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?

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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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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.

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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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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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SCUBA in the Summertime

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

If you’re looking to try something new this summer, why not learn how to scuba dive? Singapore is surrounded by some of the world’s top dive sites, so it would be a shame not to give diving a try during your time here. Like driving a car, learning to dive can seem overwhelming at first. There are new terms and rules to memorize. You’ll probably ask, “What does that button do?” at least once. And you have to pass both a written test and practical demonstration of your skills to earn your license. But just as you developed muscle memory for changing gears and checking your mirrors, it won’t be long before clearing your mask and checking your oxygen level become automatic.

If the thought of paying for all that equipment turns you off, don’t worry. Dive resorts are usually stocked with everything from fins to wetsuits to regulators. There are only two pieces of gear I would recommend you invest in as a beginner: a carefully chosen mask that fits you well and doesn’t fog, and water boots in your size (occasionally rented fins can cut into your heels and sometimes you enter the water over a rocky beach).

There are a number of acronyms you’ll learn during your diving course but the first one you should know is PADI, which stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Founded in the 1960s, PADI isn’t the only diver training organization in the world, but it is the largest and the most well-known in Southeast Asia. Other training organizations like National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) can also be found in Singapore. There are dozens of PADI-certified dive shops throughout the island but Eko Divers in Outram Park came recommended by a friend. We took their 3-day course to earn our Open Water certification, which consisted of two classroom sessions and one full-day session in a nearby swimming pool. The final segment of the course consisted of a weekend at a dive resort in Dayang, Malaysia, where our instructor guided us through the three ocean dives we needed to complete. Most dive shops in Singapore run weekend or week-long jaunts to the myriad dive sites in Indonesia and Malaysia (and beyond), providing plenty of opportunities for you to put your new skills to use.

Diving in Tulamben, Bali (103)

While my husband and I have only completed the entry level course, we have yet to feel restricted when exploring the reefs of Southeast Asia. The Open Water certification allows us to dive to a depth of 18 meters (to go deeper, you need an Advanced Diver certification), but I’ve found that most dive spots in the region can be enjoyed within this range. While the Advanced qualification allows you to do night dives and to go down to 30 meters, the main reason I’m considering earning it is to be able to more thoroughly explore shipwrecks. Encountering a turtle amidst the remains of the USAT Liberty, a relic from the Pacific War just 30 meters off of Bali’s shore, was nothing short of magical. And hovering alongside the teeming hull of a sunken sugar transport ship off the Perhentian Islands was one of the most breathtaking (no pun intended) sights I’ve ever seen. Yes, I pretend I’m the little mermaid every time.

In a time when selfie sticks have become a plague and we are pressured to capture every moment on film, scuba diving forces you to be in the present. You can’t use your phone or listen to music. You can’t even talk. Language is reduced to a series of simple hand signals: “Everything okay?” “Trumpet fish!” “Clownfish!” “Time to ascend to the surface.” While I certainly wouldn’t mind having a video of the sardine run in Cebu or a photo of that octopus in the Batangas, those memories are all the more precious because they were experienced fully. No reaching for a camera phone or trying to think of a caption for Facebook. Though you can, of course, buy an underwater casing for your camera or rent one from some dive shops. Nevertheless, I recommend you simply focus on your strange new surroundings and soak it all in.

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Minding Your Manners

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

Etiquette can be tough to master at home, let alone abroad. It seems like there’s always something new to learn. For example, I only just found out that if a Singaporean woman introduces herself as Madame Lim, she is using her maiden name, as opposed to when she uses Mrs. Hoh, which is her married name.

As a tourist in Singapore, you’ll likely be forgiven your faux-pas, but if you’re an expat doing business here, it’s a good idea to adapt to the work environment. As the saying goes, “Think global. Act local.”  When you put in the effort to understand local expectations, it not only shows your clients that you respect them, but will also enable you to adjust your marketing strategy or meeting style for a greater chance of success.

Punctuality is a virtue so arrive to meetings on time. Introductions are almost always in order of age. Ethnic Chinese generally use a very light, extended handshake feeling the traditional Western bone-crushing grip is offensive. Chinese men and women may shake hands, but the woman must always extend her hand first. Older ethnic Malayasian men may only shake the hand of another man. Younger Malays sometimes shake hands with foreign women, but it is more appropriate to bow the head which is how two Malay women meet. Indians may shake hands with members of the same sex and will smile and nod when being introduced to somebody of the opposite sex. Hugs are rare in the US in business, but pretty much non-existent here even between friends. Don’t back slap or high five either. In general, folks here simply don’t like to be touched.

If you’re introducing two people, state the name of the more senior or more important person first. When meeting with a Singaporean counterpart, wait for him or her to introduce you to the rest of the team. Avoid using first names until your Singapore counterpart suggests it. This is especially important when dealing with older people. In fact, most Chinese counterparts will introduce you by your last name.

Resist the temptation to give compliments. Giving or receiving compliments is not common in Chinese culture. In fact, if you do give one, your counterpart will probably respond with the words, “Not at all” or “It is nothing” rather than “Thank you.” Conversely, Singaporeans think nothing of asking highly personal questions that Westerners considered inappropriate.

Kang Ha Pheng Sim Kok Building

Here as in Japan, you should use both hands to pass your business card with your name facing the person. Study the card. Take the time to ask how to pronounce their name properly. Leave the card on the table horizontally facing you during the meeting. This is a sign of respect. Whatever you do, don’t put it in your back pocket. Never deal out your own cards like a deck of cards.

In Chinese culture, it’s important for people to see the exit. Since 70% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, it’s best you sit with your back to the door. Generally, you will be told where to sit as there is a strict hierarchy so simply wait to be told where to sit and you’ll be okay.

Appropriate dress depends on the industry in which you’re working. Finance jobs, for example, generally demand a full suit and tie whereas many other industries in Singapore are much more casual. Try to gear your style to the client’s.

Everybody likes to feel as if they’ve won, but this is particularly important in the Chinese culture. If you’re selling something, for example, give an initial price with a room for negotiation.

Most cultures consider it polite to offer a visiting client or business partner something to drink upon their arrival. In the US and the UK, we expect glasses of water to at least be chilled or better yet have ice. Room temperature water smacks of a half-hearted attempt to provide a nice drink. But in Malaysia, Singapore and a few other Southeast Asian countries, it’s a nice gesture to clarify whether they would prefer warm or cold water. The belief that drinking too much cold water will make you sick is still a fairly common one so if you can handle warm water, it’s probably best to just sip and make do.

Once refreshments are handled, it’s time to get down to business by…not talking about business right away. Relationships, rather than strict economics, rule business partnerships in Asia and so the straightforwardness that Americans value so highly can strike the wrong tone. We think we’re being honest and not wasting time, but the chunk of the business meeting you devote to small talk can often be the most productive part of the rendezvous. However, no matter how well that conversation goes, it can still be difficult to determine whether or not you have successfully made your case. In the same way that Singaporeans value relationships, they are also often reluctant to say “no” outright. Part of my job requires me to pitch our consulting services one-on-one to potential clients and I can never tell if I’ve made a sale until the moment they sign up. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have led nowhere, while conversations I wrote off as a wash led to that person buying a package several weeks later.

Singaporeans often put more stock in facial expression, tone of voice and posture than in the spoken word. They pay as much attention to what isn’t said to what is said. Silence is actually quite important in negotiation. By pausing before you answer, you signal that you’ve really stopped to think about what the other person said and how you want to respond. This is a symbol of respect while responding quickly is seen as rude behavior. Speaking loudly is also a sign of rudeness. Most locals speak softly and sometimes smile to avoid embarrassment and not necessarily because they think what you said is all that funny. If you’ve been getting a lot of smiles in your meetings, it may not be because you’re the stand-up comedian you think you are!

Something else rude? Moving something with your shoe or pointing the soles of your shoes towards somebody so don’t prop your feet up on the table. Things like pointing and whistling are totally unacceptable. Shrugging and winking are confusing.  Never write anything in red ink.

If you’ve lived here for more than ten minutes, you know that food is a big deal in Singapore. Business lunches can be super fancy or a quick meal at a hawker center. If you’re hosting, remember that Muslims don’t eat pork and devout Muslims should be taken to a halal restaurant. Hindus don’t eat beef. And there are no three martini lunches in Singapore. In general, drinking during the day is frowned upon, but drinking at night is acceptable and often an important part of bonding with clients.

Another thing to be mindful of is how you speak about Singapore. While Singaporeans themselves will be the first to admit they love to complain, that doesn’t give you equal rights to whine. Think about how you would feel back home if an expat complained about life in your city. Even if you agreed with their gripes, you would likely still feel a pang of defensive patriotism. Keep your bellyaching about the restaurant service or the weather to your own circle of friends and out of any professional relationships.

At the end of the meeting, guests should be walked to the elevator. High-ranking guests should be walked to the car. When a Singaporean offers to send you to the airport, they are literally offering to take you or collect you themselves.

Nevertheless, being polite on local terms doesn’t mean relinquishing all the traits that have made you successful back home. I begin my workshops by stating outright that I’m a loud American, which means I’m going to make them talk in class, urge them to work in groups and expect them to ask questions. The belligerent interactivity is often novel for adults who were taught in the more restrained Singapore style. When mixed with elements they’re to which they are more accustomed, communication not only becomes easy, it becomes enjoyable.

And don’t forget the number one rule of doing business in other countries: if you accidentally offend, simply apologize and take the lesson with you.

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The Many Faces of Geylang

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

Geylang’s Famous Shophouses

As a new expat, the first neighborhood in Singapore you learned about was likely Orchard. The second was probably Geylang. Although its reputation as the country’s red light district isn’t undeserved, there’s a lot more to it than simply being a city’s sordid underbelly. With its historic shophouses and delicious hawker food, it is also a callback to pre-1970s Singapore.

The name “Geylang” is theorized to be a corrupted spelling of the Malay word ‘gelang,’ which is a type of edible creeper that grew throughout the area. Like its namesake, the neighborhood isn’t a single trunk. All throughout its length, Geylang Road has offshoots of lanes called lorongs extending perpendicularly towards Sims Ave or Guillemard Rd. Both the main stretch and the lorongs are home to micro-businesses offering everything from bicycle repairs to bathroom fixtures to, of course, food. If you’re looking for piles of fresh durian or mangosteen, authentic dim sum, the best chili crab in the country or the trademark frog porridge, this is the neighborhood to explore.

But the bustling day trade probably wasn’t the reason you heard about Geylang so early into your tenure here. The district is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of brothels. Some are regulated by the Singapore government, while others pose as KTV (karaoke) lounges or operate behind the scenes illegally. In order to gain an insider’s view on one of Singapore’s more infamous neighborhoods, I interviewed my friend Dafydd Green, who has lived in Geylang for just over a year.

SAN: Why did you choose to live in Geylang? Did you know the reputation of the area before you moved there?

DG: Geylang is going through a big development push now with many buildings being knocked down and condos going up. Having lived in places like Beijing before, I like seeing this development take place so I thought it would be more exciting to live there… I knew about the area’s reputation beforehand but it didn’t really phase me.

SAN: What do like about living in that area?

DG: I like the diversity you see if you walk around. On most Lorongs there is a Buddhist building and there is a vast array of Buddhist schools. You get a very interesting perspective on the island’s history because much of the area is made up of Peranakan buildings with old trade shop names, historical ‘clan’ or area association buildings (e.g. the Tang Lim Association and Xu Clan Association building, which would have been used in the past to bring immigrants from a certain area and surname together).

I am a big fan of the people who hang out here – you need only say a couple words in Chinese and sometimes you can be invited to join a table and be fed or hydrated well. The 24-hour nature of Geylang is also something I have come to really appreciate because it works with any lifestyle. For example, there are many places open for breakfast at 7am, the whole street is open for lunch, and you can be guaranteed a great prata or char siew between 2am and 6am. There are also a lot of legitimate massage places that are open late, and there’s nothing better than KTV followed by a foot massage.

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

Mongkok Dim Sum at Lorong 8

SAN: What do you dislike?

DG: Sometimes it gets under my skin when busloads of people turn up and don’t walk in straight lines. I think the sheer amount of people passing through makes the street a bit dirtier than most places in Singapore. The more liberal approach to spitting and urination adopted by some is displeasing to say the least. I also don’t appreciate being thought of as a potential customer by the many “male enhancement” pill sellers on the street!

SAN: What has your experience been like with the seedier sides of the neighborhood?

DG: I don’t think it’s possible to avoid some of the seedy elements of Geylang, but unless you visit certain areas then these are very scant. Vice and gambling are contained to a few lorongs. I don’t oppose legal prostitution, and ‘negotiation’ is very discreet so it’s not that Geylang is a vice-ridden cesspit that makes residents uncomfortable. You only come across the seedier aspects in certain places and at certain times (e.g. the occasional police raid), but in many ways Geylang is far less sketchy than Orchard Towers.

Prostitutes are in different places, such as the odd lorong, in brothels or in high concentrations on certain strips. As a lone male walking through some places, you will be approached and touched but it’s not a big deal to shrug off. Actual brothels aren’t obvious, and you only see prostitutes if you go inside. Depending on your disposition, you may find negotiations between prostitutes and customers a bit disturbing but the legality of prostitution is very matter of fact — you will sometimes see policemen checking ID cards, and there isn’t any aggressive or pushy behavior towards prostitutes.

The seedier elements for me are the illegal sides of prostitution. It’s obvious I think who is there illegally because some are very nervous and clearly not Singaporean. A surprising aspect was how some of them come across – there are prostitutes who dress in a revealing way, but others wear something like a Sunday dress and carry a handbag. It’s kind of similar to visiting the red light district in Amsterdam, where people sitting in windows don’t wear as little as possible, but are just waiting for customers to come.

SAN: What are your favorite places to eat in Geylang?

DG: There are some great places for food. Beyond the many frog porridge and Jiangsu places, there’s the very famous L32 on Lorong 32 that sells ‘handmade noodles’ accompanied by dried fish, a meat of choice and fiery chilies. There’s a Penang seafood restaurant close to the Aljunied MRT station that serves up a great Penang Laksa. Both Ho Kee Pau (43 Geylang Lorong 27) and Wen Dao Shi (aka 126 Dim Sum) at 126 Sims Ave dish up great dim sum. My personal favorites are a ‘knife cut noodle’ stall on Lorong 27 and a Malay stall run by a charming couple that serves up some of the best Malay food in Singapore.

 

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The Key to Staying Young

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

It seems like ‘Act Your Age’ isn’t always good advice. For such a young country, Singapore appears to know exactly how to enjoy maturity. More than a quarter of the small country’s population is over the age of 50, which has sparked numerous discussions on the societal and health implications of ageing citizens. But a recent survey commissioned by GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare found that plenty of Singaporean senior citizens are living life to the fullest.

150 Singaporeans over 50 from across the island were interviewed to create the “The Inner Age Index”, a survey that sought to discover their perceptions, attitudes and behaviors towards ageing. The results bring an optimistic voice into the national conversation, which is often more focused on the potential negative impacts of a mature population. 70% of those surveyed reported feeling five years younger than their age. And apparently that’s not all due to eating your vegetables. 9 in 10 declared that a positive attitude was the key to feeling younger and that laughing was the best anti-ageing medicine. In a country where anti-ageing skin creams dominate the shelves of every pharmacy, this study is a refreshing counterpoint.

Chairman of the Medical Board, Dr. Philip Koh believes the Inner Age Index could have a positive impact on not only how the government contemplates their elderly citizens but also on how society as a whole views them. He hopes this will allow people to realize that getting older can come with great opportunities.

“You know Singaporeans, we love to complain,” laughed Dr. Koh in a telephone interview. “We expected the respondents to be more stressed, but quite a number of people were surprisingly optimistic. It really is all about attitude at the end of the day. It’s important to figure out how to embrace ageing rather fight it.”

Gijs Sanders, General Manager of GSK Consumer Healthcare in Singapore, agrees, commenting that “our research shows that attitude plays a major factor when it comes to ageing well, on top of the obvious things like a healthy diet and staying physically active…Your age is just a number; what really matters is how old you feel.”

Cynics may wonder if this study was conducted to provide a balance to some of the controversy Singapore has faced concerning care for the elderly. While about 85% of the nation’s senior citizens live with their families, the remaining 15% either live alone or in nursing homes, which are often a costly option despite government subsidies. As Singapore’s population matures, questions arise about how to enable seniors to age comfortably, especially if their families aren’t able to fully support them. Despite being housed in the oft-disparaged HDB complexes, Dr. Koh remarked that the government does put energy into enabling independence for the elderly, coordinating activities and community groups so they can get “out of their cages.” Which is handy, because 64% of the survey’s respondents said that being over 50 means they finally have time to realize passions such as socializing with friends, travelling, playing sports, and exercising.

As expats, it’s easy to believe Singapore has always been the manicured city we know today. When you consider that the people surveyed for the Inner Age Index have been witness to the Republic of Singapore’s entire history, it’s evident that their bright perspective is the result of varied and extraordinary experiences. Nevertheless, Mr. Sanders reports that “what surprised us was the importance of the simple things in life – remember, [9 of out 10 of the people we surveyed declared that] laughing is the best anti-ageing medicine!”

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A Weekend in Hong Kong

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

If you’re homesick for the gritty vibrancy of New York City or just looking to spend a weekend somewhere other than a tropical beach, Hong Kong is the perfect whirlwind. Grungy, chaotic, and built amid a range of tall hills, Hong Kong seems to be opposite in personality from manicured, flat Singapore. And while you’ll never be able to see or do it all in a single weekend, the following itinerary will give you a taste of the buffet of experiences Hong Kong has to offer.

Friday Evening

Getting from the airport to the city is a piece of cake. Purchase the Airport Express Travel Pass, an Octopus card that holds one-way or roundtrip airport-to-city trips plus three consecutive days of unlimited travel on MTR. You can ride the brisk Airport Express straight to Central.

If you arrive before 10:00pm, head to Tsui Hang Village restaurant (New World Tower, 16-18 Queen’s Road) for Hong Kong’s most delicious tradition: dim sum. Like many of the city’s hidden gems, Tsui Hang Village is tucked away on the second floor of an innocuous office building. Their dim sum menu isn’t as extensive as one would hope, but the quality of their barbecue pork buns, tofu pudding and hand-torn chicken make up for it.

Drop your luggage off at your hotel and change into something swanky before taking a cab to the International Commerce Centre (the ICC building), which houses the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. On the 118th floor, you’ll find the ultra-modern Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world. Cocktails aren’t cheap but the view of Victoria Harbor at night is nothing short of breathtaking.

Saturday

Eminently walkable yet also stocked with reliable public transport, Hong Kong was built to be explored. Take the MTR to Diamond Hill Station in Kowloon and follow the signs to Nan Lian Garden, a Chinese classical garden designed in the style of the Tang Dynasty. While the popular Wong Tai Sin Temple is an easy walk away and worth a visit, I found the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery to not only be quieter but more fascinating. Founded in 1934, this Buddhist monastery’s interlocking wooden architecture is the only of its kind in Hong Kong.

Then it’s on to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. You could take the MTR to Prince Edward Station, but I found it more fun to meander through Kowloon’s bustling suburbs, which allowed me to stroll through the charming Kowloon Walled City Park and to snag a snack in the food district. “Bird Garden” is bit of a misnomer – it’s actually a miniature market tucked onto a raised walkway enveloped in lush greenery. And even if you’re not looking to take home a sparrow or cockatiel, the towers and aisles of twittering cages are mesmerizing.

After all that exploring, it’s time for a luxurious interlude. Take the MTR down to Tsim Sha Tsui and indulge in Afternoon Tea in the lobby of the oldest hotel in Hong Kong, The Peninsula. When you’ve finishing savoring the delicate pastries and elegant architecture, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is just a short walk away. Finish your time on Kowloon by wandering along the famous waterfront Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

Take the last Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central, soaking in the view of the skyline on the way, before heading to the raucous Lan Kwai Fong area, a cluster of bars and restaurants where you can grab a bite and party until all hours.

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Sunday

Linger over breakfast and coffee at one of the city’s many cafés before making your way to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, which opens at 10:00am and is located inside Hong Kong Park. Originally built in 1844, the museum building was the office and residence of the Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong up until 1978. In addition to admiring the gorgeous building, you’ll learn about the history of tea drinking in China and the gentle art of creating clay teapots.

Next to the Museum of Tea Ware is the K.S. Lo Gallery, which houses ceramics dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644AD). For a real treat, settle into the Chinese Teahouse on the ground floor for traditional tea snacks and tea prepared the old-fashioned way. From the park, it’s a quick walk
to the famous Peak Tram, a Victorian-era train that hauls visitors up to the highest peak on Hong Kong Island. If the weather is clear, the views are well worth the crowds and the ticket price.

After descending, wander towards Hollywood Road and en route be sure to ride the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators (the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world). Hollywood Road and its many side streets are chock full of antique shops, boutique clothing stores, artisanal coffee shops, and chic wine bars. Spend the afternoon getting lost and finding one-of-a-kind souvenirs to take home..

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The Charm of Inle Lake

Published on October 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

A quick flight north from Yangon and a long, winding drive through the mountains of Myanmar will lead you to the gorgeous expanse of Inle Lake. The calm, blue waters are a bracing contrast to the red earth and the dusty green landscape surrounding it. Located in the Nyaung Shwe Township of the Shan State with an estimated surface area of 116 square kilometers, it is the second largest lake in Myanmar. We stayed at the scenic Hupin Hotel in rustic rooms that stood on stilts in the low, lapping water of the lake, which was host to a flotilla of emerald-green water plants. From our balconies we watched boats return to the hotel through the pagoda-style gateway in a fence made of sticks that separated our cove from the open water. Since we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and had scheduled a full day of touring the lake for the following day, we opted to borrow bicycles from the hotel and explore by land.

Cycling along the quiet little road in the dappled shadows of the trees had the thrill of a childhood adventure. We exchanged waves with the schoolchildren bound for home in their green longyi while we swerved around the occasional traffic: a truck carrying twenty people, a ramshackle tractor or two, men on motorcycles, and women encumbered with hefty bundles of sticks. Small paths led from the main road to simple pagodas and to the tightknit communities of local villages. Before we knew it, the afternoon had flown by and we had to hurry back to the hotel to catch the sunset. A tall hill stood next to the resort and we decided to scale it for a better view. Perched at the peak was the home of a Buddhist monk clad in traditional orange robes who happily pointed us to the western side of his pagoda-style living quarters and asked us about our homelands. I paused to remove my flip flops before stepping onto the wide stone porch that encircled the building but the monk shook his head and said there was no need. Plus the dogs would steal my shoes if I left them unattended. A gaggle of friendly, well-fed mutts romped around the grounds, pestering us to play as we soaked in the setting of the sun over the glittering Inle Lake. At night the secluded Nyaung Shwe Township slept under a brilliant blanket of stars.

The next morning we hired for the day a long, thin boat and its operator, and by 8:30am we were whizzing across the vast blue lake in the bright sunshine. The boat was affiliated with the hotel and so was well-equipped with cushioned chairs, umbrellas, water, and blankets to weather the sun and the wind. After some time we arrived at the Ywama inlet for the morning market and our boatman expertly maneuvered us through a traffic jam so thick you could barely see the water. Our boat mostly rubbed shoulders with the brightly painted tourist boats, but on the other side of the thin inlet I could see a large number of the unadorned canoes of the local villagers beached on the reedy shoreline.

IMAG1181The stalls around the edge of the market were piled high with souvenir items (Buddha statues, gemstones, marionettes, and the like – which may or may not have been authentic) but the further in we wandered the more we saw the stalls for locals on their daily errands. Women with thanaka (a creamy paste with cosmetic and sun protection purposes) painted on their cheeks sat cross-legged on elevated mats behind small mountains of tomatoes, eggs, and leafy greens. There were wide baskets of peanuts and beans, tables of flip flops and t-shirts, and piles of watermelons. Vendors fried bread-like snacks and served tea. A few tailors sat at their pedal-powered sewing machines under a loose patchwork ceiling of colored tarps. In one corner, a few barbers were laughing with their customers. Sitting at one of the marketplace’s outer edges was a row of men behind woven mats laden with fish big and small, all shimmering in the morning sun. Some were still gasping for air.

The Intha (the 70,000 or so people of Inle Lake) live in four cities bordering the water, in numerous small villages along the shore, and also on the lake itself. The village of Ywama is just one of many rustic villages and is part of the rotating market cycle of Inle; each weekday the market is hosted by a different village on the lake. After escaping the bustling clog of boats, we continued our tour by water. We zipped past villages built entirely on stilts that either stood in the water or in the verdant riverbanks. Floating mats of vegetation, anchored in place with bamboo poles, sported ripe tomato plants. Residents waved from their canoes, and from the bamboo walkways and simple bridges that arched over the canals. Since nearly all the homes and public buildings were perched on piles driven into the lakebed, these villages had no town squares. Instead, the Intha gathered in pagoda complexes and monasteries like Nga Phe Kyaung (nicknamed the Jumping Cat Monastery for its cats trained to jump through hoops). Unsurprisingly, these peaceful community centers receive most of their guests by water and are rimmed in long docks.

Approaching by boat every time, we spent the afternoon paying visits to a silk weaving shop, a metal smith, a silversmith, and a parasol workshop: all exquisite industries that the people of Inle Lake are known for. The culture of the Intha is rich and fascinating, and it is heavily influenced by Buddhism and by their aqueous environment. They are water people through and through. They’re on boats as often as not. Their cuisine is centered around fish. Every stork-like house has a collection of canoes leashed to the porches from which the Intha simply reach down to the water’s surface to wash their clothes or themselves. The entire drama of their lives is played out on this lake. But the most notable aspect of the Intha—and of the Burmese people in general—is their genuine affability. A warm smile and a friendly wave greeted us wherever we went on land or water. On our return to the hotel, as our boat coasted through the sunset, we passed a young woman sitting cross-legged at the bow of her boat and she impulsively tossed me a flower. I grinned in thanks and she waved goodbye before effortlessly sailing off across the surface of her home.

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A Mac’n’Cheese Tour of Singapore

Published on September 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

It’s no secret that you can tour Singapore on your stomach. New flavors and exciting spices can be found in almost every corner. But sometimes, no matter how delicious the nasi lemak or how tempting the char kway teow, you just want something unhealthy and American for dinner. And if you’re going to indulge in proper, gooey mac’n’cheese, then you may as well explore the city while you’re at it. Here’s my roadmap for discovering Singapore’s neighborhoods while feasting on this all-American comfort food.

OverEasy at One Fullerton. OverEasy might just be the perfect place for a person’s first night in Singapore. If you’re still woozy from the jetlag and your stomach isn’t up for chili crab yet, zip down to One Fullerton for American diner food. After making acquaintances with the famous Merlion, you can tuck into OverEasy’s Good Old-Fashioned Mac & Cheese while being dazzled by the Marina Bay Sands’ nightly laser show. However, I’m a sucker for their Truffled Mac & Cheese with Wild Mushrooms. You can also indulge in other American classics like homemade lemonade and beef sliders. Afterwards, wander along the bay front and enjoy the breeze.

Pique Nique Mac’n’Cheese

Pique Nique at Ngee Ann City, Orchard. Any introductory tour of Singapore would be remiss without a thorough exploration of Orchard, which is like a combination of Times Square and Fifth Avenue. It’s a shopper’s paradise during the day (if your wallet can stand it) and it’s a brightly-lit spectacle at night. Whenever you find your energy flagging, stop by Pique Nique for a hot serving of their Roasted Chicken and Mushroom Mac & Cheese. Located in the basement of the elegant Takashimaya department store, this underrated restaurant is a perfect rest stop for tired shoppers hungry for filling, perfectly-seasoned comfort food (including whoopie pies and five types of fries).

Brewerkz, Clarke Quay. Another touchstone in the expat nightlife of Singapore, this restaurant and microbrewery has been in business since 1997. And since nothing goes better with handcrafted beer than quality bar food, that’s just what Brewerkz delivers. Their mac’n’cheese is true to the soul of the dish (no vegetables here!) and has that perfect texture: crispy on top, chewy in the middle. Clarke Quay has a lot of Western restaurants but few have been created by Americans for Americans. Nevertheless, the riverside is a thriving hub of activity and once you’ve had your fill of mac’n’cheese, you can stroll down to both Boat Quay and Robertson Quay.

Latteria Mozzarella, Duxton Hill. One of the unfortunate truths for Westerners who have moved to Singapore is that quality cheese is sometimes hard-to-find, expensive, or both. But Latteria Mozzarella is a godsend to any cheese-lovers searching for a classy evening out. Even their mac’n’cheese has been elegantly upgraded by its being served in a hollowed pumpkin. The gourd isn’t just for show though. The rich lining of pumpkin adds an unexpected oomph to the mac’n’cheese without overwhelming those homey flavors you love so much. The Duxton Hill area is always bubbling with nightlife and is a picturesque neighborhood that features Singapore’s classic shophouses.

28 HongKong Street, Chinatown. One of the city’s hidden gems, 28HKS is a glamorous speakeasy known for its obscure location and exemplary cocktails. It’s been lauded in TimeOut Singapore and the Wall Street Journal but neither article mentioned one of the bar’s biggest attractions for me: the mac’n’cheese balls. Crispy on the outside, hot and gooey on the inside, these mac’n’cheese balls are the perfect intersection of luxury and familiarity. There’s no fancier way to eat this beloved dish in Singapore and as 28HKS is tucked right next to Chinatown, it’s a perfect beginning or end to a night of exploring one of the city’s most historical districts.

Whether you’re looking for classic mac’n’cheese or for a twist on this old favorite, Singapore obliges. Everyone has his or her own way of settling in to a new home, so who’s to say you can’t explore this dynamic Asian city via comfort food?

 

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