bags cut in very close to me and whacked me in the arm with her purchases.  She didn’t really mean any harm, and there was no permanent damage, but I had a minor internal grumble about “too many people, too small a space”.

Ironically, not 10 minutes later, I turned into the bump-er.  I was squeezing through a crowd of people in the supermarket, and accidentally bumped an auntie in the arm with MY basket.  I turned quickly and apologized, and asked if she was OK.  In return, she rubbed her arm and gave me a piercing look that made me feel about 6 inches tall.

I don’t know what she was muttering in her head, or if it was remotely culturally-related, but I felt like a giant, insensitive, American-oaf.  She didn’t respond to me verbally at all (only with a continued glare) and didn’t appear seriously injured, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  It is entirely possible that she didn’t really speak English and was also at a loss for words, so I offered one more apology, hoped my tone and body language conveyed what my words could not, and moved along, hoping to finish my shopping as quickly as possible and avoid running into her (literally or figuratively) again.

2. Why can’t I just find what I want???  One of the items on my list was “dark soy sauce”.  I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted: thick, sweet, dark soy sauce.  But when I got to the soy sauce aisle (yes, soy sauce takes up most of a short aisle here), there was super thin dark soy sauce, and thicker dark soy sauce, and really thick dark soy sauce.  Suddenly overwhelmed, I realized that I didn’t know WHAT I wanted, and left without any soy sauce at all.  So actually, I was a wishy-washy, giant, insensitive American-oaf.

I headed for the jam/jelly section.  Now, I really like the American staple of Strawberry Jam/Preserves for my PB&J.  Given a choice of fruit spreads, 99% of the time, I will choose some kind of chunky, spreadable, strawberry stuff.  But in Singapore, I have already eaten through three different jars of not-so-nice strawberry stuff.  The first was mostly made of strawberry juice and (I guess) artificial flavor.  There was nary a seed nor fruit spec to be found, although it was still labeled as “jam”.  The next was made with weird, hard, strawberries.  And the third was really sour.

I am yearning for a not-super-sweet,  spreadable jelled strawberry concoction that doesn’t cost $10 per small jar (because yes, those are on the shelf, too).  But among the mid-priced jams, I keep guessing WRONG.  And I’m tired of experimenting and guessing.  The fun has worn off.  I just want to enjoy a freakin’ piece of toast with strawberry goodness on top.  *cue near melt-down in the condiments aisle*

And this is what I ended up buying.  It's not even what I WANTED!  I think I was swayed by the homemade-looking label and checked cloth lid.  It made me feel like Bonnie Marie whipped it up in her home kitchen.  I'm convinced it's going to be delicious (that's why I haven't tried it yet!).

And this is what I ended up buying. I know, I know. Don’t ask. Really. Don’t ask. But it’d better be DELICIOUS…

I managed to get myself and my assorted groceries through the check-out and out of the mall without any further encounters.

Well, no further encounters until I was nearly home, that is…

3. Nosy “Neighbors”: Back story: There is a coffee shop (like, an American-ish coffee shop, with espresso drinks, cute tables, etc.) across the street from our apartment.  The place opened just after we moved in, and I, wanting to patronize a new small business, tried it one day back in December.  At the time, the owner had chatted with me, said she’d seen me around (anonymity is hard when you’re Caucasian in this particular neighborhood), and offered me a free piece of cake that I was unable to refuse.  Unfortunately, the latte itself was expensive, dilute, and tasted like the paper cup it was served in.  I haven’t been back for coffee, although I sheepishly walk past the store several times a day, sometimes with the bag of local coffee that I buy for $1 SGD from the kopi across the street.  I feel a bit guilty about not patronizing the coffee shop – although not quite guilty enough to over-pay for sub-par coffee.

But as I was walking home yesterday, the owner happened to be outside as I passed.  We exchanged polite hello-nods, and out of the blue, she asked me, “Are you on your way to work?”  Already feeling bruised and ornery, my American-self thought angrily, “That is none of your business!!  That’s not something you ask someone in polite street greeting. Why do you want to know where I’m going?  And furthermore, Why should I tell you??”  

I caught myself.  She’d asked a simple question, not intending any harm or insult.  And as a matter of fact, I was heading to work (which also happens to be home).  But I didn’t want to answer her questions. So I made some polite noises, wished her a good day, and took myself across the street.

When I related this last story to KMN, he saw nothing wrong with her question.  He also sees nothing odd about providing our national identification numbers on every form we fill out (running race registrations, paperwork for the doctor’s office, job applications), or the requirement of a photo on a job application, or the interest that so many people here take in state of my uterus.  I simply think that Americans and Singaporeans have different ideas about privacy and what is considered “nosy”.  For further evidence, see this post about the conversation I had with a taxi driver one day.  [That post is also evidence that I’m generally good-natured about this difference.  But yesterday, it just got on my nerves.]

What’s a privacy-hording, wishy-washy, giant, insensitive American-oaf to do?  Well, this one went home and hunkered down in her Introvert’s Hideout (aka, Our Apartment), roasted a chicken and did some work.  I know this is all small stuff, with no long-term impact.  In fact, by the next day (today), it’s almost comical.  So to those of you who are living in a place that sometimes feels foreign, I understand.  Hang in there.  The feeling will pass.  But in the meantime, if you have any really good strawberry preserves, could you send them my way?  Thanks!  [Kidding.  After the deodoRANT post awhile back, I realized how sweet you all are in your willingness to send me stuff.  But postage to Singapore is freaky expensive, and I’ll be back in the US in a few weeks anyway, and will probably snag a jar or two of known-to-be-delicious preserves to bring back with me.]

Does “Are you going to work?” seem like unusual or nosy polite-conversation question to you, or was I being too sensitive?

Have you had any unusual encounters in the grocery store lately?

What is your favorite kind of jelly/jam/preserves?

Confessions of a Country-Turned-City Mouse

Sometimes, I use this space to talk about weird, annoying, or frustrating things I’ve discovered about living in Singapore.  But the truth is, I love living here.  And I love it for many, many reasons.  But tonight, as I actually work on a serious (and probably controversial) blog post (not this one, another one), here is one of those reasons:

At 7:04, I tossed my wallet into my purse and stepped out the door.

I put on my shoes, took the elevator downstairs, walked three blocks, and had this made up fresh for me in about 3 minutes (no, I did not call ahead), and for $5 SGD ($4 USD):

Chicken Rice (a local favorite), and Kai-Lan (veggie)

Chicken Rice, a local favorite dish. Although usually, the chicken is served on the rice, and the veggies are separate. This is a very deceiving presentation of this dish. Still: Plenty of delicious and moderately healthy local food to fill my belly!

Then, I walked a block and stopped at one of the local supermarkets.  I picked up some necessities, and some soda water (for diluting my lime juice – which is practically a necessity):

Mostly, things that are too bulky or heavy to buy on my "regular" weekly shopping trip.

Mostly, things that are too bulky or heavy to buy on my “regular” weekly shopping trip.

With groceries in tow, I walked home.  I took the elevator upstairs, removed my shoes, let myself into the apartment, set down my bags, and checked the clock.  It was 7:22.

I was born and raised in a relatively rural area (that is now, sadly, nearly suburbanized) – and I love the solitude of life in the country.  But I do appreciate the convenience, efficiency, and eco-friendliness of being able to get dinner and groceries, without ever setting foot in a vehicle, in a mere 18 minutes.  [Where I grew up, 18 minutes would get us very close to pulling into the parking lot at the nearest grocery store.]

Furthermore, there are 4 gourmet ice cream parlors within a 5 minute walk from our front door.  Shh…Do you hear it?  You do, right?  One of them is calling my name, right?  That’s what I thought!   Catch ya’ll later, dudes! 🙂

We keep open boxes of tissues in four rooms of our apartment.  How did they all manage to end up empty in the last 24 hours?
[Apparently, we distribute our tissue usage very equally, over both time and place.]

Can you do any errands by walking (or cycling) where you live?  Do you?

What’s your dinner plan for tonight?

DeodoRant

I had a “Deodorant Episode” yesterday.  As I was relating the whole story to KMN this morning, I realized it was funny.  (At least, it was funny to me.) I spent the day wondering if a Deodorant Episode in was blog-worthy.

Then, I sat down tonight and opened up my Google Reader (Yeah, yeah, I know.  I have to migrate.  Eventually.  I’ll get to it…) and read 50 After 40’s rant about wearing ties.  If he can rant about ties, I can rant about deodorant.  I mean, just look at the word.  If any word was asking for a rant, it’s deodorant, right?  How did I never notice this before??

Besides, it’s my blog.   As I stipulated at the start, I’ll write about whatever I want.  Ready? GO:

A few days ago, the trusty stick of deodorant I brought with me from the US pretty much gave up it’s very last smear of deodorizer.  “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just pick up a new one!”  So later that day, in the grocery store, I went looking…and found…not one stick of deodorant.  *sigh*

OK, fair enough.  To be honest, deodorant use among Chinese people seems to be pretty low.  I’m not saying this because they stink (because generally, they don’t – in fact, the gym here is ridiculously UNsmelly).  But of the Chinese people I have been comfortable enough to survey (<— friends and family, not random strangers on the street), most of them don’t use deodorant.  I suspect there are both biological and cultural preferences at play here.  And that’s totally, 100% OK with me.  But personally?  I (and those around me) will fare much better if I partake.

But I wasn’t totally surprised that I couldn’t find any in the grocery store.  Unlike in the US, grocery stores here don’t always have the same selection of HBA (Health & Beauty Aid) products as specialty “personal care” stores do.  So yesterday, I stopped into such a personal care store – and I specifically chose one in a place where lots of Caucasians shop (figuring they might have a higher demand/better selection).  After a bit of hunting, I found this:

Yep, that's about it.

Yep, that’s about it.

This section is probably 20% of what you’d find in the average US store – and I actually feel a bit bad for any Singaporean who walks into a US store looking for deodorant.  S/he would probably faint at the selection.  We Americans sure (think we) like our choices!!  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that more selection is always better. I’m just saying that this is…considerably less selection that I’m accustomed to seeing.

I should say – there were also some aerosol/spray deodorant choices a few shelves down that I failed to capture in the photo.  But that’s not how I roll (Get it? I prefer to ROLL), so I examined these options a bit closer.  And further inspection revealed that most of the options on the top and middle shelves were alcohol-based, clear-gel type products.  Since we’re getting all personal here, I will admit that I’ve always found applying an alcohol-based product to my freshly-shaven armpits to be rather…painful.  So those were out, too.

I’m also not into super-duper antiperspirant ingredients.  I’d like some odor-control, but figure that sweat is pretty natural (annoying, but natural).  So I eliminated a few options because I was leery of “48 Hour Perspiration Protection”.  [And who goes 48 hours without a shower in Singapore, anyway?  I can hardly go 6 hours…  And more often, I’m ready to hop back in after 10 minutes!  Forty-eight hours?!?]  I peered more closely at my remaining options, and noticed something rather alarming:

Whitening?

Excuse me. Did I just read that correctly? “Whitening”?!?!?

Singaporeans, you’ve gotta help me out here.  I am begging you.  I understand that most people of Asian decent find lighter skin to be desirable (at least historically).  But…ummm….whitening….your….armpits???  I double-checked to make sure that Dove hadn’t started making toothpaste when I wasn’t looking. Nope.  Definitely deodorant.  Whitening?!??!

I was – and still am – totally baffled.  But seeing as how I’d like to keep my armpits the same color as the rest of me, and don’t really need to add any MORE chemicals to what’s already in the deodorant to begin with, I left the “whitening” brands on the shelf.

Apparently, I am more fussy about my deodorant than I thought.

Ultimately, two options remained: Lady Speed Stick, in either “Wild Freesia” or “Orchard Blossom”.  Neither thrilled me (I prefer Unscented or Powder Fresh, in case you were curious), and since I didn’t really feel comfortable uncapping and sniffing deodorant sticks in the middle of the store, I gambled on Orchard Blossom.

I gave it a shot last night.  And all I can say is . . . my armpits now smell like Starbursts.

Fabulous.

I guess there are worse things.

Also, I’ll be picking up a few sticks of Powder Fresh the next time we are back in the US.

Every day, it’s an adventure, folks.

*OK, I’ll admit – this wasn’t exactly a rant.  But it was close to a rant.  Can I plead artistic license?

Anyone out there using any “natural” products for deodorant?
Preferably ones that won’t turn my clothing white (ie, baking soda is out), since I wear a lot of sleeveless tops.

Anyone going on a date tonight?
KMN and I are going to heat up some leftovers, turn off our technology, and have a read-paper-books festival.

“Holly, you’re not in the US anymore”: Censorship Edition

I offer you a peek at a conversation that, after 7 years,  I am quite tired of having:

Scene: Me, innocently conversing with someone in the US.  “Singapore” comes up in conversation, usually with respect to “places I have family” or “places I’ve traveled” or (these days) “where I live”.

Me: Blah, blah, blah…Singapore….bla—
Someone: Oooooh! Singapore!  That’s where they cane people, isn’t it???  Don’t bring your chewing gum!!!   *hahahahaha*

I get it.  I really do.  Although Singapore is a pretty big deal in the business world, it doesn’t really come up in too many World History lessons or day-to-day conversations outside of Asia.  In fact, most Americans in/older than my generation probably first heard of “Singapore” in the early 1990s, when an American teenager here was sentenced to caning for committing acts of vandalism (not for chewing gum, as legend sometimes has it).

And the truth is that Singapore does have some strict laws:

Punishable by FINE: Littering (including cigarette butts), failing to flush a public toilet, spitting, and selling chewing gum (chewing is OK, just don’t spit/litter with it)

Punishable by CANING: Vandalism/graffitti

Punishable by DEATH: Many narcotics offenses

But I share a pretty simple rule of thumb with visitors: If your parents wouldn’t approve, don’t do it.  [Except the selling gum part.  But really, who goes traveling to foreign countries and starts selling gum??] This isn’t rocket science, folks.  For a westerner, this is basically just good manners and responsible citizenship.  It’s not like I walk around afraid to do anything, wondering if the police will jump out from around the next corner to arrest me for violating some random and ridiculous law, like “No wearing purple on Thursdays!”.  More or less, the rules just make sense.

And while I might have reservations about the prescribed punishments (although I am not going to debate the pros/cons of caning or the death penalty on this blog, now and probably ever), broadly speaking – the prohibitions themselves make sense.  And they really don’t affect my daily life, except to help make Singapore one of the cleanest cities – and unquestionably THE SAFEST city- I have ever visited.  So I will admit that it’s easy for me to get lulled into thinking that the government here is always smart and reasonable, and that I will generally agree with their rules and policies.

But then, something happens to remind me that, “Holly, we’re not in the US anymore.” (Not that the US government is always smart and reasonable.)  But something happens that reminds me that Singapore is, for all intents and purposes, a one-party democracy (although this is slowly changing).  Something happens that reminds me that the news sources here don’t have the independence and freedom that they do in the US.  Something happens that reminds me that I’m living in a place where censorship is alive and well.

“Censorship” is almost a dirty word to someone born and bred on the American ideals of freedom and liberty.  So it was with curiosity, disappointment, indignation, and a touch of anger that I watched a Singaporean independent film, Sex.Violence.Family Values, get flagged for censorship late in 2012, just days before it was due to be released.  SVFV is a short film (50 min) comprised of three vignettes intended to explore and challenge the notions of sexuality, morality, maturity, family, and race – in Singapore specifically, but more broadly as well.

Despite its name, SVFV was flagged for neither sex, nor violence.  It was actually flagged for racist language.  One of the vignettes is a blatantly satirical scene, wherein a racist Chinese employer repeatedly insults and stereotypes his Indian employee.  Even to me, when I eventually saw it, the whole scene was so over the top (the employer starts by mistaking the employee as African, rather than Indian), I’d estimate that someone would have to be blind (errrr….deaf?) to miss the satire.

But the Singaporean government has been extremely very sensitive about race relations (in some respects) since race riots broke out here in the 1960s.  There is a lot of formal policy designed to mandate equality and respect, apparently without regard to satire – thus, the “racist” jokes in this film (which really ended up making the racist employer look worse than anyone else) were unacceptable.  Ultimately, a compromise was reached whereby the most offensive of the insults were bleeped out (although little imagination is required to know what you’re missing), and the film eventually opened in Singapore – ironically, probably with more attention and interest than it would have garnered without the whole censorship controversy.  We went to see it a little over a week ago, during our Saturday Date night.

I will not even attempt to turn this post into a movie review.  I will say that the film is strictly adults-only (rated R 21): There isn’t much (any?) violence, but there are plenty of sexual situations, explicit dialogue, and honestly…more pole dancing scenes than I needed to see.  But SVFV does question and challenge both cultural and societal norms, and our perceptions of them, in some unexpected and surprising ways.

Moreover, indie art of any kind is a developing and emerging expression in Singapore and, in my biased, American opinion, deserves as much support as possible.  Your attendance supports the team that produced the film, and maybe – just maybe – it sends a message to the higher-ups in Singapore: People can handle this content.  Let artists do their work, and push boundaries.  Place a little trust in your citizens.  Let them watch, and judge the content for themselves.

So: if you live in Singapore, you have one more day to catch Sex.Violence.Family Values.  It’s playing at Cineleisure Orchard through tomorrow (Wed, March 27) night Edit: April 3!! (second extension!!).  Reserve your tickets through this link.

[Incidentally, SVFV was submitted to the Asean International Film Festival, and just a few days ago was censored again, this time by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia.]

Sorry for a more-serious-than-usual post today, folks.  But as I’ve discussed already, I don’t really believe in glossing over the tough-stuff, just because it’s easier.  While censorship doesn’t really affect my daily life – it is a reality that Singaporeans live with that affects what they can buy, read, see, and sell.

And never fear, we’ll be back to running/eating/stretching/silly sign shenanigans shortly!

Ever had a run-in with censorship, at any level?  (Your local school’s library counts, folks!)

IKEA Trip and Hilarious Cab Rides: “You Live HERE? Are you SURE??”

Our apartment suffers from a syndrome that seems fairly common among two-athlete-couples: “Too Many Sweaty Clothes, Not Enough Drying Space”.  I can easily go through two sets of workout gear a day (run and spin, spin and yoga, swim and run, etc.), and KMN often contributes a set himself.  We have one drying rack for our actual, you know, clean clothes – but we really needed another for our workout gear.  The back of the bathroom door and the shower stall just weren’t cutting it anymore.

So I recently took a trip to IKEA.  First, these things jumped into my arms:

I hugely prefer fabric potholders to silicon ones.  Sorry, KMN.  And my juicer got lost/donated/thrown out somewhere between Rochester/New Jersey/LA/Singapore. And I juice a LOT of lemons...

I hugely prefer fabric potholders to silicon ones. Sorry, KMN. And my juicer got lost/donated/thrown out somewhere between Rochester/New Jersey/LA/Singapore.  I use a *lot* of lemon juice, so this is practically an essential kitchen tool.

Then, I located the drying rack we had picked out on an earlier visit (but was out of stock).  I quickly made my purchases, and had a little bus-vs-taxi debate with myself.  The drying rack was a bit bulky, but it was 9 PM, and the bus on the route I needed probably wouldn’t be that full.  On the other hand, I was juggling my gym bag, and an IKEA bag, and the drying rack, and I hadn’t had dinner…and the taxi ride home would probably cost $10 and be 20-30 minutes faster.

Decision made: taxi.  We don’t take taxis that often – only if we’re in a super hurry, or it’s between midnight and 6 AM, or we have a lot of stuff to move.  But I certainly know how to do it (my, how far from Sussex County I’ve come…).  So I flagged the next taxi that dropped someone off, and got me and my purchases inside.

My cabdriver was Chinese Singaporean.  He was a very nice older fellow, who spoke decent, but strongly accented, English. I will recount several parts of our conversation, as they are both amusing and show some common misconceptions of Singaporeans about foreigners.  I can also introduce you to a tiny bit of Singlish (Singaporean English).

I told the cab driver approximately where I wanted to go:

Him: Oh…will be very bad traffic!
Me: Mmm…usually OK this time of day.
Him: Oh…bad traffic!
Me: We try and see how? [<–Singlish, basically “Can we try?”]

And off we went, him explaining why traffic was bad for everyone, both taxi drivers and passengers, and how his last trip (taking someone home from the airport) took over an hour (he even showed me the taxi log, to prove it), and how he doesn’t understand why white people want to live so far outside the city.

Him: In the jungle! Why want to live in the jungle??  Why foreigners all want to live in the jungle?? *shudder*  Jungle!!

It’s true that many expats do prefer the areas outside the city, probably in large part because they can rent a house there, rather than an apartment or condo.  And traffic is bad – but Singapore is a pretty developed island.  There’s not much of anything that’s a genuine *ahem* jungle.  And the driver apparently missed the obvious contradiction: I am definitely Caucasian, and we were definitely NOT headed into the jungle.  But he knew I was Caucasian, all right:

Him: Where you from?
Me: USA!
Him: Aaaah.  OK.  USA good.  Americans nice, and Australians also nice.  Europeans not so nice.  Rude.  Americans and Australians nicer.  Also tip.

Well…I might be a bad person for it – but I certainly didn’t tell him that I was Singaporean enough to know that I didn’t need to tip.  But eventually my cover was blown:

Him: What is this? *motions toward drying rack*
Me: Drying rack, for clothes. No bamboo poles where we live. [<—This is the more common way to dry clothes – extending out on bamboo poles from outside a window.]
Him: Oh….how much?
Me: $29.

Singaporeans talk about money much more freely than Americans.  Asking someone how much they make, or how much they paid for something (apartment rent, a meal, an appliance), is quite normal and not considered rude at all. This took some adjustment, but now I’m used to it.

Him: Oh…pretty cheap.  No need for expensive, if only will throw away in 6 months.
Me: I hope it lasts more than 6 months!
Him: How long you stay in Singapore?  You here for work, right?  Just a short time, is it?
Me: Well, my husband is Singaporean.  He grew up here. We moved back to be closer to his family.  Doh-know how long. [<—Best I can do, phonetically.]
Him: Oooh!  Singaporean!  What kind of Singaporean?
Me: Huh?
Him: What kind of Singaporean?  He Chinese?
Me: Ohhh! Yes. Yes. Chinese.  Chinese Singaporean.

Obviously, lots of expats come for short stints and without much tie to/longevity in Singapore.  We were coming down the final stretch of road to our apartment, and I pointed out where he should turn.

Him: How you go there?
Me: Go where?
Him: How you go IKEA?
Me: Oh!  Take bus.
Him: Take bus?!?!?!
Me: Uhhh…yeah.  But too much barang barang to take home. [<– Barang barang = stuff]
Him: How you know where bus goes?
Me: Erm…I live here.  Use signs at bus stop. Look up on computer, also can. [<– A bit more Singlish]
Him: You take bus?!?!  *shakes head* Not cab?
Me: No, usually bus or MRT. Cab, only if no choice or lots of packages. Otherwise no need.

Today, plenty of people from all walks of life talk all modes of transportation in Singapore.  But not that long ago, most of the Caucasians here were quite wealthy, and stereotypically took cabs everywhere.  As I said – this is changing a lot, and at least 50% of the time, I’m not the only Caucasian on the bus.  As we were waiting at the last traffic light:

Him: You live in HDB, or terrace houses? [At least he was open to the idea that I *might* live in the government-built HDB flats!]
Me: Neither. Apartment.
Him: HDB?
Me: No. Apartment. I show you.

I direct him around a curve in the road, and pointed:

Me: Here. Can pull over here.
Him: *skeptically* Here? [There is nothing sketchy about where we live. Nothing. Just a regular building, on a regular street.]
Me: Yes. Can pull over here?
Him: You live here??? *he slows*
Me: Yes.
Him: Here.
Me: Yes! Thank you, uncle! *pays, no tip* [<– Which, by this point, he probably should have realized I wasn’t going to give.]

I’m not quite sure why he didn’t believe me about where I lived – but the rest of the trip brought to light some amusing generalizations and assumptions people sometimes make about me and my situation.  I should highlight, though, that I almost never feel uncomfortable here.  People – like this uncle – are sometimes curious, but never unfriendly or unwelcoming.  Singapore is very, very good to me, whether or not I travel with KMN.  Although, the best conversations (like this one) happen in his absence.  🙂

And look:

The one in the foreground is the new "man" in town.  Within 5 minutes, he was adorned in sweaty workout clothes.  His existence promises to be a glorious one...

The one in the foreground is the new “man” in town. Within 5 minutes, he was adorned in sweaty workout clothes. His existence promises to be a glorious one…

Travelers: Ever had some humorous false assumptions made about you based on your appearance?

Athletes: What’s your best trick for getting that deep-rooted stink out of your workout gear?  
I find the “Athletic Detergent” to be totally ineffective, but am experimenting with adding vinegar now.  Other suggestions welcome…

How To Make a Really Delicious Roast Chicken (E-A-S-Y!)

So after having a little plantar fasciitis pity party here and here, I think it’s time for something a bit lighter.  So I’ll write about one of my (new) favorite pastimes: Roasting a chicken.  [This is also healthier than the ice cream habit mentioned in the above posts.]

My Dad jumped on this bandwagon a few years ago, and I distinctly remember my mother noting, “I love that he cooks.  And the chicken is good.  But we’ve had roasted chicken for dinner every single week this winter!”  I think KMN might lodge the same complaint soon.  [Not really. He’s amazing about eating anything I cook, pretty much without complaint, and pretty much always with gratitude and compliments. And I’m probably on the “roasting every-other-week” schedule these days.]

I would occasionally roast a chicken while living alone during grad school, but that always felt like a production, and a race to use all the meat before it went bad.  But now, I’m cooking for two people – so once we settled in Singapore, I decided it was time to get really good at chicken roasting.  Why?  Well, I don’t really like to cook meat all that much.  But a roast chicken is a foundation for a healthy meal.  And if I cook it early in the week, then the leftover meat can make its way into dinner for another night or two with any extra handling of raw meat.  Plus, I can boil the carcass to make chicken broth for soup at the end of the week.  With a little planning, one roast chicken is actually more like three meals, for us.  WIN.

So, in order to raost a chicken, we must first buy a chicken.  And in a new country, everything is an adventure: Even buying a chicken.  In a US supermarket, my choices are (basically) Butterball versus Perdue (or the farmer’s market).  At our local Fairprice in Singapore, I can choose from Fresh Pasar Chickens, Halal Chickens, Spring Chickens, Jumbo Chickens, Black Chickens, and Halal Fresh Pasar Chickens.  The first few times, I randomly grabbed whichever one looked good at the moment off the shelf.   Eventually, I remembered to ask my mother-in-law for help.  Here’s a quick translation of the local lingo (since this won’t matter for…well, for pretty much any of you, but just in case…):

Pasar Fresh: “Regular” chicken
Halal: Killed and processed in a way that is Halal, but otherwise exactly the same as Pasar
Kampong: The local version of “free range” – usually scrawnier, but some people think it tastes better.  Keep in mind that “kampong” isn’t especially standardized, so I’m not exactly convinced that I’m getting a more ethically raised chicken.
Spring: Young chicken. Some people think these more tender.
Jumbo: Duh.  If the name didn’t give it away, one look at them would’ve.
Black: Yep, they’re black: Skin, flesh, bones.  Interestingly, their plumage is white.  Black chicken is popular in Chinese medicine and especially herbal soups.  In my experience, the taste is basically the same as any other chicken – although some people claim it’s tougher.

I usually go for a Pasar or Kampong chicken, but not every option is available every time I go to the supermarket, so I’m flexible.  And although I’m not 100% clear on the regulations and origins of the chicken we eat (sorry, clean eating folks, sorry…I’m trying, but in a new place, this is a real challenge) – I suspect these chickens aren’t quite as bred/injected/modified as their US counterparts.  For one thing, they are smaller.  For another, they look more properly proportioned, if you know what I mean. I’m still learning about the food supply chains out here, but I’m already inclined to trust the standard supermarket chicken out here to be somewhat less chemical-filled, food-stuffed, and breast-heavy.

Furthermore, the chickens are slaughtered locally, and are offered “fresh”.  However, I should note that the day I actually took these photos was the third or fourth day of Chinese New Year – and all the chickens were labeled “Fresh”, with a second label slapped on that said, “Previously frozen.  Thawed on (date).”  Apparently use of the word “Fresh” isn’t strictly regulated, at least not over the holiday period.

Now, don’t expect that your chicken will come in a hermetically sealed package.  These small birds are plopped onto a styrofoam tray, covered in a thin sheet of plastic wrap, and put onto the shelf.  It’s pretty common that the wings poke through the plastic, or the plastic on top tears a bit, or the plastic simply starts to come unwrapped.  Hint: Remember to grab a plastic bag from the fresh fish section.  You can put your chicken in this bag, to keep the rest of your groceries clean.  And watch out – because there’s always a chance that your chicken will drip bloody raw chicken liquid on your list, shoes, and floor – if you aren’t careful:

Yes, I'm a spoiled American. Yes, I think this is rather yucky.  Yes, I smile, bag that chicken, and keep on moving.

Look closely and you’ll see the dark spots on my sneakers, too.  Yes, I’m a spoiled American. Yes, I think this is rather yucky. Yes, I smile anyway, get the chicken into the bag, pretend everything is normal, and keep on moving.

Doing this is exactly as hard as it looks, even for a biologist.

Doing this is exactly as hard as it looks, even for a biologist.

And don’t forget (friends from the USA) that once you bring your little Spring/Kampong/Fresh/Halal chicken home, you still have to remove the feet and head.  These parts are tucked into the bird’s body cavity for “display”, but they’re definitely still attached.  I debated whether or not to include this picture, but it’s part of my real-life experience.  So I included it, but I made it nice and small.  Don’t look if you’re squeamish.  If you’re curious, click for a nice big version.  😉  Regardless on your feelings about the chicken photo, I will share with you two truths:

1. This experience will bring you closer to your food.

2. A cleaver is a valuable tool.

But enough talk.  Let’s get this bird into the oven.  Speaking of ovens, pre-heat yours to 400°F (200°C).  Line your baking pan with foil (this saves much clean-up effort).  Then, rinse the chicken thoroughly  (remove the giblets, if included) and pat her dry, inside and out.  This is pretty important: If there’s too much excess water around, the bird will actually steam in the oven, rather than roast.

All right.  Are you ready for the hard part?  This preparation is really complex.  So complex, in fact, that these days, I do the chicken-touching parts with just one hand, so I have one “clean” hand to touch/move other things, and one “contaminated” hand for the chicken. (<– Paranoid biologist)

1. Mix ~1 Tbsp salt + pepper to taste [I use a lot of pepper; you can use less – remember that not a lot gets onto/into the meat, so no worries about spice.]
2. Rub mixture into body cavity.
3. Squeeze half a lemon into body cavity.  Stuff lemon half in there for good measure. (Don’t ask me why this doesn’t cause a “steaming” problem. It just doesn’t.)
4. Encrust the outside with salt or salt/pepper mix.  Be generous.  You should actually be able to see the salt.  This helps keep the bird moist.  Magic!


5. Roast for ~50-60 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. If the breast starts getting brown, fold some foil into a triangle and make a small shield to cover the breast (sounds very medieval, no?).  This helps keep the meat moist.  When I think it’s just about done, I use a meat thermometer in the thigh (should read 165°F) to confirm.
6. Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes.
7. Carve: Remove legs and slice all the breast meat off in one slice per side (you can sub-slice these after removal).  Pick remaining meat off by hand.
8. Enjoy.  Trust me, it’s delicious.

Chicken breast slice, potatoes, and salad.  An unusually "meat and potatoes" meal for this household!

Chicken breast slice, potatoes, and salad. An unusually “meat and potatoes” meal for this household!

Another iteration: Chicken, stuffing, and carrots.  Also very "Meat and Starch".

Another iteration: Chicken, stuffing, and carrots. Also very “meat and potatoes”, but with stuffing, instead of potatoes. If that even makes sense.

These photos were compiled from several recent chicken-cooking escapades – including last night! Tonight, I’m on my own for dinner, so will certainly be enjoying some leftovers.  And I already have a nice container of stock sitting in the refrigerator.  Oh…the possibilities!

Do you have any special chicken-roasting secrets?

I’m still resting my foot, so I have to live vicariously through your running workout today.  Tell me allllllll about it!

The Day The StarHub Guy Made Me Cry

So if you recall this post, in which I discussed jobs, and science, and facing up to what you fear, you may remember that I promised to use this as a space to be genuine – Where “genuine” means to write about all the parts of life, not just the awesome/hilarious/delicious/fantastic bits.

So let’s talk about yesterday.  Yesterday, my iPhone stopped charging.  I did the normal internet research things, restart, reset, etc. etc – no dice.  Dealing with Apple products here can be a bit tricky, especially since there’s no Apple Store/Genius Bar to saunter up to when something is going wonky.  After considerable research and consultation, I found myself on the phone with a representative from StarHub, our mobile phone carrier.  I must emphasize that he was very polite, and what happened after our conversation was, in no way, his fault

[Background: The standard iPhone charging cable has one iPhone-specific side, and one USB side.]

StarHub Guy: Well, is the problem with the phone or the charger?
Me: I’m quite sure it’s the phone.  I’ve tried different outlets and different USB charge adapters.  I tried plugging it into my computer.  None of these worked.
SHG: But what about the charging cable that plugs into the phone?
Me: Well, when I plug the phone in, it “squawks” like it’s connected. It connects to my computer, so I’m pretty sure the cable is OK, but the phone just won’t charge.
SGH: You should still try switching that cord out.
Me: I can’t. I only have one.
SHG: Well, can’t you borrow one from a friend or co-worker?
….

Moments later, we ended our conversation, and I burst into tears.

For just a minute (OK, maybe five minutes), it didn’t matter that I have awesome friends & family around the world, that I can stay in touch with via all sorts of technology (although not my iPhone, at that moment).  It didn’t matter that lots of KMN’s friends have adopted me into their circle with open arms and hearts.  It didn’t matter that I had some budding running friendships.  It didn’t matter that I actually enjoy the work I do (from home) these days.

At that very moment, I could hear that last question reverberating in my head.  I was hyper-focused on his question, and on what my answer would have to be.  That answer was NO.  No, I actually don’t have any friends or co-workers whose iPhone charger I can borrow on a moment’s notice.

Have you ever noticed that crying is very hot work?  In about 2 minutes, I looked like I’d just come back from a run.  Lovely.  So I closed myself in the bedroom, turned on the air conditioning, and read Patricia Cornwell for awhile.  Somewhere in there, I pulled myself together, remembered all those other things I do have, and schemed a plan for dealing with the phone.  Ultimately, the story has a very happy ending – it took most of the day, but StarHub was extremely helpful and I have a brand new iPhone that cost me just $9 (the price of a new screen protector).  WIN.

So, to all of those who ask me if I’m lonely out here, the answer is…a little complicated.  Because really, I’m not.  Not a day goes by that I don’t get a text or email or FB message from a friend in the US – I’m blessed to have so many people looking out for me.  My days are full, I have work to do, and we enjoy plenty of social engagements here.   I’m generally comfortable with where I am – I know that developing my own friendships and social networks on the ground here will take time, and I’m pretty much OK with that.  But every once in awhile, something catches me off-guard, hits me a certain way, and for a few minutes, I feel incredibly, acutely homesick.

[Don’t get me started on the Jason Mraz song 93 Million Miles.]

So if you are settling into a new place yourself (or even if you’re not, actually) and feel this way sometimes – take heart.  You might feel alone, but remember that others feel this way too.  So if we feel this way together, at least we won’t *really* be alone, right?  🙂

And if you ever need a iPhone charger to test your phone?  I’m your girl.

We shall not be turning this into a pity party, so —

Tell me about your most hilarious experience on the phone with customer service!

 

Adventures of Living Abroad: Unexpectedly Stumped and Pleasantly Surprised

Last week started slowly.  And by slowly, I mean “So Boringly That I Basically Wrote a Blog Post About Tennis Balls“.  [Which you should go read, by the way.  There’s quality stuff in there, I tell ya.]

On Monday, I worked (and rolled a tennis ball around on my foot – *ahem* go read the tennis ball post already*ahem*), and took a day off from serious exercise.  I thought KMN would be at work through dinner, so I cooked up a 1.5-person-sized amount of pastina to enjoy all for myself.  [Someday soon, I will write a pastina post.  I was a late-in-life convert to pastina, but there’s no going back.  Stick around for that post. You won’t regret it, I promise.]  When KMN surprised me by arriving home just as I was about to sit down to eat, I realized I wouldn’t be gorging myself on the whole pot-full, and instead, we each enjoyed 75% of a portion, along with a nice big salad.  Thanks for encouraging responsible eating, honey.

There *was* this excitment:  Pick up your just-filled squeezy water bottle, tip it back for a drink, squeeze...and pour the entire thing down the front of your shirt because you didn't screw the lid on properly.  On the plus side, my shirt was well hydrated.

There *was* this excitement: Pick up your just-filled squeezy water bottle, tip it back for a drink, squeeze…and pour the entire thing down the front of your shirt because you didn’t screw the lid on properly.

On Tuesday, KMN coaxed me out for a later afternoon trail run at MacRitchie.  I generally don’t prefer to run in the evenings, but it’s a rare day when he’s free by 6 PM, so I ditched my gym plans and off we went.  The run was actually quite lovely – there was a cool breeze, and the trails were much quieter than they are in the morning.  I enjoyed this rare chance to chat and catch up with each other while there was still daylight in the sky. When we got back, and I pulled an “I’m too overheated to think about food, let’s just have leftovers (you) and fruit (me) for dinner”.  This happens to me occasionally, and as long as it’s only once in awhile, I excuse myself from consuming a perfect post-workout protein/carb mix, and just make sure I have a well-rounded breakfast the next day.  Don’t tell the Refueling Police, OK?

Wednesday….well, Wednesday was made more exciting by several “expat moments”.  By now, I’m generally pretty comfortable in Singapore on a day-to-day basis.  But there are still things that are confusing, scary, or intimidating – sometimes expected, sometimes totally unexpected.  And sometimes, something that seems difficult or “scary” actually turns out to be nothing at all.  Wednesday was a great example of both of these situations.

Expectation: Simple.  Reality: Frustrating.
I was at the local supermarket, picking up some ingredients for dinner, when I remembered that I wanted to purchase some kind of anti-itch cream.  I’m either having an allergic reaction to something my knee touches regularly, or else we have a very industrious knee-loving bitey-thing in our apartment, because my knee is covered with big, red, itchy bumps that I’ve been scratching open in my sleep.  So 
I went to the topical medications section, then stared for about 3 minutes:

Uhhh....

Uhhh….

There were a few items I recognized, others that were local (but labeled in English), and some that were labeled mostly/exclusively in Chinese. I wasn’t set on using a product that I knew from the US – but I couldn’t even find one of those.  Or anything local that said “Stops itch!”.  And obviously, I wasn’t gambling on anything that lacked any English labeling.

I found plenty of bug repellent, but nothing anti-itch (subliminal message about the importance of prevention?).  This is a tropical country!  How could they not have anti-itchy cream?!?!  I suppose that I could have asked for assistance, but I didn’t.  I payed for my groceries and took my itchy knee home, figuring that ice cubes would have to do for the time being.  On the plus side, they’re free.  And totally natural.

As I was walking home, I realized that I should have stopped at Watsons, a local HBA specialty store that is sort of like CVS or Walgreens, but without a pharmacy.  These stores often have a more comprehensive collection of products than the supermarkets do, and I might have been able to find something there.  There is one literally next door to the supermarket I was shopping in.  *sigh*

Don’t get me wrong, this entire situation was a really small deal – and my knee is still attached.   But I am trying to share the flavor (good and bad) of expat living with those who’ve never lived in another country.  And sometimes you have these momehts: Just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, some little exchange reminds you still have a lot to learn…

Expectation: Frustrating. Reality: SIMPLE.
I also had a small medical thing I wanted checked out (not itchy knee syndrome).  I was feeling reluctant to tackle the “health care in a foreign country” issue, but it had to be done eventually – and better for a small, non-urgent matter than in an emergency situation.  [Stop panicking, Mom and Dad. Everything is fine.  Remember, this was all the way back on Wednesday, and we just talked last night.]

Although I was dragging my feet (I don’t like to go to the doctor, period – never mind a totally new medical system/doctor), I should say that compared to some foreign postings, ours is actually awesome for medical care.  Singapore is probably the premier place to go in Southeast Asia for modern medical care.  In fact, the system is so well-organized and reasonably priced, it is, in many ways, probably superior to that in US.

Let’s examine this in relation to my situation:  I could have walked into any of a dozen medical clinics, either government-run or private, within 2 kilometers of our apartment.  For Singaporeans, using a government-run clinic is often cheaper – but for us, the price is the same.  Clinics provide diagnosis and treatment for minor medical conditions, and some also provide continuing care for chronic conditions, vaccinations, physicals, etc.  Generally, they operate on a walk-in basis.

After some research, and consultation with our insurance plan, I decided to try a private clinic that is just a short bus ride from our apartment.  It is also associated with a hospital and other medical and dental offices/facilities that we could use for basically all of our health-care needs.  I was still a bit anxious about the “walk-in” concept, especially since it was now after 5 PM (I feared it would be quite busy at the end of the workday), so I decided to do a walk-by.  I entered the hospital (where the clinic is housed) at 5:25 PM.  I inadvertently did a “walk-through”, since the clinic waiting area was also a pass-through for other areas of the hospital.  But there was no one waiting.  No one.  And there were three nurses at the check-in counter.  What the heck?  I went for it.

After providing my ID card, address, and allergies, I explained my problem to the nurse.  This was all done in a semi-public area, so I guess if you’re embarrassed, this wouldn’t be ideal – not that there was anyone else around, anyway…  I was given a number (deli-counter style), and in about 5 minutes was in a room with the doctor.  He asked a few questions [Including “Are you running a fever?”  I laughed…dude, this is Singapore, and I’ve only lived here for 4 months. I. Am. Always. Hot.] and checked my vitals.

We discussed the issue briefly, and he gave me a few options: he’d prescribe antibiotics, which I could start taking immediately if I wanted.  But since my situation wasn’t serious, I could try a few other remedies for a day or two first, then take the antibiotics if things didn’t improve.  I was pleased with his brief but comprehensive analysis, patient education, and multiple treatment options.  I waited for the drugs (issued at the doctor’s office, not a pharmacy) and settled my bill.  Visit + Antibiotics + Alternative treatment + Lab test = $80.  WOW.

Also?  I walked out at 6:10 PM.  Ladies and gentlemen, that is a grand total of 45 minutes.   Sweet!

I was done in time to hit the gym (I wasn’t contagious, don’t worry) for a spin class, followed by a round of Yin Yoga with my favorite instructor in the Fitness First system.  KMN met me at the gym, and spun while I yoga-d, then we headed home together.  I crossed my fingers, hoping that my crockpot dinner wouldn’t be a charred mess.  It wasn’t.   🙂  This post is already too long and photo-less, but stay tuned for some foodie details – because that meal was the best thing I’ve yet to make in the crockpot.

Those of you living outside your home country: Any memorable “simple thing turns out to be complicated” stories?

Easy home remedies for itchy bug bites? Singaporeans:  Any anti-itch product suggestions?
[I tried ice, and carrots, with varied success.]