Category Archives: Singaporean Culture

A Day in the Life: Chinese New Year 2014, Day 1

My blog was a mere baby during last year’s Lunar New Year festivities.  Still, I wrote a few in-depth posts about some of the traditions, the food, and the visiting that goes on during the holiday.  Read the first one at Chinese New Year, Days 1 and 2 (obviously titled before I realized the importance of using years – did I think my blog would only last one year?).  If you weren’t a regular reader then (I think there were only about two of you – Hi Mom & Dad!), I’d urge you to click back and read that one first.

I didn’t want to repeat all that info again this year – that would be boring for all of us – but I still want to give you a glimpse into what it’s like to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Singapore.  So this year, I decided to make a photo diary of our activities on the first day of the new year, thus combining two very popular post types: cultural posts and “Day in the Life of” posts.  This is guaranteed to be a winner – so read on!!

Before we get started, I should note: I have only celebrated three Lunar New Years in Singapore, but this one was quite similar to the last two (and, KMN assures me, is representative of *every* one).

6:30 AM: I wake up to an eerily quiet street.  All the shops, restaurants, and corner kopis (coffee shops) are closed.  There are few cars and zero pedestrians out and about.  This was just as I’d remembered from last year – almost spooky!  Singapore bustles through basically every other holiday (our first year here, I was shocked at how few establishments stopped/closed business for Christmas!) – but from the afternoon of the Lunar New Year’s Eve through the second day of the Lunar New Year, this bustling, commercial city slows, stops, and turns its attention to family.  Now, let’s turn our attention to the photos:

[For those of you reading on phones that don’t format captions, the relevant text for each photo is posted as a caption, and thus will appear under the photo.]

7AM: I sneak in an hour of work before the madness begins.  I start with a call to a client in the US, then do some scheduling and planning.

7AM: I sneak in an hour of work before the madness begins. I start with a call to a client in the US, then do some scheduling and planning.

8 AM: Stealing some 'alone time', sharing the trails at McRitchie with a surprising number of other runners/hikers.  7.5 miles of trails isn't a bad way to start a holiday!

8 AM: KMN and I steal some ‘alone time’, sharing the trails at McRitchie with a surprising number of other runners/hikers. 7.5 miles of trails isn’t a bad way to start a holiday!

10 AM (we were still running at 9 AM): Rehydrating, breakfast, quick social media check-in.

10 AM (we were still running at 9 AM): I rehydrate, grab a quick breakfast, and schedule a few social media posts.

11 AM: In the subway station, heading out to our first family visit.

11 AM: We head out for our first visit of the new year!  [It’s rather ridiculous how often my selfies are taken on subway escalators.  Because, you know, what ELSE would I do for those 15 seconds?]

12 PM: We are at the first (of 4) of KMN's great-aunt's houses.  Her children and grandchildren are also there.  We enjoy a traditional Peranakan dish of chicken and potatoes in a savory gravy.  This is officially lunch - but there is much more eating to be done, so we pace ourselves!  The table can't accomodate everyone at once, so we eat in shifts, and people filter in and out, as everyone has visiting to do today.  [If you're interested, you can read more about Peranakan culture in this post: I Married Into a Matriarchy.]

12 PM: We are at the first (of five) of KMN’s great-aunt’s houses. Some of her children and grandchildren are also there, and people flow in and out constantly. We don’t know them all, but greet them anyway, and wish everyone a Happy New Year. We enjoy a traditional Peranakan dish of chicken and potatoes in a savory gravy, served with spicy red peppers for zing and crusty bread for dipping in the gravy. This is officially lunch – but there is much more eating to be done today, so we pace ourselves!
[If you’re curious, you can read more about Peranakan culture in this post: I Married Into a Matriarchy.]

1 PM: Our second stop is literally next door to our first (another of KMN's great-aunts); but after some more snacks - this time, kuey pie tee - we pile into the car for Visit #3.  Normally, KMN and I travel easily by public transport. But on this particular day, we do save quite a lot of time and energy by hopping a ride with his parents.

1 PM: Our second visit is literally just next door (another of KMN’s great-aunts); and after some more Peranakan food and chit-chat, we pile into the car for Visit #3. Normally, KMN and I travel easily around Singapore by public transport. But on this particular day, we do save quite a lot of time and energy by hopping a ride with my in-laws.

2 PM: Pretty much all households in Singapore are no-shoes-indoors.  As you can see, there were lots of other visitors at our Visit #3 stop (yes, another great-aunt).

2 PM: Pretty much all households in Singapore are no-shoes-indoors. As you can see, we are not the only folks at Visit #3 (yes, another great-aunt).

3 PM: We make a quick stop at one of the Chinese temples, where the ashes of several of my Mum's (Mum = my mother-in-law) relatives are kept.  Cremation is common in Singapore, as land is very scarce - but relatives would never take a family member's ashes back to their own home (bad luck!).  Instead, ashes are usually kept in an urn at a temple, where relatives can visit and leave offerings.  Visiting deceased family members and leaving them some small offerings is very commonly done on the first two days of the new year, and the temple was, as usual, quite crowded.

3 PM: We make a quick stop at one of the Chinese temples, where the ashes of several of my Mum’s (Mum = my mother-in-law) relatives are kept. Cremation is common in Singapore, as land is very scarce – but relatives would never take a family member’s ashes back to their own home (bad luck!). Instead, ashes are usually kept in an urn at a temple, where relatives can visit and leave offerings – something that is often done during on the first two days of the new year. The temple is, as usual, quite crowded.

4 PM: At yet another great-aunt's house - this makes Visit #5 for the day.  If you can ignore the highway and cargo ships, she really does have a lovely ocean view out her front window!

4 PM: At yet another great-aunt’s house – this makes Visit #5 for the day. If you can ignore the highway and cargo ships, she really does have a lovely ocean view out her front window!

5 PM: Leaving Visit #6, laden with clothespins and clean, folded plastic bags - a very practice gift from one of KMN's uncles.  [Seriously - we need the plastic bags for garbage bags, as we use cloth bags for our groceries!]

5 PM: We leave Visit #6, laden with clothespins and clean, folded plastic bags – a very practical gift from one of KMN’s uncles. He ‘patrols’ his HDB (apartment) estate for orphaned clothespins that fall from the upper stories (people hang clothes out the windows), disbelieving that they don’t run downstairs to fetch a single fallen pin. [Truly, though, the gift is useful – Mum uses the pins, and we all need the plastic bags for garbage bags, because we use cloth bags for our groceries!]

6 PM: What would Chinese New Year be without a stop at McDonald's?  Kidding.  It was one of the very few places that was open, where we could sit and wait for the fifth great-aunt to return home.  [That's one problem with so much visiting by so many people - sometimes the person you want to visit is...still out visiting!]

6 PM: What would Chinese New Year be without a stop at McDonald’s? Kidding. It was one of the very few places that was open, where we could sit and wait for the fifth great-aunt to return home. [That’s one problem with so much visiting by so many people – sometimes the person you want to visit is…still out visiting!]

7 PM: Visit #7.  One of KMN's great-aunts keeps a gorgeous garden around her home - completely with lots of orchids.  Her property feels like an oasis in the middle of a bustling city.  Also, she gave me red worms for vermicomposting.  More on this in another post.  SOON.

7 PM: Visit #7. One of KMN’s great-aunts keeps a gorgeous garden around her home – completely with lots of orchids. Here, KMN and his Dad admire part of this oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Also, she gave me red worms for vermicomposting (!!!!). More on this in another post. SOON.

8 PM: Our eighth, and final, visit of the day - dinner with some of Pa's (my father-in-law) family.  Here we are in parking garage #Idon'tevenknow for the day. I am SO THANKFUL that Pa chauffeured us around all day!

8 PM: We head in to our eighth, and final, visit of the day – dinner with some of Pa’s (my father-in-law) family. Here we are in parking garage #Idon’tevenknow for the day. I am SO THANKFUL that Pa chauffeured us around!

9 PM: I conned a few family members into a group photo.  Cue mad group selfie skill on my part, and good-natured compliance on theirs.

9 PM: I conned a few family members into a group photo. Cue mad group selfie skill on my part, and good-natured compliance on theirs.

10 PM: Empty glasses, mostly-eaten dessert, and a dirty napkin...the night is drawing to a close, folks.

10 PM: Empty glasses, mostly-eaten dessert, and some Mandarin orange seeds – See? We don’t just gift them – we eat them, too!

11+ PM: KMN's parents drop us off at our place.  Exhausted, but happy, we head upstairs for showers, a nightcap, and bed!

11+ PM: KMN’s parents drop us off at our place. I feel so grateful for how easy it is to visit extended family, when everyone lives on the same small island. However, our introvert selves are utterly exhausted, so we head inside for showers, half a glass of wine, and BED.

The second day of the new year is also a popular day for visiting – but we only do a very small bit of visiting that day, so our Day #2 was considerably less hectic. But, that’s another story for another post.  For now, I hope you enjoyed traveling with us through our Day 1 visits!  Please do come back for Day 2. 🙂

Any questions?

Does this match or conflict with anything you’ve seen or read about Lunar New Year celebrations?

Is there anything here you’d like to read more about, that I can elaborate on in a future post?

Culture Jolts (“Jolt” is less than “Shock”, right?)

A few days ago, I had lunch with my second-cousin-in-law.  [Yes, that is a relationship – and yes it is the same s-c-i-l who shared his NYC Marathon race report last month.]  As some of you may recall, he’s a Kiwi who relocated to the US about six months ago.  One of my favorite parts of lunch was pestering him with all the questions people have been asking the adjusted version of questions I’ve been fielding for the past year:

What do you miss about New Zealand?
What is the silliest question someone in the US has asked you about New Zealand?
What is the silliest question someone in New Zealand has asked you about the US?
What was the hardest thing to adjust to in the US?
What surprised you the most about the US?

This conversation – comparing our answers and experiences – finally prompted me to sit down to write this post.  Each time I’ve been back in the US, I’ve intended to write something similar.  I’m often asked by folks in both the US and Singapore what I find weird or strange about going back “home” (meaning the US – although Singapore is my home, too – I have LOTS of homes!).  I’m often asked: “Do you have culture shock when you go back to the US?”

And the honest answer is no – I don’t experience culture shock.  Singapore really is a genuine “East Meets West” city, and on the surface, it bears a lot of similarity to the US and Europe.  Of course, when you live here for awhile, hang out with Singaporeans, observe carefully, and take the time to dig deeper – there are plenty of subtle differences.  But nothing is strong enough to make me feel “shocked”.   I do, however, experience a more mild version – one that I’ll call a “culture jolt”, when I return to the US.

These “jolts” are usually times when I am struck by all the small changes I’ve made to adapt to life in Singapore.  These are things that I no longer consciously think about doing or seeing in Singapore – they are just a seamless part of my life here.  But when I return to the US and forget to recalibrate, I have a little jolt (and usually a good laugh at myself) when I realize I’m acting or thinking Singaporean in America.  Here are five of the most common jolt-worthy situations:

1. Crossing the street.  Singapore’s history as a British colony means that traffic drives on the left.   I don’t drive in Singapore, but when we first moved, it took me about 2 months to reliably convert my “left-right-left” traffic check pattern to “right-left-right” when crossing the street.  [My husband habitually kept a tight grip on my hand when we were out walking in the beginning, and pulled me back from an oncoming car more than once.]  Switching back in the US proved way too complicated, and I ended up standing on the street corner, trying to reason out which way to look.  This is ridiculous, so in NYC, I always obeyed the Walk signs, and everywhere else (out for a run near my parent’s house), I just checked back and forth about three times, really fast – then crossed the street quickly.  Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale.

This lefty “driving” habit extends to escalators.  I first learned city escalator etiquette in Singapore: Stand to the left, walk to the right.  Well, on this most recent NYC trip, I was startled several times to realize that I was clogging up the “walking” side of the escalator – the left side, in the US.  This makes sense.  In US driving, we pass on the left.  Ditto for escalators, of course!  Duh.  Sorry NYC, I’m not ignorant, I’m just becoming a lefty.

2. SPACE.  I haven’t forgotten about the vast areas of green, and space between houses, and American driving distances, so these don’t “jolt” me.  But I am suddenly very aware of how much space, and personal space, matter in the US.  I used to be rather sensitive to crowded, busy places – but as I mentioned in this post, going to the supermarket with my Dad a few days before Thanksgiving didn’t bother me one bit.  The US supermarket didn’t even feel full!  I had space to steer a cart, two carts could pass easily in an aisle, and I wasn’t dancing around or leaning over someone to grab an item off the shelf.  Even crowded supermarkets and busy streets in the US feel enormous compared with their counterparts in Singapore.  Aisles in stores are spacious, parking lots are big (and spaces are WIDE), bathroom stalls are large enough for a dance party (trust me, I found them so comically large that I tried), and tables in restaurants feel like they are miles away from each other.  I was in the US for two weeks, and I didn’t have to use my “lift your bag up, suck in your tummy, shuffle sideways between two seated patrons” move once – not once.

3. The two-handed pass.  In Singapore – and much of Asia – handing over money, a credit card, or a business card is often done with two hands, as a sign of respect.  Before moving to Singapore, I’d always hold my wallet in one hand and pass money with the other – so I had to learn a different sequence of movements to use at the cashier in Singapore. This was awkward at first, but is second nature now.  In fact, it’s so natural that I found myself making a two-handed-money pass to countless cashiers in the US, and chuckling every time – “He must wonder what’s so special about my credit card, the way I’m reverently handing it over!”  [You don’t think you have a payment-motion habit?  Put your wallet in the other hand the next time you pay for something, and see what happens.]

4. Oh, the politeness!  “Hi, my name is Lisa and I’ll be your server today! Can I get everyone started with some drinks?” *big smile*  On this recent trip back to the US, I couldn’t help giggling every time a server introduced him/herself, thanked us for placing an order, checked in on us, and brought over refills or extras without being asked.  I equate most service in Singapore with New Jersey diner service – you usually feel like you’re slightly inconveniencing your server, who is perpetually somewhat annoyed at you.  And if you feel like your food is being flung down on the table?  Totally normal.  I don’t feel bothered or offended by this service in Singapore, but I do find that service in the US feels so over-the-top polite that it’s funny to hear the things they say, oh-so-cheerfully.

For example, I went out to eat with my parents a few nights before I left, and our server wasn’t especially awesome.  She was totally unhelpful, mixed up the menu, and was rather rude.  My parents were definitely displeased – but it wasn’t until I saw the annoyance on their faces that I realized how inappropriately she was acting – for a server in the US.  It appears that Singapore has significantly lowered my standards for service.  This is a good thing…I think?

5. “Is it?” This is an expression that Singaporeans use approximately the same way Americans use, “Oh really?”  It serves to acknowledge that someone said something, and to indicate a bit of surprise or mild skepticism.  It could be interpreted as a request for elaboration or further explanation, depending on the circumstances.  For example:

Friend: “And tonight, I’m driving all the way to *random location 5 hours away*.”
Me: “Oh, is it?”

I generally try to curb my Singlish-speak in the US, but this phrase snuck in a few times when I was back this time.  And it’s an especially funny one, because to an American ear, this sounds like an incomplete sentence.  I’ve even had a few people respond, “It is WHAT?”  What’s slightly funnier (or scarier?) is that it takes me a few seconds to realize why they are confused.  Whoops.   [There are one or two other Singlish-isms that sneak into my American vocabulary, including “Can” and “How do you call this?”  But neither elicits the same confused look that, “Is it?” does.]

So there you have it: A summary of my “culture jolts”.  I think tomorrow I’ll do a quick wrap-up of Things I Miss.  But for now, it’s after midnight – and I’m feeling sleepy.  After just 24 hours back in Singapore, this is quite an accomplishment. Singapore time and EST are 13 hours apart, so jet lag can sometimes be quite pesky.  So I’m going to roll with this sleepiness, and head to bed.  ‘night!

Ever experienced any of these “jolts”?  How about any other “culture-jolt” type situations?

If you’ve traveled internationally, which country that you visited reminds you most of your home country?  Which seems the most different?

A Post That Needs A Fish Pun (but I can’t think of one)

After all the preparation, then the race, then reliving the whole thing to write the race report (Part 1 and Part 2), I’m ready to talk about something besides “The 50K“.  [Cue all my readers breathing a sigh of relief.]

Since The New Blog Plan has designated Wednesdays as “Singapore Stories” day (or some other recurring feature), let’s try a short story for today yesterday (I actually wrote most of this on Wednesday, I swear).  And I promise, this post will be less than 600 words.

I should preface this story by noting that the standard for customer service in Singapore sometimes feels….somewhat low to someone who was born and raised in the United States.  This is not to say that I haven’t had any good customer service experiences here, because I certainly have.  [Although admittedly, unlike in the US, the fastest and most polite service often comes from government agencies, as opposed to private businesses.  But I digress.]  Regardless, a number of my “Singapore Stories” will be rooted in customer service experiences, as they are often the ones that leave me scratching my head.  So without further ado, let’s go to the supermarket.

Scene: The fish counter at the local supermarket.  This is similar to the fish counter at a US supermarket, except that instead of fillets, whole fish are sitting on ice: head, scales, guts, etc.  You choose the fish you want, then ask one of the staff behind the counter to gut it and remove the scales.  [Incidentally, you do still get the whole fish: head, fins, etc.]

I select a small pomfret (it only needs to feed KMN and I) and hand it to the auntie behind the counter.  A small bit of some organ is protruding through the kill-cut (I think), but I don’t think twice about that, since I’m going to ask for it to be gutted anyway.

[Don’t mind the approximate Singlish.]

Me: *hands fish over counter* Can clean for me, please?
Fish Auntie: Don’t want this one.  *points to protruding innards*
Me: Ahh…it’s OK.  Will clean anyway, yah?
Fish Auntie: *shaking head* No, no – don’t want. *takes fish from me, buries back in display ice*
Me (assuming she knows something about fresh fish selection that I don’t): Ooook.
Fish Auntie: *digging around for another pomfret*
Me: Small one, please.  Small.  Just for two people.
Fish Auntie: *holds up somewhat larger pomfret*
Me: Errrr…smaller one can?  That one a bit big.
Fish Auntie: *puts fish on scale* 400 (grams).
Me: *shakes head* Mmmm…a bit big.  Smaller one can?
Fish Auntie: *nods, prints pricing label, takes fish back to cleaning counter*
Me: Sigh….

I have no idea.

Language barrier?  Possibly, but her English seemed pretty good to me.
Upselling?  Perhaps, but it’s not like she’s working on commission.
Overall misunderstanding?  Maybe.
An Auntie just being an Auntie?  Most likely…
[KMN’s Peranakan family has taught me to respect the matriarchy!]

There was a time (not too long ago) when this would have left me huffing and puffing and peevish.  Instead, I just laughed.  A few more grams of fish wasn’t going to break the bank.  So I came home that day with some extra fish, and a story.  And when I recounted the story to KMN, he didn’t seem the least bit surprised.

The only major disadvantage of the extra fish?  Microwaving fishy leftovers the next day really did stink up the apartment…

*Fish Commission = Fishmission?  Fission?

Would you laugh it off or try to insist on the smaller fish?

Ever cooked a whole fish?
[We usually poach ours, but I’m open to other suggestions!]

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?

“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!)

Chinese New Year, Days 8-15 and Cooking A Whole Fish

“The Jade Emperor is like the big poobah of Heaven.  The Kitchen God is like the snitch.”  -KMN

That pretty much sums it up, folks.  In traditional Chinese religions, the Jade Emperor is the ruler of Heaven, and the Kitchen God…well, the Kitchen God sits in the kitchen (surprise!) and watches over the daily activities of the family.  Each year, he reports to the Jade Emperor, who then decides whether the family should be rewarded or punished in the coming year.

The eighth day of the Chinese New Year is the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday.  At midnight  on this day (going into the ninth day), many people celebrate by burning incense and offerings to the Jade Emperor.  KMN and I live across the street from a large housing estate, and on this particular night, we saw at least 10 different groups of people in the small parking lot outside, lighting fires and burning incense and offerings.  Celebrations of the Jade Emperor’s birthday continue through the ninth and tenth days (details depend on heritage and religion), but in Singapore, they pass without much public recognition.

Apparently, on the thirteenth day of the new year, people eat vegetarian food, to cleanse their stomachs after nearly two weeks of eating and celebrating.  However, this isn’t a practice that I know from experience – it’s one that I read about during my CNY research, and I don’t think we actually ate vegetarian that day.  Ooops?

The holiday draws to a close with the celebration of Chap Goh Mei (literally, “the fifteen night”) on – you guessed it – the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year.  So maybe I lied when I said it was a two week holiday….it’s actually two weeks + 1 day.  Chap Goh Mei is also called a Lantern Festival (there is a different Lantern Festival in the fall), when people parade with lanterns, and hang them outside their homes to help guide wayward spirits home.

I'm married, though - so no phone number on this one...

I’m married, though – so no phone number on this one…

In some places -particularly Malaysia and Singapore, Chap Goh Mei is considered a kind of Chinese Valentine’s Day.  Apparently, long ago, this was the one time that young maidens were permitted to dress up and walk outside their homes (with chaperones).  Today, (supposedly) single women write their phone number on mandarin oranges, and throw them in a river or lake, while single men fish them out and eat them.  I don’t know what they do with the number.  I haven’t actually seen this happen in Singapore – and I somehow think that people would get arrested for littering, if they were caught throwing oranges into the Singapore River – but heck, Singaporeans, correct me if I’m wrong!

Sometimes, one branch of KMN’s family celebrates Chap Goh Mei with a big family dinner, but that didn’t happen this year.  Instead, KMN and I participated in URun 2013 in the early morning, did church/errands in the late morning, then relaxed and worked in the afternoon.   Then, KMN prepared us a two-person Chap Goh Mei dinner (not really, it was just regular dinner).

The smallest pomfret we could find.

The smallest pomfret we could find. You wouldn’t even know this guy is missing his innards (but he is). Just remember that the fish on display at the Fairprice fish counter aren’t gutted – but ask, and they’ll do it for you.

For weeks now, KMN has been talking about cooking a fish.  Like, not a pretty little fillet, but a genuine whole fish.  Now, I have no problem eating a whole steamed fish – this is a common preparation/serving style here.  I’ll discuss how to tackle that in another post one day.  But I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit leery of actually cooking a whole fish.  Growing up, my Mom cooked fillets.  But KMN’s Mom cooked a whole fish.  So I let him take charge – with a little help from Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking (which I’ve written about before, here).

In a pan large enough to fit the fish – good thing we got a small fish (Note to self: Buy bigger pan!) – he brought some water to a boil, and added fresh ginger and a chopped onion.  Once the water reached a solid boil, he slid the fish in:

The pan and pomfret are the same color, so not too much interesting to see, except the pomfret fit popped up as soon as it hit the water.  Do you see it?!?  The biologist was intrigued by this phenomenon.  More research will be required!

The pan and pomfret are the same color, so there’s not too much interesting to see, except the way that the pomfret’s fin popped up as soon as it hit the water. Do you see it?!? The biologist was intrigued by this phenomenon. More research will be required!

He immediately turned the flame as low as it would go and covered the pan.  We let the fish cook for about 15-20 minutes (Kuo suggests cooking until a knife “goes in easily and no pinkish liquid seeps out”), then slid it onto a serving plate.  KMN served the fish with rice and blanched greens, and a selection of dipping sauces: soy sauce, chili sauce, and vinegar.

The fish came out really, really well – very soft and tender.  Pomfret isn’t a very fishy-tasting fish, and admittedly – most of the flavoring came from the sauces.  But this was an incredibly simple and nutritious way to prepare fish – I’m glad KMN headed the effort to try it.  I’ll definitely be preparing fish for us this way again soon!

And that, my friends, is the end of the Chinese New Year series of posts.  If you missed the earlier ones, click to read about Chinese New Year PreparationsReunion Dinner, Visiting Days 1 and 2, Chinese New Year Treats, and Chinese New Year Days 3-7.  And with that, we’ll return to non-CNY posting.  But don’t worry, I have plenty to share.  [I know you were really nervous about that, right?]

Have you ever thrown a mandarin orange into a body of water on Chap Goh Mei?

Have you ever cooked a whole fish?  How?

Let’s Talk About Food: Chinese New Year Goodies!

Finally: It’s time to talk about Chinese New Year treats!

Previously, I described a bit about our schedule and habits for Chinese New Year visiting, which inevitably includes the consumption of plenty of Chinese New Year goodies.  These treats start popping up everywhere: in supermarkets, in retail stores, and at kiosks in malls and hawker centers, just after Christmas.  Although there are only 10-15 different kinds of treats, there are many different producers/bakeries, and everyone has a favorite brand of their favorite treat.

On the second day of the new year, we did some familial visiting in the morning, then invited some of KMN’s non-Chinese co-workers over for a little party/pseudo-CNY-visit.  Many of them ended up being called in to work – but we enjoyed a small gathering anyway, and had fun sharing these treats, talking about CNY culture/traditions (and plenty of other things), and relaxing.  So, what kind of treats did we have? Let’s start with the savories:

This is bakkwa - a salty, sweet preserved meat (usually pork, but can be made with other meat).  The meat is seasoned, then dried on big racks at 50-60 C.  It is sold in sheets (~6" square).  We cut these pieces a bit smaller.

This is bakkwa – a salty, sweet preserved meat (usually pork, but can be made with other meat). The meat is seasoned, then dried on big racks at 50-60 C. It is sold in sheets (~6″ square). We cut these pieces a bit smaller.

See, I TOLD you that bakkwa was made out of all sorts of meat...  (Beef and mutton are more popular alternatives than Crocodile, though!)

See, I TOLD you that bakkwa was made out of all sorts of meat… (Beef and mutton are more popular alternatives than Crocodile, though!)

Honestly, the Crocodile tasted mostly…like bakkwa.  To me, the meat doesn’t matter much – it all pretty much tastes like the salty/sweet seasoning, and a little bit chewy.

Prawn rolls!  These actually look like miniature egg rolls (~1.5" long), and are filled with dried shrimp product, and probably lots of preservatives.

Prawn rolls! These actually look like miniature egg rolls (~1.5″ long), and are filled with dried shrimp, chili, and spices.

In my opinion, these are the most popular salty snacks.  Shrimp crackers are also popular – think of the big, flat white/yellow-ish crackers you sometimes get at a Chinese restaurant.  The ones that, if you stick your tongue out, and press the cracker to your tongue, it will stick.  [Nah, I never did this.  Especially not in a random Chinese restaurant in the Spanish seaside town of Cádiz, in January, with a few other Drewid ladies…]  *ahem*

Anyway…on to the sweets!

Love Letters are very thin, crispy treats that are imprinted with a design before being rolled.  They are crispy, light, and hard not to like!

Love Letters are very thin, crispy treats that are imprinted with a design before being rolled. They are crispy, light, and hard not to like!

The trickiest thing with Love Letters?  Keeping the, crispy, once the container is first opened.  This is the standard package size for Love Letters...

The trickiest thing with Love Letters? Keeping them crispy in a humid climate, once the container is first opened. This is the standard package size for Love Letters…

Small cookies made of tapioca flour mixed with coconut milk.  They are sweet, and have a crumbly/powdery texture that's unlike anything else I've ever eaten.

Small cookies made of tapioca flour mixed with coconut milk. They are sweet, and have a crumbly/powdery texture that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten.

And last, but not least…

Pineapple tarts!  These are my favorite Chinese New Year treats - sweetened, partially dehydrated pineapple mixture is set atop (or within) a crumbly, slightly-salty, flaky pastry.

Pineapple tarts! These are my favorite Chinese New Year treats – sweetened, partially dehydrated pineapple mixture is set atop (or within) a crumbly, slightly-salty, flaky pastry.

And there you have it, folks!  This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but some of the most popular treats, and the ones that we had (and served) over this Chinese New Year.

8 Pineapple Tart Box

Which one would you like me to send you to try?  🙂

-or, if you’re in Singapore –

What’s your favorite CNY treat?  Did I leave out anything important??

 

Chinese New Year, Days 1 and 2

Ang bao packets.  Read on!

Ang bao packets. Read on!

So we should probably get back to Chinese New Year, before the whole holiday is completely over, huh?  My last CNY post left us at “Day -1”, on the Eve of the New Year.  Let’s go back there for just a moment…

At the risk of overlooking the hard work of some prominent Chinese entertainer/personality, I’ll venture to say that there is no Chinese New Year equivalent of Dick Clark’s (now, Ryan Seacrest’s) New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  Readers from outside the US, here is how to imagine New Year’s Rockin’ Eve:  Think of the “happening-est” city in your country (New York City!), and pick the biggest, craziest, most iconic street corner in that city (Times Square!).  Now close it off to traffic, pack in as many people as possible, and have a huge party hosted by an entertainment legend.

Anyway, there’s no such pomp on Chinese New Year’s Eve, as far as I can tell.  I believe there was a fireworks display and celebration along the river/shore, but in our neighborhood, I heard no crowds, rowdiness, or excess noise.  Granted, we live in a pretty residential area – no one is bar-hopping down our street – but still, although everyone’s windows are open, I heard no cheering, no drunken party-goers, and none of those pesky noise makers.  I’d guess that, in all likelihood, everyone was resting up for the first day of the New Year.

The first day of the New Year holiday dawned quietly. Very, very quietly.  Like, more quietly than I’ve ever heard (not heard?) Singapore.  I walked out of our bedroom and into the common area of our apartment (which faces the road and a hawker center), and I was struck by…the silence.  Even at 8 AM, there were virtually no cars on the road, no people walking about (yet), and no shops or stores open.

Singapore closes for Chinese New Year the same way that a city in the US might close up for Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas Day.  I’ve spent two Chinese New Years in Singapore so far, and both times, I found the quiet…disconcerting. While the restaurants and shops stayed closed for the next two days, soon the streets became busy with people out visiting.  Chinese New Year is the time to visit with family and friends.  The majority of this visiting, especially in Singapore, occurs on the first two days.

Don't forget to wear your red!  The color red  is a "good luck" color in Chinese culture, and is thought to scare off evil spirits and bad fortune.        Even better if the clothes are new: New clothes for a new year!

Don’t forget to wear your red! The color red is a “good luck” color in Chinese culture, and is thought to scare off evil spirits and bad fortune. Even better if the clothes are new: New clothes for a new year!

Chinese culture places a high value on respect and deference to elders – so typically, you’ll find the younger generations/siblings visiting the older.  For example, my generation visits the grand-generation, our parents’ generation (aunts/uncles), and any of our older siblings. KMN and I do our visiting with his parents.  Both of them are the youngest sibling in their respective families, so they, too, must visit all of their siblings (KMN’s aunts and uncles).

The coordination of all this visiting seems overwhelming to me – with so many people to be visited, who also must go visiting – I have no idea how we manage to find everyone at home.  But there is an elaborate choreography within the family, honed over many Chinese New Years, so by tagging along with his parents, we manage to see just about everyone.  Tremendous kudos to KMN’s Mom for helping orchestrate this whole endeavor.

On the first day, we start the visiting with KMN’s Mom’s side of the family.  This is how a typical CNY visit goes:

  1. Someone roots through his/her phone, address book, or little scrap of paper to find the correct address (we only visit some of these people once a year).  Meanwhile, we have a brief debate over the correct Block number (apartments in Singapore are often grouped with 3-5 identical looking buildings in one complex).
  2. Find parking.  Especially parking that is legal on a Public Holiday.
  3. Discuss which elevator is the best one to take (each building is quite large, and often has several elevators).
  4. Find apartment.
  5. Remove shoes at the door.  [Woe is you if you fail to wear slip-on shoes on this particular day.]
  6. Enter.  Everyone who’s there already – including the inhabitants and anyone else who’s visiting at that particular moment, stands and comes to the door.  Hug, kiss, wish Happy New Year to everyone.  Get eyed curiously by strangers (if you’re the only Caucasian in attendance).
  7. Present 2 mandarin oranges to the oldest member of the household.  [You remembered your oranges, right?  Don’t ever forget those!]

    Mandarin Oranges 2

    The Mandarin word for “orange” sounds like the word for “prosperity”, so – here we go with language play again – giving oranges symbolizes giving prosperity for the New Year.

  8. Find a seat.  Make small talk and visit for 10-30 minutes.  Aunties quiz youngsters on school, grades, university plans, job prospects, girl/boy friends, marriage, and babies – depending on life stage.  [We get the babies one – but this year, no one patted down my abdomen. I’m calling that a WIN.]
  9. Accept some food – perhaps a small serving of an actual meal, or just a few Chinese New Year treats (more on these in another post).  Have a juice box of Chrysanthemum tea, whether you want it or not.
  10. A few more minutes of chit chat.
  11. Distribute ang baos.

    "Ang bao" literally means "red envelope".  These are cash gifts given by married, working people to younger, unmarried friends/family members (mostly kids).  And older, retired relatives.  And your friend's kids.  And the Security Guards in your building.  Chinese New Year is an expensive time for married, working people...

    “Ang bao” literally means “red envelope”. These are cash gifts given by married, working people to younger, unmarried friends/family members (mostly kids). And to their parents. And to older, retired relatives. And to the Security Guards in their building. Basically, we walk around for 2 weeks with a few envelopes with different denominations, just in case. Chinese New Year is an expensive time for married, working people…

  12. Announce, “Well, we’d better make a move!” [This Singaporean phrase cracks me up every time I hear it…]
  13. Everyone stands, and there’s more kissing, hugging, and Happy New Year-ing.  The host returns two oranges to you (not necessarily the same two that you brought).

    I secretly really want to add GPS trackers to some of the mandarin oranges sold during the Chinese New Year period, just to see how many moves each makes during the holiday period.

    I secretly really want to add GPS trackers to some of the mandarin oranges sold during the Chinese New Year period, just to see how far they travel during the holiday season.

  14. Scramble into shoes.
  15. Return to car.
  16. Repeat.

On the first day of the New Year, we made seven stops, plus one at the Chinese Temple, where the urns and ashes of some family members are held.  The temple is quite busy on these first two days, as families stop to pay their respects to deceased loved ones.

We ended the day at a party with many of KMN’s Dad’s relatives.  From an efficiency standpoint, this party is a great way to visit lots of people in one swoop.  Plus, they’re fun people, and I always enjoy hanging with them for an evening.  Finally, at midnight (13-14 hours after we started), we made a move (tee-hee-hee!) and headed home.

The second day of visiting is quite a bit lighter for us – being a bi-cultural couple means that we only have one set of Chinese family to visit.  In the morning, we visited a few more of KMN’s Dad’s family (who were also all gathered together – their side gets bonus points for efficiency!), then headed home for a quiet afternoon.

As someone pretty new to this whole thing, I happen to love the visiting period of Chinese New Year.  Even in this small country, people tend not to see extended families outside weddings, funerals – and Chinese New Year.  The addition of this holiday, to me, tips the balance toward more celebratory gatherings than somber ones. And I can’t help but adore a holiday that promotes visiting family, and eating lots of food.

However, some young Singaporeans aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the celebrations, and a few even make plans to be out of the country during this time.  Indeed, it is a busy time – and one that includes probing, personal questions from the Aunties, often exacerbated by the changing traditions, values, and ideas of generations. After 25 or 30 years, I guess I can understand why some youngsters might want a break. 🙂  Personally, we luck out in this regard, as KMN’s family tends to be pretty progressive, accepting, and dynamic.  I would’ve married him no matter what, but I really did win the awesome family lottery (plus, they’re a matriarchy – read this post)!

Now, I know a few of you are waiting for the post on Chinese New Year Treats.  But this post is already long enough, so that will have to wait for another day.  I also promise a higher photo-to-text ratio.  So stay tuned. 🙂

Honestly now (non-Singaporeans): If you were at a family gathering, and your mother-in-law stood up and announced, “Well we’d better make a move!”, wouldn’t you giggle?

Chinese New Year, Day -1

Gong Xi Fa Cai!!!

[Pronounced approximately*: gong see fah tseye]
[Disclaimer: Phonics was my very worst subject in school, folks.]

As promised, it’s time for some Chinese New Year posts! Chinese New Year started on Sunday, Feb. 10, but let’s start by going back to Saturday, Feb. 9, to talk about Reunion Dinner.

Reunion Dinner is the traditional New Year’s Eve dinner, when close family gather to celebrate the start of the holiday season, before all the visiting begins in earnest.  Obviously, Singapore locals don’t have very far to travel on such a tiny island – but Chinese/Taiwanese/Singaporeans living overseas may make an effort to return home to visit their family for the holiday.  [Unfortunately, the timing of Chinese New Year in relation to the Christmas holidays and start of school semesters often makes this impossible.  Blog readers outside of Asia, be sure to wish your celebrating friends/co-workers a Happy New Year, and be extra nice to them, as they’re probably homesick.]

Although all of KMN’s immediate family lives in Singapore, we still gather for Reunion Dinner – or, in our case, Reunion Lunch.  So after our run on Saturday morning, we got cleaned up and headed over for lunch with his parents, sister, and Mom’s siblings.

My mother-in-law spent the previous week preparing the feast we enjoyed, which included macaroni soup (American chicken noodle soup), satay (skewered, grilled meat), and popiah.  Popiah is a local signature dish that requires lots of love (and time!) to prepare, and can be best described as a Singaporean burrito.  I actually wrote a whole post about popiah last year, for our travel blog, so I suggest you pop over here to ready about all the delicious details.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait.  🙂

The last dish that we enjoyed is called Yusheng (pronounce this one just like it looks), also called Lo Hei (pronouced low hay).  This is also a local (Singaporean/Malaysian) dish that is very specific to Chinese New Year celebrations.  Yusheng is basically a salad made of shredded carrot and jicama with lots of toppings.  The vegetables are shredded on the long axis, because there is a Chinese belief that eating such long things will bring you long life (for the same reason, they eat noodles on birthdays).

The salad is topped with candied orange peel, pickled ginger, cilantro, sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, honey, sesame oil, vinegar, raw fish, and little crispy fried crackers (and probably a few more things that I missed).    Each ingredient is symbolic.

Traditional Yusheng, before mixing.

Traditional Yusheng, before mixing.

The Chinese language is full of homophones, and the word play that results from so many similar-sounding words is an integral part of Chinese culture.  This is probably best explained with an example: The word “yusheng” actually means raw fish – but sounds very similar to the Mandarin word for “abundance”.  Thus, Yusheng is prepared and eaten at gatherings over the Chinese New Year period, to help ensure a year of good fortune and abundance for all.

The other ingredients are symbolic in the same way.  Part of the word “carrot” sounds like the phrase “good luck” in Mandarin.  Similarly, the jicama is to bring prosperity and promotion in business, the oil is to encourage money to flow in all directions, and the peanuts represent a house full of gold and silver.  Yes, indeed – there is a slight fixation on wishes for material wealth around the New Year.  When all of the ingredients have been added, it’s time to mix.  Everyone gets a set of chopsticks, and off we go:

Everyone participates by tossing or lifting the ingredients high in the air while saying wishes for good fortune and prosperity in the new year.  Allegedly, the higher you toss, the more good will come your way!

Everyone participates by tossing or lifting the ingredients high in the air while saying wishes for good fortune and prosperity in the new year. Allegedly, the higher you toss, the more good will come your way!

Finally, the Yusheng is portioned out – and everyone must eat until it’s gone, or risk having bad luck in the new year.  This was our first ‘Lo Hei’ of the Year of the Snake – but it certainly won’t be our last!!

After a filling meal and and some family time, and knowing Sunday would be a very full day, we hopped on a bus and headed home.  We rode the strangest bus ever.  I thought it was just a normal 167, but nooooo….I’m pretty sure that someone mounted the seats in this bus too high:

But I was also too tall!!!  I was sitting in a seat, but this strap knocked me in the noggin for the whole ride home.

But I was also too tall!!! I was sitting in a seat, but this strap knocked me in the noggin for the whole ride home.

 

Even I was too short - my feet didn't touch the ground!!!!

Even I was too short – my feet didn’t touch the ground!!!!

And that pretty much brought our Reunion Afternoon to an end. KMN and I did a little work, chatted with my family in the US, relaxed, and headed to bed to rest up for the first day of the New Year!  More on that to come…

Did you have to go look up the word “homophone”??  😉
[“homo” = same, “phone” = sound]

Do you “pre-workout” in anticipation of a big eating event/holiday?

And just in case you skipped the link about popiah, here it is again. You’re welcome!!

I Married Into a Matriarchy

I married into a matriarchy.  WINNING. Read on for the full story:

On my way to a matriarch lunch.  I totally married into an awesome family (for lots of reasons)…

In some ways, Singapore is like the United States: A nation of immigrants.  Some of the first to arrive in Singapore (and the rest of the Indonesian archipelago), in the 15th and 16th centuries, were Chinese.  Many of these early inhabitants became traders, and worked with the British, Chinese, and indigenous Malay populations to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  These groups often inter-married (or at least had children together), and developed their own unique culture.

In Singapore, the descendants of this group – who “look” Chinese, speak Baba Malay (a Malay dialect), and have their own blended traditions – are called Chinese Peranakans, or just “Peranakans”.  [To be thorough, I must note that “peranakan” is actually a Malay term that translates exactly to “locally born”.  There are also Peranakan Indians and Jawi Peranakans, who are the descendants of local Malays inter-marrying with South Indian Hindus and South Indian Muslims, respectively.]

Historically, Peranakans had their own style of dress, marriage ceremonies, language, and food.  But for a variety of reasons, in Singapore today, Peranakan culture is gradually disappearing back into Chinese culture.  For example, KMN’s mother is Peranakan, but dresses in a Western style (or in a Chinese cheongsam for special occasions) and cooks Chinese food.  She does speak Baba Malay, though, and both KMN and his sister know a little bit, as well.

As someone who married into a Chinese/Peranakan family, then, how does the culture impact me?  Well, KMN’s family does hold fast to one Perankan tradition: a powerful matriarchy.  The women plan the gatherings, steer the families, and in my observations, usually have the first (and last) say on many matters of importance.  Now this is a tradition that I can help carry forward!

In celebration of this matriarchy – and for a farewell visit with several family members who are returning to their lives abroad – the ladies in my mother-in-law’s family all went for lunch together this past week.  I was lucky enough to be invited to join them.  I really do love seeing families together – and witnessing this gathering of 12 women, spanning three generations, was awesome.  

These women have witnessed the entirety of Singapore’s modern history: from colonial days to independence, from swamp to urban hub, from just developing to positively developed.  Few places moved through these stages as quickly as Singapore, and I can hardly wrap my mind around how much change some of these women lived through – all while working, raising children, loving, laughing, and supporting each other.

We enjoyed a lunch of fellowship, but unfortunately I had to zip out early for a meeting across town.  As my cab driver pointed out, I was going far…like, all the way to the other side of the island:

So how far do you think my trip was, exactly?  [Hint: It cost me $16 USD.]

So how far do you think my trip was, exactly? [Hint: It cost me $16 USD.]

Thankfully, I didn’t need my passport (to get all the way to the other side), and I arrived in the nick of time for my meeting.  Quote from meeting: “The science center is very old. It was built in 1977.  We just opened a time capsule that we sealed a long time ago.  There were a lot of antiques in there, like a very big TV and a CD player.”  Lovely.

Bearing in mind that I’m approaching “antique” territory, I followed up the meeting with an attempt to  fight the aging process.  KMN and I met for a spin class, and somehow, we were on the same wavelength (or our instructor that even was especially inspiring), because we both left everything on our bikes. After our 50-minute class I lounged on the foam roller for a few minutes, in a weak attempt at actually rolling my legs out.  Finally, we called it quits, hit the showers, and dragged our (aging) selves home around 10 PM.  I was beat, but rallied to throw together another multi-bowl meal:

Holly's 3 bowl dinner

Me:love when I cut the pineapple at the perfect time.  It is perfectly ripe and very sweet, but none of it has gone bad/mushy yet.
KMN: Mmmm…
Me: Yeah, I know you don’t really care for pineapple, even if it’s cut at the perfect moment.
KMN: I do if it’s on Hawaiian pizza!
Me: *gag*


So really – how far do you think my taxi ride was?  [Singaporeans, you all sit this one out, OK?]

Pineapple on your pizza: yay or nay?