Saturday, October 4, 2014

Food Fau Paux

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it still isn't always a duck, or, in my case, a green bean isn't always a green bean.

Part of the thrill of exploring a foreign culture is trying new food. With that in mind, I went to the store determined to pick up an item I'd never had before.

Here's what I found in the frozen food section.

Having grown tired of spinach lately, an unfamiliar Chinese vegetable seemed in order. 

The open package revealed the following:

I wasn't exactly sure what I'd purchased, but it looked similar to green beans I'd eaten countless times back in America.

Regardless, how difficult could it be to cook and consume a Chinese green bean.

A few days later, I popped my beans into the microwave and sampled my new discovery, or, at least, tried to because my Chinese green beans weren't the easiest things to eat. I chewed ... and chewed ... and chewed some more but couldn't seem to completely consume them.

I assumed I cooked them incorrectly.

Perhaps, the package would reveal a clue.

 or maybe not.

I tried again. This time, I stir fried the beans, hoping that would tender them up a bit.

Nope. I still couldn't gnaw my way through my culinary nemesis.

Rather than embarrass myself at work by having to ask some of my Singaporean colleagues how to cook a batch of beans, instead, I asked my girlfriend Alexandra, a self-proclaimed foodie with a refined palate.

She went easy on me, but still chuckled, telling me that my Chinese green beans were actually edamame beans and that the pods aren't supposed to be eaten.

Edamame, soybeans in a shell, is popular throughout Asia as part of a meal or as a healthy snack. In recent years, it's also gained popularity in the United States, which I remembered after my futile attempts to devour the pods.

The pods can be boiled, steamed, or microwaved, so, at least, I got that part right, but the little soy beans inside are all that get ingested. I must admit they're quite tender and quite tasty when eaten correctly.

I guess it could have been worse. I could have bought peanuts.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Will China One Day Rule the World?

Many of us in Singapore are transfixed by the events unfolding in Hong Kong. The protests are even more relevant because the city is a mere 4-hour flight away and many people here have connections to the region.

In the midst of the crisis, I can't help but think about the future of China, a country that's often predicted to one day rule the world. It well might, but it's hard to imagine after listening to some of our Chinese students.

I try to make it a habit not to discuss politics with teenagers, but I can't stop them from sharing their candid insights.

In particular, I'm intrigued by a Chinese boy I'll call Wong who seems to know more about popular American culture than me.

The student can't get enough of American music, movies, and, especially, television. Last week, Wong spent nearly an hour filling me in on all the details of the first four seasons of the popular drama The Walking Dead.

Today, I asked Wong how he manages to watch so many US programs in China and how he's able to access web sites like Facebook that are blocked by the Chinese government in his homeland.  Over the weekend, China also blocked Instagram, a popular photo-sharing ap, in an attempt to prevent citizens from viewing images from Hong Kong.

"It's no problem," he said. Wong told me there are many technological devices available that enable Chinese to surf restricted sites, so the flow of information might be slowed down but can't be stopped.

It doesn't surprise me that Wong would know ways around censorship. After all, he knew when the iPhone 6 was set to launch in both America and China, long before I did.

Ever since I met him, Wong has been reiterating his dream of attending a university in the United States and then staying behind to either live in California or New York City.

The key to any country's long-term prospects and prosperity is winning the hearts and minds of its young people. After talking with Wong and others, it appears that the leadership in China has an uphill battle.

And the kids aren't alone.

A survey released this month by Barclay's showed that nearly half of wealthy Chinese plan to move within five years. The number one reason cited - better educational and employment opportunities for their kids.

China is still an economic and military powerhouse, but the voices of the young and many of their parents seem to be telling us that it might be a bit premature to anoint China as Master of the Universe.

Note: I downloaded the above photo from the free media repository on Wikimedia Commons. I wish to credit the author  流璃

Friday, September 26, 2014

Singapore Buddhist Lodge

Within a capitalist system, there are those who achieve great wealth but also those who struggle to just secure the basic necessities. Singapore is no exception. Last month, I had an opportunity to visit one of the organizations here dealing with the problem of hunger.

I believe government has a responsibility to provide some sort of societal safety net, but I also believe private groups should lend a hand. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge is a wonderful example of the latter.

The group serves meals three times a day to anyone with an appetite, regardless of need. An administrator told me they welcome guests ranging from business people to backpackers to the truly destitute. All meals are free, but donations are accepted.

On average, 1,500 people dine at the center daily and as many as 3,000-5,000 on the weekend. The lodge is open seven days a week.

The vegetarian buffet is quite extensive. A full-time cook prepares the meal, while volunteers man all of the other jobs in the facility.  Many of the food items are donated.

Looking around, I noticed that about half of the crowd was elderly, but I also saw several young people and parents with kids, lending evidence to the idea that hunger can affect anyone at any time.

Although no money exchanges hands, guests are asked to pick up their own plates and utensils from the kitchen and wash their dishes afterward.

The lodge is not alone in offering food to the needy. Giving is an essential tenant of Buddhism, but the lodge is one of the few places that demonstrates kindness on such a wide scale.

Walking around the facility that consists of dozens of tables in an open, cafeteria-like space, I couldn't help but admire the smiles on the faces of the enthusiastic volunteers and the general feeling of peace permeating through the crowd like the scent of freshly cut flowers.

I had no intent of dining, but one of the volunteers insisted, so I found my place in line and loaded up on a plethora of tasty, vegetarian delicacies. It's not the kind of culinary fare one would expect to find at a food kitchen. Afterward, I was offered fresh fruit to take home, but I felt that someone else could put it to better use.

You won't find the lodge in any tourist guides, but I can assure you it's worth the trip.

The Singapore Buddhist Lodge is always looking for volunteers. If you'd like to help, you can drop by the office any day from 8-5. The lodge is located at 17 Kim Yam Road.

Note: Out of respect for maintaining the confidentiality of the guests I limited my pictures to just a shot of the building's exterior.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Residential Experience

Today, I became an official Singaporean local, or, at least, in the eyes of a group of Chinese tourists.

On my way to lunch, two guys stopped me on the street to ask for directions to the nearest subway.

I didn't hesitate. "Walk a couple of blocks to the Buddhist temple and turn left on Irrawaddy. Walk up the hill. You'll see the national police center on your right. Stay on Irrawaddy and walk down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, you'll see the Novena mall on your left. That's where you'll find the MRT," I said.

One of the guys rolled his eyes because he was hoping for a shorter walk. "It's the nearest train station. I know because I live here," I replied, wishing him a pleasant stay as he turned to walk away.

It's been almost three months now since I deboarded the plane from America. That's not a tremendous amount of time, but I guess it's long enough to pick up the appearance of a local.

It was nice being able to offer confused tourists assistance because I've certainly asked for my fair share of directions.

The same kind of metamorphosis happened to me when I moved to New York City back in the 1980. For a few months, every lunatic on the streets of Manhattan seemed to pick me out of the crowd as a target to be hassled. Then, almost overnight, it stopped. Former Mayor Ed Koch referred to it as newcomers gaining the "New York look," a look of confidence that told others he belonged in the city.

Legally speaking, I am a Singaporean resident, and I've got a work permit to prove it. Last week, I filled out a form that asked my country of residence. I paused for a second, mulled it over, and then marked Singapore. It's a bit surreal, considering that at this time last year I was teaching in a small, rural town in Georgia, wondering if I'd ever take the steps to try to teach abroad.

Being a Singaporean local has its share of privileges, especially crossing boarders. Rather than going through the immigration line for foreigners, I exit the country through the "Singaporean citizens and residents" line.

That involves swiping my passport, giving a thumbprint, and I'm finished.  No passport stamp. No questions asked. Coming back into the country, it's the same easy procedure.

Not bad for a small-town Georgia boy, or I should say, a Singaporean resident.

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.