Singapore Adventure

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Trading For Idlis
by venitha

Inspired by the red paper clip guy, I used hardball negotiation tactics ("I have a gift for Rohit. May I stop by sometime to drop it off?") to trade a wonderful child's drawing book for a fabulous Indian lunch of fresh idlis and savory sambar, made extra spicy just for me. Is it any wonder I love Deepali's cooking?

Idlis are small round patties made from a batter of rice and lentils, and Deepali cooked them on the stove in a clever double-layer idli steamer. Served immediately, they are warm and soft, striking the Goldilocks balance of not-too-dry and not-too-moist but just right for soaking up loads of sambar. An Indian version of chili, sambar has a spicy tamarind base. Deepali added some veggies and of course some lentils and of course her own special signature spice blend, consisting of a number of gorgeously colored spices she doesn't know the English words for and a whole lot of love.

Rohit happily demonstrated the appropriate idli eating method, dipping his idlis in his sambar. I am unfortunately far less skilled than any Indian, including this four-year-old, in eating with my hands, and anyway, I wanted to slurp the scumptious sambar by the spoonful and then lick the bowl. I opted to plop down idli islands in my fiery sambar sea and to slowly erode them with my spoon.

For dessert, Deepali served up irresistible gulab jamuns, similar to softly soggy donut holes and drenched in a tooth-achingly sweet syrup. I admit I had two bowls - they are, after all, irresistible - completely sabotaging my strict pre-Bali-trip diet. Good thing I worked them off playing with Rohit.

Popular Jim puts my swap to shame, for he's managed to trade his mere presence for a home-cooked supper of our Indian favorites, chole and . I married wisely, so I get to tag along.

I wonder what I have worth trading for the honor of being invited early for a cooking lesson. Anyone want a blue paperclip?


Thursday, April 27, 2006

You're Getting Sleeeepy
by venitha

A dear friend has consistently added bright and hardy Colorado wildflowers to my wimpy traditional Western medicine bouquet. I had deep tissue massage to improve my circulation; it didn't work, but it hurt enough that it should have worked. I had acupuncture with electrostimulus to promote healing of my broken pelvis; yes, needles and electric current down there. I consulted with a pet communicator; she made me feel better and Maggie liked her, both of which are not things I could say for Maggie's vet at that point.

I viewed Eastern medicine and the orchids that awaited me in Singapore with some excitement. Yoga might calm my frantic mind, Chinese herbal tonics might give me thick luxuriant hair, and acupressure might stimulate my metabolism to the point that I would be rail thin in spite of eating nothing but extra thick chocolate malts.

I must admit, however, to disappointment and defeat, and not with Singapore or with Eastern medicine but with myself. I'm planted next to a vase of carnations, unwilling to push my limits. The only medical care I've sought here is that which makes me comfortable. I like my Canadian doctor's trustworthy manner and his nurses' capable Aussie accents, and the pasty mix of Caucasian expats in his waiting room makes me feel at home.

In stark contrast, Singapore's tropical climate nurtures alarming flora. I look with fright at the very ill patients seated on benches outside the acupuncture parlor. And what is that urine-colored liquid they're drinking? I steer clear of the scary Chinatown pharmacies and their glass jars of gnarled roots and bones. Well, I don't know what most of those things are, but bones is as good a guess as any. I live in mortal fear of a dental emergency on our travels. What exactly are your options for a root canal in rural Cambodia?

You wimp, Venitha! I berate myself. Do you want to gain nothing from this experience but hundreds of whiny blog posts, ten pounds, and a worshipful appreciation of American hairdressers? Be brave!

Suitably chastised, I put the carnations in a bigger vase and scavenge for something to dress them up. Yoga? No, the treadmill now absorbs my stress, and I have this blog onto which to regurgitate my spastic thoughts. Herbs? No, I've got another year to endure here, and I'd better save what remains of my adventurous food appetite for things that have at least some remote possibility of tasting good. Acupuncture? No, there is a different standard of cleanliness in Asia, and the risks from unclean needles are just too great.

You wimp, Venitha! Be brave!

I am apparently unwilling to risk my body, but, hey! Trophy wives have no need of minds: hypnosis! Besides, how much damage could it do? I've got brain cells to spare, or at least that's what I tell myself every time I wake up far from daisy fresh with no memory of the night before and a hangover that would kill small farm animals.

In my head, I hear my father's timeworn excuse for refusing the aid of hypnotherapy in quitting smoking: They might make me bawk like a chicken every time I hear the word egg. I steadfastly tune him out and bravely make an appointment for next week.

You see! It's working already, calming the voices in my mind. Luxuriant hair, raging metabolism, and an enormous armload of Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids can't be far behind.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Trophy Wife
by venitha

Stuck at home to enable ceiling leak repair (we can all be very thankful we don't own this place), I scowled at myself in the mirrored living room wall: a frizzy frumpy housewife. How did this become my life? Then I remembered that in addition to being a kept woman, I am now also blonde, and I perked right up: I am a trophy wife!

I looked with new interest at my reflection in the mirror and beyond to the four, yes, four men here to repair the leak: one to swathe the dining room in layers of plastic, to drill very large holes in the ceiling, to stuff unidentifiable things into the holes, to plaster over the holes, and to repaint the ceiling; one to move large machinery around noisily in the entryway; one to hiss vulgarities or to whisper sweet nothings (these sound the same in Mandarin) on his handphone; and one to translate for me (alas, not his cohort's one-sided handphone conversation).

All four fine specimen were here to do my bidding, no? Bwa ha ha ha! Sadly, my t-shirt, khaki shorts, and bare feet were inappropriate for my new diva identity. If only I had a pair of marabou feather mules, I sighed. I made a mental note regarding my next Mustafa shopping trip, decided attitude is everything, stood up on my tiptoes, and grabbed the bull by the horns.

Might I show you something... back here? I crooked my finger and led the way down the hall to the leaking toilet. Again, we can all be very thankful we don't own this place.

Might you also paint the bedroom ceiling? No, silly, not beige! I batted my eyelashes and got them to put a second coat over their handiwork from the bedroom leak repair last fall. Seriously, we can all be very thankful we don't own this place.

My, what a big drill you have. Might you drill a hole... here? Hanging pictures in Singapore requires far more macho swagger than can be achieved with a hammer and a nail. No kidding: we can all be very thankful we don't own this place, what with renters drilling holes in the walls willy nilly.

After closing the door on my gentlemen callers, I kicked off my mules and flopped down on the couch, adding bonbons and peeled grapes to my mental Mustafa shopping list. Appropriate as it would be to be starved to perfection, I shall need sustenance. This trophy wife-dom is hard work.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Two Blondes Walk Into A Bar
by venitha

"You look like Sonja." Virginia, my new friend and guide in Shanghai, says.

Our mutual and mutually-adored friend Sonja is a great topic of discussion as we become acquainted. But me? Look like Sonja? Hardly.

"But Sonja is blonde."

"Yes. Your hair is not blonde? What do you call your color?"

Frizzy? "Brown. Red. Auburn," I say dreamily, seductively tossing my tresses back over my shoulder. "Definitely not blonde."

"Hmmm. It looks the same to me."

She follows this statement with no wink, no raised eyebrow, no telling smirk, so I have to assume she doesn't understand the joking insult implied by calling me blonde when I clearly am not. I toy with the idea of explaining this to her, to sharing my favorite dumb blonde joke, but then I remember my father trying to explain the phrase cold as witch's tit to our family's newly-arrived Mexican exchange student, and I conclude that some things are best lost before translation.

Besides, I am astounded by Virginia's claim. Can blonde, brown, and red hair all look the same to Chinese eyes? Does this mean the Chinese are essentially color blind? If so, it explains a great deal: the clashing clothing color combinations, the clear preference for bold jarring red over calm soothing blue, and especially the really bad hair dye jobs, an unfortunate number of my own here included.

So, okay, forget color, and I can finally stop banging my head against the wall in my efforts to fashion a rainbow from black hair and brown eyes. But if not color, then what? What identifying characteristics make all Caucasians alike and all Asians different? Some possibilities:

  • Size. All Caucasians are similar size-wise in that we are taller, bigger, and more, well, three-dimensional. Sonja and I are about the same size, though as she's currently over 8-months pregnant, this isn't the most flattering of comparisons for me. But Virginia hasn't seen her lately. Throughout Asia, sizes vary widely, though in Singapore, there's fairly limited variation between toothpick-thin and teeny-tiny-toothpick-thin.

  • Smell. Rumor has it that all Caucasians smell like sour milk thanks to their dairy-heavy diets in comparison to the common Asian diet of the lactose-intolerant. I am also frequently told that I smell like sunscreen (do you think these guys are hitting on me?), and I imagine this is true of just about anyone here with my skin color. I haven't put the sniff theory to the test, but in Singapore, it's hard to believe smell is useful in distinguishing individuals; let's face it: we all smell like sweat.

  • Facial features. The broad generalization is that all Caucasians have big noses and round eyes, and relative to most Asians, this is true. But don't all Asians have cute little button noses and slanted eyes? Actually, the more time I spend here and the more I travel in Asia, the better I get at noticing the facial features that often distinguish different Asian ethnicities. She's got a flat nose. He's got a round face. Does that woman not have ? And, hey! Where's his upper lip?

My favorite dumb blonde joke:
How do you get a nun pregnant?
Dress her up as an altar boy.

Oh, whoops! Wrong joke. How blonde of me! Here we go:
How do you get a blonde to marry you?
Tell her she's pregnant.

Monday, April 24, 2006

One World Is Enough
by jima

"Which do you like better: Shanghai or Taipei?"


It's both a common and a fair question, for I've spent time in each city, worked in each, vacationed in each, eaten delicious and frightening food in each, and gloried in the non-Singaporean weather of each. [Pictured: incredibly frightening Shanghai street food (tofu, eggs, rice dumplings, and assorted fish balls) which I did not eat and hence lived to see my 39th birthday.]

Each city scrambles to put a better face on its "China", and there are many little differences between Shanghai and Taipei. Shanghai provides magnificent architecture, lovely Chinese gardens, and the blatant censorship I expect of a communist state. Taipei supplies incredible seafood, a best-in-the-world museum, and the expensive taxis I expect... of a market economy? [Pictured: the view from the 88th floor observatory of Shanghai's to the lobby of its Hyatt hotel, more than 30 floors below.]

Differences pale, however, next to vast similarities. Both Shanghai and Taiwan are sprawling metropolitan areas, densely populated with Asians who speak multiple languages and dialects, none of which I comprehend in the least. Both are reasonably safe and relatively clean. I'm glad never to have driven in either, as both have plentiful taxis and excellent mass transit systems.

The similarity that amazes me the most, however, is that neither city seems all that foreign. Two years ago, on my first trip to Taipei, I was wowed by its foreignness. I marveled at the scooters and the skyscrapers and the pollution and the food and the people and my inability to do something as simple as read. I returned home to Colorado and told Venitha we could never live there.

Today, Taipei is practically a second home, and this year, on my first trip to Shanghai, I was wowed first by the fact that I was in China and then by the contradictory fact that it wasn't any big deal. I use chopsticks with ease, I understand metro train systems, and I know to have my hotel's concierge write umpteen taxi destination cards for me. Venitha told me I should push for a short-term transfer to either city, just for a month or two in spring or fall, as she fantasizes about a welcome escape from the heat of Singapore.

All this ease has a price, however, and I'm saddened to find myself no longer awed by wet markets, no longer entertained to be the only Caucasian in a train station teeming with Asians, and no longer taken with by the beauty of Chinese characters.

Which do I like better: the ease of experience or the amazement of novelty?



Saturday, April 22, 2006

Birthday Presents
by venitha

Awake with the sunrise our last morning in Shanghai, I peeked hungrily out the window at the deserted streets and the spring weather: perfect running conditions. Given my way, we'd have been out there, jogging the broad paths of Fuxing Park and basking in the inner peace emanating from morning -ers. But running the streets of strange Asian cities is not an activity for a Caucasian woman alone, and this day of all days I would bow to Jim's wishes. It was his birthday, and his requested present was to sleep in.

"What, a Rolex isn't enough for you?" I'd teased at bedtime when he'd made this request. He wasn't the only one tired; we'd all wearily passed up our last chance for the requisite Shanghai sightseeing boat ride on the Huangpu River, opting instead to wave good-bye to the Bund's glittering lights from a distance. Jim had ignored my taunt, kissed my cheek, and wordlessly turned out the light.

Purchased at one of Shanghai's ubiquitous copy markets, Jim's "Rolex" cost $20, and bargaining for it provided at least that same amount in entertainment value. It's just as well it was cheap, for I suspect Jim views this grown-up watch as a depressing sign of the maturity seemingly inherent in his new age, and I won't be surprised if he reverts to his trusty Quisp watch, purchased years ago from the back of the cereal box, within the week.

The blocks surrounding Xiang Yang Market teemed with touts - "Hey, lady! What you want? Watch? Bag?" - who were annoyingly persistent and disappointingly overt. We weren't looking for a watch or for anything else, and we bargained happily and savagely over counterfeit items for which we could not have cared less.

Bowing under unrelenting US pressure, the Chinese government will shut down the Xiang Yang Market in June. What will these people do then? Move to a new location is my guess, for it's impossible to believe this lucrative and popular industry will end so abruptly. Regardless, I'm relieved to note that flasher is not a natural job transition, as the hawkers advertise their wares on laminated pages and not in well-stocked trenchcoats.

But flashers or no, it's still not a good idea to go running alone, and, too, the birthday boy should get at least one present he really wants. I checked Jim's Rolex, 6:10 am, and silently crawled back into bed.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Let Me See!
by venitha

On our bus to Shanghai's Pudong Airport, as usual, Rohit is in charge. "You sit here, Venitha," he says, indicating the favored seat next to him. I smile, ever-charmed by his pronunciation of my name, and sit down wondering how I've managed to outrank the ever-popular Jim.

"He says your name like Jittu," Jim has pointed out, remembering our driver in India. I don't notice this so much as I am wowed by a 4-year-old's ability to pronounce my name at all. I remember well McLaren's Vernitha, Spencer's Neefa, and Matthew's anointment of Jim as Jimanvaneefa followed by an I-don't-know-who-she-is shrug. Venitha, however, trips lightly off Rohit's tongue, and I guess I should expect no less from a child who for the last week has switched seamlessly from speaking English with me and Jim to speaking with his Aai and Baba to teaching all of us to count in Mandarin.

Thankfully my artistic abilities are more on a par with Rohit's, so I don't have to be embarrassed to draw with him. I pull out my notebook along with two pens, and we pass our ride to the airport engrossed in illustrating our Shanghai adventure.

Here's the airport where we're going now, farrrrr away on the other side of the river. And here is us and allll our suitcases on our bus leaving our hotel with its revolving top where we ate breakfast. Did you have a banana? And some cereal? How about an apple? I can draw an apple.

Here's the river and across it there's Baba and Jim Kaka at work with their computers - Where's Jim? - and here's the tall Jin Mao building with us waaaay up at the top, and the pink pearl tower, and all the fish at the aquarium. The shark. Yes, the shark. He has scary teeth.

And here's us walking on the next to the river with all the boats and here's the pretty Chinese flag. And here are the bridges over the river - And a tunnel! - and a tunnel under it. And here's my umbrella because it rained that day, and now my umbrella is inside out because it was windy, too. And here are all those acrobats making a biiiig pyramid and diving through those circles. What else do you remember?

Do you remember the flowers? Here are all the pretty flowers, and Virginia with her parasol - Her hair! - with her pretty hair, and there's you in your new Chinese outfit. And your new shoes. Let me see! And Jim's new watch. And all the Armani clothes at that museum. Do you remember? Yes!
Hmmm... what did we eat? Here's broccoli with garlic sauce and those crayfish and eggs - I can draw eggs! - and dumplings and the big dumpling with a straw in it and fish heads and - Ice cream! When did you have ice cream? I don't remember any ice cream, but I do remember ice. Here's Aai with her long braid taking a picture of you at the ice sculptures. There's you, and a penguin, and another penguin, and another penguin, and an igloo. And my jacket. Oh, yes, here's your hood on your jacket that makes you a penguin, too.

And the taxi. Yes, so many taxis. And the trains. The MRT and the , but we didn't ride that. The tall train. Yes, the double-decker train from Suzhou. And all the gardens there and the tall pagoda and the big Buddha and here's you riding on Jim's shoulders and on Baba's shoulders and on Aai's shoulders but not on my shoulders. Not on your shoulders.

And here finally is our bus at the airport and our plane. Here's all of us on the plane: yi, er, san, si, wu. We will take off and go waaaay far that way, farrrrr off the page and back behind us onto Baba's lap and maybe even further back than that to where? To Singapore!

To Singapore.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Have You Eaten?
by venitha

"Good morning, Deepali. Have you eaten?"

I delivered this with an sly grin, for it was lost on neither of us that this is the standard meaningless Singaporean greeting. But here in Shanghai, I actually meant it: if she and Rohit had not yet eaten, they might accompany me to the 41st floor's revolving restaurant and its international breakfast buffet.

Next to its astonishing ever-changing view, due both to constant rotation and to constant Shanghai construction, the biggest hit of the Jin Jiang Tower's morning meal was the smooth and creamy pineapple yogurt. Unsurprisingly, not one of us was game to try the mysterious vegetable jelly or any of the three frightening flavors of congee (fish, beef, and preserved egg) and their noxious pickled toppings.

"The Chinese will eat anything," our Shanghai friend Virginia told us with a laugh when we stared agog at restaurant menus. While we bravely endured our share of challenge food, much of it at Virginia's urging ("Do you like it, Virginia? Yes, of course!"), our meals out were more notable for what we did not eat than for what we did. One menu's options: spicy soft-shell turtle, assorted dog's paw with wild pepper and pickle radish, dried fried bullfrog with red pepper, Guizhou style pig's tongues in soya sauce, Huajiang style stewed dog meat, fried bull's penis with garlic and medicinal materials, fried chicken's claw with cashew in hot sauce, hot and spicy duck's tongue. We actually did eat the duck's tongue [pictured]; it was hot and spicy (this is good), served cold (this is bad), and had the thick muscle-y texture you would expect of a tongue (this is very bad).

On Saturday's sunny afternoon, Jim and I strolled through the lovely tree-canopied streets of the French Concession. Spying an Indian restaurant, we guiltily jumped at the welcome escape from Chinese food. "Just don't tell Rohit." He'd been asking for roti (Indian) and chicken rice (Singaporean) for days. Little did we know this experience would be impossible to keep to ourselves, for this menu provided the most frightening food of all: durian paratha. Not even in durian-crazy Singapore have I come across such an atrocity; proof, not that I needed it, that the Chinese really will eat anything.

My favorite dish of the trip: "hollow" vegetables in garlic sauce [pictured].

Rohit's favorite: kung pao chicken. No kidding! They actually serve this here, though Virginia had to say it about fifty times ("Really! You must know this; every foreigner knows this dish.") before we understood it as kung pao. Also impossible to recognize when pronounced correctly: Szechuan.

Deepali's favorite: crab-stuffed xiao long bao.

Jim's favorite: hot and spicy duck's tongue. Heh. No, his actual favorite was the spicy pepper mutton [pictured] at an restaurant.

Amol's favorite: Our entire lunch in Suzhou, which centered around shuijiao, slippery Chinese ravioli that are very challenging to eat with chopsticks, and was enhanced greatly by our sitting next to and befriending a table of local expats, who ordered way too much food and passed us one delicious dish of leftovers after another. Should you be lucky enough to dine at Suzhou's famous Yang Yang Dumpling House, I highly recommend this tactic, the crab shuijiao, and wearing something the color of soy sauce.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Shanghai 101
by venitha

Not to be confused with the world's tallest building (that's Taipei 101 in an entirely different part of the country), this is a list of The Things We Learned In Shanghai.
  • Not all Pepto Bismol tablets are chewable.
  • We pronounce Shanghai incorrectly as shang'-hi; it's shong-hi'. Jim: "There you go, offending a billion people. Sheesh."
  • Doctors in China strongly advise their pregnant patients to get rid of their cats.
  • Quit trying to dissect food with chopsticks. It's not that Chinese people are so adept with chopsticks that they can use them to debone chicken and to cut the skin off fish. It's that it's not impolite to spit things out.
  • Censorship sucks. Say what you will (and I do) about the controlled environment of Singapore, but I have yet to find a website that I can't get to. In China, I can't even see wikipedia.
  • It doesn't hurt to ask. At the head of the only English-speaker line for the fifth time (I'm not kidding), Deepali and I finally secured our train tickets to Suzhou, the Garden City. Victory! Deepali nudged me, "Ask again about tickets back." We had already been told at least twice in this same line that they do not sell return tickets, but I shrugged and asked and was promptly sold five return tickets. Deepali: "It works all the time in India."

  • Always always always always always get a taxi receipt. Always. The five of us piled out of our cab at Shanghai's tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower, and... "Jim, do you have the camera?" I taught Rohit a few choice words and made a valiant attempt to chase down the cab, but red lights are never never never never never on my side. Never. Rohit's father, my hero, promptly gave his receipt, of which we could read absolutely nothing, to the very kind receptionist. Within minutes my fantasies of a shiny new digital SLR were dashed, and I was back to snapping shots of Shanghai with my snazzy little HP compact.
  • Cheap beer and dumplings are so nice.


Friday, April 14, 2006

So Nice
by venitha

After struggling through the jarring juxtaposition of Sun Liang's oil paintings, lovely and soothing from a distance but obscene and disturbing closer in, an intrepid sightseeing trio emerges on floor two of the Shanghai Art Museum to a stark white room of the strutting haute couture of Giorgio Armani.

"Wow," I say.

"Wow," Rohit repeats from his stroller.

Deepali's mouth is open, but she is speechless.

My jaw drops, too, as I enter room two, as black as room one was white and alive with brilliant glittering evening clothes. Rohit abandons his stroller in favor of mingling with the invisible models, and he gives up parroting me in favor of imitating many, many Singaporeans: "This is so nice."

This vapid and far-too-common-in-Singapore phrase, delivered with passionate urgency by a four-year-old, breaks Armani's spell, and I smile down at Rohit. "This is so nice," he repeats slowly, looking me straight in the eye: he really really means this meaningless sentiment.

Deepali catches up with the stroller, and I drop my backpack into its seat as Rohit eschews riding in favor of driving and careens off into the blackness and the unexplored environs of room three, surely also quite nice.


"He kept saying, 'This is so nice!'" I tell Deepali later, unable to mimic the Singaporean delivery with anything near Rohit's mastery. "Everything is 'nice' in Singapore. 'So nice.' 'Quite nice.' I keep wanting them to unpack their adjectives." While Schoolhouse Rock's lessons aren't emblazoned on Deepali's mind as they are on mine, she knows what I mean, and later at dinner, she takes away the black crayon and hands Rohit yellow and red adjectives. "No more 'nice'. Say it's tasty or it's spicy or..."

"Or it tastes like chicken or it's as comforting as warm soy milk on a cold and rainy Shanghai day," I say, giving him blue and orange similes.

"Or it's almost Episcopalian in its predictability." Jim, predictably unpredictable, scribbles wildly outside the lines. Amol and Deepali blink blankly, Dave Barry as foreign as Schoolhouse Rock. Rohit giggles.

I shake my head in admiration and catch myself before speaking aloud the appropriate response: Bat urine. If I give him this big fat glitter marker, Rohit will lose all interest in the crayons, and besides, Chinese beer isn't that bad.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hunger Pains
by venitha

On the interminable drive from airport to hotel (Shanghai is vast), five rumbling stomachs provide a growling undertone that contrasts with our cheery moods and friendly conversation.

"The weather here is so nice."

"Are those crabapple trees? It's spring!"

"You're the only one who can speak any Chinese, Rohit, so we're counting on you."

Rohit, four, is painfully shy, though he has clearly fallen under his Uncle Jim's playful spell as four-year-olds the world over are wont to do. So far the only Chinese I have managed to coax from him is the Mandarin version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".

Our hunger pains grow more insistent as we drive by fruit stands crammed with Fuji apples and wheeled carts selling pineapples.

"Do you think it's safe to eat the street food?" The general consensus is that this is not recommended. Rats. Jim and I reminisce droolingly about the pineapples in Thailand. And the mangoes.

"In the Philippines, it's the same," adds Amol. We are none of us helping.

At last at our hotel, we are foiled first by the completely inedible lobby and next by the completely un-fruit-bowled room. Taking matters into my own famished hands, I ignore the mini-bar's overpriced and unpalatable prawn crackers and dial room service. They have no fruit bowl (they are adamant regarding its utter unavailability), but they can provide a fruit plate or a fruit platter or a fruit salad or, well, something that starts with, I think, the word fruit and then gets a bit vague. The delivered epicurean masterpiece is, in this food critic's opinion, a fruit bombe, a colorful melange of local delights severed into violent spikes and arranged in an explosive yet artful three-dimensional yin yang balance.

Hunger satiated to the point that we are fit to eat in public and freshened up to the point that we are fit to be seen in public, I turn my back for a second, and Jim... is ringing the doorbell?

"Sorry, lah," he calls through the door. "I locked myself out." And we soon discover the opposite is true as well: He's locked me in.

The exceedingly cool and exceedingly dysfunctional mechanical door chain is stuck on, so we can open the door, but only a crack. I pass Jim his key, not that it does him any good, and he passes me... "Hey! Do you have any chocolate out there?"

Not one but two engineers helpfully tell me many times, "Push the button." But, alas, frail fragile females like me are neither smart enough nor strong enough to push the button no matter how many times we are instructed to do so.

"Perhaps you could pass me a hammer." A sense of humor is very important in a crisis. The people of Shanghai understand this as well: when I finally get an English speaker on the phone, he tells me to come right down to the lobby and he will give me a new key. Wild jokesters under pressure, these crazy Chinese!

I almost regret having turned my nose up at my Singapore Airlines dessert of "jelly of snow fungus with red dates and lotus seeds". (I took photos of both the menu and the luscious dessert so I can appropriately savor the dietary triumph of resisting such temptation.) I wonder if a beverage exists that might make even prawn crackers appetizing. I think that a quiet evening at home on the 33rd floor, just me and the mini-bar and the lights of the Bund glittering through my picture window, and I could become downright fond of Shanghai.

But before I even open the fridge, two men and a screwdriver arrive to cramp my style. My budding love affair with Shanghai and, I admit it, the mini-bar, is soon sullied by the muddy footprints of the crowd that rushes between us through my now-wide-open door: Jim, Rohit, two men and a screwdriver, and a housekeeper bearing... huh? A basket of fruit?

Jim and I exchange an amazed, confused, bemused glance.

"Dessert." Jim decides with a shrug and looks down at Rohit. "Are you finally ready?"


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

by venitha

Shanghai Day #1.
  • 7:23 pm. "No photography allowed."

    This and a look of steel from our waitress, a Chinese woman in a Chinese restaurant, to whom it just took four adults, one 4-year old, several minutes of apparently very bad charades, the Lonely Planet Shanghai, and a Mandarin phrasebook to communicate the you-would-think-obvious fact that we would like steamed rice to accompany our meal.

    Chinese Censorship: 1

  • 9:41 pm. "Can you get to the blog on your computer?"

    While I can still post to this blog, I can't actually see it. This same banishment appears to be applied to all blogspot blogs, so I can take comfort in the fact that Singapore Adventure hasn't been singled out for using the word Bollocks and posting endless racy and seditious food pictures.

    Chinese Censorship: 2

  • 10:12 pm. "VPN. Hello, blog."

    Jim is so clever. I do love him so.

    American Ingenuity: 1

  • 2:37 am. "But I don't need your VPN! I can just... Whoops, sorry. I'll just shut up and let you go back to sleep now. Because you have to get up early. And I can sleep in. I'm sorry. I can get up with you. Want to work out? Sorry."

    Jim doesn't strangle me even when I deserve it. I do love him so.

    American Ingenuity: 2

Chinese Censorship returned to its original trick and scored again on Shanghai Day #2 with the unfathomable food photography prohibition. Never fear, however. American Ingenuity is a force to be reckoned with.


Monday, April 10, 2006

Love, Hate, Name Something You Ate VIII
by venitha

  • One thing I love about living in Singapore is...
    ...the marvelous way it creates a small world after all. We've made friends in Singapore from all over the world, and no matter where we're traveling next, there's always someone here with a connection there.

    Bali: We hired a driver - found him over the internet.

    India: My brother's a travel agent in Delhi. When are you thinking of going?

    Shanghai: Let me give you my friend's e-mail address. You should get in touch with her.

    My newest e-mail friend, Virginia in Shanghai, has kindly offered to be my guide this week while Jim, poor guy, is hard at work. I'm picturing her as Lucy Liu in kick-ass Charlie's Angels mode because in one fell swoop she eliminated China's two biggest intimidations, my not speaking or reading the language and my not understanding the local transportation. And best of all: she likes spicy food, too.

  • One thing I hate about living in Singapore is...
    …sweat. The pretty handkerchiefs I bought to use as napkins are much more commonly employed to mop my sweaty brow and neck. On the treadmill, under two blasting aircon units, I wear a sweatband, sop my face and neck continually with a towel, and end up with clothes and hair completely drenched. I sit at the covered bus stop, and a bead of sweat forms behind my knee, trickles down my leg. I go to a public restroom, a disgusting enough activity on its own, and I struggle to pull down shorts plastered to my sticky legs with sweat. Need I go on? Ugh.

    Please excuse me while I turn up the aircon and take quick shower.

  • A new thing I ate recently is...
    …ma la steamboat. Of course, Jim and I like anything with Steamboat in the name, and ma la apparently has something to do with spicy, so this was bound to be a hit. Spicy (they're not kidding) broth on one side, chicken broth on the other, and both as steamy as Singapore. You order small plates of anything and everything and cook it in the broths: chicken, beef, pork, squid, dumplings, potatoes, spinach, kang kong, cabbage, mushrooms, cauliflower, more kinds of bean curd than you'd have thought possible, and on and on... Lip-smacking tasty and most excellent chopsticks practice, too.

  • Something I recently bought is...
    …tickets to the Singapore Standard Chartered Sevens, an international rugby tournament, to celebrate our ten-month anniversary in Singapore yesterday. Neither Jim nor I have a clue about rugby, but we had a stellar time anyway, delighting in the lightning-fast pace, marveling at the incredibly tough athletes, and reveling in the raucous carnival atmosphere: I wonder where that guy found a cheongsam that fits him.

    I rooted for Argentina, the team with both the best colors and the hottest player, whom the Kiwis behind us made me love all the more by ridiculing as Frizz Head. Jim rooted for offense, which gives you lots to cheer about in rugby. By the end of the very enjoyable day, we both had come to terms with two inescapable facts: Singapore's rugby team is awful, and American football players are wimps.

  • Singlish o' the day:
    Hmmm... do Blimey, Bollocks, or Bloody ponce count? We got quite a vocabulary lesson yesterday, but as the crowd was mainly expat, I doubt there was much Singlish.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

by venitha

So I know that Asians love their rice, but is this really necessary?

In spite of such temptation as its newest product, the fàn-tastic (No kidding! No Mc, no capital f, a weird accent, and a superfluous hyphen. I don't get it either.), I have yet to dine at a McDonald's in Singapore. (In the interest of full-disclosure, I admit that Jim and I split a chocolate brownie from McDonald's sister store, McCafe, last year in a fit of overwhelming chocolate cravings; it was delicious.) Still, I feel a certain affinity with the place, not only because there are two, count them, two, life-size Ronald McDonald statues just across the street from our apartment (In spite of the suspicious resemblance, no, I am not mistaking Jim for Ronald; there's also a sitting Ronald statue, but Jim wouldn't let me post the picture of him on Ronald's lap), but also because it is at McDonald's that my own illustrious career began oh-so-many years ago.

I scarred myself at the french fry vat became a deep-frying expert, self-important managers prepared me for working as an engineer in Singapore lorded it over their college-bound underlings, and Uncle Sam prepared me for work as an engineer in the US took a shocking percentage of my paycheck. Back then, the world was a much less enlightened place in oh-so-many ways, and we promoted the test-marketed McFoods with, by today's standards, shockingly politically incorrect hats.
  • Hat #1: A coolie hat. You know, those conical straw hats (the McVersion was of course plastic) that you expect atop Asian rice farmers and that I have now actually seen real live people wearing and I don't mean at masquerade parties either. Alas, I did not take a picture. Alas and alack, I don't remember the McProduct that inspired the McCoolie hat. I'm positive, however, that it didn't involve buns of rice.

  • Hat #2: A red, white, and green pork-pie beret. The tragically unpopular McPizza was truly heinous, but I did like the hat. I'm almost certain that I stole was given one (one McBeret, that is) and when I unearth it from my Colorado basement, you'll be able to buy it on ebay.

Today's McDonald's appears to have succumbed to the pressure of a multi-culturally sensitive world, for the current baseball caps are no different from the boring standard. In addition, McDonald's appears to have doffed a crew hat or two to the health conscious world, because also now gracing its Singapore menu board is the Corn Cup (Again no Mc, and this time no weird accent/superfluous hyphen combo to compensate. Sheesh!).

McDonald's aside, corn in a cup is a popular street food in Asia, and while it doesn't compare to the grilled ears of corn dunked in vats of butter at Wisconsin summer festivals, it gets my dollars, my baht, and my ringgit. At Taiwan's Dan Shui Fisherman's Wharf, Jim and I mournfully lamented that the lone corn in cup stall, a cholesterol-free island in a artery-hardening sea of You Name It, We Deep-Fry It stands, iron egg shops, and yes, you guessed it, a McDonald's, was closed.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Klixx Mules Rule!
by jima

Singapore is called Asia Lite by Western expats, and the label fits. The English language, the amazing food, the hideous climate, and all the comforts of a modern metropolis come together to make the transition to an Asian culture relatively easy and stress-free. Strong emphasis on relatively. In addition, the large expat community provides an ample market for products from all over the world, and honestly, there are very few items that we want or need that can't be found on this island... for a price.

It's that last part that's the kicker. In Singapore, "luxuries", including many Western goods, are heavily taxed, and while I believe in general that this is a good policy, it's still tough (but not that tough) to swallow wine sold for double what I'd pay in the US, chocolates sold for triple, and cheesy, low-quality, knock-off brands of everything that just aren't up to par.

When a kind friend and US co-worker asked, "What can I bring you?" before he aimed toward Asia and launched into the friendly skies, we inadvertently stumbled upon a solution, and ever since we've shamelessly turned friends, family, and co-workers into an international smuggling cartel. Co-conspirator #1 breezes in with a couple of bottles of Montepulciano. Suspect #2 ferries a bag of Dove chocolates across the border, and hoodlum #3 sneaks through the airport with a stash of Klixx, my favorite desk toy an indispensible tool for twiddling, fidgeting, and burning away my nervous energy, annoying my co-workers, though no longer my wife, in the process (Venitha has banned them from the apartment).

Other products smuggled in through Changi Airport: Pepto Bismol, Crest toothpaste, Q-tips, Religious Experience salsa, Celestial Seasonings Vanilla Hazelnut tea, Victoria's Secret underwear, DVDs of - oops, nope! No DVDs! None whatsoever!

A heartfelt Thank you to all my mules those kind and thoughtful international travelers who willingly give up that oh-so-precious commodity, suitcase space, to make our lives in Singapore a little better.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Kindness of Strangers
by venitha

Sunday afternoon, a genial security guard admitted us to a closed museum and thus not only restored my faith in the kindness of Singaporean strangers but also confirmed the universal appeal of an adorable blonde pony-tailed almost-2-year-old.

"People here can still surprise me," her also-blonde father said later, and I knew exactly what he meant. I've learned in Singapore not to expect kindness, thoughtfulness, courtesy, not delivered in ways that I recognize, so it truly is a pleasant surprise to receive it.

The next morning, sashaying cheerfully to the MRT, thinking fondly of blonde ponytails, our friends, and the idyllic afternoon we spent with them, I was shocked out of my sunny reverie by a commuter riding up the down escalator. I did a double, a triple, a quadruple take, exactly mimicking the woman in front of me. Concurrently, our minds made sense of the reversed-from-normal escalator situation, and we moved as one across to the usually-up-but-today-down lift.

Two steps behind my partner in mime, I laughed, said, "This is so strange! They should put a movie camera there and film reactions."

I was completely, decidedly, resolutely ignored.

Happiness to confusion to amusement... to disappointment, discouragement, and defeat. Five minutes from my apartment door, and they had already done me in. I bet my hair is already frizzy, too, I thought.

Off the escalator, my antagonist began the Singapore shuffle, as a new friend recently dubbed the common slow, meandering pace. Annoyed now, too, and anxious to put distance between us, I stepped around her and strode briskly ahead but couldn't resist a sideways glance.

She was wearing headphones.

I looked down and shook my head, chuckled wryly, and gave myself a stern lecture about jumping to conclusions and the benefit of the doubt. Newsflash over and lesson learned, I then returned to the regularly scheduled programming of faith in the appeal of blonde ponytails and in the kindness of strangers.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Baloo Means Bear
by venitha

"Always reading, ma'am," sighed Jittu, lamenting my boring, nose-in-a-book company.

"Welcome to my life," Jim told him.

I ignored them both.

A voracious reader and drawn to their homeland by wonderful Indian friends in the US, I read books about Indians, books set in India, and books written by Indians back when the Taj Mahal was just a favorite restaurant and not a wonder of the world I might actually see. I quickly followed our purchase of airline tickets to Delhi with the purchase of the corresponding Lonely Planet (I can't recommend this book highly enough - it is spot on), and before I knew it, well-traveled and well-read friends had armed us with an India library.

In Rajasthan, our car radio frequently blared Jittu's favorite Bollywood music, evoking images of dancers in whirling saris who, while mesmerizing, were hard to see beyond. Through my reading, on the other hand, one author after another proved himself the verbal cousin of the talented Rajasthani miniatures artists, boldly coloring and skillfully detailing facet after facet of this amazing country.

Elisabeth Bumiller added heart and soul to the hennaed hand prints left by wives sacrificed in sati.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala bought the Maharaja's palaces to royal life, while Rama Mehta tinged the lovely sprawling havelis with the shadows of women peering through sandstone screens to watch the men's courtyard below.

Rohinton Mistry humanized inhuman beggars, made me angry. Sarah McDonald unraveled India's web of spirituality, made me laugh.

Salman Rushdie... Well, what did Salman Rushdie not do?

Tragically omitted from my reading (though I have seen the movie - does that count?) is an author who is marvelously impossible to escape in India: Rudyard Kipling. Long-tailed black-faced monkeys scurry along its roof, and within Ranakpur's Jain temple thrives an impossible forest of marble columns. Rajasthan is a desert, but we are transported to the jungle and the legendary monkey temple of The Jungle Book.

We happily purchased this book in a dark and dusty Jodhpur bookstore, and Jim happily set to reading it, while Jittu happily taught him some Hindi.

"Baloo means?"


"And Mowgli? Bagheera?"

"Frog and panther."

"How about Shere Khan?"

"Shere what?"

I settled back, nose in yet another book, and happily ignored them both.

Click here for my India reading list.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Monday Morning Sake
by venitha

Monday dawns, and the harsh morning sun reveals the irresponsibility of Sunday. Our normally anal-with-order apartment has been hit by a... Hey, Jim? What natural disasters do they have here?

A gaping box and the half-wrapped pieces of my latest purchase, a vacuum cleaner, are strewn haphazardly about the living room. Laptops three and cameras four, papers many and glasses - How many people live here? - litter the dining room table. Dishes are piled on the kitchen counter in bold and unwise defiance of the unanimously-passed but half-heartedly enforced Ant Discouragement Act.

And I don't have to go up to the roof to know the chaos that lurks above my head. In a burst of industriousness, Jim yesterday embarked on the odious job of scrubbing fountains, trimming plants, and washing rocks and was happily sprung from his task not by its completion but by the clock and our Sunday lunch plans.

We are a suitable cast for this disheveled set: Jim late for work, me late for meeting Deepali at the Chinese embassy, both of us still sweating from rushed morning workouts followed too soon by hasty showers which just didn't take.

Inappropriately, however, and somewhat surprisingly, I admit, we are not hungover. While Sunday night sushi has become an addiction (and is quite likely to multiply into Wednesday lunch sushi thanks to the irresistible gems pictured below), we have yet to touch a drop of . Looking around my apartment this morning, I was sorely tempted to remedy that shortcoming. But, alas, no sake in stock.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Eyebrow Threading
by venitha

Voilà the newest addition to my list of things cooler than sliced bread: eyebrow threading.

Years ago, an Indian friend in the US described eyebrow threading (she was threatening her husband's ) but did not demonstrate (to my relief, given her target). It sounded strange. But intriguing.

My first outing to Singapore's Little India revealed threading shop after mehndi shop after threading shop, complete with frightening pictures. Intrigued anew, and thinking of my duty to my blog readers, I started working up the courage to give it a try.

Then came the bad bad haircut and Jim's bad bad massage, and my faith in Singaporean trade schools understandably took a nose dive. At a tiny back-street salon in Jaisalmer, India, however, as Jim and I awaited, respectively, a massage and a henna tattoo, an eyebrow threader went to work.

Intrigued once again, I stood to get a better view while the female client giggled under my attention. Lie back in the chair, use the fingers of both hands to pull your face taught, and then let the eyebrows fly! It doesn't hurt, at least, not much, and it's all over in a matter of minutes.

"Jim, you've got to see this," I beckoned, not considering that a strange man witnessing a woman's body hair removal might make the woman just a wee bit uncomfortable. Before Jim caught a glimpse, all hell broke loose.

Eyebrow threadee: [much screaming and hysteria]

Eyebrow threader: [standing back with amusement, keeping clear her weapon, a spool of white thread]

Jim: [retreating quickly] "Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry! So sorry! Sorry! Really sorry! I'll just sit down now. Sorry! Over here! I'm not looking! Sorry!"

Venitha: "Can I be next?"


I've been perusing my local community center's course listings, and, oddly enough, they teach eyebrow threading. My new career? I doubt it, but it does have me cocking an intrigued and beautifully-shaped eyebrow in the direction of Jim's monobrow.