Sunday, September 27, 2015

Part 2: Autumn in Singapore: Of Haze and Mooncakes

So yesterday I shared the less-pleasant side of autumn in Singapore... now let me get to the good stuff. 

The really, really good stuff.

The sweet treat that equates the caloric intake of a full day's worth of meals...

The Mooncake.

You may remember my mentioning mooncakes during my very first semester in Singapore. Well, I'm pleased to tell you that I have become something of an expert in these particular desserts since that time, if expert status can be gleaned from just eating a whole lot of something. 

Mooncakes are served as a traditional treat during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most traditional of mooncakes, seen here, is a baked pastry shell containing the rich, densely caloric lotus seed paste scattered with melon seeds, packed around a salted egg yolk. It sounds strange, but it is at once smooth and nutty and sweet and rich with just a hint of salt.

It is, in short, incredible.

Mooncakes are not cheap, either. This one, pictured above, was one of the most reasonably priced ones at SGD$8.50 ($5.95 USD). They can work their way up to nearly $50 a cake... or more. Over time, the mooncake has been modernized and riffed and created and recreated, all with delectable results. This Saturday, a new colleague friend and I ventured down Orchard to a vendor fair which was like Mooncake Heaven:

And the best part? FREE SAMPLES.

And it wasn't like free samples in an ice cream shop, where you feel
self-conscious and slightly guilty for asking. Here, vendors pushed samples upon you - before you can speak, toothpick-speared chunks of mooncake are being shoved into your hands, and the vendor is excitedly telling you about this particular variety or that one. There WAS great variety. Snowskin mooncakes, which are named for the frosty appearance and cold temperature of the skin, are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Some mooncakes were dusted in edible gold, while others packed a punch of a vodka- or gin-infused center. Still others contained dried fruit, nuts, or more, er, surprising elements... "What is that... other flavor I'm getting?" "Barbecued chicken, miss!" It was as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the taste buds.

It was great fun, and I felt very much like a child that had been turned loose on a bag of Halloween candy with no parental supervision. Finally, my own stomach slammed on the brakes, and I stated that if I didn't get a bottle of water and non-sugar containing food in me soon, I was, in fact, going to die.

Perhaps I wouldn't have died, but I certainly was able to tell I had had enough...

Until later on that evening, when I remembered my purchases sitting innocently in the fridge...

Surely one little piece wouldn't hurt...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Part 1: Autumn in Singapore: Of Haze and Mooncakes

The view of trees & buildings from office window. #nofilter
Autumn has come to Singapore, and the change of "seasons" brings pluses and minuses.

One of the things I miss terribly about Buffalo are the very distinct seasons. This time of year, you can feel a crispness growing in the air; this time of year in Buffalo, you can smell winter approaching in the dying leaves and sweet apple cider.

In equatorial Singapore, summer is eternal, but there are nuanced changes that one can note.

This is the time of year that Indonesia burns off the old fields to ready them for new crops. The smoke from the fires blows over Singapore and Malaysia, where it settles in like a blanket. 

An early afternoon at the Bayfront. Within two hours the skyline was a ghostly silhouette.

It's labeled "haze," which can cause a misconception, especially in countries removed from the situation, that it is simply urban smog caused by over population of cars and factories. But the truth is that it's smoke. The fine particles that get in the air can only be blocked out by special respirators (N95 masks), and Singapore tracks the haze like we Buffalonians might track snowfall - in fact, they have a unit of measurement called the PSI, or Pollutant Standards Index, which is tracked in 1-hour, 3-hour and 24-hour increments. When it reaches an "unhealthy" level, school may be cancelled for children.

The entire situation, as you might imagine, is a touchy geopolitical issue among these nations. It's as much a question of economics as anything else: slash-and-burn methods are the fastest, cheapest, and most effective. This article from the BBC is concise yet informative.

The interesting thing about the haze is that it's very comparative, to me, to Buffalo's sudden snowfalls. Just as you can set out in the morning to clear skies and roads only to be hit by a sudden storm in the afternoon, so the haze can also seem to creep in without notice. 

Sunrise and sunset present a pink marble of a sun. 
Taken at neighboring Ngee Ann Poly university.
On Tuesday morning, the haze was only faintly visible, with just a slight smokey smell to the air. By the afternoon, as I walked to my 3:30 class, I could not clearly see the end of the long, open-air corridor. My eyes burned, and I held my breath, and was relieved to get into the air conditioned class room. Now, I keep a mask in my bag like one keeps an umbrella. The mask is extremely efficient in filtering out those fine particles - I can't even smell the smoke when I'm wearing it - but it also makes breathing more difficult as every breath your lungs pull in is being filtered through layers of mesh. 

Suffice it to say, I've stayed indoors a lot this fall! ...But, as they say, the sun will come out tomorrow... Until then...

Stay tuned for a brighter sign of autumn in Singapore: MOONCAKES!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Facing my demons on Orchard Road

Note: I originally drafted this post during my second week of the past summer session. However, the session took off, an exciting experience with an illness and detained medication ensued, I got well as the semester, like a roller coaster reaching the track peak, plummeted onward with momentum, and final projects came pouring in. In short, this post got lost in the shuffle. But I found it recently, and felt it was still worth posting. Enjoy!

Try as I might, I've never been able to adequately capture the Orchard Road 
experience with my own amateur photography skills. This photo does it justice. 

Click here to be taken to its original source, a great article on the Singapore Sale.
I’ve lived in Singapore for three years now, and I have yet to spend a lot of time on Orchard Road. 

Famous for being Singapore’s 5th Avenue (and while I’ve never been to New York’s counterpart, I’ve heard Orchard rivals even that), it’s alive with sights, sounds, commercialism and community; however, I’m not much of a shopper and I’m not fond of crowds, so when I need to buy something, I head toward quieter gift-shopping areas (Tanglin), places with a bit more culture (Chinatown or Little India) or malls that cover more territory and disperse the crowds (VivoCity). 

But I moved to Treetops in January, which is situated nicely off of Orange Grove Road, a small offshoot that has a very tropical-escape feeling to it, and is also halfway between the hub-bub of Orchard and the quieter elegance of Tanglin. On Friday, a mere six days after arriving in Singapore for the concentrated summer session, I decided to head out.

Let it be known that my downfall is directions. I’m famous within my family for once getting lost at the Four Corners of Orchard Park, a classic “small town Americana Main Street” environment. I am pleased to say I’ve grown up a bit since that childhood incident, but even still, directions are simpler in a small town.
“I’m looking for such-and-such – can you point me in the right direction?” 
“Y’know the yellow house on the corner?” 
“Well, go two country blocks, pass the horse farm and turn left at the first stop sign you come to…”
So plop me down on Orchard and it’s just bound to be trouble.

I did some shopping at Tanglin then headed up Orchard to go to a favorite stationery shop (Typo). At this point, the burst of energy that came with my jetlagged early wake-up had evaporated like the morning clouds, and now I was tired. Tired, hot, and frustrated that the shop didn’t even have what I was looking for. So I started back.

And got lost.

Supremely, irrevocably lost. For about an hour. My overheating smartphone burned my hand as its battery drained and GoogleMaps resolutely attempted to set walking directions that would lead me head-on into traffic. The combination of jetlag and heat exhaustion made this a powerfully emotional experience, and the only thing preventing me from sitting on the curbside and weeping was my last remaining shard of pride and the fact that I had perspired so much at this point that I don’t think I could have produced tears if I had wanted to. Swallowing a painful lump in my throat and with it my shame and feeling of profound failure (I’ve lived here three years and I’m LOST?), I hailed a cab, took it back to my apartment, and stayed in busily prepping lectures and activity materials for two straight days.

On Sunday, a student surprised me with a ticket to see Singin’ in the Rain at Marina Bay Sands Theatre (read about that delightful experience here). Leaving MBS, I decided to take the train back and get off at Orchard Station. Little did I realize, it would put me right back at the scene of the crime. 

But it was night; it was cool(er), I was relaxed, and after popping up out of a few underpasses and realizing I was heading in the wrong direction, I found the correct one and was on my way. On my way, walking back to my apartment, feeling on top of the world. 

But would I find it again in the heat of the day?

On Wednesday, there was some construction going on at my apartment, so to escape the noise, I took a bus down to 313@Somerset for lunch and a visit to a different Typo branch. I took the train back to Orchard, popped up out of the correct underpass, and walked back with nary a care in the world.

It seems like a small victory; maybe even a foolish one at that. The foreigner figures out how to escape one confusing city block. Big deal. But in the three years I’ve been in Singapore, I’ve chosen to live in three different apartments in three very unique neighborhoods on this small island-city. I could have gone for the same, safe experience each semester (and I did for two of three years), but I opted along the way for something new and with each new environment comes a new “starting over” period in which one stretches one’s wings, bumps about a bit, but eventually, hopefully, figures out how to get airborne. 

And with each small success, my heart is all of a flutter.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Happy 50th Birthday, Singapore!

Today marks Singapore's 50th National Day - the country's Golden Jubilee. There's a lot to reflect on as Singapore celebrates this important milestone. Singapore went from third-world country status to becoming one of the four Asian Tigers in the short span of a few decades. This nation has seen war, poverty, riots, unspeakable loss... and then incredible success.

One of the gifts you get from celebrating with someone, whether it be a birthday, a holiday, an anniversary, is self-reflection. You sit around the table as a friend or family member blows out the candles on a birthday cake, and as the smoke clears and the lights are turned back on, you can't help but get lost for a moment - where was I one year ago? Facebook's new "On this Day" feature lets us reflect every morning on where we were a year ago, two years ago, three, four, five... Those reflections can be joyful, and they can be bittersweet.

Singaporeans have a lot to celebrate today, and they've planned incredible events to do so. As I reflect on all the accomplishments that Singapore has seen in the last 50 years, I, too, am lost in that moment of reflection. I realize this is also a milestone for me, too - I've been here for a total of three years and am ready to begin my fourth. 

I was awakened this morning to a heart-stopping blast from the island-wide siren to mark the beginning of the National Day celebrations. As I let my heart resume its natural beat, I found myself laughing as I remembered my first experience with Singapore's fighter jets flying over the Central Business District to rehearse for an upcoming National Day celebration just three years ago. I had only been in the country for a matter of days, and I may or may not have ducked to the ground in fear as the planes roared overhead. When Singapore celebrates, they seriously celebrate.

And I have a lot to celebrate, too. I've grown and matured in ways I never could have done if I hadn't stepped out of my comfort zone and taken a little stroll to the other side of the planet. I've gained confidence and experience as a professor, and I've reached goals and milestones as I left young adulthood behind for... adulthood. And I've gotten to know myself better. There have been times of great conviviality with new friends on this equatorial island, and there've been times of great solitude and even loneliness, as well. I've learned what I can do. I've learned how much I can accomplish and how much I can handle. I plan courses, book flights and hotels, make transoceanic journeys six times a year. I shop, I cook, I take buses, trains and taxis. I get lost, and I find my way back again. 

Those who say "life begins at the end of your comfort zone" are absolutely correct. I left my comfort zone three years ago, and have never been happier for it. When I return to Buffalo for good, I won't be "going back" because I'll not be returning as the same person. I'll never leave this part of my life behind me, because it's a part of who I am now. My time in Singapore has changed me, for the better. For the older, for the more experienced, for the more worldly. 

I celebrate with Singapore today, too. I celebrate an amazing country that's given me a place to reach for new goals, new opportunities, new experiences, perhaps even a new life. I celebrate growth and I celebrate success. I celebrate the future, and looking forward. Majulah means "onward" - and onward we shall go.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A phenomenal surprise

It's amazing to think that I've been here three years, and I'm going on my fourth. Which means, poignantly, my very first students I ever taught in Singapore are graduating in a few weeks. And just like them, I feel like I'm graduating too. I've gone through the "freshman" stage of newbie-expat confusion, got to the sophomore time of a bit of gained knowledge to base the new lessons on, and finally, became an upper-classman, someone who can actually give advice to someone else who's new in the country. Someone who weaves in and out of crowds, jumps on and off public transport, and has her favorite "hang out" spots - if not like a local, then at least like someone who's been here for a while. And I feel the confidence of an upperclassman. That feeling like I've taken on the world and have something to show for it.

...But I'm planning to hang around a bit longer. So think of me as a "super-upper-classman."

With all I've seen and done in Singapore, there's still a few goals I haven't reached. One of those was unexpectedly met by a past student.

Out of the blue, I got an email from a student - the kind of email that my fellow professors and I would consider a "keeper" - a message you print out and file away for a frustrating day down the road when you need a reminder that you've done stuff that's mattered. Within this touching email was a gift of thanks. Working as an usher, he had a single ticket for Singin' in the Rain at Marina Bay Sands Theater, and he wanted me to see it.

He did not know that seeing a stageplay at Marina Bay Sands had been on my Singapore Bucket List since 2012. But I did, and I told him so. I was delighted and touched that he would think of me.

On Sunday evening I took two trains down to the Bayfront. Marina Bay Sands, as you might recall from earlier posts, is an integrated resort-casino-theater and shopping mall. It's beautiful just to walk around window-shopping in, but I hurried past store windows to get to the box office. I told them that a ticket was being held for me, they told me to come back in 45 minutes... so what's a girl to do? I went to the nearest cafe and got a flat white and a cupcake.

Back to the box office I went and was given my ticket and was taken to my seat. I had a fantastic view of the stage in row R, seat 3. The theater was uniquely utilitarian in a beautiful way; it wasn't until recently that I realized how turn-of-the-century Buffalo's theaters are. Shea's reflects the gilded age; Kleinhans is as "modern" as a Buffalo theater gets, in my experience, with its beautiful wood interior. Marina Bay Sands Theater was comfortable and spacious, with deeply padded chairs and a perfect view of the stage. 

While Marina Bay Sands may have lived in the present, the play transported me to the Golden Age of Hollywood; the Roaring Twenties were alive on stage, and I felt a pang of regret that I wouldn't be teaching Survey of Mass Communication again this semester (where I play clips from The Jazz Singer and other early forays into cinema). The titular scene of the play finds the audience laughing in delight as Don Lockwood cavorts through puddles (real puddles! on a stage where water is pelting down in a realistic thunderstorm!), splashing the three front rows, who are armed with ponchos.

I left that evening feeling light. I took the train back to Orchard Road and walked the fifteen minutes through a steamy equatorial night to my apartment with showtunes on my mind and a sense of comfort in my heart for this island city. What a glorious feeling, indeed.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Catching up... and catching my breath.

I know it's been a while since I posted, but never fear, all is well with me. The truth of it all is that I'm very busy this semester with 220 rockin' students and a brand new course to teach. During Chinese New Year break, I was thrilled to be invited to visit my "Japanese Mom and Dad" again!

And here is a new way to share my latest adventure: A Google Story! Just click the photo below and it will take you to a link of a story hosted on Google+ (you don't have to be a member to view it). Follow the arrow, and you'll see an animated version of a blog post that will show you all we did and saw - because we did see and do some amazing things!

Stay tuned for a post on a rare experience: an invitation to lunch at a 6-star hotel for Singapore's Restaurant Week!

How many visits?