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.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What's Different About Singapore?

Yesterday, a teacher here asked me the biggest difference I've noticed so far between America and Singapore. Without thinking, I shared the first thing that came to mind, and the answer surprised me.

I told him that America is the kind of place where if I were to approach a group of teenagers hanging out on a dimly lit street corner in a major, metropolitan city at 2 a.m. I would feel a bit apprehensive, pass with caution, and watch my back the entire time.

On the other hand, Singapore is the kind of place where if I approached the same group of teenagers at the same time of night I wouldn't think twice about passing, and one of the teenagers would likely say "hello."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Food, Food, Food

My latest hawker center discovery - Tiong Bahru Market.

Behold.....basil leaf chicken, a Thai dish.

Thank goodness there's lots of walking and lots of heat to sweat off the calories. The Singaporean food journey continues.

Basketball and Stingrays - August 3, 2014

There's no faster way to transform strangers into friends than through the assistance of food, alcohol, or, especially with men, sports.

One of my goals over the next three years of teaching and living in Singapore is to try to form connections with Singaporeans, rather than just expats. I love Americans and Europeans and Australians, but I think there's a danger abroad of initially gravitating to what's familiar and, over time, distancing oneself from the citizens of that particular place.

I'm not so naive as to think I'll become a native son in three years, but I hope to avoid the expat enclave mentality. Still, I admit it isn't easy to find ways to make new acquaintances, and my Singaporean friend, Ester, told me that Singaporeans tend to be reserved, especially with strangers.

However, sometimes, the universe has a way of helping us out. Yesterday, I set out on my usual morning walk, clad in an old pair of basketball shoes. Halfway through my route, I pass a basketball court outside a local sporting goods store. People are allowed to play for free, and on more than one occasion, I've been tempted to join in, keeping in mind that my 49-year-old ankles have been in two casts over my lifetime, and my vertical leap is well past its prime.

On this particular morning, a guy was shooting alone, so I asked to join him. The Filipino spoke little English, but the beauty of sports is that a person doesn't have to conjugate verbs to throw a ball through a hoop.

Because he was wearing a Miami Heat, Lebron James jersey, we stuck to a simple conversation about James returning to Cleveland and other basketball talk, as we enjoyed working out without the high humidity.

After about 30 minutes, I decided to quit before I pulled, strained, or broke something. Prior to my leaving, "L.A." invited me back to play any evening with his group of friends.

Will this turn into a friendship? I'm not sure, but it was nice to begin, at least, to try to form local ties, and I'm always up for a game of basketball, assuming my body will cooperate.

Later in the evening, I had an opportunity to meet more Singaporeans. As I've written before, Singapore is known for food, and one of the best places to get it is at one of the dozens of hawker centers around the country.

This time I tried the Chomp Chomp center, a destination popular with locals and tourists alike.  I came to sample the barbeque stingray, a dish I'd read I must try.

The thin, white flaky fish is covered with a spicy, tomato sauce and served on a banana leaf with lime and sauteed onions on the side. It's quite tasty and quite hot. Before delving in, one of my dinner companions warned me to prepare myself for a fiery encounter, but it wasn't that bad. I'd definitely get it again.

Even though I arrived at the hawker center alone, I immediately found myself with company. That's because seating is first-come, first-served, but the vendors will always locate a spot for customers. In my case, a young couple was eating at a table adjacent to a table with two young women. The vendor just pulled up a stool and put me across the table from the man and woman.

Welcome to a hawker center. It's definitely not a place for those who insist on maintaining a lot of personal space.

The couple didn't seem to mind my presence. In fact, we discussed Singaporean and American culture, and they even offered to let me try some of their dishes. Apparently, sharing food in Singapore is quite common. After they left, the two young women asked me to slide over to their table, which is how I met Ester and Liping, two very pleasant, friendly Singaporean conversationalists.

Before the night ended, we promised to get together soon, and they invited me to one of their Chinese New Year celebrations in February. I hope it all actually comes together.

Another weekend is drawing to a close, and my third week of teaching awaits. It's been a nice couple of days experiencing a new hawker center, a new dish, and maybe establishing a new friendship or two.