The Miraculous Rice Cooker - July 31, 2014


Cooking rice in Asia is a lot like grilling burgers in America - a person is seemingly born with the ability to do it, and no one dares speak up if he or she doesn't actually know how.

In America, preparing rice was simple. I just read what Uncle Ben had to say on the back of his box, although I still often managed to turn it into soup or leave an inch or two burned on the bottom of the pan.

Rice is a staple of my diet, but I had no idea how difficult it would be for me to prepare it at home. It's not that rice is hard to find in Singapore. The options are limitless - long grain, medium grain, short grain, white rice, premium quality fragrant rice, brown rice, mixed rice, red rice, jasmine rice, basmati rice, parboiled rice, calasparra rice, calrose rice, glutinous rice, calmochi rice, unpolished rice. There's rice from India and Thailand and China and Australia and you name it.

I've never seen so much rice in Singapore, but all the rice from all over the world shares one trait in common - there are no directions how to cook it. This is Asia. Everyone just knows how.

For the first month, with the exception of dining out, I had to pass on the food I love so much. I was too embarrassed to ask how Singaporeans inherited the rice-cooking gene, while I had to rely on a list of step-by-step instructions.

I turned to pasta, which I also enjoy, but like many items in Singapore, pasta isn't cheap, often selling for more than $2 a bag. Aside from price, I just didn't want to be defeated by a grain.

Over this past month, the members of my department have been quite patient with my endless cultural questions, especially Joseph and Nora, who are both from Singapore.

So, this week, I finally worked up the courage to ask them how I, too, could learn to cook rice. I expected a long, complicated series of instructions, or a reference to some kind of family secret, but Nora just smiled and said, "Aw, the rice cooker."

The rice cooker.




I'd seen them in every store in Singapore, but I assumed they were just for restaurants or families of five. Certainly, I didn't need one, until I couldn't crack the rice code.

Joseph generously offered to lend me an extra one from home. Yesterday, I set it up and decided there was no time like the present to conquer my rice phobia. Off to the store I went, thinking I'd play it safe and purchase a bag of white rice, since it's normally simple to cook and fast.

I went as far as picking the bag up and walking toward the cashier. Then, I got cocky, spotting a bag of brown rice, my old nemesis. I'd ruined many a pan with my foe.

Just start off slow. Work up to the big leagues. Get a victory under your belt first.

But I wanted to see what my cooker was capable of doing. I went for it all, buying brown, unpolished, Thai rice.

Joseph told me that the rice-cooking process was easy. All I had to do was put in one cup of water per one cup of rice and leave the rest to the machine. Sounds relatively straightforward, but you must understand that a Singaporean's recipe for the correct mixture of water and rice is a lot like a barbeque aficionado's recipe for BBQ sauce. There's a whole lot of opinions. In Singapore, the internet is full of debate about just the right rice/water combination.

However, I stuck with Joseph's advice and went one for one.

The minutes passed. I knew that brown rice takes a lot longer, but I assumed that I did something wrong because the machine continued to run, not automatically stopping, as Joseph told me it would do when the rice was finished.

I fought the temptation to open the lid. I waited, assuming that the bottom of the cooker would be coated with a thick blanket of burned rice. I began to think how I would tell Joseph that I had ruined his machine.

Then, after about an hour, the machine beeped, announcing it was time to open the lid. I hesitated. If I failed, I'd have to go back to the $2 pasta, hanging my head in shame.

Slowly, I popped open the lid. No smoke, but surely I'd done something wrong. I gently plunged my wooden spoon inside and moved around a few grains. Nothing charred. Nothing stuck to the bottom. Just perfect rice.

The rice cooker managed to do what I had not been able to accomplish over years of trying - cooking brown rice to perfection.

Last night, I read that the seemingly uncomplicated rice cooker is actually a quite sophisticated kitchen appliance, detecting the moment that the water inside the machine has steamed off and the rice is ready to eat. Then, it manages to keep the rice warm for hours without burning a grain, and best of all, the machine is known for being extremely forgiving of operator error.

And so, I achieved another small, Singaporean victory, solving the mystery of cooking a bag of rice. The pasta could wait until another day.

A Busy, Unusual Weekend - July 28, 2014


I couldn't have planned the school calendar any better. After our first week of classes, we got to take Monday off for a national holiday, so I ventured out to see a few of Singapore's popular sights.

One such location is Sentosa, an easily accessible island resort just a quarter of a mile offshore. I went for the beaches, but a visitor has to first navigate a commercial maze of shops, restaurants, a theme park, hotels, golf courses, and picture takers to get anywhere close to the water. The Singaporeans certainly know what they're doing because there's no other way to get to the beaches except through the monetary gauntlet.

Of course, no outing in Singapore would be complete without a good thumb workout.

By the way, there's a new smartphone accessory sweeping Singapore - the Selfie Road. Now, users are able to indulge in taking their own pictures without stretching and straining their arms. It completely eliminates the possibility that an obsessed selfie taker would actually have to interact with passersby to assist in the picture-taking process. Autonomous technology is such a wonderful thing.


One might think that Singapore is a beachgoers paradise, but, actually, there are few because of urbanization. The three beaches at Sentosa are man-made. They're nothing special, but a dip in the water is a dip in the water, and I certainly welcomed the chance to cool off.


For some reason, the stars on Sunday must have been out of alignment because I kept encountering one strange situation after another. First, I saw a Singaporean being so bold as to eat food on the bus, which is illegal, and on Friday I spotted a guy drinking water on the subway, which is also prohibited. It was quite comical because he looked around repeatedly before slipping his water bottle out of his backpack and sneaking a quick swig.

However, nothing was as bizarre as what I witnessed at the beach. I headed to one of the more secluded beaches where there are less kids. Still, I estimate there were at least 30 people in the area.

After swimming, I sat down in the sand and noticed a guy about 50 yards away sitting in the water splashing himself. Let the record state that it was a Westerner and not a Singaporean.

Anyway, something about his bathing suit just didn't appear to be right. Then it struck me. The man who was quite content just splashing in the water was also quite naked.

Now, keep in mind I wasn't in the liberal-minded French Riviera. I was in Singapore, a country where littering and spitting on the sidewalk are illegal. Perhaps, I should have tried a citizen's arrest, but sometimes I think it's better to let certain things lie.

The previous day I checked out another market, Tekka, which has quickly become my favorite. It's located in Little India, and there's dozens of food stalls to choose from in the hawker center.

Ever since I was a boy, I've always loved bread, and a particular bread I can't resist is Naan, which is a leavened, oven-baked form of flatbread. It's best if you're able to find it made in a traditional Tandoori oven.

As I was wandering around trying to decide what to eat, I saw a long line of people waiting at an Indian stall, which is always a good sign, and detected this friendly gentleman proudly stuffing his oven with Naan.


My culinary snack decision was easy.....hot, buttered Naan.




Wow!

If you're getting the impression that I'm doing a lot of eating in Singapore, you're correct. Food is a national obsession here, and there's no shortage of exotic, tasty options to sample.


The cost of living is quite high in Singapore, but there's always a bargain to be found at the hawker center food stalls, where a filling meal will just set you back three or four American dollars.

There's also bargains at the fruit and vegetable stands, depending on one's nationality and bargaining skills.

Singapore is no different than any other country - natives tend to get price breaks. When I lived in New York City, I heard countless stories about out-of-towers getting ripped off by taxi drivers.

For the most part, I think merchants are honest, but a Singaporean the other day summed it all up rather nicely.

"If you've got an emergency, it's a good idea to let people know you're an America," he said, "but if you're in the market it's the last thing you want to say because people know you can afford to pay higher prices."

However, above all, I guess it's a good idea to stay inside one's bathing suit in Singapore, regardless of one's nationality.

My First Milestone - July 26, 2014

The first week of school isn't much different in Singapore than in America. Both the teachers and the students struggle to leave behind their holiday mode of mostly stress-free freedom and readjust to the rhythm of the daily responsibilities and rigors of academic life. Considering I'm also acclimating to a new culture, I think I came through it fairly well.

My initial impression of St. Joseph's International is quite positive. The curricular expectations are high, in part because the school participates in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, whose excellence is recognized by leading universities around the world. The students at St. Joseph's are competing to get into the best universities. An IB diploma gives them an advantage over the competition.

Aside from the academics, the kids at St. Joseph's are also required to participate in at least one extracurricular activity and in at least one service project. It's not unusual to find students lingering at school until 5 or 6 o'clock, either studying or engaging in other school-related pursuits.

I'm also impressed by the manners of the children. It's taking some getting used to for a student to leave at the end of a lesson and thank the teacher.

The only downside is that the kids seem to be under a tremendous amount of pressure. Education is a national obsession in Singapore. It makes sense because education was one of the tools that the country used to transform itself after the Japanese occupation in World War II from an impoverished country known for lawlessness, gambling, prostitution, and other social ills into a first-world, economic dynamo known for its law and order, far eclipsing the economic development of it's Southeast Asian neighbors.

There's already a societal level of academic pressure, mixed with the IB pressure. It ain't easy juggling numerous activities, and it ain't easy getting into Harvard. I certainly admire the way that most students manage it all.

Prior to school starting, I explored a bit of Singapore, but, as you might image, it's been difficult during orientation and the first week of classes. On Friday, I decided to get out and take a look at one of the local markets, especially knowing we have an extra day off on Monday due to a national holiday.

I checked out the Geylang Serai Market. The first floor consists of merchants selling fruit, vegetables, meats, and other grocery items, but I was more interested in what is housed on the second floor - an array of food stalls featuring delicacies from around the planet.

Geylang is just one of the examples of a hawker center, an open-air food complex. After the war, hawkers tended to sell their wares on the street, but then the government built the hawker centers to dramatically improve the level of hygiene, adding such imminities as running water and restroom facilities.

Having suffered a gastrointestinal disaster last summer eating street food in Cambodia, it's a welcome addition for me, and you can't beat the prices.


The only problem is deciding what to eat. I chose a Muslim dish, in honor of Ramadan, called chicken biryani. It's a spicy assortment of poultry mixed with rice. I'm told it's popular in South India.

Customers are able to carry the food away or find an empty seat at one of the tables. I sat next to two friendly Muslim women who watched me as I ate since it was not yet nightfall, meaning they couldn't yet break the daily fast required during Ramadan.

"I feel bad eating in front of you. Isn't it difficult waiting to eat," I said. "Not at all. Enjoy," one of the woman replied, so I took her for her word. Still, a food court didn't seem to be the best place to fast.

The market is located in the Geylang community. At night, along a particular street lined with bars, women clad in overly-tight, low cut skirts; stiletto heels; and gaudy makeup pace back and forth hoping to attract the attention of men looking for a couple of hours of companionship.Even in a country that prides itself on discipline, certain activities are tolerated. As one person told me, "Don't forget. It's Asia."

Along that particular street, you'll also find some of the tastiest, most unusual food in Singapore. I passed on the frog leg stew, in favor of a vendor selling tiny portions of fish wrapped in banana leaves. I figured I needed an after-dinner snack.

The man placed the fish-filled leaves on top of a tiny grill to cook them. When I approached his stall, I think he was a little annoyed or didn't speak much English because he just turned, and in a stern, militaristic-type manner, pointed to a menu on the wall.

The menu consisted of mackerel, prawn, squid, and several other fishes with which I'm not familiar.

"O.K, how about the prawn, " I said. His English suddenly got better, and in a terse, bothered tone of voice replied, "No prawn, only mackerel!"

Hmmm.....

"I'll try the squid," I said, to which he again replied,  "No squid, only mackerel!"

And so, I sampled my first grilled mackerel, which was quite good. The prawn can wait until another day.

Because Geylang has a large Muslim population, each night during Ramadan people flood the streets to visit merchants lined up in tents along the thoroughfares, selling everything from food to clothing to house wares.


Before I close, let me share with those of you who've teased me relentlessly over the years about my aversion to smart phones that both of these pictures were taken with the camera in my phone. If you look closely, you'll spot my thumb in the lower, left-hand corner.

I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm getting there slowly.

First Day of Classes - July 21, 2014

For the first time in 12 years, I started work at a new school, a school 9,900 miles away from Dalton, Georgia, and, based on the behavior of the kids, a school seemingly in some kind of time warp, reminiscent of an era long since passed in America.

As I walked through the doors of St. Joseph's Institution International, several students greeted me with a cheery "Good morning!" and throughout the day they impressed me with their manners and generally positive, respectful decorum.

The day began with an assembly in which the students listened attentively, maintained their silence, and applauded politely for the various presenters. In the classroom, it was much the same. Sure, there was the occasional chatter, but for the majority of the time, the kids listened, remained on task, and did their work. It was a real pleasure, and I'm looking forward to getting to know the kids in my role as a special education/ESOL teacher.

I'm sorry for the delay in this post. It's been a hectic couple of weeks moving to Singapore, finding an apartment, getting over jet lag, learning a bit about the city, and going through a school orientation.

I'm slowly getting settled into my apartment, a 474-square foot condo a few minutes from work. Singapore is considered to be the most expensive spot in the world for real estate, which I learned firsthand with my $2,300-a-month rent. Fortunately, the school gives teachers an extremely generous housing allowance.

So far, my educational colleagues have been quite welcoming, and I have nothing but kind things to say about Singaporeans. Before I arrived, I heard stories about the government being strict, but, really, I haven't felt at all inhibited in my actions. Singaporeans obey the rules, and as a result, life functions rather smoothly, and I don't have to worry about some of the annoyances experienced in other cultures such as litter, graffiti, muggings, or worse.

Singapore is safe, pure and simple. During the orientation, one of the new teachers asked if it was O.K. to leave personal belongings in a school public area. The principal laughed and said that it would be there a week from now.

Singaporeans seem to love food, and there's ethnic delicacies from around the world, which should lead to my waistline expanding over the next couple of years; shopping, as evidenced by countless malls; and smart phones.

As many of you know, I've never been a fan of smart phones. Until moving to Singapore, I used my old flip phone, which never failed to amuse my students or friends, but my love affair with the flip phone has officially ended.

Actually, I had no choice. When I visited the cell phone provider to open a new account and told him I owned a flip phone, he just laughed and then said respectfully, "I'm sorry, but we just don't have flip phones in Singapore."

I can see the benefits of a smartphone, but I still long for the days when a phone was just a phone, especially witnessing Singaporeans on their phones at all moments of the days.....walking on the street, sitting in malls, riding on buses. It never stops. I've never seen so many people talking, texting, and surfing. It seems to be a national obsession.

The other day I read that more than 70% of Singaporeans own a smartphone. As with the United States, I wonder what that's doing to real face-to-face communication.

That's about it. I'll try to do a better job of updating my blog, once I get settled in more in Singapore.

I appreciate all of your words of encouragement and support.

Do You Really Need To Keep Your Childhood Snowsuit? - June 26, 2014

I once read that moving ranks third on the list of stressors behind only death and divorce. My angst has been magnified by the fact that I can't just pack up all my belongings in a U-Haul and drive 10,000 miles to Singapore, where I'll soon begin a new teaching job. Over the last month, it's been a real battle between deciding what to take and what to discard.

I've always prided myself on traveling lightly through life, avoiding the temptation to indulge in the latest fashions and latest trinkets, but I must admit that I've been shocked by the amount of possessions that seem to have materialized in my closets.

I can explain part of it, an "I can't pass up the 30% off sale on pants" or receiving a lovely new sweater for Christmas or obtaining yet another t-shirt from participating in an event. What I can't explain is why I've kept so many possessions in my closet that I never utilize or even pull out of the darkness.

It's easy to get rid of extra clothes, but for some reason, I find it hard to purge myself of items bearing sentimental attachments: my childhood record collection, although I no longer own a record player; a racquetball racquet that I last used in college in 1987; baseball cards that I acquired when I attended elementary school, cards now covered with dust.

If I'm being honest, the reason I can't part with these personal effects is because I maintain some kind of illusion that one day I might actually need them. Maybe, I'll buy a new record player and listen to my Flock of Seagulls album again, or maybe, I'll get back on the racquetball court, or maybe, I'll give those baseball cards to my children one day, even though I'm a 48-year-old single man with no offspring.

So, my sentimentals remain in the closet, deteriorating but still there "just in case."  Really, it's quite selfish because I've been squirreling my possessions away from people who might actually need them.

Had I been relocating to another state I'm sure I would have continued to hoard my childhood mementos; however, this time it just wasn't possible, especially since my family didn't want to gain custody of my junk, so earlier in the month I sold my records and my baseball cards and put my racket on consignment.

You know what? I haven't missed my sentimental treasures a bit, and now, hopefully, someone else is enjoying those things that had been boxed up for years. I also haven't missed my furniture, the majority of which I gave away to a couple of charitable organizations and an immigrant family.

I'd like to think that I arrived at my period of purging out of an epiphany or personal growth, but really it happened out of necessity because there's no way I was going to pay to ship a couch 10,000 miles. Even though my apartment is now empty, I'm full of the satisfaction of knowing that my possessions aren't wasting away in a storage locker.

In a spirit of full disclosure, none of my possessions were especially valuable, so what is a person to do if he or she owns items worth a lot of money. Surely, those things cluttering up the attic can't be discarded.

I'm reminded of the story of my brother's friend Matt, who owned a large collection of first-edition books, books that were both monetarily and sentimentally valuable. Year after year, Matt said he glanced at the spines of the books but rarely picked them off the shelf. Still, Matt couldn't part with them.

Then, life got in the way. At one point, Matt needed some extra money and decided to sell his collection, assuming the financial windfall would help ease his sentimental loss; however, it didn't turn out that way.

Matt discovered that his valuable book collection was a lot less valuable than he hoped when the book dealer offered Matt a pittance of what he anticipated. Still, he needed the money and had to unload the literature.

Before making the transaction, Matt spied a soccer ball on one of the store's shelves. "O.K., I'll sell you my books, but will you throw in the ball?" asked Matt. The owner agreed, and Matt walked out of the store without his prized books, replaced instead by a $20 soccer ball.

A few weeks later, Matt was feeling a little stressed from work, so he pulled out his soccer ball and went to the park to unwind. With each passing moment, Matt slowly came to the realization that he was deriving more pleasure kicking his ball around the park - enjoying nature, exercising in the radiant sunshine, and socializing with passers-by - than any satisfaction he'd ever gotten from his books.

Still, such epiphanies are rare, and more often than not, year after year, we hang onto those items that we think bring us happiness or comfort.

However, sometimes it takes an outsider to put life into perspective. Years ago, I lived in an apartment behind a private residence, where an elderly woman resided. Eventually, she succumbed to old age and illness.

Before putting the house on the market, the woman's family hired a firm to run an estate sale. Soon, a large dumpster appeared in the driveway, and a crew threw the majority of her possessions away, the same possessions that I'm sure she prized so highly.

I couldn't help but ask the head of the crew why the workers were throwing away so many of the deceased woman's things, rather than selling them.

The man's face grew serious. I'll never forget his reply. The man said that we all hang onto our belongings, thinking they're important, but to the rest of the world it's mostly just junk.

"The one thing I've learned in this business is that it's not worth acquiring a lot of stuff because one day someone like me is just going to toss most of it out, " he said.

Soccer anyone?

A New Beginning - June 18, 2014

Life has been good to me over the last 12 years of my academic career. Each August through May, I've had the pleasure of teaching students from around the globe at my high school in Dalton, Georgia, and each summer, I strapped on my backpack and took my turn exploring the world to indulge my passion for international travel.

Yes, life has been good and life has been quite comfortable, but over the last couple of years, I began thinking that it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and try teaching abroad.

As soon as the idea surfaced, I often found myself making excuses for why it wasn't the right time. ... My parents are older and might need me ... I should accumulate more years toward my pension in retirement ... It will be so difficult to find a job.

Slowly, I came to the realization that there's never a right time to start anything, and I came to the realization that as a soon to be 49 year old, statistically speaking, I'm past the half-way point in my life. There's no guarantees that if I wait 10 years or five years that I'll be able to teach overseas or that I'll even be alive.

I'm not being morbid. I'm just being honest.

During the winter, I joined a couple of search firms and started casually looking, not necessarily expecting to find something this year, but life has a way of constantly surprising me. In May, I landed a great job teaching in Sngapore.

Next week, I'll fly to the Southeast Asian country to look for an apartment/condo, and toward the end of July, I'll officially start teaching. Singapore is on a South American schedule, meaning that students study from January through June, take a month-long break, and then resume studying until December, when there's another month-long break.

I'll be working at St. Joseph's Institution International School, where I'll be teaching both special education and English as a Second Language, which is what I've taught throughout my career.  I feel lucky to have been hired at such a fine school and look forward to the challenge. I'm also looking forward to delving into the Singaporean culture and discovering, for the first time in life, what it's like to be an immigrant.

Years ago, I read that moving is third on the list of stressful events behind only death and divorce. It's been quite hectic over the last few weeks packing up my life and preparing to undergo my 9,900-mile relocation, but it's also been a thrill knowing that I'm about to launch into the great unknown and begin a new chapter.

Once I get settled into a routine, I'll use this forum to share my reflections about the school and about Singapore. Thank you for your collective support, especially my family and my girlfriend who've done nothing but encourage me. I love you all.

Let the journey begin.

Death is Waiting - September 29, 2013

The eight-inch rock dislodged from the walls of the cave, hurtling toward the bottom of the 120-foot pit, where the caver was standing, unaware of the potentially lethal projectile.

The rock smashed into her wrist, slashing her skin and leaving behind a swollen reminder of the encounter. But what if the rock had crashed on top of her head or landed on her face?

Death is waiting.

Last month, I decided to visit my sister. Friends often tease me about driving too slow, but on this particular afternoon it might have saved a life.

As I crested a hill, a child suddenly shot around from behind a blind curve into the middle of the street, after losing control of her bicycle. If I had been traveling one mile per hour faster or been distracted by a text, I'm convinced I would have plowed into her.

Death is waiting.

A couple of days ago, I read an excellent article in National Geographic about longevity. Assuming an average life span of about 80 years, the article pointed out that major health problems such as cancer, diabetes, stroke, or dementia will likely begin surfacing around the age of 61, the very time when many retirees finally get around to pursuing their dreams.

Death is waiting.

Maybe, we should all reflect more on our finite existence on earth. What are we putting off - vacations, spending more time with our families, righting a wrong?  Maybe, we should all get started on our To-do lists today because sometimes tomorrow never arrives.