Saturday, September 13, 2014

First Visit to Malaysia

Singapore is clean and well manicured. Malaysia needs a new coat of paint, and you might come across a few open sewers.

Singapore is orderly. Malaysia can be a bit chaotic.

Singapore is safe, really safe.  Malaysia is edgy, a place you need to be alert walking after dark.

There's a lot to be said for Singaporean security, just like there's many benefits to living in wholesome Iowa, but it's a whole lot more rewarding living in a place like New York City, despite some of the potential downfalls.

Within an hour of arriving in Malaysia, I felt like I was finally back in Southeast Asia, an area where anything seems possible. It's a feeling I've been missing in sanitized Singapore.

Having a week off from school,  I flew to Penang, which is known for its food, beaches, and artistic vibe. I spent most of my time in the Georgetown colonial district, hanging out with my Couchsurfer friend, Yvonne, a Canadian teacher who's taught in Asia for more than 15 years.

One of the advantages of Couchsurfing is that the locals know all the great places to visit and to eat. In this case, Yvonne is a fan of Indian food, so I walked around Penang with a full belly, a smile on my face, and curry oozing from my pores.

Our initial meeting almost never happened. When I deboarded the plane, I saw a man holding a sign with the name "Mark" with a different last name, but there was no Yvonne.

A few minutes later, I spotted her, seated at a table with an Australian man.

When the Australian man first arrived in the airport, she called out "Mark." It turned out that was his name, so she grabbed him by the arm, and they took off.

However, after he uttered a few words, Yvonne said even she knew his accent was no where close to that of a Georgia boy.

I pointed the Australian Mark in the direction of the man with the sign, and the right Marks left in the right vehicles.

After three days in Penang, I jumped on a bus to Kuala Lumpur, the capital and financial center of the country.

I stayed with another surfer, Alina. We didn't spend much time together because she's a busy financial consultant, but she did offer me some sightseeing suggestions.

I didn't mind exploring the city on my own. The public transportation system is excellent, and it's easy to spend hours wandering. At night, we did get together to socialize.

Two of the city's proudest architectural accomplishments are the Petronas Towers. After the 911 attacks destroyed the Word Trade Center, the 88-story, Petronas structures were the highest in the world from 1998 to 2004.

I enjoyed the excitement of the city of 1.6 million inhabitants, but my favorite stop was to the Batu Caves, located just north of the city.

I never miss an easy opportunity to visit a cave, but these caves are known for a lot more than just stalactites and stalagmites. They're dedicated to the Hindu god, Murugan.

The world's tallest statue of the the god is erected outside the caves.

Each year, millions of pilgrims visit the caves to pay their respects to Murugan.

But there's a physical price to pay to worship inside the Temple cave - 272 steep steps ...

and visitors must contend with a collection of overly-aggressive monkeys who beg for food and sometimes steal a possession or two from careless tourists.

Unfortunately, the monkeys are quite territorial and

have been known to bite pilgrims, especially small children.

I wrapped up my holiday in Melaka. It's become a popular tourist stop because of the city's Chinatown, which was named as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

It's a tranquil place to wander, admire the architecture, and sample some Chinese culinary favorites.

I like to frequent an occasional restaurant or two, but I've always had a passion for street food.

It took me awhile to locate the local market.

Once I did, I tried some noodle soup from this woman's cart.

The market had a Chinese flair, and that is what the woman only spoke, Chinese. As I often do, I just point and hope for the best. The soup was quite tasty.

Many times friends ask me if I get nervous eating street food. In the past, I did because of the obvious lack of hygiene, but last summer, I decided to just risk it, while traveling throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, I got sick once, but, other than that, I had no trouble, and I sampled some delicious dishes.

As with all of my travels, I appreciated the sights in Malaysia, but I relished the experience of just wandering around encountering new people and new things. I was especially grateful for the assistance I received along the way.

The majority of Malaysians are Muslim. Certain segments of American society harbor a mistrust and even an active dislike of Muslims; however, I never felt any ill will during my trip. Instead, I found the people to be quite friendly and quite helpful, especially in Kuala Lumpur, where I got lost on more than one occasion.

My favorite interaction occurred on a five-hour bus ride. Throughout the trip, I heard a family of seven people talking, but I couldn't recognize the accent. Finally, I asked.

The woman said it was Persian. That didn't tell me much because Persian is spoken several places in the Middle East.

As the trip progressed, the family shared some food, and as we approached the bus terminal, two of their young children sheepishly sat down next to me, since I was in the front of the double-decker bus.

I motioned that it was fine. Actually, I got a kick out of seeing their excitement at rolling into an unknown, capital city.

At the end of our journey, I asked the woman where she was from. "Iran," she replied, at which point, she asked me my country of birth.

I told her America.

It's no secret that for several decades relations have been quite strained between the two nations, but governments don't always reflect the true beliefs of their citizens.

She smiled, and in broken English asked me if her children had bothered me. I indicated that it was quite the contrary.

I'll never see the family again, but I'd like to think that, perhaps, we broke down a couple of stereotypes during our transit.

And that's one of the major benefits of journeying beyond one's borders. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Teachers' Day Singapore Style

Teaching is a thankless job, at least in America.

The pay certainly isn’t lucrative compared to other professions. Politicians relish throwing stones at the educational system, bemoaning the supposed, ever-declining standards, although the best students from around the globe fight to get into American universities. Parents, rather than entertaining the possibility that their children might lack motivation or be to blame for their own academic shortcomings, blame teachers. Even kids, at times, seem to not hold education in very high regard.

And then I began teaching in Singapore, a place that revers education and the possibilities it brings. Education is one of the driving forces that transformed the tiny island nation after World War II from an economically-depressed, non-developed country into an economic powerhouse envied around the world.

In the two months since my arrival, I’ve already noticed a dramatic difference in the students. Sure, a few lack motivation, but the vast majority do whatever it takes to learn. A day doesn’t pass by without students, as they leave the classroom, thanking teachers for the lesson. Imagine.

Teachers don’t get into education for praise. Like most teachers, I enjoy seeing kids, who often begin a class initially with a lack of confidence and a lack of skills, over time, master the material. There’s no more satisfying feeling than watching light bulbs going off and watching kids end the year a lot more confident academically than when they began.

Still, a little appreciation never hurts.

Today, I experienced my first Teachers' Day, an event celebrated across Singapore. Throughout the morning and afternoon, students dropped off gifts to their instructors ranging from cards to candy to cookies to cake name it. I've never seen so much gratitude.

After school, parents participated in an annual tradition of providing a lavish, catered lunch for the teachers. It's the parents' idea, their event, and they take care of everything.

Each teacher walked away with a gift from numbers drawn randomly. These weren't cheap door prizes. Two teachers won vacations, another three i-Pads, a couple of instructors rode away with bicycles, and several others food gifts. Wow.

It's amazing how much a pat on the back can do for morale. Well done Singapore. Well done parents at my school.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Moving Abroad Ain't Easy

For 8 years, I taught English to immigrants in a Georgia high school, but looking back, maybe my most important task was helping my students adjust to the culture. Regularly, new kids would burst into tears, saying how much they hated America, how much they missed their native country, and much they wanted to leave.

I did my best to offer comfort, reassuring them that learning English and learning a new culture takes a lot of patience and a whole lot of time. Inwardly, I knew that once a few months had passed most of the kids would be fine and would eventually embrace their adopted home. Now, I'm the one who sometimes feels like bursting into tears.

These emotions have caught me a bit off guard. After all, I'm the Traveling Teacher. I'm the guy who's been to 37 countries. I'm the guy who lived in Guatemala. I shouldn't have any trouble acclimating to Singapore, especially since English is one of the official languages.

To make matters more confusing, unlike my students, who often arrived in America with nothing, I'm a mature, financially-secure adult who had a great job lined up and even had someone waiting to pick him up at the airport. Yes, I know the acclimation process takes time, but it shouldn't take that long for an experienced traveler like me with such a fantastic opportunity.

I didn't want to share my malaise with my colleagues, many of whom have taught abroad for years and all seemingly thriving in Singapore. At times, I assumed I made a terrible mistake coming here. Things just weren't unfolding as I expected.

And then this week I met Rosanne Woodmansee, a fiery Australian woman who's a relocation expert. Her job is to help expatriates settle into life in Singapore. She visited my high school as part of the lengthy, teacher orientation program. When I first looked at the schedule of speakers stretching out over six weeks, I thought it odd that the administration waited so long for her presentation. Now it all makes sense.

While we were waiting for other new teachers to arrive, Rosanne asked three of us how things were going. The other two said something to the effect of "great" or "fine." I said, "pretty good," to which she replied, "just pretty good?"
Hmmm.....I knew then that her session was going to be more than just a perfunctory list of suggestions.

"It's O.K. I often tell my clients to list the three things they hate most about Singapore," she laughed.

Rosanne began her talk with a picture of a boat on the shore of a beach, but the rest of the landscape was blank. She told us from this moment forward we'd have to leave all of our previous expectations and assumptions of Singapore behind and paint in our new reality. "It's up to you to determine what that reality will be," she added.

It made me realize that part of my angst might be due to my expectations, or even my hidden expectations, clashing with the reality of what I've found so far in Singapore. 

But it was her next illustration that really impacted me. Rosanne told us we should think of ourselves as trees, trees that had been lopped off and uprooted and that it was going to take at least six months for us to grow back and begin to feel normal again - all of us, even veteran travelers and even veteran, overseas teachers.

Since then, I've been thinking just how much uprooting I've experienced over the past three months.

  • Handed in resignation in May
  • Finished teaching in America the beginning of June
  • Spent the rest of June filling out forms for Singapore, packing up apartment, giving away possessions, and saying goodbye to loved ones and friends
  • Flew 26 hours to Singapore at the end of June
  • Rushed to find a new apartment and furnish it
  • Set up utilities, internet and cable, cell phone plan, banking account
  • Began teaching July 21st
  • Learning intricacies of transportation routes
  • Adapting to new Singaporean culture and new school culture
  • Deciphering British English. For example, this punctuation mark "." is not called a period. It is called a full stop.

When I put it all into perspective, of course, I would feel unsettled. Who wouldn't.

I think it, again, comes back to the notion of expectations. Like many people, I assume that I should be able to rise above situations that slow others down, which in this case was moving abroad, avoiding feelings of frustration, loneliness, or depression. It's completely unrealistic for me to believe that I'm somehow superhuman, but I still fall victim to the fallacy over and over again.

I also fall victim to what I call "the deficit paradigm." It goes something like this. An executive delivers a moving oration but stumbles once or twice and considers the speech a failure. A cook prepares a culinary masterpiece, but one of the guests doesn't ask for seconds, so she assumes she must be a lousy cook.

I see it all the time in our students. Singapore is a place that revers academic achievement, meaning the pressure is intense. A child will get a "b" on a difficult project and be ready to quit school because he didn't get an "a."

As part of my job, I work with both special education students and kids learning English as a second language. I find it incredible that immigrant children who've been here eight months with, in some cases, little to no English background have managed to thrive, let alone keep up, with a demanding academic load, but some of those same students feel that they're losers because they aren't yet bilingual.

Every day I tell the kids to give themselves a break. It's so painfully obvious why they should, but I still have a hard time accepting it myself.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm miserable because I'm not. I still have many more good days than bad, but I'm finally beginning to acknowledge that I'm being pruned like everyone else.

While my roots are regrowing, I look for small victories to keep me moving forward. I received a big one earlier in the week.

One of the first students my school asked me to work with is an expatriate boy who's been struggling to learn English since he arrived in January. As a result,"Chao" is falling behind in many of his classes.

I'm certainly not surprised. In addition to trying to learn English, the teenager is going through his own cultural adjustment. I've done a lot of one-on-one work with Chao, and I think I'm seeing some progress, but, again, I fall victim to the deficit paradigm, so I'm not sure.

A few days ago an administrator, who also teaches, sent me a message saying he was pleased because he'd noticed a big improvement in Chao's work and his level of enthusiasm for school. If for that reason alone, I'll stay in Singapore to see Chao master English.

I'm a big believer in the power of a few kind words. Unfortunately, we don't seem to take enough time to share positive comments, only negative ones. I wish we did because the content of that administrator's short e-mail will stay with me for months, maybe forever.

And I received another encourager - I'm not the only teacher struggling to adapt to Singapore. On Thursday, I chatted with a veteran teacher, a teacher who's also taught abroad for years, who revealed that he, too, is facing challenges here.

It's reassuring to be reminded that we're all human. We're all flawed, fallible beings, and we're all much more alike than different. Maybe we'd all be a lot happier if we shared our universal struggles more often.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Child's Dream Deserves A Chance

I grieved today for a 7th grader, a 7th grader whose life is already mapped out for her at age 13.

Arriving early to class, I discovered that the girl had jotted a short, four-line paragraph on the board, which actually was a stanza of a poem she'd written.

"Do you want to hear more?" she asked excitedly, at which point she proudly recited the rest of her personal masterpiece.

These are the rare moments an English teacher yearns to encounter - a student passionate about writing.

"That's wonderful," I said. "You ought to consider being a poet when you grow up." The girl walked dejectedly to the board and erased her creation. "I can’t," she replied. "My family wants me to go into the medical field."

These are the all-to-common moments teachers dread.

A 13-year-old's dreams should be limitless - climbing Mt. Everest, dancing on Broadway, growing up to be president. Parents are supposed to encourage a child's dreams, not crush them, especially the dreams of a 13-year-old, but all too often teachers hear the familiar refrain of  "but my parents want me to __________." Economic security is certainly an important goal but at what price.

The world has far too many unhappy business people who once dreamed of being actors, or lawyers who thought they'd enjoy farming, or doctors who long ago forgot that they always wanted to write. Dreams shouldn't die in middle school.

When the bell sounded announcing the end of the class, I pulled the child aside and encouraged her to continue her writing, if only as a hobby, as she continues focusing on getting good marks in 7th grade to lay the foundation for success in high school, which, hopefully, will land her in a top-flight university, which might take her all the way to medical school.

But I know what's likely to happen. The 7th grader with a passion for poetry will soon forget her frivolous habit, set her sights on practicality, and one morning, decades from now, wake up and wonder how her life might have unfolded differently if not for her parents insisting on their occupational dream for her life.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Journey Back in Time

Gazing out at Singapore's modern skyline whose every inch is seemingly cluttered with skyscrapers, high-end malls, and condominiums, it's hard to imagine that Singapore was once a swamp-covered island where tigers roamed until the early 20th century.

Most of Singapore's past was torn down and paved over in the name of development and progress, but there's still a spot just off the north-eastern coast where visitors can glimpse a remnant of the era before the arrival of freeways and Giorgio Armani.

The small island, which is accessible via a short boat ride, is called Pulau Ubin (Granite Island). It's still blanketed by jungle, and still about a hundred people live there in the last of Singapore's traditional kampongs (villages).

The residents occupy wooden houses, relying on well water and electric generators.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, Pulau Ubin served as a major center for granite quarrying. Now the island is known for its rare ecosystem, animals, and plants that remain long after having disappeared from the rest of Singapore.

Every weekend, Singaporeans and tourists alike flock to the 6.3 square-mile island to ride bicycles, stroll on boardwalks that wind along the coast ...

... and just escape the pressure of modern life.

It was quite relaxing spending an afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of my fellow, 5.3 million Singaporean occupants crammed into an area slightly more than 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. and to remember that another life still exists outside of the steel and concrete metropolis I currently call home.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Our Friend Death

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my mortality.

I believe it stems mostly from visiting a local rehabilitation hospital. All the students at my school are required to participate in a service project, meaning each week I lead a group of 9th graders to the bedsides of individuals who've suffered strokes, traumatic injuries, and all other sorts of debilitating conditions. The majority of the patients are elderly.

I must applaud the kids for their enthusiasm and perseverance. Under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult for young people to get a glimpse of some of the challenges awaiting us in our advanced years. It's even more unsettling when grandma and grandpa are dealing with dementia, paralysis, or missing limbs.

Statistically speaking, my 14-year-old students probably won't face such a dwelling for decades and can easily dismiss the possibility, but as a 49-year-old, I'm aware that I'm past the half-way point of my life expectancy. I'm getting close to the age when I could be the one lying in the bed sharing tales of my youth with anyone willing to listen.

Bette Davis put it best, "Old age ain't no place for sissies."

The rehabilitation center is a reminder to me that I'd better not put off life. I've always tried to pursue my dreams in the here and now, but at times I'm guilty of telling myself I'll get to things later.

For the last two or three years, I thought about teaching abroad, but I found every excuse for not doing it. My main one was that it would be more practical to do so when I retired from teaching in Georgia. Then, I came to the realization that I might not even make it to retirement, so now I find myself in Singapore.

Was it the right decision? That answer will unfold over time, but whatever the outcome I don't have to worry about waking up in a nursing home one day asking myself what would have happened if I'd gone to Singapore.

The awareness of our dwindling days on earth should push us toward our dreams and push us away from those situations that limit our happiness - a toxic friendship, an unfulfilling job, an unhealthy habit.

I once read that the best way to make a decision is to acknowledge that the time is going to pass whatever we do. For example, if I'm considering a career change, I can wake up in five years trying out a new job, or I can wake up in five years working at the same dead-end firm around the same negative colleagues wondering what life might be like if I made a switch.

Either way, I am five years closer to the grave. Is it worth trading those five precious years for misery. I know what my friends in the rehabilitation center would say.

However, it's not just my school's service project that's got me pondering my mortality. It's also my cultural isolation. There's nothing I'd rather do than cast off the familiar and explore a new land, but there's always a downside.

Our own culture gives us a frame of reference. It gives us an identity. It gives us a support system.

The Singaporeans have been quite welcoming, as well as my co-teachers, but I've been stripped of my security blanket and many of the distractions that often prevent me from journeying inward - television, current events, sports. Yes, I know that Johnny Manziel made an obscene gesture to the Redskins, but it's not high on the list of conversation in Singapore.

I'm not complaining. Distractions prevent growth, but the lack of distractions leave a lot of time to mull over such topics as death.

So, death is waiting, maybe sooner than later, which is why we should pursue our dreams and eschew that which makes us unhappy. Seems like a fairly straightforward prescription for a fulfilling life, but this weekend, I was reminded of one more important component - friends.

As S.E. Hinton put it, "If you have two friends in your lifetime, you're lucky. If you have one good friend, you're more than lucky."

The word "friend" is thrown around loosely, but there are only a couple of friends that I can count on in any situation. One such person is Tom Hanley, who I've known for more than 20 years.

When I moved to Singapore, a lot of people said they'd keep in touch and might even visit. I'm not so naive as to think that would actually happen. Years ago, a wise priest once told me that people so often worry about what others are thinking about them. Fr. Smith said the sad truth is that we spend so little time thinking at all about those around us because we are so preoccupied with our own struggles in life.

I completely understand because I've sometimes done a lousy job in the past of corresponding with my friends who've moved to new locales or just lived across town.

But I have to include Tom in the "good friend" category. He's consistently been there for me over the decades no matter the situation, and last weekend, he took the time to visit me on his way back from China.

We saw a few tourist sites. Mainly, though, we just caught up, reminisced,  and enjoyed one another's company. Actually, it surprised me how much I enjoyed his visit. That's what spending almost two months alone in a foreign land pondering one's death does to a person. It makes him appreciate that even though time is passing rapidly and even though one day he might end up in a rehabilitation center staring into space that if he made a couple of true friends along the way the trip was all worth it.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Beloved Fruit People Can't Stand to be Near

There's nothing that causes more debate in Singapore than one's opinion about this prickly fruit.

As one local told me yesterday,"You
love it, or you hate it. There's no
in between."

Since I'm going to be teaching here for the next three years, I needed to formulate my own opinion, meaning I had to directly partake of the beloved/abhorred ... durian.

The fruit is offered for sale throughout the country, but I wanted the authentic durian experience. My friend Nora said actually that's not possible in Singapore because the fruit, like almost everything else, is imported. It's grown in several sites in Southeast Asia, but most of the Singaporean fruit comes from neighboring Malaysia.

When she was a girl, Nora said her family had a farm in Malaysia with some durian trees. She said the fruit can't be cut from the branches, but, instead, has to fall on its own when the fruit is ripe.

"Some nights we'd hear the durians hitting our roof, and I knew we'd have a feast the next day," she said.

I'm not about to travel to Malaysia to eat a piece of fruit, so I opted for the next best thing - asking my Singaporean friend Joseph to take me to a durian stand that he liked.

There are many varieties of durians, but the basic question is whether one prefers a more bitter durian or a sweeter one. We decided to select the most popular durian in Sinapore, a sweet variety known as a "king" durian.

Royalty has its price. Our 2.2 kilogram "king" (4.8 pounds) cost $70 Singaporean dollars ($56 US dollars). Durians won't be added to my list of staples anytime soon.

The next step in the durian process is for the vendor to slice open the tough, spiky, outer husk,

 revealing this yellow meat in the upper and lower half of the fruit.

That's it. The white core isn't edible.

At this point, most people just dive in with their fingers.

It was now my turn, and I, too, grabbed a large chunk, popping it into my mouth. The best way I can describe the texture is something similar to custard. In all my years, I've never run across a custard-like fruit, which is why it felt so odd as I began eating it. Suddenly, the sweetness exploded in my mouth.

Hmmm.....sweet custard.

It was definitely unlike anything I'd ever tasted.

In 1856, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote this famous description of the taste, "a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect."

I agree with Alfred about the custard taste, but that's it. I hated it.

It's not that my palate is non-adventurous. Last week, I loved the barbeque stingray, and later, after trying a durian, I sampled frog legs for the first time, which I also enjoyed. It's just that durians and I disagree.

Still, sitting around a table at the durian stand, devouring the fruit is a culinary delight for many Singaporeans, and yes, it's possible to take the durian home, but there's a problem with how to transport the famous fruit because there's one thing that almost everyone, fans and haters alike, can agree on about durians - they smell horrible.

Cut or uncut. The odor is overwhelming or pick another adjective: awful, nauseating, vial, disgusting.

I found numerous descriptions on the internet to capture the essence of the aroma: rotting flesh, raw sewage, vomit, cat urine, sweaty gym socks, decaying garbage....You get the idea.

It's an aroma that grabs one's attention from yards away. As I write this blog entry, the odor of the fruit that I consumed 18 hours ago still permeates my fingers. Yuk!

For some reason, Singaporeans just don't want to be around the smell of rotting flesh, which is why the fruit is banned in hotels, airports, and on public transportation, including buses and subways.

And in case anyone could possibly forget about the prohibition on the prickly, pungent fruit, there are signs posted throughout the country reminding train and bus passengers of the ban,

amongst the signs banning numerous other activities on mass transit.

"No" is a popular word in Singapore. When it comes to durians, I'm grateful that I'll have no more encounters during my commute or otherwise with the popular, polarizing Singaporean delicacy.