Learning to Listen: Traveling to Nepal’s Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu to spend time with yourself

In their November 2016 issue, Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine published my piece on the beautiful Kopan Monastery:

There is no shortage of yoga poses that require practise and concentration to get right (crow, handstand scorpion, frog), but rarely do we think of savasana as one of them. Much looked forward to after a tough class, we often sink into savasana the way we settle in for a nap, and while corpse pose is a time of rest for the body, it is also intended to be a time of meditation. But meditation doesn’t have to mean the difficult task of total emptying your mind. Just as there are various forms of triangle pose, there are several approaches to savasana and meditation as well.

Trish O’Gorman, a yoga teacher who has taught Kundalini in the United States for over a decade, decided to deepen her meditative practise by taking part in the 6-day “Open Heart, Clear Mind” course at Kopan Monastery in Nepal this past summer. Taught by Ven. Kabir and David Marks, the course was aimed at beginners and offered, as stated on the website, “guidance and meditations on the essential teachings of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the different ways to develop the mind so as to find balance, clarity and inner peace.”

I’ll admit that the idea of a meditation course sounded like an oxymoron. Wasn’t the point of meditation to do…nothing? I joined Trish early on her final day of the course to learn more, but I would have to wait to hear her thoughts on the experience. The participants, who were mainly from Europe or the Americas, had vowed to remain silent for the entire length of the course excepting discussion group and Q&A sessions. Nevertheless, she confided later, she and some of her classmates had taken several excursions to a nearby coffee shop to chat.

Located on a hilltop on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery is lively. Built in 1971, it is a monastery in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition and home to over 300 monks, lamas, teachers and workers. Visitors are welcome to stay for as little as an hour or as long as several months. As Kopan is also a small school, monks of all ages can be found chanting, meditating and debating philosophy. On clear days, lush mountain ranges emerge from the clouds, revealing green valleys below. A cadre of lazy, friendly dogs roam the picturesque grounds, which include a meditation hall, gardens, a library and dorm-like accommodations.

The day’s itinerary was simple and straightforward, and began with a meditation session before breakfast. The silence I had expected, but this was my first experience with a guided meditation, where a teacher gently urges you to contemplate certain subjects/questions and to envision images, such as the Buddha on a lotus or light filling your body. Guided meditation, also called analytical meditation, is one of the more accessible forms of calming the mind, as it is a more familiar method of structuring and managing your thoughts. While Kopan also coaches on the differences between and strategies to practise silent and structured (chanting) meditation, analytical meditation was the most common during this course. I felt this would be helpful next time I entered savasana at the end of yoga class; instead of the usual struggle to completely empty my mind of thoughts, I could instead select a prompt (like a quote from a spiritual text or a question about how to live with wisdom) and concentrate on contemplating it deeply.

Upon the completion of the meditation session, the participants were released from their silence. Breakfast was boisterous in spite of the spare, plain food provided by the monastery (all vegan, of course). It was clear that Trish and many of the other participants had developed strong friendships over the week.

While teenaged monks in gangs loudly debated Buddhist philosophy in the courtyard, we returned to the beautiful meditation hall for a dharma talk led by Ven. Kabir. Unsurprisingly, for the participants’ final talk, the focus was on how to carry the lessons of the monastery with them and continue following the path after leaving Kopan Hill. Not a rigid lecturer, Kabir welcomed questions and quoted Thoreau and Pablo Neruda along with the Dalai Llama. He highlighted how the modern world challenges our ability to remain in touch with ourselves, and spent some time illustrating how practicing Buddhism is ultimately reliant on self-confidence and on working intelligently with ourselves. What resonated most strongly with me was the discussion on how meditation was essential to reconnecting with our inner selves in a world that constantly tries to pull us out of ourselves by engaging and often overwhelming our senses – touchscreens, headphones, visual media, instant alerts, foods engineered to be addicting. Meditation, like yoga, is all about coming back to the breath and being in the moment.

According to Trish, throughout the course, the dharma talks and guided meditations were quite Buddhist, which could be a guide or a detour, depending on your spiritual or religious preferences. For the first two days, Trish felt at philosophical odds with the monastery and even considered leaving. She wanted less focus on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist doctrines and more exploration of the personal approaches and benefits to meditation. But then things started coming together, she said, particularly in the discussion groups. It all came down to motivation and intention, and how to direct one’s energy towards leading a life of kindness, compassion and wisdom.

Though the remainder of the final lecture centred around Buddhism’s Six Perfections, the lessons were universal and vital: how patience is a balm for anger, how to be generous to ourselves in body and mind, how we set up barriers between ourselves and others. Dharma is about investigating the self, learning to approach not only yoga but our daily lives with mindfulness, and about taking responsibility for our own happiness and our own suffering. Yoga and elements of its underlying philosophy were referred to often, such as karma and samadhi, which you may have heard in passing in a class but which the teacher likely didn’t have time to explain in depth.

Afterwards, lunch was provided and with it, the 6-day course came to a close. Had this been one of the earlier days, lunch would have been followed by two hours of free time and then four 1-hour discussion groups focused on different topics provided by the course leaders.

When asked how she had found the course beneficial, Trish noted that for her, much of the course reinforced what she already knew and practised, specifically the power of adding structure to personal meditation:

“Kundalini is one of the few forms of yoga that regularly incorporates meditation and chanting, but for the other forms of yoga, the monastery’s practises and guidance could be very helpful, especially as the entire point of yoga is to prepare the body for meditation. Doing yoga without meditation is like baking a delicious cake but not bothering with the frosting.”

When we talk about taking higher level yoga classes, we usually think about more challenging arm balances and deeper backbends, so why not take your savasana to the next level as well? Next time you lay your hardworking body onto the mat for its rest, practise guiding your thoughts to contemplate a concept like compassion or a question about the nature of your own consciousness. You may be surprised by how far you can travel through your own depths.

Om

The Temple of Great Virtue

On March 25, 2017 the adorably-named Thoughtful Dog magazine published my short story, The Temple of Great Virtue:

The full name of the place was 1 Night 1980 Hostel Tokyo, the entrance on a clean backstreet two dozen blocks north of Ueno Station. Elsewhere, the areas of Ginza, Roppongi and Shibuya were flaring up, gardens of light and taut gushes of activity, but their vivacity didn’t reach this far. As evening settled in, life bowed and retreated inside, leaving the bright sentry-like vending machines the lone observers of the two girls (or were they women now?) circling the building in search of the hostel’s sign: “1980” in black on a glowing white square. The salaryman’s colors.

Kira dug her fingers into the shoelaces and then the heels of her sneakers, stepping out of them into the economical lobby, too small to complete a full cartwheel in. Clarissa followed suit, eyes flicking to Kira for cues. The girl (Kira wouldn’t call her a woman) behind the counter stood up and the Japanese greeting Kira intended to say emerged in English, to align with the straight brown hair parted dead center and the not quite American accent. This would have been Kira’s first chance to exhibit her language skills in front of Clarissa, a demonstration of how different a world this was from the tri-state area and how necessary Kira was, but no matter. There would be ample opportunity. It was enough that Clarissa was eyeballing with trepidation the ticket machine that loomed in front of the check-in desk.

“Where are you from?” Kira asked, though the girl was probably as sick of that question as she was.

The girl’s wan smile, the way she didn’t look up from their registration forms as she replied, “Canada,” confirmed this.

“But I’ve lived here a long time,” she added, as though by emphasis alone she could more fully fasten herself to Japan, loosen the roots of Canada from the soil of her identity.

“How long?” Kira asked, curious and friendly, an expat herself.

“Five or six years,” the Canadian said, her face a theatrical struggle to recall the number.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kira had lived in Singapore for nearly as long, but didn’t say so. She handed over her passport and wondered if the Canadian realized yet that Japan was not a country prone to adopting its admirers, that she would be forever spoken to in broken English and permitted to make social blunders the Japanese would eviscerate one another for, that her stint here was cute but would always be considered temporary.

“Why are American passports so garish?” The Canadian asked with a snicker, holding Clarissa’s open at the full color photo and the illustration of a bald eagle.

Clarissa didn’t laugh, but Kira did and pulled out her other passport.

“At least the photo is better than the Irish one. Black and white. Like a creepy mug shot.”

They had to pay cash, the Canadian said, disengaging from her check-in booth to identify the appropriate buttons – raised and analog, marked with room types and number of nights, which clicked pleasantly when pushed. But first they would each need to feed the ticket machine ¥6400. Clarissa goggled at Kira. She had forgotten to exchange her dollars at the airport, had assumed she could do that anywhere. As though Tokyo were Disneyland, a series of smooth paths lined with entertainment and convenience in equal measure. Kira shrugged, offered to cover them both, but then found she was short. As the Canadian explained with impatience that a 7-Eleven two blocks over had an ATM, Kira inserted seven ¥1000 bills and retrieved her tickets and change. The Canadian looked askance when Kira handed over a ticket for a big towel along with the one for the room.

“You don’t need the big towel. You get one as part of your amenities kit. You get a fresh towel, body wash, toothbrush, etc, every day.”

“Everyone?” Kira asked.

“It’s only for female guests.”

“Why?” Clarissa asked. “That seems sexist.”

“It’s not sexist. Most of our guests are male, so it’s an incentive to encourage women to stay here. But I can’t check you in until you’ve both paid,” she said with a huff.

They walked through the quiet, humid streets, getting lost almost immediately as Clarissa hadn’t listened to more than the beginning of the instructions. Kira hadn’t listened at all. She hailed a passing businessman in his fifties, who was quintessentially accommodating and pointed them in the right direction. Kira picked over the magazine rack, chanting dumbass in her mind, happily unhelpful as Clarissa realized she would need to overdraft her account. In response to her comment on how silly it was that her $200 was useless, Kira said nothing.

At 28, Kira felt barely adult. It was a role she could assume but which retained the sensation of a memorized act. However, next to Clarissa, three weeks her senior, Kira’s adulthood shone with authenticity. Despite a yearlong boyfriend, Clarissa still exuded the air of a virgin, stammering in surprise when Kira told her they would need to be naked at the hot springs in Hakone. It was a challenge to imagine Clarissa having sex, but unfathomable to envision her attempting seduction. Clarissa still opened her mouth and let burps out at will, unaware that following with an “Excuse me” did nothing to cancel out the disgust that pricked at Kira (and, Kira presumed, others).

“You see her, what, once a year for a lunch when you’re in the States. I don’t see why she deserves ten days all of a sudden,” Eóin had reproached when Kira admitted to reconfiguring her week solo in Japan to accommodate Clarissa’s proposed joint vacation. “At most, she deserves a weekend. What has she ever given you?”

The question resurfaced in Kira’s mind as they made their way back, Clarissa celebrating every correct turn with excited yips.

“I think you’re one of the only people I know who walks faster or at least on par with me,” Clarissa said.

“Huh,” Kira replied, out of breath from keeping stride with Clarissa’s gait, which approached a run and rendered the living, foreign streets mere scenery.

But that’s how their friendship had gone since freshmen year: Clarissa oozing over the depths of their closeness and similarity of feeling, while the grit and texture of who Kira really was vanished in Clarissa’s watercolor portrait of her.

Back in paper slippers in the grey lobby, they obtained Clarissa’s ticket and then waited with amenity kits in hand. A vending machine was wedged between the reception desk and the elevator.

“Gerolsteiner,” Kira laughed, pointing out the bottles. “My German friend used to import that stuff and drink only that because she thought the water in Singapore made her hair fall out. It’s horrible.”

The Canadian leaned back in the check-in booth.

“So bad,” she agreed.

“And my friend would make me drink it every single time I went to her place.”

The Canadian rolled her eyes. Kira suspected that they could become friends, considered inviting her out for a drink.

The sixth floor was: ‘Women’s floor only. The violator will be prosecuted.’ The moderate space had been divided into slivers of hallways and the compact capsules they were to sleep in, each with only a curtain for privacy. Farts would be shared. Their closets lined one hallway, their bunks another. The toilets were in one room (unlocked), the showers in another (locked). The ritual activities, performed alone in a certain order, were to be uncoupled and rearranged and coordinated with others. The sleeping room smelled, a mix of socks and mustiness, as though the few windows hadn’t been opened since the hostel’s namesake year. Kira accepted it, knew she could put up with it for a few nights.

They dropped off their things and returned downstairs with their sneakers in plastic bags. The Canadian had come around her desk to demand in firm English that a huge red-cheeked Chinese woman remove her shoes at the door. The woman wheezed, baffled, mumbling about the bag she had left here earlier. Kira and Clarissa ducked around them as the Canadian, zealous as any convert, advanced on the woman to insist again that she take off her shoes. Tottering with her heels hanging out, Kira remembered that they had to hand over their closet keys before leaving. She held hers out to the Canadian, who scowled and took the crumpled plastic bag. The key hit the floor with a bounce and Kira scooped it up.

“Oh,” the Canadian said, taking the key.

But Kira knew it was too late. She had been relegated to the class of guests who mistreated the Canadian, and now ranked among the locals who tittered at the Canadian for acting Japanese and the drunk men who tried to wheedle their way onto the sixth floor. Kira doubted the Canadian had a procedure for appeals, even if the misinterpretation was hers, and the possibility of friendship extinguished into smoke.

Akihabara’s ice white fluorescents only drove Clarissa’s jetlag in deeper, so dinner was quick, with Kira doing most of the talking around their bowls of udon noodles. When they returned to the hostel, the Canadian replied to their calls of goodnight with a tight-lipped smile. For the remainder of their few days in Tokyo, she was absent, her place at reception taken by a languid Japanese man. Kira was once again stuck with Clarissa on an island of English, where Clarissa seemed to suck up all the resources, spraying her conception of Japan over the living country. It fascinated Kira how Clarissa was incapable of eliminating herself from her observations. Everything was made relevant and relative. It was bearable though. Kira’s relish at Tokyo’s familiar bustle, its brisk autumn stride, plus the afternoons she begged for herself, all countered Clarissa’s disbelief that an Asian country could be so similar and yet different to what she knew.

“They have women-only subway cars? Why?”

“Well, you’ve seen the crush of the commutes. Some men use that to grab a free handful.”

“Wait. Really? But the Japanese are so quiet and polite.”

“You really think what you see is all there is?”

“Of course not,” Clarissa defended, producing the right response without bothering to examine it deeper.

The parks and gardens Kira had fastidiously starred on Google Maps were a pleasant and disappointing green. Kira wanted to propel the friendly, lingering summer out the door and bask in the chilly, fiery solitude of fall, which was in its adolescence, the trees only just gilded around the edges or bejeweled with a few leaves the color of pomegranate arils. By peppering Kira with questions on Japan, Clarissa attempted to mask her impatience as they strolled. A nice patch of green was not Instagram-worthy. Hakone was though…

Finish reading the story at Thoughtful Dog!

Thoughtful Dog

Clueless About Coffee

Published on August 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With its mélange of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culinary influences, it’s no surprise that Singapore has a long history of drinking tea. Less expected is the city’s love affair with coffee, evident in the plethora of cafés and kopitiams. Sadly, I have never been a coffee drinker and usually opt for a mocha (aka a hot chocolate with caffeine) when presented with a menu of artisanal coffees. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Short Black and a Flat White. Isn’t cold drip coffee just…coffee that’s cold?

Tired of feeling bamboozled at brunches with friends, I decided to get an education. The Singapore Coffee Association, established in the 1950s, pointed me towards a range of options, including Dutch Colony Coffee Company’s variety of workshops. Both Bettr Barista and Highlander Coffee have “Coffee Academies” for the uninitiated, but in the end, I registered for Highlander’s two-hour Gourmet Coffee Appreciation Seminar because it fit my schedule and the price was reasonable. Plus, it promised to “demystify the art and science of making specialty coffee.”

The seminar was held in Highlander Coffee Bar’s spacious backroom on Kampong Bahru Road and was taught by the founders, charismatic brothers Phil and Cedric Ho, who have been educating others on coffee since 2004. Against a backdrop of counters laden with gleaming, complicated coffee machines, Phil walked us through the history of local coffee, which began in the late 18th century thanks to an influx of European immigrants. This led to the birth of the kopitiam (a very Singaporean term combining the Malay word for “coffee” and the Hokkien word for “shop”) and the trademark Hainanese style thick, sweet coffee that is still on the menu today. Since then, the local coffee culture has blossomed. Specialty cafés in the style of Melbourne’s famous coffeehouses, including pioneers like Highlander Coffee and 40 Hands, became all the rage a few years ago and the fire has yet to die down.

“Freshness is the key to good coffee. Always believe in GOD: Grind On Demand,” Phil said, as he passed around varieties of beans. I finally understood that a coffee bean was actually the pit of a coffee cherry. It was mind-boggling to learn how much labor (planting, picking and roasting) went into a single bag of coffee beans. He also revealed that the longer the roasting process, the more body and bitterness the coffee bean has, but the less caffeine (which surprised me).

After Phil’s history lesson, Cedric demonstrated the ideal method of brewing coffee with a table of steaming jugs, shining presses and glass containers more suited to a chemistry lab. He highlighted how temperatures, the age of the beans, the fineness of the grind, the treatment of milk and the type of press all intersect at different points to alter the flavor and quality of a cup of joe. This explanation was, of course, followed by tastings: finely ground Ethiopian coffee from an aeropress, coarsely ground Brazilian from a French press with foamed milk (the first cup of coffee without sugar that I’ve ever enjoyed) and a house blend espresso. The two hours flew by. I now know that “light/medium/dark” refers to how long the beans have been roasted, that high calcium milks can’t be used to make foam and why espresso machines make that high-pitched whooshing noise.

Plus, I finally learned the difference between a Short Black and a Flat White! (A Short Black is simply the Australian term for espresso while a Flat White is a cappuccino without the foam). Who knew?

Singapore American logo

Singapore’s YouTubers Poke Fun at Locals and Expats

Published on June 30, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

WSJ ExpatThe Wall Street Journal‘s hub for expatriates and global nomads, recently published my piece on how small talk varies around the world. Here’s a snippet:

As many expats and students of foreign languages can tell you, humor is often the final frontier in cross-cultural communication. Jokes risk falling flat, are a nightmare to translate and have the potential to offend. But they can also be a way for expats to understand the cultural norms of their new home.

Local movies and television shows can help, but the grassroots nature of YouTube videos can be even better. On YouTube, the comedy is rougher, the jokes are more of the moment, and the creators are more accessible, often responding to viewers’ questions in the comments sections. And you don’t have to suffer through being the only person not laughing in a comedy club.

Despite Singapore’s reputation as a place that limits free speech, several homegrown YouTube channels offering self-parodying commentary on local topics have sprung up in the past few years. Among the first were Wah!Banana and Night Owl Cinematics (Ryan Sylvia), which were both launched in the second half of 2012, and currently rank as the second and third most-subscribed-to channels in Singapore. The original cast of Wah!Banana has since left to form TreePotatoes, which is now number five. With topics like What Foreigners Think of Singapore and 11 Types of Singaporean Colleagues, these YouTubers have created a space where both Singaporeans and expats can chuckle about Singapore’s unique, sometimes absurd, quirks.

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

Living in Singapore: Lifestyles Chapter (Updated!)

LIS title

The Living in Singapore Fourteenth Edition Reference Guide is finally out!

Written by expats for everyone, the guide gives essential information for a seamless move to and maximum enjoyment out of the Lion City. It’s published by the American Association of Singapore and each chapter is written by an experienced writer with many years of living in Singapore (like me!), giving readers the best possible insight into life here.

Living in Singapore

I wrote the original Lifestyle Chapter for the Thirteenth Edition in 2014 and this year I had the opportunity to update it. The chapter covers everything from political activism to pornography laws to libraries to the LGBT scene to environmentalism to religion. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

So, you’re fully unpacked. You’ve figured out your morning commute. The kids are settling into their new school. Your phone is loaded with local emergency numbers. You know where the nearest grocery store is. All the basic necessities have been taken care of. Now what?

In a diverse, modern metropolis such as Singapore, there’s no reason to simply hunker down and survive your time as an expat. While it’s always difficult to leave behind the communities that matter to you, you don’t have to sacrifice your passions just because you find yourself living abroad. It’s important to tailor your life as an expat to your preferences, lest you begin to resent your new environment.

Perhaps you’re a devoted Protestant seeking a church to attend. Perhaps you’re hearing impaired and wondering how to find a new circle. Perhaps you’re a compulsive environmentalist or a BDSM fetishist or a bookworm. Perhaps you’re all of the above. Our lifestyle choices are what make our lives ours, no matter where we are. This chapter covers a few ways to transplant your old habits, hobbies and values into this fresh setting. You might even be inspired to try something new.

This year, we even have a funny commercial to promote the guide!

You can purchase Living in Singapore as an eBook through Amazon, Apple iBookstore, or Google Play.

Low-Impact Living: Singapore Style

Published on May 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Global warming has been in the headlines for the past few years, along with concerns over the pollution and waste management issues that have followed the mass migration to cities. While solutions to the major problems ultimately lie with government policy and corporate action, there are ways that individuals can contribute through the choices they make every day. Here are a few low-impact lifestyle hacks to help you leave a gentler impact on the environment:

Watch Your Water and Air. The recycling of waste water is taken very seriously by the Singapore government, as seen in the Water Conservation Tax. This is aimed at households with heavy water usage, which are billed at a higher rate as a reminder to be mindful. Shorter showers not only mean you’ll save the environment, but a bit of cash as well.

Going without air conditioning in the tropics is likely too much to ask, but many air conditioners feature a “Dehumidify” setting that reduces the humidity in a room, cooling it without the energy output of more traditional air conditioning settings.

Make Your Wants Known. One major action you can take is to limit your use of plastic bags and opt for a reusable bag instead. Cashiers at supermarkets and bakeries often default to using more plastic bags than strictly necessary, so don’t be afraid to ask them to use less when bagging your groceries or wrapping up your croissant.

Many restaurants and hawker stalls use non-reusable Styrofoam or plastic containers to pack food for take-away. If you’re planning to sit down and eat, be sure to let the stall you’re ordering from know so that they can provide you with washable cutlery instead. Otherwise, you may receive an excessive bundle of packaging, such as the placing of a drink in a plastic cup inside a plastic bag.

Manage Food Waste. According to government statistics, Singapore generated 788,600 tons of food waste in 2014. Convert some of that waste by composting, even if you don’t have a backyard or garden. Compost is perfect for keeping potted plants healthy and even a small compost bin can reduce waste. Head to ZeroWasteSG.com for advice on how to compost, recycle and reuse tips and much, much more.

Pay It Forward. Instead of throwing away old clothes or knickknacks, give them a chance at a second life and donate. Charities like the Salvation Army, Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) and TOUCH Ubi Hostel run collection centers for used items to stock their thrift stores. Additionally, international clothing store H&M offers discount coupons in exchange for bags of used garments. Keep an eye out for the white and green bins in their stores. Meanwhile, initiatives like Singapore Freecycle Network and Pass-It-On aim to make giving away unwanted items easier than ever.

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In This Part of the World We Call This Small Talk

Published on March 22, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

WSJ ExpatThe Wall Street Journal‘s hub for expatriates and global nomads, recently published my piece on how small talk varies around the world. Here’s a snippet:

When living abroad, your ability at small talk needs to be rebuilt from scratch, along with your knowledge of which topics and comments qualify as casual or intimate. It’s not called an art for nothing.

For instance, in the U.S., directly asking a new acquaintance how much they paid for something is akin to a needle scratch (unless you preface the statement with an apology and the excuse that you’re shopping around for the same item). In the Republic of Ireland, the U.K. and Japan, it’s doubtful that even that qualifier would be enough to stymie the awkwardness. But in China, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese descendant populations, money isn’t tinged with the same shyness. A casual conversation on which neighborhood you live in can readily lead to the question of how much rent you pay. It’s a question I still stumble to answer graciously.

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy

Published on February 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Though it might not pack the wild personality of cities like New York or London, Singapore is hard to beat when it comes to sheer convenience. Here is a list of what I think makes living in this city-state a uniquely easy experience:

Public Transportation. The most obvious of Singapore’s modern conveniences, the buses and trains are clean, cheap and punctual. One of the benefits of this city state’s youth is that the train network was built less than 30 years ago (unlike the NYC subway and the Tube, which are each over a century old), so its infrastructure is up-to-date and even allows for cell service. And if there aren’t any buses or MRT stations near you, the taxis are equally convenient, inexpensive and accessible.

Overhangs. Though it often goes unnoticed in the day-to-day, the majority of the city’s buildings have been carefully planned to feature an overhang in some form. While these are crucial for those sudden rainstorms, they’re equally vital for weathering the tropical sunshine. During a visit to nearby Malacca, I was surprised at how much more intense the day’s heat felt and realized that the difference was the abundance of shade that Singapore’s overhangs and plentiful trees provide.

AXS Stations. Like shrines to convenience, the 900+ AXS machines tucked into corners all over the island are most impressive for allowing you to pay all your bills in one fell swoop, from utilities to medical to the credit card. Not only that, bills that arrive in the mail have a barcode at the bottom that you can scan into an AXS Station, so you don’t even need to type in the details before dipping in your debit card. These stations also enable you to pay fines, top-up your ez-link card, buy and collect movie tickets, book an NParks BBQ pit and apply for a camping permit.

Mobile Phones. For anyone who has wrangled with AT&T or Verizon contracts and despaired over their rules on which phones you could use, Singapore’s system is a refreshing change. As long as you have a local SIM card, you can buy a new phone at any time without having to navigate a tangle of regulations. Plus, phone numbers are portable, meaning you don’t need to change your number if you switch to a new service provider.

Everything is Online. Singapore was ranked highest globally for smartphone penetration, according to a 2015 survey by Deloitte’s Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications. Following suit, local retailers have also increased their online presence. RedMart and Cold Storage allow you to order groceries online or through mobile phone apps. A slew of restaurants, like Simply Wrapps and Smiths Authentic Fish and Chips, have unique apps and rewards programs. Even government services make accessing information and submitting feedback through websites a piece of cake.

Singapore American logo

An Expat’s Easy Return to Singapore: It’s a Tale of Two Cities

Published on January 13, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

WSJ ExpatThe Wall Street Journal‘s hub for expatriates and global nomads, recently published my piece on the comparing my parents’ experience as expats in Singapore in the 1990s with my experience today. Here’s a snippet:

Even without Singapore’s explosive growth, technology such as Skype and WhatsApp has transformed the previous alienation of expat life into a far more connected existence. My parents made the costly phone call home once a week at most; I can see my family’s faces and hear their voices for hours every day if I choose. Mom mailed photos of us to my grandmother; I’m friends with most of my family on Facebook. With the exception of a handful of guidebooks, my parents arrived in Japan completely blind; I had the luxury of turning to Google to explore life in Singapore before I stepped on a plane.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same. Life in Singapore was as easy for expats then as it is now, particularly when contrasted to the self-contained and still somewhat xenophobic Japan of the 1990s. Singapore was a smaller, less congested city than Tokyo and presented a wider range of Western food. They spoke English. Mom formed easy, close friendships with the other expat mothers in the condo, while we children played in the pool. That condominium surprisingly still stands. When my dad visited in 2012, he noted that although Singapore’s outer shell had changed, the people fundamentally had the same attitude and disposition. Mom commented that Singapore’s rigidly regulated multiculturalism, where everyone celebrated everything, had created a diluted culture 20 years ago and that today the city feels even more sanitized; in many ways, Singapore no longer feels like an Asian city.

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

Southeast Asia Travel Secrets

Published on January 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With Singapore being so small and the surrounding region being so rich with culture and beauty, it would be a shame not to travel as often as possible. There are what seems like a million websites and apps out there to help with everything from packing to pinpointing the ideal snack joint, but here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful over the last three years.

If you’re looking for flights:

Southeast Asia is a hive of budget airlines that compete with each other, which means plenty of cheap offers every week. Sign up for emails from TigerAir, Jetstar, Scoot, and AirAsia to get access to flash sales. Even Groupon has some great offers. Websites like Skyscanner and Kayak are also ideal for comparing cheap flights, while sites like Zuji go further and offer hotels, car rentals and entire holidays.

If you’re looking for hotels:

Booking.com is always my go to due to their free cancellation policy.

If you’re not sure about visas:

The State Department’s SmartTraveler app lays out everything you need to know about passport requirements, visas, entry and exit fees, locations of American embassies, local laws to take note of, tips on staying safe, and any other restrictions or requirements you can expect to encounter.

If you want someone else to do all the work:

It’s a lot of fun planning out a personalized itinerary for a new destination, but it does take time and research to pin down all the details. Companies like Eco Adventures provide everything from English speaking guides to hotels to internal flights, while making your trip as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible.

If you want the inside scoop:

Each article on WikiTravel is a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know before you go and when you’re there. It’s easy to navigate due to clearly marked sections like “Get In” and “Eat”, and it’s one of the more reliable sources of information about ATMs, local scams, what prices to expect and how to avoid being disrespectful. TripAdvisor’s website and app have also proved invaluable for finding hidden gems, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to affordable nail salons.

If you’re looking to get around:

Uber has proven a lifesaver multiple times in multiple countries, from the United States to Vietnam. Since the Uber app is already hooked up to your credit card, you don’t need to worry if you’re stranded somewhere without cash. And since the driver will have you and your desired destination located on GPS, you don’t need to worry about giving him directions or language issues.

If you’re looking to just explore:

Google Maps is hard to beat. Look up your destination and save the map so you can access it even offline. If your phone has linked with the local phone network, the satellites will also be able to place you on Google Maps.

If you’re hungry:

TripAdvisor and Yelp are probably the most universally reliable, though sometimes digging through the piles of reviews can be exhausting. Usually I just recommend following your nose and taking a chance on a place that looks good. Long lines of people waiting to eat are also a good sign.

If you want a crazy adventure:

Koryo Tours are the people who got us in and around North Korea, but if that’s a bit too crazy a destination for you, they also offer adventures to remote parts of Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia.

If you’re in an emergency:

Hopefully you have travel insurance. I personally recommend ACE Travel Insurance. They found me a clinic up to international standards when I contracted salmonella poisoning in Myanmar. If you’re already in the thick of things, the Travel Safe app is a directory of police, fire and medical services around the world.

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Giving a Holiday Party

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

In my opinion, the holiday season begins a bit prematurely in Singapore. Orchard was decked out in tinsel weeks before Hallowe’en and supermarkets started playing Michael Buble’s Christmas album even earlier. So there’s been plenty of time to think about and plan a holiday party. But if you’re wondering how to prepare a Christmas dinner in your shoebox-sized oven, or if you’re worried tropical heat and the holiday spirit don’t mix, or if you just hate the idea of cleaning up after a party…keep reading.

The Tree. Like many of us, pine trees are not native to this part of the world and some handle relocation better than others. Avoid the little ones on ice that supermarkets sometimes carry; despite their green needles, they’re often already on their way to being totally brown by December 25th. IKEA is a reliable source of both artificial and real trees, but be warned they sell out quickly. Tangs or Robinsons also carry artificial (even completely pre-decorated) trees. My favorite option is to support local nurseries (like Far East Flora, Thomson Nurseries, or Bedok Garden & Landscaping, to name a few), who offer several sizes of U.S.-sourced pines. Don’t worry – you’ll get used to perusing Christmas trees in the humidity.

The Decorations. You have a wide range of options when it comes to balls and baubles to decorate your home with. Malls have pop-up exhibitions or shops where you can grab some cheap and cheerful danglies (Tangs has a whole floor). Larger Cold Storage outlets offer Christmas-themed paper plates and napkins, while IKEA carries cute decorations and cheap yet festive glassware. You’ll see a bunch of “Christmas Fairs” advertised but they’re often like any other shopping event (except with an additional stall or two selling handmade holiday-related items); it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find decorations.

The Food. I confess: despite throwing several Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, I have never actually roasted my own turkey. I don’t trust my skills or my finicky oven. Conveniently, both NTUC and Cold Storage begin filling orders for Christmas feasts starting in late November. You can have an entire banquet quite literally delivered to your door, complete with gravy, stuffing, wine, and dessert. Several restaurants and specialty stores also feature festive catalogs, like Da Paolo Gastronomia, Royal Plaza on Scotts, The American Club, Meat the Butcher, and Huber’s Butcher.

The Clean Up. If you’re DINKs like us and a live-in helper would be overkill, fear not. There are cleaning services you can call, but I’ve found most require you to pay for a couple of weeks rather than a one-off service. Thankfully, there’s an app for that. Helpling is like Uber for cleaning services. You hook it up to your credit card and input your address, number of rooms, extra requests, and your desired timing. Note you’ll want to schedule in advance as it can take a few days for them to find someone for you.

Regardless of the premature festivities, holiday parties these days are no longer the dreaded gauntlet they once were. The best part of all these conveniences is that they allow you to return your focus to the heart of the season’s celebrations: enjoying time with friends and family.

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“Falling Man” & Roasted Broccoli Grilled Cheese

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Don DeLillo’s difficult novel Falling Man.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

Falling Man further illustrated that crater, deftly weaving in the perspectives of those who were on the ground and those who were thousands of miles away, the arguments about ideology, the suddenly nationalistic foreign policy decisions, and the secondhand implications the attacks had on children like me. One of the things that struck me most was how DeLillo managed to capture how this national tragedy trickled down to impact the minutiae of a single family’s lives: the decisions and uncertainties that make up our every day that suddenly become frivolous and absurd, and yet we must somehow go on with them because they are our ties to the world before everything changed.

I did know this before reading Falling Man, but I didn’t quite feel this. Lianne’s complicated emotions for her ex-husband – who survives the towers and returns to stay with her and their son – are blurred at times and jagged at others as 9/11 brings them back together and pushes them apart. Although an emotionally difficult and messily human story, Falling Man is worth the time and the tears, especially for anyone who keeps a piece of their heart in New York City. To quote Lianne reappropriating a haiku: “Even in New York — I long for New York.”

You can read the rest of my article and discover my new favourite grilled cheese recipe HERE.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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Living and Giving as an Expat in Nepal

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

We’ve all seen the photos: the streets of Kathmandu flooded with rubble, the Nepalese families picking through the remains of their collapsed homes, the piles of bricks where Durbar Square used to be. But since the two earthquakes in April, which left over 8,700 dead and apparently shifted Mount Everest by three centimeters, Nepal has been steadily rebuilding.

A United Methodist Pastor in the Detroit Conference who has lived in Nepal for the past few years, Rev. Dr. Jan L. Beaderstadt has been actively involved in the disaster recovery and has been working with Renaissance Outreach Ministries to raise aid money for those living in the mountains, which were some of the hardest hit areas. He recently traveled to Tinmane Village in the Gorkha District to distribute tents to families who lost their homes.

“I am impressed with the attitude of the people,” he commented in an interview. “They have pulled together to help each other. There has been very little in the way of looting. Even though the government has been slow in getting aid to the people who need it, the people haven’t resorted to violence like they would have in other developing countries. Nepalis are patient people.”

If you’ve been wondering how you could best support Nepal’s efforts to reconstruct, the answer is fairly straightforward according to Dr. Beaderstadt: book a trip. Half a million people in Nepal work in tourism and it’s a crucial pillar of the impoverished nation’s economy. While aid is helpful, tourist dollars are a much-needed source of funds to keep the nations on a steady path to recovery. If you’re worried about safety, know that the has lifted travel warnings for most areas. The photos, though dramatic, are hardly the whole story. Most of the country was unaffected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, with only 14 out of 75 districts suffering damage. Almost all national parks and protected areas, including UNESCO heritage sites and popular trekking destinations.

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Walking around Kathmandu with Dr. Beaderstadt was like being escorted by the mayor. Every few minutes he called out jovial greetings and shook hands with those he knew, from trishaw drivers to shop owners.

“You never run out of new thing to try in Kathmandu,” he declared before leading us into a restaurant posted with a sign that read ‘Probably the Best Pizza in Town.’ Inside, he immediately launched into a long conversation with the head waiter, apparently an old friend. We had met Dr. Beaderstadt a few days earlier in Nagarkot, just after my husband and I had trekked 18 kilometers through the mountainous Nepalese countryside, a section of the Kathmandu valley that the earthquakes devastated.

He mused that the earthquakes may prove to be a blessing in disguise, as the disaster has given people of all castes and religions something to rally around. In addition to long held social and ethnic hierarchies, the recent transition from monarchy to democracy has not been an easy one. The king relinquished sovereign power in 2006 and although elections were carried out relatively peacefully, quagmire-inducing political tensions and power struggles continue. Regardless, “for the most part, life goes on even when government is almost non-functioning at times. The people here demonstrate that they can function as a highly civilized society even if the country [has taken nearly a decade to draft] a constitution.”

While many expats hold themselves separate from the communities they reside in, since leaving American soil in 1998 Dr. Beaderstadt has enmeshed himself wholeheartedly in every new environment. While running a Bible School in Bangladesh and making frequent visits to Kathmandu, he was approached by his current partner, Kul Bahadur Gurung of Alliance Treks & Expeditions. Together they co-founded the Be-Kul Language Training Center to conduct leadership, management and English language training for local businesses. Though Dr. Beaderstadt noted that dealing with bureaucracy, particularly navigating the expectation of bribes, was one of the greatest challenges of living in Nepal.

“The people are wonderful, although lousy time managers,” he said. “Everything gets done by ‘tomorrow’ but tomorrow never seems to come. We often have severe power cuts that can last up to 11 hours a day. You often don’t have water on demand. But you get used to it, learn to plan ahead (they publish a daily power outage schedule) and learn to take life a bit easier.”

In spite of the unpredictable availability of amenities and the impending task of reconstruction, Dr. Beaderstadt has no plans to leave Nepal any time soon and is anticipating the arrival of his wife after she retires in a few years.
“Those living here get a chance to really immerse themselves in the local culture and make some really good friends. It is a relaxed atmosphere. I love it here.”

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Guide to Singlish

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

Despite what a number of Westerners think, you don’t need Chinese to live comfortably in Singapore. The only language you need to get familiar with is Singlish, a dialect so unique that it has its own separate Wikipedia page (which is well worth a read, especially for the many uses of “can”). Although treated as a mongrel of Mandarin and English, Singlish also includes an array of words from Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese, and even some Tamil. For anyone who hasn’t grown up as a bilingual (sometimes trilingual) Singaporean, fluency in Singlish is a near impossibility. But to get you started, here is a beginner’s toolkit of crucial vocabulary and phrases.

Ang mo(h)
Originating from the Hokkien word for “red-haired”, ang mo is now common slang for “white person”. Sometimes considered pejorative, it’s nevertheless a widely used term that frequently appears in the media.

Aunty and Uncle
A polite way to address an older man or woman, especially if you don’t know their name. It’s akin to using “Miss” to get a waitress’s attention or “Mister” for a taxi driver.

Can
A stalwart of Singlish, this single word is a ruthlessly efficient combination of an English word and Chinese syntax, and you will hear it everywhere as a confirmation. Often, “Can” is used in place of “Okay” or “Yes.”

Can?
The question version of the above, “Can?” is often tacked onto the end of a request and can mean “Is that alright?” or “Are you able to…?” For example, “Finish this by tomorrow, can?” (Once in a hawker centre when the beer aunty said ‘No more jugs. Can?’, I was genuinely confused as to what she was saying until she held up the can of Tiger.)

Chope
Vital for those hoping to get a meal at a hawker center, “chope” means to save a seat by placing the cheapest or most useless item you have (usually a packet of tissues) on the table. To remove or ignore someone else’s tissues is considered a grave sin indeed.

Kiasu
Hokkien for “afraid to lose”, “kiasu” is essentially the anxious, selfish “Me first!” spirit you see in those who edge you out of the way so they can get on the bus before everyone else or in that friend who always has to one-up you.

Lah!
More assertive than an exclamation point alone, “lah” regularly appears at the end of assertions and declarations. Its tone can range from imperative to impatient to reassuring.

Leh
Another of Singlish’s many sentence ending particles, “leh” is used to soften a command, request, claim, or complaint that may be brusque otherwise.

Makan
The Malaysian word “to eat”, “makan” is deployed as a verb or a noun.

Revert
The eyelash in the eye of all English grammar purists living in Singapore, “to revert” is frequently used to mean “to return/respond to me”. Technically, “to revert” is defined as returning to a former habit or condition, but it most commonly appears in Singlish as a request in business emails. For example, “Can you answer this question? Please revert.”

Roti prata
This is a double whammy. The first meaning of this term is a flaky, fluffy, delicious Indian pancake that goes well with curry gravy and is quite popular. Since making the roti prata involves flipping the flat dough back and forth between one’s hands, “roti prata” has taken on a second meaning: a person who keeps changing their mind.

Shiok
Originally a Malay expression, “shiok” conveys a feeling of pure pleasure and happiness. Usually used as an adjective, this word pops up in a lot of advertisements.

Tai chi
Another double meaning. You may know tai chi as the Chinese martial art but because of the slow pushing movements, “tai chi” is also used to describe somebody who constantly pushes work onto others.

Take away
Where we would say “take out”, here it is “take away” (or if you’re really savvy, “ta pao”). You might not think there’s a big difference but asking for take-out will often earn you a confused look. No good if your stomach is grumbling for makan lah!

Wa(h) lau!
A mild exclamation of annoyance, disbelief, exasperation, frustration, surprise, etc. Usually considered one of the more polite exclamations, its literal translation is something like “Oh my gosh!”

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The Rich World of Kyoto

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

When you live surrounded by the glossy newness of Singapore’s infrastructure, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dignity of Kyoto’s several thousand years of architecture. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, this city is a bastion of the nation’s culture and is rife with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My husband, however, couldn’t get over the fact that progress seemed to have halted in the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic bubble collapsed And yet the trains still run perfectly, the buildings are old but not decrepit, and the analog ticket machines work without a hitch. If your impression of Japan was formed by sushi restaurants, anime, and the somber economic statistics, a visit to Kyoto will reveal a nation of more depth and breadth than you can imagine. This is a country that knows itself, that treasures its multilayered identity, and is content to move at its own pace.

Kyoto is home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, big and small, and you can spend weeks going from one to another. Instead of hitting sites at random, I suggest doing research beforehand to hone in on the temples and shrines you really want to see, and then plan a route accordingly. My top three are as follows:

    1)    Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll want to set aside at least half a day to wander dreamily through the endless corridors of red-orange torii gates trailing up the mountain.

    2)    Heian Jingu. The vivid shrine buildings are reason enough to visit but it’s the stunning traditional gardens (which took 20 years for gardener Jihei Ogawa to perfect) that elevate this expansive site to magical.

    3)    Kinkaku-ji. Probably the most well-known temple in Kyoto, this is a popular site well worth the crowds. It doesn’t matter when you go, as every season renders the gold temple picturesque for different reasons.

Other temples and shrines I recommend are: Ginkaku-ji for its lush moss gardens, Kiyomizu-dera for the views of Kyoto, Daitoku-ji for its bouquet of sub-temples and historic Zen gardens, and Yasaka Shrine for a night walk. Though of course, there are thousands more.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

Since it is possible to overdose on temples, take advantage of your time in Kyoto to experience some of Japan’s traditional arts. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon just strolling along the preserved streets of Gion, the country’s most famous geisha district. While genuine geiko (the local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) can be spotted in the evenings, you’re more likely to see women in colorful kimono during the daytime. Many of these are tourists who have dressed up for the day. If you’re eager to join them, there are a number of shops that will rent you an entire outfit, from the socks and shoes to the elaborate hairpins. The geiko and maiko still visit and entertain at the teahouses dotting Gion, and during cherry blossom season they give an annual dance performance called Miyako Odori (literally “Dances of the Old Capitol”), which we were lucky enough to catch. If you’re in town during the month of April, it would be a shame to miss. Gion is also the perfect place to buy high quality souvenirs, such as handmade pottery, paper fans, goods crafted from kimono style fabrics, lacquer ware, origami paper, green tea leaves, matcha powder, and more. While a formal Japanese tea ceremony can last up to four hours, a cozy teahouse just off the main stretch of Gion called En offers visitors a taste of the elaborate rituals. With explanations in English and the opportunity to try whisking green tea powder ourselves, it was an informative yet calming experience for everyone.

Kyoto’s geographic location and Japan’s comprehensive train system make it easy to incorporate several day trips into any itinerary. Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji are all less than an hour on the JR Line and each offers something different: delicious food and energetic nightlife in Osaka, a sprawling park overrun with friendly deer in Nara, the famous beef in Kobe, and the brilliant white, immense 680-year-old castle that is the centerpiece of Himeji. Before your trip, you can purchase a JR Rail Pass for the Kansai region, which will allow you to move between these cities with ease.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Of all the day trips we took, Arashiyama stands out. A mountainous district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is known for its scenic beauty and restful atmosphere. The shallow, slow-flowing Ōi River is peppered with small boats full of day trippers. Paths into the leafy hills lead you to such gems as Matsunoo Taisha, one of the oldest shrines in the Kyoto area, as well as the Iwatayama Monkey Park, the ethereal bamboo forest, and a stone engraved with four poems written by Zhou Enlai, who was inspired during his visit to Arashiyama. After a long day of strolling along the river and basking in the gorgeous surroundings, a soak in one of the many onsen (hot springs) was heaven.

Once known for being a challenge for non-Japanese speaking visitors, Japan has gone to great lengths to make navigating its streets less scary. Buses and trains announce stops and tourist attractions in English. Station names and signs directing you to nearby sites have all been translated. The majority of restaurants we ate in had an English menu on hand. However, it’s the Japanese people that make Japan a genuine joy to visit. Their renowned politeness is often referenced as a joke or a cliché, but it’s impossible not to appreciate when you come face to face with it.

For example, after wandering through the beautiful Isuien Garden in Nara, I asked the attendant of the gift shop if he happened to know the English name of a splashy pink flower blooming across the grounds. He said he wasn’t sure as he only knew its Japanese name; would I mind waiting a moment? I heard him phone the woman manning the entrance and overheard her say that she didn’t know it either. The attendant returned to me with a regretful bow and a sincere apology, all over the name of a flower. It’s the effort put in when there’s no need, the almost obsessive attention to detail, and the cherishing of true quality that make Japan an exceptional and exquisite place to visit..

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